I envisioned my “Coming to America” themed Family Literacy Project as a vehicle for introducing students to journalism and connecting families to our school as well as each other. Though pandemic teaching conditions forced our fifth grade team to continuously adapt to changing circumstances, I feel confident that my ultimate goals were achieved.
Our family literacy project endeavored to use student and family voices, as well as digital media to tell the stories of how individuals migrated to the area of Champaign, Illinois. Students would select a “Person of Honor” to interview and then present a portion of their work to a gathering of fifth grade students and family members. Students developed questions and interviewed their Person of Honor. Then, they created digital presentations to tell the story of their interviewee, as well as what they had learned themselves. Finally, students would present their work to our class and invited guests.
The Changing Circumstances
Due to a late Covid-19 surge at one of the schools, the decision was made to go all-virtual. As such, our plans for an in-person gathering with kiosks to view individual presentations was cancelled in favor of a virtual celebration and presentation of selected persons of honor.
Students were able to present their Person of Honor in the language of their choice (Spanish or English). The majority of students in my class are native Spanish speakers, and most chose to create digital presentations in Spanish. Five
students were selected to deliver oral presentations and remarks of their work. I was struck by how differently we can interpret (or perhaps receive) the same information when it is presented in a different format. I had read Sofia’s Google presentation numerous times. Yet, there was something special in the way she delivered the information. There was both a pride and an awe that was contagious when she informed us that her mom spoke FOUR languages: Spanish, English, German, and (not fluently, but STILL…) French! I could see the sonrisas on the faces of the other multilingual parents in the room. She let us know with her voice and her tone that speaking multiple languages is an admirable skill!
Though she did not present orally, I received permission from one of my students (Maria G.) to have another classroom friend present a bit of what she had learned about her father. We were all stunned and amazed by the reminder that for many immigrants, huge sacrifices are made to get to the United States. And, in spite of how immigrants are treated (as Cesar notes: “…it is more difficult to find a job.”), they still have a deep appreciation and respect for this country and the opportunities it offers.
I was afraid with the switch to Zoom, we would not have many parents participating. I was pleasantly surprised by how the parents gained great enjoyment from listening to the presentations of other families. A list was distributed ahead of time with the five students who would be presenting, so I did not expect caregivers representing fourteen different families would show up. But they did! Not only did they join our virtual space, but they encouraged the students, asking questions about where they were born and their favorite kind of foods. An organic networking seemed to emerge out of this experience, with parents messaging each other privately to continue their newfound fellowship.
What We Learned
I learned so much from developing and facilitating this project. First, that students are more engaged when they are working on something that has to do with family — especially students from collectivist cultures. Second, when we think about family literacy, a door is opened for communal and collaborative learning opportunities. One mother told me that she was learning some English watching her son work on the English version of his presentation at home. She couldn’t believe how much he had learned or how much she was learning just observing his work.
For example, Erwin learned that his mother never finished school in her home country. This served as inspiration for him to take school more seriously than he had in the past. Some of his former teachers that observed him in my classroom noted this change. “I need to get a good education for my mom–’cause she didn’t get that chance,” he shared with me during our final goal-setting conference of the year.
Another example of how this project led to shared learning experiences is illustrated by my wonderful student Alexander. His mother came to the United States to obtain a better life for herself and her family. Alexander discovered his mother was distressed over her difficulties learning English. During our interview debriefing, Alexander decided he would read parts of his favorite graphic novel series (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) with his mother to assist her in her personal goal of learning more English.
My hunch (I need more research to know if this is actually a fact) is that literacy is a dynamic process. There should be a social component (social learning theory), and students should be using all the domains to construct meaning of language. As such, students should be moving from listening to speaking, reading to writing; from passively receiving/viewing to actively creating representations. When students are “doing,” they are almost certainly learning. In the dual language setting, I believe the instructional goals should reflect literacy as this dynamic process. I don’t know about cause and effect, but I definitely see a correlation between students who were silent and not engaged prior to our work on the project and reading comprehension scores (one student went from a 30% reading assessment average to more than 80% over the last 8 weeks of work on the project). The majority of my students have significant gains (5%+ or more) in their weekly reading assessment. The interesting thing is that I have not been teaching the regular curriculum in order to work on the components of this project. I’ve only been giving students the biweekly assessments every other Friday!
Students were able to use the language they were most comfortable with to interview and/or present. The majority of my students are native Spanish speakers and, consequently, chose to work in Spanish.