Teachers and Family Literacy: Bridging Theory to Practice

Article excerpt

In this article, we describe a family literacy experience created through collaboration with our university and a community agency. Working in teams, seniors and graduate students enrolled in the Early Childhood and the English as a Second Language (ESL) curriculum courses participated in weekly literacy experiences with refugee families. Student reflections reveal their fears, frustrations, joys, and new understandings from working with families struggling to make a life in the United States.

The university, a small private institution, is located in a large urban setting. The education majors are primarily middle-class, young, White women who attended private or suburban high schools with little diversity. Yet, many of them want to teach in this locale where the public schools serve ethnically and linguistically diverse students.

In creating the family literacy experience, we hoped to provide the students with a setting that allowed them to connect multicultural education and ESL theories with real-life situations. Although students in teacher preparation have many opportunities to study and apply concepts related to diversity, child-centered curriculum development, ESL strategies, and family involvement, several students' initial reactions indicated that this knowledge does not easily translate into an understanding of the interdependence and application of these concepts. One student wrote, At first, I can honestly say I was very negative about the project. I thought to myself, this is not a literacy class and 2 to 3 hours a week [tutoring a refugee family]--WHOA! Now I realize that I was creating curriculum each week.

Family Literacy and Teacher Preparation

Although many family literacy models exist, we found few programs linked to teacher preparation. When Liu (1996) had preservice teachers tutor in a family literacy program on the university campus, she noted they not only applied teaching strategies learned in their coursework, but also developed an acceptance and respect for diversity. Through close, frequent contacts the tutors recognized that parents cared very much about their children's education and eagerly wanted them to succeed in school (p. 71). An opportunity to develop appreciation and understanding of the rich resources families bring to the learning process is paramount to developing a view of families as assets to the schooling process. Working with families outside of school settings provides educators with a glimpse of the range of literacy experiences parents and children share on a daily basis. Without this understanding, teachers often assume that because the family does not speak English, they are not literate. Huss (1995) documented this lack of understanding and found that the teachers she interviewed thought that little happened outside of school related to in-school literacy learning. Her home visits, however, revealed that children were engaged in many literacy activities, including reading the Koran, writing in Urdu, and reading and writing in English. Similarly, Paratore (1995) noted that teachers continue to hold many false assumptions about the literacy experiences and attitudes toward learning in nonmainstream families (p. 51). She concluded that emerging research on family literacy indicates that when teachers accept families as authentic partners, parents provide a rich source of information for understanding individual children and planning the school curriculum.

The overall objective for having our students participate in the family literacy experience was to better prepare them to work with culturally and linguistically diverse families. Our specific goal was to provide an opportunity to engage in the development of participatory curriculum with the emphasis on empowering participants to direct their own learning and use it for their own purposes (Auerbach, 1995). To this end, the students had to determine what the families wanted to learn and use this assessment as the vehicle to generate authentic, playful literacy learning rather than implementing a canned curriculum. …