families · the laundromat

The Laundromat

When my family first arrived in the U.S. from Cuba we had very little that we could call our own. Not only did we rent a small apartment, but whatever furniture we had in our house we either begged, borrowed or stole (the last one metaphorically speaking, of course).
In fact, if you sat in the living room of our home, and all the doors to the rooms were wide open, you would be able to see into the two tiny bedrooms, the kitchen and the bathroom. I shared a bedroom with my older brother. It was all we could do to walk around the bed without bumping into each other or the bed itself, the only furniture in the room.
Needless to say, we didn’t own a car.
And, then there was the laundromat.

                                          Source: http://bit.ly/1csaVdm

Because we didn’t own a washing machine or dryer – and even if we did there was no room to put them in our apartment – we took a weekly family trip to the laundromat. We did own a shopping cart that did double duty for hauling groceries and laundry with equal ease. I don’t remember my brother ever accompanying us on these trips. In fact, my brother was pretty much absent for most of my growing up years.

Source: http://bit.ly/1lkYkyj
After we arrived at the laundromat, we would sort clothes into several washing machines but not before my mother cleaned them out carefully to rid the insides of invisible, but deadly germs. Then, the wait. Twice, first for the clothes to wash and then to dry. I don’t remember how I passed the time away but it’s very likely that I read while I waited. Finally, we would fold the clothes, put them neatly in the shopping cart – my mother wouldn’t have it any other way – and head back home.
I don’t have many vivid childhood memories and this one had been deeply buried until it resurfaced at an NCTE annual meeting session entitled, Writing Workshop is for all Students: Using Visuals, Oral Language, and Digital Tools to Maximize Success and Independence for English Language Learners. It was at this session where I ran into Stacey Shubitz and all the memories came flooding back. 
Presenters Maria Paula Ghiso and Patricia Martinez-Alvarez, both from Teachers College, Columbia University, were describing how by putting cameras in the hands of young children and asking them to take photographs of their families and neighborhood revealed a great deal about the children and their families. 
At that moment, I saw myself as a little girl again, making that weekly trek to the laundromat. I wish one of my teachers had valued me then in the way that these teachers are valuing the lives of their young students: rich with family experiences that don’t often get to be seen in schools.
Thanks to Stacey for encouraging me to write about this. It feels unfinished but that’s how it needs to be for now.
belonging · families · Matilda

Me and Matilda

I am an orphan.

But not in the typical way we think of an orphan. I mean, I have a mother and a brother. I had a father. I grew up with them, spent time with them, and we spoke often on the phone once I moved away from home. I’ve never lived close enough to drop by whenever I wanted to. And, maybe that was the point

Yet, I feel like an orphan.

I am Matilda.

How many times have I read Matilda by Roald Dahl with my children and/or seen the move? Yet, it was only during a recent viewing that a bell went off in my head, loud and clear: I am Matilda. And, like Matilda, I was born into the wrong family. Is that even possible? I mean, after all, Matilda is a creation of Roald Dahl’s very amazing imagination. Yet, every time I think about it, I can’t help but confirm this fact.

I am an orphan.

Maybe that’s why I never felt comfortable or accepted in my own family. I was never treated as carelessly by my family as Matilda is treated by hers, but I never felt understood or supported. Isn’t this the gripe of many children about their families? Maybe, but I feel differently about mine. I don’t belong.

Harsh? Perhaps, but now that I’ve accepted this (although I tried to fight against it my entire life, I’m ready to lay down my weapons). I can move on and work on the side effects of this toxic relationship. This doesn’t mean I’ve disowned my family. On the contrary. It means I’m ready to accept them and myself and, like Matilda, be happy in other ways.

Do I sound cruel? Selfish? Crazy, even? I don’t know but I feel liberated.

It’s time to move on.

children · families · parent involvement · parent partnerships

Parent Partnerships

When a child is misbehaving, not learning (at the rate and manner determined by the adults), or appears sullen and unhappy, what do you do?  Do you blame the child?

“It’s because he’s lazy, spoiled, insolent?”

Or, do you blame the parents?

“They’re spoiling her.”
“They don’t set limits.”
“They let him do whatever he wants.”
“They aren’t supporting her learning at home. “

Blah, blah, blah.

Sound familiar?  No?  Really?

Come on, don’t tell me you’ve never participated in staff room conversations that blame the child or the parents for the child’s performance?  No?  Really?  Well, let me try to jar your memory.

Have you ever been in the staff room on a bad day and you just need to vent, so you start venting about a particular child in your classroom or his parents?  You start slowly because, in your heart of hearts, you’re not sure this is an ethical conversation to be having with your colleagues.  But, slowly, as people start cheering you on, you get stronger in your convictions and your rant reaches a crescendo level.  Finally, you’ve gotten it of your chest.  And by this time, everyone is nodding in sympathy and someone has gotten up to close the door – in case there’s a parent lurking somewhere.  Then, later, after you’ve cooled off, you may regret what you’ve said and wish you could take it back.  Or, maybe you don’t regret what you’ve said.  Darn it!  That’s how you really feel!

Either way, I doubt any teacher is exempt from having participated in this kind of discussion at some point in their career.  We’ve all been there, done that.

Why am I insisting on this?  Because I want us to consider the damage these conversations, large and small, have on us as educators, and by extension our profession, and our students.  They focus on the negative and don’t solve any problems.  In fact, they may create feelings of inadequacy and impotence.  And, you still have to figure out what to do to teach this child who is challenging you to be your best.

Instead, we need to ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. What can I do to help this child learn?
  2. What angle or interest does this child have that can I use to attract his attention towards learning?
  3. What haven’t I tried?
At every school where I’ve taught I’ve heard and read about the importance of “parent involvement”, or at least that’s what we used to call it when I first became a teacher in 1985.  Now, that’s a long time ago!  But over the years, we’ve gotten more PC.  It is now called “parent partnerships”.  In the end, it means the same thing:  parents are talked (down) to and are told what’s wrong with their child.  Then, they are told what the school thinks is the best decision for their child.  Rarely are the parents asked what they think might work or what they would like to try.  Oh, and forget about talking with the child to see what’s going on!  No, no, no.  That would be a “family partnership”.  Can’t have any of that.  Everyone in their place.  Teachers at school.  Parents at home.  And, students…students…Oh, yes, of course!  Students at their desks.    
There’s something wrong with this picture.  Seriously wrong.   
We need to paint the opposite picture.  All of our lives depend on it.