Chapter 1 Family Literacy section one: what is family literacy?

Relationships with Learners

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Relationships with Learners

When the teacher’s role changes to facilitating learning rather than dispensing information or directing, how does a teacher relate to students? The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to Integrated Family Literacy Curriculum: Cleveland Even Start (1995):
Like all other adult literacy programs, intake procedures are a routine part of family literacy programs. We recommend that intake involve more than simply obtaining information about entering families. For example, it is important that learners understand (a) the purpose and scope of family literacy, (b) that the learning environment will be based on mutual respect and cooperation, and (c) that their participation will be guided, in part, by goals that they establish for themselves, their children, and their families. Since early conversations about learners’ parenting interests, concerns, and goals can provide helpful information for instructional planning, we recommend that you keep notes about these intake discussions.

Getting to know learners may involve learning about some of the problems and frustrations they have encountered in the past. Some problems from the past may need to be addressed to pave the way for future learning. But rather than dwelling on them, especially initially, we recommend that you begin immediately to emphasize the positive. Learners should understand that family literacy will focus on the present and the future. From the outset, learners should feel the respect you have for their commitment to their children and learning. The relationships that you build with learners should be based on sincerity, encouragement, and patience. Building and maintaining rapport is important, as is the development of “person to person” (as opposed to teacher to student) relationships. All family literacy personnel should take every available opportunity to provide genuine encouragement. Authentic praise builds trust and motivation; insincere praise does more harm than good because it hinders the development of trust and cooperation.

Motivation should also be integrated into all instructional activities. Don’t assume that motivation is guaranteed by virtue of program enrollment. Enrolling in family literacy probably does mean that learners are interested in its purposes, but uninteresting lessons that seem irrelevant to learner needs will lead to lack of engagement and eventual retention problems. Simply providing refreshments and scheduling brief periods of time for informal interactions can serve to maintain motivation. Moreover, establishing a learning environment that ensures daily success, that is based on clearly defined goals, that fosters group interaction, and that features sincere encouragement is essential to maintaining learner motivation.

Motivated learners are more likely to be patient yet persistent about their basic skills progress. Family literacy personnel need patience as well. Adult learners frequently bring strong emotional and psycho-social blocks from their past educational and life experiences to the literacy-learning environment. They may suffer from low academic self-esteem, for example, which may be manifested as sporadic attendance, inability to sustain concentration on literacy activities, or reluctance to read and write at home. For these reasons, progress may sometimes seem slow from the perspective of family literacy personnel.
Talking with learners about their previous experiences as students can allow barriers to present progress to be overcome. Another effective way to keep the focus on progress is to encourage learners to set specific, achievable goals for themselves and to check periodically, with your assistance, on progress. This process will help learners and family literacy personnel maintain the interest and patience necessary to persist through the inevitable “rough spots” in learning. (Kent State University, 1995)


Experiences of Learners: A Place to Start
Learners' Lives as Curriculum by Gail Weinstein Shr

The United States is a nation of stunning diversity. Beginning with the first native -European contact, waves of immigration from all corners of the globe have intensified the degree of linguistic and cultural diversity and increased the challenge of providing educational programs to changing families. By best estimates, there are as many as 14 million adults in the United States whose native language is not English and who have serious difficulty speaking, understanding, reading, or writing English. The results are felt in every workplace, school, and community.

The results are also felt powerfully within families in many ways. For example, in language minority families, language and literacy play a particularly poignant role in exacerbating normal stresses among generations. Because children are usually in a position to learn English more quickly than their parents, roles in immigrant families are often reversed: adults depend on children to translate and solve language and literacy-related problems. When children no longer feel that their parents are in control, when the knowledge of elders is no longer seen as useful, the family loses its ability to teach and protect its members. Adults lose moral authority over children. School failure, alcoholism, drug abuse, and gang membership are common consequences.
Intergenerational stresses are one example of how a real and significant family concern can become a building block for Even Start program development and service to families. Even Start can help families develop English language and literacy skills while providing a forum to tackle the problems of daily life, remember and celebrate the past, and strengthen the connections among the generations. To address the needs of culturally diverse learners, Even Start practitioners may wish to explore these promising directions.
When we got to America, my sons began to grow faster. Sports and American food made them grow tall. Before, in Laos, they liked Lao food, and they ate everything. Now they don’t like our food any more. They like McDonald’s and they drink lots of Pepsi.”

