It's 8 a.m. at the Winding Trails Early Childhood Center.
Ms. Wilson (Teacher): Hola chica. How's it going?
Elisa: Pues I don't know Ms. Wilson, mi mami was all upset with me, porque she told me to be ready by 7:30 y yo no podia encontrar mis shoes. So Papi brought me cause Mami had to get to work early or she wouldn't be able to parquiar the car.
Mr. Renya (Father): Here Ms. Wilson, I brought the stuff to make the cascarones. Se va a poner bien padre. Kids are gonna have a great time. Making cascarones was how I learned to love art and look at me now - I'm a Web designer!
Ms. Wilson: Right, and you never know when there's a budding Picasso in our group. Would you like to set up the supplies in this corner?
Elisa: Me, me, me I want to help. Damelo. (grabs the box)
Mr. Renya: Careful mijita, the cascarones will break if they fall.
Jeff's Mom: What on Earth are you planning? Every day something is different.
Ms. Wilson: Let Mr. Renya tell you all about it - it's his idea.
Mr. Renya: Oh, it's an old Mexican tradition to color eggshells then stuff them with confetti, cover them with tissue paper, and crack them of each other's heads during celebrations. We'll be making some tomorrow for Saturday's festival.
Jeff: Whoa! That sounds like fun.
Jeff's Mom: You're going to let the children crack them on each other? I don't know ... I think we should have a talk about that.
Jeff: Come on Mom!
So begin the day in the early childhood classroom, where cultures come together, where speech flows easily from one language to another. The children have no problem with the mix of words and cultures, although parents may be less familiar with the process. Mr. Renya, who grew up having enormous cascaron wars with his cousins, considers this to be a normal and delightful experience, while Jeff's mom is concerned that it may be too aggressive an activity.
How can the culture and traditions of all children be incorporated into the curriculum while balancing the endless possibilities of opinions and values each family brings to the classroom? This is a common question in today's early childhood classroom - and there is no magical single answer.
As Diversity Becomes the Norm
Throughout the country, families of every imaginable culture are creating the most diverse and exciting United States we have ever known. For the children of these families, the early childhood program can be a stimulating experience that opens the doors to a lifetime of success or it can be a scary taste of an unfamiliar world that leaves them isolated and discouraged. It's up to teachers and administrators, in unison with families, to find ways to bring home to school so that every child feels he belongs. It's really not that difficult to make a classroom feel like home. To begin, it's essential to connect with children and to their families. Here are some ways to do that so that your classroom environment says mi casa es su casa (my house is your house).
Connecting With Children
There are endless differences among children, and how we accept them and make them feel that they belong is the most important thing a teacher can do to validate each child. Here are some strategies to try in your classroom:
Be sure to pronounce children's names accurately. You can expect children's names to come from any language in the world. Try rolling your R's as you pronounce Roberto's name, if that is how it is pronounced at home. In some schools, teachers feel they should Americanize children's names, converting Roberto into Robert or Rafael into Ralph. Just say "no" to this practice.
Familiarize yourself with words in other languages. You don't have to be bilingual to work with bilingual children, but it helps to know basic words and to have bilingual story cassettes even if you aren't bilingual. The developmental years are the best for learning a second language (just try learning a new language as an adult!), and children who have home languages other than English shouldn't have to give them up.
Share books, pictures, and posters with children that look like the children in your group. Most multicultural curricula are race based. Since Latinos can be of any race, it shouldn't be assumed that the children are culturally comfortable in a White, African-American, or Native American curriculum with storybooks and pictures that represent these groups. Seek books and materials that portray people who not only look like the children but who are involved in activities and storylines that are familiar to them.
Do some investigating. A Mexican American child may call a kite a papalote, whereas a Cuban child may call it a cometa, not unlike English speakers who say "soft drink" or "soda pop" depending on their region of the country. These are little differences, but there are also lifestyle differences. Have parents help clue you into the behaviors that may be different among countries of origin.
Include familiar songs and games. Weave games and songs that children have learned at home into the curriculum. Through this natural expression, children can share their heritage and begin to learn about the universality of games and songs.
Watch and learn. Reflect on how each child responds to particular learning activities. Explore children's personal learning styles.
Acquire familiar materials. Collect materials that children find at home to add to your classroom learning centers.
Weave games and songs that children have learned at home into the curriculum. Through this natural expression, children can share their heritage.
Connecting with Families
Plan parent nights. Expect the whole family when you plan a parent night. In some cultures, including the Latino culture, la familia, the family, is the center of the universe for a child. Grandparents will find it utterly essential to participate, and siblings may need child care at the center.
