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Family Friday

By Staci Kaplan
 | Nov 08, 2017
Family FridayI teach in a school system that’s home to a wide socioeconomic disparity. The median household income is $145,083, and approximately 20% of the township’s more than 22,000 residents work in finance and real estate. However, those numbers hide the 6.5% of the population who lives below the poverty line—a significant minority of working-class immigrants for whom English is not their first language.

This disparity is evident at our school’s annual Halloween assembly, where parents are invited to attend grade-level skit performances, followed by a classroom party. One year, I saw five parents working hard in my classroom to create a festive party, yet outside the classroom door lingered four more immigrant parents who were reluctant to enter. I wanted all my families to feel welcomed and connected, but I didn’t know how.

A solution crystallized when I heard professor David Schwarzer of Montclair State University speak on culture, language, and curricular choices at the ILA 2015 Conference & Exhibits, in St. Louis, MO. I left with a plan to make all families feel welcomed.

Introducing Family Friday

Each year, as students step into a new grade and classroom, teachers should ask, “What stories do our students carry? How can we evoke them?”

In my third-grade classroom, these questions led to the creation of Family Friday.

It can feel overwhelming for teachers to add anything new to the schedule. In my classroom, however, a feasible solution was to reserve just 15 minutes each week to open our doors to honor our students’ families, creating the opportunity for personal storytelling and conversation. Through our new Family Friday tradition, students explore cultural experiences perhaps vastly different from their own.

Family Friday comes from the belief that all students should be given the opportunity to share their own experiences and listen to those of others. The goal in our classroom is to involve families and help students learn about other cultures, traditions, and global experiences. There is no specific format; family members can partner with their children, bring a translator, or ask the teacher to arrange for a translator. They can share photographs, slides, or video of a special place or festival; present cultural symbols and artifacts; read a bilingual book; or tell a story.

Encouraging participation 

I teamed up with our school’s bilingual parent liaison to reach out to and encourage our families to participate in Family Friday. Our liaison was extremely successful by following these simple steps:

  • Make personal contact with each family
  • Provide each family with suggestions on what to bring
  • Work alongside each family, as needed, to translate any aspect of the presentation
  • Offer encouragement and emotional support
  • Translate all letters sent home

Every family she contacted visited our classroom. The best part was watching my students’ faces light up when their parents and siblings were the teachers and storytellers.

Having meaningful conversations

Students were delighted to see their classmate’s father translate their names into Mandarin and hear an explanation of their names’ meanings. They heard the story of a student’s family’s struggle to escape from war-torn Honduras, watched a video of a classmate splashing in his favorite watering hole when visiting his grandparents in Mexico, and laughed at the concept of Armenian egg jousting.

During each Family Friday gathering, we broke into small groups to allow students to ask questions and share ideas. Some jotted ideas into their notebooks while others asked thoughtful questions about the immigrant experience, such as “What was it like to come to a new and strange country? How did you adapt?” 

Building a community

Through Family Friday, we are building a culture of kindness, empathy, and respect. As students share their treasured stories to a respectful audience, they feel valued.

At the end of year, we gathered highlights from each family’s presentation. As a class project, students in the classroom or at home created three slides to represent their family’s contribution. We combined them into a single slideshow with a student-composed soundtrack made with GarageBand.

We held a celebration where we invited all our families to celebrate “Who We Are.” I looked around my room to see people from Armenia, Bangladesh, Belize, Brazil, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ireland, Israel, Mexico, Romania, and the United States. Each student’s story represented a patch on a quilt, stitched together by our classroom community.

staci kaplan headshotStaci Kaplan, an ILA member since 2014, is a literacy coach for Summit Public Schools in New Jersey.

This piece originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Literacy Today, ILA's member magazine.

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