Questions & Authors: Familia in the classroom

July 13th, 2009

As comfirmation hearings begin for Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Robin Turner wonders how educators can better nurture their Latino students. In his book, Greater Expectations: Teaching Academic Literacy to Underrepresented Students, Robin describes how he uses the concept of familia in his classroom to improve his students’ academic performance.

Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court has brought media attention to her identity as a Latina and has generated much more controversy than her rulings. Most people have heard of her assertion that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

The notion that by virtue of her experience as a Latina, her approach to judging will be different has earned her scathing rebuttals from many. Implicit in her statement is the question of whether one’s culture can in fact affect how a person goes about judging, or for that matter, how a person goes about performing just about any role.

It’s a question that I think educators need to ask: does a person’s culture influence the way he/she performs as a student? And if so, how do we educators adjust our practices to accommodate such diversity?

Just about anyone in education knows the dismal college-going statistics of underrepresented students. By 2025, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, one out of four K-12 students in the United States will be Latino. Based on a study by the U.S. Senate Education Committee, if the numbers hold true, then a quarter of our school population will belong to an ethnic group that is four times as likely to drop out of high school as the mainstream.

Now, if I were the manager of a baseball team, and a large group of my players weren’t hitting, I’d talk to my batting coach and make some changes in our practices.

It’s probably time to do that with education.

A recent report by The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute noted that young Latinos relied “on the family for emotional support, to contribute to the well-being of the family, and to stay physically engaged by either living at home or visiting often, participating in family events, and staying in touch.” In my observation, family events often have a much more communal feel to them than similar gatherings from other ethnic groups. Anyone who has witnessed firsthand a quinceañera, as opposed to a “sweet sixteen,” has probably seen the difference.

As a result, a classroom that makes use of community will probably produce more successful students than one that does not. While there are scores of students that still thrive in independent, non-social, learning-in-solitude kinds of classrooms with straight rows, the numbers are thinning by the year. In the age of Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace, the social dimension can’t be overlooked.

In my classroom, we call this realization of being knit together into a community of collgebound students familia, and it’s one of the ways that I have altered my instruction to accommodate students from various cultural backgrounds.
A classroom with familia offers explicit instruction with multiple opportunities for input from both peers and teacher when it comes to writing. Students use class time to speak with each other—not just with the instructor—about their writing. In a class with familia, students regularly interact and assess each other’s writing as they go through the process, focusing on aiding each other rather than competing with each other. Activities like literature circles, writing/reading workshops, Socratic seminars, and pair-shares offer students the opportunity to operate in an environment that accomodates and utilizes cultural strengths rather than lamenting a perceived lack of motivation.

For example, in my earlier years, I struggled with teaching Animal Farm. I would attempt to walk students through the novel, pointing out the various passages that I thought related to today, in an attempt to make the book come alive. After trying to push them through the book, I’d assign a paper—something like, “how do the pigs capture and maintain their power”—and then watch the disliking of the novel intensify. With no invoking of familia, it was a lifeless experience.

This year, after reading Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, I pulled way back. My freshmen simply made T-charts based on what they noticed as they read. Every day, we started with them sharing their T-charts, in groups and then as a class. Amazingly, nearly all the concepts that I would’ve chosen were noticed by my students and created great teachable moments—the ones prompted by students asking questions that they really want answers to. At the end of the novel, I did have them write what message they see in the book, but we spent a great deal more time discussing what the overall messages were, and then in small writing groups responding to what we were producing. I wrote with them, as a member of their community, and modeled revising strategies throughout the process. Their papers were deeper and more well-developed than in past years.

At the conlcusion of teaching Animal Farm, nearly all my students actually enjoyed the novel and appreciated its content. Let me repeat that, my freshmen actually liked reading Animal Farm. All I did was get out of the way and let the force of community, of familia, do the work.

Sotomayor, in another statement from a speech in 1996 that has been garnering media notice, related that she “found out that my Latina background had created difficulties in my writing that I needed to overcome….My writing was stilted and overly complicated, my grammar and vocabulary skills weak.” That starting point is probably a common one for many of our students. The only question is whether or not the educational institutions can turn from their test-happy ways and really engage the full range of students through familia and other adjustments to pedagogy.

Entry Filed under: Literacy,Questions & Authors

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