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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue C ::: September 1997

When the "Multi" is Generational and Cultural

by Eileen Barry
Eileen Barry wrote about her bilingual family literacy class and the teacher research she was doing in the first issue of Focus on Basics. She grappled with 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?" In this article, she shares with us some insights about what does happen in an intergenerational setting dedicated to mutual learning. An intergenerational class is, by design, multilevel. Like so many teachers, she found herself struggling with issues that arise because of the multilevel nature of her class.

- Editor

...Next, we met as a group and read a transcribed interview with a Portuguese immigrant who spoke about the prejudice she encountered in the U.S. We talked about how some mainland Portuguese are prejudiced against island Portuguese, and how some Portuguese are prejudiced against Cape Verdeans and Puerto Ricans. The kids talked about how they feel when schoolmates call them Portugie and Greenhorn.Julia said these slurs are sometimes used jokingly, other times they are malicious....

March 19, 1997
...I asked if the Portuguese ever make fun of Americans. The group decided that their definite stereotype of Americans is that they don't clean much or work hard. I told them that I wanted them to come to my house for our last meeting but that I would have to clean, and we all had a good laugh. The adults feel their children have adopted American attitudes and this bothers them. The kids, especially Julia, said that life is too short, and Julia's mother replied, "But you watch TV for three hours."...

These excerpts from my teacher's journal document some of the complex multicultural and multigenerational issues the members of our class Grupo Familiar Portugues-Americano, confronted this past year. Working to improve our English and Portuguese, we used issues of importance to us as curriculum. We met weekly: eight women from Portugal, 11 children born in Portugal and the U.S., a bilingual assistant, and me. The children ranged in age from four to 15 years old; the adults were from ages 28 to 48. Our wide range of ages, a variety of cultural, school, and life experiences, different familiarity with a spectrum of literacy skills and practices, and varying levels of proficiency with English and Portuguese all contributed to create a class that was multilevel on many dimensions. In this article, I will focus on how our generational and cultural differences surfaced as we experimented and often struggled to find ways to best utilize the strengths and experiences of our members while also meeting our wide range of needs and interests.


Our discussions frequently turned to comparisons of childhoods as well as the differences between growing up in Portugal and the U.S. This led to debates about the expectations parents had for children growing up in a different time and place. We tried to be accepting of different viewpoints and used a variety of approaches to explore the issues, including structured discussions about readings which addressed generational and cultural differences, role playing, and agree or disagree exercises.

Effective learning took place when the kids generated lists of questions and interviewed their mothers about their pasts. This process enabled the children to gain a better understanding of their mothers' experiences and perspectives while encouraging the mothers to reflect on how their own childhoods and cultural experience shaped their expectations for their children. At the same time, the kids clarified some of their feelings about the cultures they bridge. Some of the questions that generated the most discussion and reflection were: What did you do for fun? How many boyfriends did you have? Did you have to do a lot of chores? When you were small, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did you ever talk back to your parents? Did you get in trouble? Did you ever get in a fight when you were younger? When you were a kid, did you ever say, "When I have kids, I won't...? Did your parents ever embarrass you? Have you ever been prejudiced against someone? Was anyone ever prejudiced against you? Why did you come to America? Do you want to go back to Portugal?

Although I was usually an active participant in all of our group's activities, my son was too young to attend the sessions so I did not participate in the interviews. Instead, I observed the dynamics of the family groups. When the younger children interviewed their mothers, they tended to accept their mothers' answers without requiring further explanation or probing deeper into an issue. Some surprises occurred, such as when Isidro's mother admitted to getting into trouble in school for fighting. He expressed amazement at this and then considered what the consequences would be if he ever did the same in his school. Joao, age seven, pointed out that, as a child, his mother resented having to work around the house when her siblings were allowed to play. He noted, however, that his mother expected his sister to do more chores than he and his brother.

The interview experience was very different for the teenagers in the group. Filomena, age 13, and her mother sat closely together as they discussed the questions, often laughing and teasing each other. When talking about the interview process, Filomena said she learned quite a bit about her mother and was especially surprised to find out that her mother had three boyfriends before her father. Julia, age 15, confronted her mother, Olga, more directly. When reflecting on an interview which followed the discussion about kids adopting American ways, including a lax attitude towards cleanliness, Julia pointed out the contradiction in her mother's remarks: her mother did not like to clean when she was younger but that she expects Julia to clean now. The tension between them was apparent when I asked the kids if they wanted to write and publish stories based on the interviews. All except Julia were excited by the idea. She asked if they would have to read the stories out loud because, as she explained, "My mother gets upset when I talk like this." I told her that the kids could decide what to do with their stories; she decided that she wanted her essay to be included.

New Perspectives

The children did produce a booklet entitled Our Families' Adventures: Past, Present, and Future, which they presented to their parents at our final session. The content of the stories revealed a heightened understanding of the parents' perspectives and experiences while also highlighting cultural and generational differences. In his story entitled "This is my mom's world," Joao wrote, "My mom got in fights with my aunt...My mom wanted to be a teacher...I love my mom very much." Filomena concluded her story about her mother by observing, "It's hard to believe, but I think my mom is very much like me sometimes, and that's why I love my mom so very much." Rather than focus on similarities, Julia addressed the cultural and generational differences with which she struggles. In "Time Warp" she observed, "...Parents seem to think that we...are totally different from them when they were our age. The truth is that we are living in different times and we can't act the way they did...I think our parents should sometimes stop comparing usthat was then, this is now."

The mothers in the group commented on how much they valued the times set aside for discussion. Not only did they have the opportunity to teach their children more about their Portuguese heritage, but they also learned more about their children and felt they gained a better appreciation of the experiences and attitudes of today's youth. As Olga observed, by learning more about life in the United States, "we can protect our kids."

Through our interactions, we learned that we all had much to teach and learn from each other based on our own life experiences. The children in the group were the experts school life and we adults had to listen to their perspective. The parents were the authorities about past experiences in Portugal and the rest of us had much to learn from their stories. Grupo Familiar Portugues-Americano strove to create a setting in which a wide range of knowledge and skills were valued as we came to understand that we all need to learn with and from each other.

About the Author

Eileen Barry is a teacher of ESOL, pre- GED, and GED at the Worker Education Program, part of the Labor Education Center at UMass, Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Barry, who is still working with Grupo Familiar Portugues-Americano and is a member of a teacher research group in southeastern Massachusetts, is also a doctoral candidate at the Reading / Writing / Literacy Program at University of Pennsylvania.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL