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Literacy Learning, Family Style

Literacy Learning, Family Style

Written by Gabriela López
June 18, 2021

When I think of my teaching practice, I tend to start with the family. I wonder about where my students come from, where their families come from, what stories they have and how that can be included in our learning environment. I understand the need for students to not only feel safe and cared for, but to feel heard, validated and included. Throughout my time in teaching, I have learned that there is also an interest on the part of our students’ families to learn more about what they are gaining in our schools, and how to bridge that work in the home.

One thing that is clear, and has been confirmed this past year and a half of distance learning, is that our parents and guardians are educators too. They have stories, ideas, understandings and many lessons that our students and all of us can learn from. By building the classroom community using the family structure, I have been able to see learning from young people that can really flourish to allow creativity and vulnerability. And one that shows a true openness to learning and taking in new information.

I have been out of the classroom for some time now, even before the pandemic hit, and felt like a huge part of my identity was taken away. When elected as a school board member to serve your own school district, you are left without the ability to continue teaching there. And it left me without my students, my school and the family I was able to create. But being able to work again directly with families and students through an outdoor literacy event felt like an invitation back into a space where I always felt safe and complete.

I really needed a reminder of that feeling, especially this year.

I am fortunate to have strong connections and relationships with many neighborhood organizations. Much of which is built by different parent leaders within our school district. The moment I was able to share more about the work we can do together, I saw an immediate interest and a collection of RSVPs began. This showed me we are in a really special moment where there is heightened interest and advocacy amongst families and community members around how to best support our students’ learning. And I feel very fortunate to be a part of sharing this opportunity with them.

The lead up to the event helped me connect directly with families virtually. We did a short activity that combined writing with drawing and allowed for collaboration amongst different parents in breakout rooms. I usually start with a short icebreaker and then go into sharing what kind of work we will produce by the end of our time together. The result was parents learning more about each other using items they love and wanted to share about, freedom of drawing using a non-judgmental approach that focuses on the details of the items and not the outcome of their work, and a short writing piece that cleverly describes what their partner cherishes the most.

Much of my work and teaching practice is grounded in art and creativity. I know that we need to be comfortable with ourselves before engaging and working with others, and building that self-esteem is as important for adults as it is for kids. So I was excited when a few weeks later we finally got to be together in person (that for many was their first time in months meeting with others outside of a screen.)

I chose to do this literacy event outdoors at a neighborhood park many families are familiar and comfortable with. The set-up was seamless, almost as if the universe wanted to gift me this one stress-free activity while getting ready. But the incoming wind added a layer of difficulty that we have had to adjust to during these times of being mostly outdoors, which reminded me I wasn’t quite in the clear. Regardless, families trickled in, helped with taping things down, passing out materials and being fully engaged with the work and each other. Plus, as is common in many Latinx communities, they came with handfuls of delicious homemade food and treats to share with each other after the event.

Our time together was packed and full of energy. We stretched, we danced, we drew, we wrote, we laughed and ate together. Families were so grateful to be able to work directly with their students asking them questions, practicing listening and speaking, and writing down what they learned about their children. Also, to be able to take home a packet full of many of the supplies we used during the event, and then some. The main activity offered parents the ability to draw the features of their students’ faces, focusing on every line and detail, without looking at their paper nor lifting their pencil. The inability to see and worry about what is being drawn gave them the freedom of just putting pencil to paper which is what our writing for the day was based on. Freedom of expression.

What this has led to is a push to have a series of events that build on each other based on the principles of reading and writing with a connection to art and creativity. I am already collaborating with parents who are hosting mini-workshops set to begin at the end of June to continue to do this building together. I know as teachers, we cannot do this work alone, and when we remember we have an entire village behind our students, it makes the work that much easier.