Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Honoring Families and their Funds of Knowledge

The visit to Houston this spring by a Danish educator coincided with dramatic news of refugees, campaign threats by a US presidential candidate to “build a wall and make Mexico pay for it,” and debates in the Danish parliament to about whether Denmark would confiscate the personal possessions of Syrian (and other) refugees wanting to settle in their country.   I wanted Professor John B.Kresjler of  Aarhus University to see classrooms where teachers do not see children as “the other,” even if those children and their families come from far away.  Especially if they are “not from here.”

So of course our first stop was the Gabriela Mistral pre-K center in southwest Houston where two amazing teachers have created a rich language laboratory where very young children learn English in a nurturing environment where their own language – and their family’s story – are treasured assets to learning.

The Oral and Written Language Lab is a collaboration between Rice University  (Rice “Owls”!) and the Houston Independent School District, a next step in the Classroom Storytelling work of Rice’s School Literacy and Culture Project.

In a district where 62% of the children are Hispanic and a large percentage of those are themselves immigrants or the children or immigrants (from all over the world), the pre-K years are the perfect time to excite children about learning and about the power of words.

The Mistral OWL Lab is in no way “subtractive.”   Instead, classroom teacher Lori Espinoza and her Rice colleague Debra Paz, team up to make the classroom as inviting to parents as it is to the children.   From the first day of school, Lori and Debbie invite parents to write a note to their children telling them their aspirations for them, notes posted with a photo of the child and family and kept all year. A classroom map pinpoints the home country of each family.   The parents are the acknowledged experts on their children and on their family’s hopes for that child. The OWL lab embodies these teachers’ deep knowledge of research on language learning and on children’s development in spirited, well-crafted and enormously fun activities.

I was thrilled to bring Professor Krejsler to meet these amazing teachers, see the children’s enthusiasm for play and books and story.   He already knew of our state’s disastrously inadequate and inequitable funding of schools; he was well-acquainted with Houston’s role in exporting the standardization of schooling beyond its borders in the No Child Left Behind Legislation.   I wanted him to know that every day there are classrooms where borders are being broken down and bridges are being built:  between newcomers and local families, between families and the children’s school experience, between good research and learning as children experience it, between children’s imaginations and the stuff of schooling.

I’m grateful to Lori, Debbie and their principal, Ms. Troutman, for so generously welcoming Professor Kresjler into the OWL lab. I knew they would because that’s the welcome they extend every day to the youngest children and the families that brought them to our community.   We have much to learn from the European (and other) countries who are creating new opportunities from refugees from war zones.   I hope Professor Krejsler is already sharing the story of the OWL lab with his colleagues:  evidence that even with all the hate-filled talk of walls, or maybe in response to such hostility, it is possible to teach in ways that build bridges and open the whole world to our children.

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