Profiles in Culture
ECT talked with three early childhood leaders from diverse backgrounds: Rebeca Barrera, Asa Hilliard, and Lily Wong. Here's what they said about their own childhoods-and about helping children develop pride in their heritage.
- Grades: Early Childhood, Infant, PreK–K, 1–2
I Wanted So Much to Fit In
Rebeca María Barrera, M.A., is president of the National Latino Children's Institute, in San Antonio, Texas. She is tenth-generation Texan-a Tejana. Her family has lived in the state since 1703, when Tejas was part of Mexico.
Background: "I went to school in a small town in Texas where no one represented Latino kids except the janitor, the cafeteria staff, and my mother, the school nurse. I wanted so much to fit in, but the teachers' favorites were never named Garcia or Rodriguez. The teachers even changed our first names. If your name was Roberto or Homero, you became Robert or Homer. They changed my name from Rebeca to Rebecca, with two c's. They said my mother didn't know how to spell my name properly.
"The most devastating effect of all this was that we were ashamed to be who we were. I didn't know until I grew up and went away to college that I really wasn't a second-class citizen."
Advice for teachers who work with Latino children:
"Work hard to understand the way parents raise their families and what makes a child comfortable. That's the key to helping them learn quickly and completely.
"Latinos, for example, have a tremendous respect for elders. So the way you treat parents and grandparents will determine a great deal about the relationship you'll have with the children.
"Also, Latinos tend to do things as a family. So if you set up a parents' night, don't expect Latino parents to find a babysitter. Instead, the whole family will come, and every parent will want to bring something to eat.
"Latinos may also have a respected spokesperson for the community who has palabra, which means "word" in Spanish. Whether it's a learned person like a priest, or an elderly woman who has raised many children, this person knows what's going on and can offer much insight.
"And finally, even though Latinos from different countries of origin share similar values, regional variations and history make us unique. Don't assume after meeting one Puerto Rican child that a Cuban child will be the same. We're all different."
We Survived a Devastating Experience
Asa Hilliard, Ph.D., is a professor of urban education at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He has extensive experience in developing standards and assessment systems for early childhood programs. He is African-American.
Background: "I grew up in the segregated South, and gross inequities were apparent from the very beginning. White children went to school on one side of town, for example, and blacks went on the other. White schools were made of brick; black schools were made of wood. Whites had new books; blacks had old or no books. White teachers made twice as m ach money as black teachers.
"But at the same time, I was fortunate. Our community was so tightly bonded that it protected me from the worst part of segregation. In our family, we never believed the idea that blacks were inferior. Instead, my parents and teachers pointed to society's inequities. They told us we had to work twice as hard to be compensated for our efforts. In this way, they energized us to study and perform.
"That was the political reality I grew up with. And then there was the cultural reality of living in an African-American community whose values centered on courtesy, tolerance, and a love of life. These values would have been in place no matter what the political situation around us. But the fact that they existed enabled us to survive what otherwise would have been a devastating experience."
Advice for teachers who work with African-American children: "There are no mysteries or shortcuts. Teachers must simply work hard and focus. They must immerse themselves in school environments that are successful with African-American children. That's the best way to develop faith in a child's ability to excel.
"Successful schools succeed in large part because the teachers function like a family. They love and respect the children as if they were their own. After all, teaching children doesn't involve some laundry list of tasks to accomplish. It's the spirit and the attitude that matter."
Racial Sensitivity Was Necessary for Survival
Lily Wong, Ed.D., is the executive director of Advent Links-SAUC Education Center for Children and Family Studies, in Singapore. She has 40 years of teaching experience, including 11 as director of a bilingual preschool in San Francisco. She is of Chinese origin.
Background: "I was born into a multicultural society made up of native Malays and other immigrant Chinese and Indian ethnic groups. In this environment, racial sensitivity was necessary for survival.
"One day in a nature-study class, for example, the teacher was telling us about chives, and one of my Malay classmates remarked that Chinese eat grass. I was so upset and felt so misunderstood that I beat up the other child at recess. The teacher disciplined me, but I still felt good. I was no second-class citizen, as my classmate had implied.
"I'm not suggesting that children resolve their differences through physical force. Rather, I'm outlining the fragile racial relationships that existed when I was growing up. Because of them, I learned that respecting other cultures is important, and that comments, no matter how innocent, can hurt."
Advice for teachers who work with Asian children: "First, you should recognize that there is more than one group of Asian children. There is a distinct difference between children from the nations of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and children from other parts of the continent.
"The Island Asians-Malaysians, Indonesians, Filipinos, and people from the mountain tribes of Taiwan-make up one group. Then there are the South Asians from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and parts of Burma. And the Western Asians are from Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, and Yemen. Each group has different customs, and teachers should work with parents and community leaders to find out what they are.
"Second, make sure that you're sensitive to the children's heritage. Asian children's home environments teach values that are quite different from those of mainstream Americans. For instance, Americans tend to try to reduce the gap between generations. But for Asians, the generation gap is very important. Children would never address teachers and elders by their first names. Likewise, Asian children learn that it is important to conform. This sometimes clashes with America's emphasis on individuality.
"When cultural differences do arise, Asian families are often willing to discuss problems openly. They feel that school is very much a part of their child's training, and they take this very seriously. As I learned when I was growing up, academic excellence is the family's top priority. Education is the golden path for leading our families to a brighter future."
Why Offer Bilingual Education?
The reasons for introducing bilingual education to our nation's children are many and include the following:
- The number and percentage of people in the United States who speak a language other than English at home increased from 32 million to 47 million between 1990 and 2000.This does not include the 3.5 million additional U.S. citizens who live in Puerto Rico and speak Spanish as their primary language.
- Learning to read and write in English is the fastest highway to "making it" in this country. However, when we ignore a child's heritage or imply that another language or culture is more valuable, we are inadvertently destroying his image of his family and himself. Combined with the tremendous rates of poverty experienced by language-minority children in this country, the devaluation of culture or language can only result in a loss of confidence.
- Connecting with community members who speak languages other than English is vital in today's society. In fact, the city of Phoenix, Arizona, considers bilingualism so important to saving lives, it provides Spanish classes to firefighters and hospital staff and has 12 translators available 24 hours a day to assist patients in their conversations with physicians. Cities in other states value their bilingual employees so much, they pay bonuses to police officers and teachers who speak at least two languages.