Volume 1, Issue A :: February 1997
Finding Out for Myself
Dissatisfied with what she found in the literature, Eileen Barry decided to do research within her own classroom.
by Eileen Barry
Antonio brought his daughter to class today. He said he wanted her to see what he did at school and thought it would be fun to learn together. We were reading newspaper articles about health care and I wondered what she got out of the discussions . . . Lucilia didn't have a babysitter tonight so she brought her two children. They sat at a separate table and drew pictures while the rest of the group worked. . . Connie's son came to class with her tonight. As we worked on revising some writing, he laughed and told her she spelled some words wrong. I could see that this bothered her but wasn't sure how to respond.
--Excerpts from my teacher journal
Before teaching in adult literacy classes like the one documented in my journal, I worked in a Head Start program. An important part of my job was working with the children's parents. Hearing from them about their negative experiences in school, their desires to improve their own literacy skills, and their frustrating attempts at becoming involved in their children's schooling, I began to work with them in impromptu literacy work. Eventually, I left Head Start to work in adult literacy and have, over the years, taught ESOL, ABE, and GED classes. Many students brought their children to these classrooms. When I read over my teacher journal, I realized that the distinction I was making between adult and child literacy was unfounded. Whenever anyone in a family learns, it has a direct impact on the entire family. Children bring home new books and ask their parents to read them; parents miss classes because they lack child care; dynamics shift in families as members expose themselves to new ideas and experiences.
I also realized that for the Head Start kids and ABE parents, the literacy instruction that occurred in my classes did not fully build on the literacy practices in my students' homes and their communities. I was approaching the families from a deficit viewpoint as I attempted to teach them academic skills that I thought were important without first considering the many ways and the various languages in which they already used literacy. In addition to the social and political implications of this procedure, this practice was educationally unsound, for I was not drawing on existing knowledge as a foundation for introducing new ideas and skills. With these realizations came questions: How could I support adults and children as they came together to develop literacy skills further in a class setting which was meaningful to their lives? How could I structure a class which encouraged the use of home languages while promoting increased fluency in English?
These questions bothered me so much that I decided to return to school to discuss my concerns and learn from the experiences of colleagues who shared my interest. During this time, I reviewed the literature on family and adult literacy. I found that much of it approaches the topic of family literacy from one of two perspectives, one which focuses on transmitting skills to parents and children to foster success in school (Nickse, 1988) and another which advocates for a "social-contextual approach" (Auerbach, 1989) that builds on the literacy practices of families while developing curriculum based on these practices. In this approach, the cultural, social, and political realities of the families are not viewed as hindrances to literacy development but are the foundation upon which future learning is based.
I began to identify and to better articulate my real concerns as a teacher. I realized that I am interested in family education, which I define as the practice of generations sharing knowledge as they learn from and with each other. Because most of my students are immigrants from Portugal, I felt dissatisfied with the majority of the existing literature's emphasis on teaching families to use English and wanted to broaden the scope of work to support the use of home languages as well as English. Also, because the Portuguese culture, and so many communities, define family in much broader terms than that of the parent-child relationship, I felt that including multiple members of one family, however that family defines itself, would be important. Since the literature did not address my specific concerns, I decided to conduct my own research.
In my research, I am exploring how literacy programs can provide a more holistic and relevant atmosphere for learning by structuring a class specifically designed for inter-generational literacy. The class has some time scheduled for adults to work separately from the children and time when the generations come together. The initial stages of my research are guided by two broad questions: What happens in an intergenerational setting in which adults and children come together to learn from and with each other? and What are the roles of literacy in family education? My central focus is a concern with how parents and children share knowledge and learn from each other within the specific setting of the project. I will also consider how two languages are used in the classroom and the course of literacy development in this group.
To prepare for the class, I conducted informal surveys of adult learners in five classes, speaking to about 50 students in all. Later, I held a planning session for interested adults and their children to determine the extent of their interest in an intergenerational class, how they thought it should be structured, and what topics we should study. I learned that the adults were interested in learning more about their children's schools so that they could advocate for their families' needs. They also hoped to use our time together to improve their own English skills, and to teach Portuguese and something about Portuguese culture to their children. Although the children were less vocal during the meeting, they offered to help their parents learn English and said they would welcome opportunities to use computers.
Grupo Familiar Portugues-Americano, our group of eight adults from Portugal, 11 children born in Portugal and the U.S., a bilingual assistant, and I, meets weekly. Our ages range from seven to 48. Together, we are struggling to find productive ways to support intergenerational learning. We use English and Portuguese as the adults work to achieve their goal of improved English communication and the children and I study oral and written Portuguese. Most recently, we have tackled the issue of school violence by identifying major concerns and strengths in the schools, role-playing solutions to some of the problems, interviewing adults about school experiences in Portugal, and finally brainstorming some solutions for American schools and writing letters with our suggestions to the mayor and superintendent of schools. Since most of the material that we read was in English, we translated important words and phrases into Portuguese. Most conversations occurred in Portuguese with English translations. Both adults and children expressed their belief in the importance of addressing this topic for, as a 14-year-old girl observed, "There are a wicked lot of fights and drugs all around us" and as an adult in the group observed, "If we don't do something, nothing is going to change."
As the facilitator of the group, I am increasingly aware of the difficulty of identifying and building on the literacy practices of the families as we meet in a class setting that is removed from their immediate needs. I intend to conduct additional open-ended interviews to learn more about the literacy practices they use in their homes and to determine which family member does what and in which languages. I am gathering data by taping and transcribing sessions, collecting the group's writing, recording reflections in a teacher journal, and interviewing participants. As my work progresses, I will have to remain aware of my role as a researcher and teacher in a project that is intended to be as participatory as possible and driven by the goals and interests of the group. This is tricky, since the class developed out of a question that I asked and was not initiated in the community. As we meet, I need to be sensitive to the authority I hold because of my role as the organizer and facilitator of the group. I will have to continue making my agenda clear and encourage the other participants to voice their expectations as we attempt to identify what each of us hopes to gain from the experience. Our goals will most likely change over time and will be influenced by our interactions in the group. In the class, I encourage all members to direct the content and structure of our time together by identifying topics for discussion and by suggesting methods of studying together. At first, I listened for recurring themes that seemed important to the group, such as violence in schools. Now, students bring in materials to study and raise issues for discussion, such as the new policies regarding immigrants' rights and benefits in the U.S. Through discussion, we routinely evaluate what the group has accomplished and the future directions we could take.
In terms of research, I will share some data and transcripts with the group for their comments. As I further analyze data and write about our experiences together, I intend to share my observations with the group to gain their perspective and to include their ideas in my reporting. I will have to consider the language of the report and how to represent our individual and collective ideas as we explore one way to promote intergenerational education within and among families.
More on Eileen's class and research in the September issue of Focus on Basics.
Elsa Auerbach. "Toward a social-contextual approach to family literacy." Harvard
Educational Review, 59 (1989) 165-181.
Ruth Nickse, et al. "An intergenerational adult literacy project: A family intervention/prevention model." Journal of Reading, 31. (7),(1988) pp. 634-642.