Sunday, September 16, 2007

Autumnal equinox and home visits

Every year at this time leaves begin to turn back to their hidden bright colors and fall. That whole photosynthesis process bugs me a little. As good for the leaves as it is, it masks the brilliance of the leaves' born with color. Why should we only get to see those colors when days become shorter and the angles of sunlight change? The bright autumnal colors also signal another favorite season for me...home visit season.

Just past the first quarter's halfway point I begin to build a new bridge. My student's parents make appointments with me to share and conference about their child's progress in third grade. Instead of meeting in our classroom we meet in their homes. We meet after work in the evenings, before or after dance practice on Thursday, after soccer practice on Friday, before or after church on Sunday, during dinner, and sometimes before breakfast on Saturday. It is the chance for parents to talk about their precious children, at their convenience, in their space, with the whole family present, in the comfort of their own home.

It started 27 years ago in my first year of full-time teaching. I was in a second grade classroom in a diversely populated Title I school in northern California. Included in the majority of our school population were families who had precariously immigrated from southeast Asia escaping communism or dictatorships, families living in poverty, families with little to no English speaking skills, single parent families who had become single parents due to abuse or other crimes, and a few middle class families living in small pockets of our boundary enclosures.

A blink moment: Intuitively I felt the more I knew about my student's whole life, the more I could respond to the life we shared between 8am and 3pm. I thought if moms and dads had a chance to tell me about their children in their own words, those words would more naturally flow if they were surrounded by the things that made them naturally think of their children. That had to happen in their homes. My revered principal, a retired career Air Force aviator drawn to the service of teaching after his 20+ years of military service reluctantly gave me his blessing. So I started out finding my students' homes on maps, plotting a schedule, making calls, often using my seven year old students as interpreters for their parents to set up our meetings.

My first home visit was with Destiny and her mom. Destiny was a dark-haired, verbal, socially confident little girl. She was also mature...too far beyond her 7 years and that was reflected in her words, actions, and style of dress. Mom spoke only Spanish and Destiny often served as her interpreter between home and school communications. I arrived at 7pm in a dimly lit apartment neighborhood that paralleled highway 101, a major freeway. The apartment had the thinnest front door I'd ever seen and I had grown up in very modest homes. The noise from the highway was overpowering. Note to self...quiet reading time is impossible at home.

The one bedroom apartment was small, modestly furnished, and dominated by a large television. The television was turned on during the whole visit and the commercials sometimes drowned out the conversation. I learned Destiny and her mother lived together alone, but sometimes aunts and uncles would come by and stay. I wondered where they slept. Destiny told me at one point her mom was shacked up with her boyfriend Lou, (I wondered where Destiny slept then) but he was in jail now. They visited him once in awhile. I tried to look cool and matter of fact when I heard this language coming out of a seven year old's mouth. I'm sure I shared information about Destiny's progress in reading and how she needed to read every night, and that she was reading below grade level. I remember mom nodding as if she understood between translation, but knew she wouldn't be supervising a quiet 30 minutes of reading each night, reading to her, or taking her to the library on a regular basis. She was busy barely making a living.

I didn't get what I thought I'd get out of those first home visits. In fact, I got more. I thought I'd be sharing great educational practices I'd learned about in college with parents and they'd be drinking it all in with wide eyes and open ears. It was a little like seeing the true colors of a leaf in the fall. Instead I built relationships. I bridged cultures a tiny, tiny bit. I laid a foundation that often wouldn't get built on until much later in the year but, at least it was a foundation. I opened some communication between home and school even when the spoken language wasn't the same. I tasted incredible Vietnamese, Samoan, Filipino, Mexican, and American foods. I experienced gracious, generous hospitality when I knew material possessions were few. I had a chance to walk across a bridge in both directions.
I love autumn and all its color!

1 comment:

organized chaos said...

I admire you so much for doing this. Every year I think about it and every year I get overwhelmed by the idea of scheduling them all and the safety issue.
But I think it is so incredibly powerful.
Last year I had a mom who was very good at avoiding me and meetings at school. So when her child invited the entire class to her birthday party I figured this was a great time to make face-to-face contact with mom. I learned SO much by just seeing the house, the neighborhood, and the animals in the house. Not only did I get to see the house but I got to change my relationship with mom because she knew I cared enough to come celebrate with the family.
I hope I'll get it together one of these days and start making more of these visits.
You are my inspiration!