Interview the family. The best way to get to know children is to learn about their families. Ask about special days and traditions. Find out how children are rewarded or recognized for special achievements. Ask about rites of passage such as the first day of school or losing a tooth. Inquire about family events that may be coming up, such as weddings, special celebrations, moving to a new house, or relatives coming to visit. These events offer great topics for group time.
Gain their trust. In many cultures, parents get information about how to raise their children from someone they trust, usually a family member or close friend. If you want to share information with parents about alternate discipline techniques, child development theory, or suggestions for reading to children at night, be sure that you have developed the trusting relationship that makes you "family."
Include elders. In many cultures, including Asian and Native American cultures, elders are revered. When grandparents and older family members visit the center, be sure to reinforce their importance to the other children by giving them a "seat of honor" in the classroom.
The best way to get to know children is to learn about their families. Ask about special days and traditions. Find out how children are rewarded or recognized for special achievements.
Warming Up Your Classroom
Good classroom management techniques are essential for moving children smoothly throughout a day filled with group and individual activities both active and quiet. Ideally, children will follow the rules we set and the modeling we provide - unless there is a culture clash and the children aren't comfortable. Here are some tips for helping make children feel secure:
- Establish routines for greetings and departures. Encourage children to welcome visitors, especially each other's parents. Develop patterns for greeting each other.
- Plan long, lazy mealtimes if your schedule permits. This is a great time to talk about family activities and make plans. It is good practice for mealtimes at home where the family will want to know all about the day at school.
- Organize multi-age activities so that children from different classrooms have an opportunity to interact. In many families, older siblings are "in charge" of younger children, and this reinforces natural family and childrearing practices. For children who have no siblings, this is a great way to make friends and to learn about taking care of someone younger.
- Make naptime feel more natural by letting children be close and whisper as long as they don't disturb others. Children from large families frequently share bedrooms and go to sleep at night talking about the day's events.
In many cultures, children are accustomed to being in groups. Plan ample time for children to work individually, but also make sure the classroom spaces are large enough so that there will always be room for large groups of children to be together. (It doesn't matter if everyone wants to be in the dramatic-play area but the library corner has only one child. Later in the day, you can organize a story event that will draw everyone to the books.)
Welcoming Families and More
We know from recent brain research that learning happens continuously during the early childhood years. In fact, children learn from every experience, interaction, and impression. Imagine how much richer the learning experience can be when persons of other cultures, including relatives of children in your program, are invited to the classroom to share stories, music, and conversations.
Picture the impressions that a Cuban father can create by bringing favorite music CDs and Lucumi batd drums to the classroom. Imagine the words children can learn from the family whose Spanish ancestors settled the state of New Mexico 300 years ago.
There is so much more to learn during these very early years than what any one teacher can present to children. Here are a few tips for welcoming children's family members and others into the wonderland that is your classroom:
- Plan for visitors carefully. Make sure you have a mix of parent visitors and guest speakers scheduled throughout the year. Prepare the visitors with information about the children and appropriate expectations for children of this age, such as how long they will listen, what they will want to touch, and how many samples to bring.
- Prepare children by introducing the visitors days before they arrive. Use pictures of the items the visitor will bring to introduce children to the new concepts.
- Establish the procedures for interacting with the visitors before they arrive. Prepare the space and seating arrangement, set limits for handling items, and plan an appropriate welcome.
- Incorporate the information and experiences brought by the visitor into the regular classroom activities after they have gone. Repeat the new words and ideas often, and remind the children where they learned them. Integrate new learning such as the sound of salsa music into old rhythm activities.
Latino, Chinese, Haitian, and Anglo parents all want the same things for their children. They want them to feel secure, to feel that they belong, and to understand that life is a great adventure. As teachers, we often wonder if we are doing the right things, using the best words, opening the right doors. Do a quick self-assessment by asking yourself the following questions:
- Do I have any preconceived ideas about the cultures and traditions that the children bring to my classroom?
- What groups of people and ways of life are missing from my classroom? What are some things I can do to include those groups?
- Do the materials in my room reflect the community, cultures, and interests of children and families? How often do I rotate these materials?
- How do I encourage children to share information about their families and customs with one another?
- How do I show that I value every parent? What ways am I finding for them to be meaningfully involved in my program?
- How often do I communicate with parents? How do I do that? What signs do I see that tell me that every child feels connected to me and to the other children?
- What kinds of large-group activities do I offer that help children learn to respect and care for one another?
- What changes can I make in my program to provide a learning experience that is culturally responsive to all the children in my program?
Accepting a child's heritage builds a comfort zone in which he can feel accepted and free to explore the world. It releases talent, skills, and knowledge that can so easily be covered by the blanket of another culture.
By giving children permission to discover the rich heritage they bring to the classroom, we give ourselves permission to continue growing and learning. We can all benefit from tasting the delicious flavors of each other's culture.