Many Southeast Asian mothers say they are concerned that their children no longer like their cooking. Concerns that may seem trivial are often "codes" for adults' more serious concerns, like losing authority over older children. Even the most sympathetic administrators and teachers may have priorities that do not match those of adult learners. A program focusing on early childhood programs may miss the clues that parents are more concerned about their relationships with their preteens and the imminent dangers of gangs or drugs. A preset curriculum featuring practice in the writing of checks may overlook the fact that many refugees do not elect to keep their money in a bank.

Asking, watching, and listening are essential for learning about the realities of adult learners' lives. Learner writing, language experience stories, and interviews (collected in English or translated from the native language) are all rich potential sources of information about the family and its concerns. Adult learners themselves can provide input in planning and development of curriculum and in the daily enactment of classroom instruction. It is also critical to open channels of communications with knowledgeable community leaders who can be important allies—and sources of information.
"I help my kids. I teach them good things. I play with them. I protect and correct them. My kids help me too. They bring me things. They teach me English. Maybe they will take care of me when I grow old."
In the rush to teach parenting skills, we sometimes forget that most immigrant adults come from communities that have been parenting effectively for centuries, resulting in strong, interconnected families. Some traditional ways of doing things may continue to work while other strategies become inappropriate or unworkable in a new setting. While information about American laws and belief systems are invaluable for newcomers, the experiences and guidance of others who have already managed this transition may be the most powerful and helpful strategy.

[P]eople who are literate in their native language learn a second language more quickly in the classroom. In addition, people who are proud of their native culture seem to experience more success in adding an additional language and culture to their repertoire. Conversely, those who are made to feel ashamed of their language or culture pay the price in terrible ways…. Even Start programs must work to increase options without undermining the linguistic and cultural underpinnings of family life. Integration of old and new is not an easy process, but it can be joyful when opportunities exist to discuss, compare, reflect, and experiment.

"I love my grandchildren very much. I am learning English so I can talk to my grandchildren. But I also want them to understand a little Chinese. I think every language is useful!"
When adults are asked why they want to learn English, they rarely raise "survival" or "life skill" concerns. Many …newcomers are excellent survivors (or many of them would not have made it here). Apart from access to adequate employment opportunities, adults' most pressing need is communicating with children and grandchildren. A critical function of language is the transmission of culture and values, including teaching children where they have come from and where they are headed.
Stories of the past, folk tales, fables, proverbs, and direct instruction facilitate that process, and all depend on shared language. When families find themselves in new environments and children are learning a new primary language, these channels for passing on life wisdom can be interrupted.
Thoughtful family literacy efforts can help reestablish those channels. Proven strategies include encouraging the development of mutual languages between children and adults (including native language for children), weaving oral history and culture stories into the fabric of educational work, and inviting children to learn from their own community elders.
My boy left for school every day at 8 and came home at 4. My neighbor told me he had been expelled months before. I depended on my boy to read all the papers from the school. I had no way to know.”

A father does not know what is happening with his son. A Puerto Rican grandmother hears a Chinese woman complain that she feels like a stranger in her own house because she does not understand when her grandchildren speak English. At this moment, she learns that she is not alone; her dilemmas are shared by others. There are no easy answers for managing family life in a stressful world, but when adults turn to each other to compare experiences about children's schools, discipline, community services, language use at home, or any number of issues, a community of support begins to build. When adult learners share experiences, they begin a process of reflection and collective problem-solving. Family literacy programs offer extraordinary opportunities for those communities to grow.

From Look at Even Start, Issue 7. (1995). Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research.

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