Vol. 6. No. 3 R-5 December 2002
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Bridging Cultures Between Home and School: A Guide for Teachers

Elise Trumbull, Carrie Rothstein-Fisch, Patricia M Greenfield, & Blanca Quiroz (2001)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xxi + 171
ISBN 0-8058-3519-9 (paper)
US $17.50

The Bridging Cultures Project

It has been said that the fish would be the last creature on earth to discover water. In the same way, even the best-intentioned person may be unaware of how deep cultural values affect his or her own beliefs about what is right or wrong, valuable or worthless. It is both difficult and uncomfortable to realize that your own "right way" of doing a thing is absolutely at cross-purposes with another person's "right way" of doing the very same thing. People naturally work to avoid such moments of unpleasantness. Yet seizing such a moment of cultural dissonance and peering beneath its surfaces leads to deeper understanding between people. In Bridging Cultures Between Home and School, the goal is clearly to build stronger ties between parents, teachers, and students of differing cultural backgrounds by increasing intercultural skills.

First and foremost, Bridging Cultures describes a collaborative educational study project in the Los Angeles area. University of California professors started the Bridging Cultures project with teacher training in 1996. Seven bilingual elementary teachers, four of whom were Latino, learned how to define culture using a framework of examining collectivism vs. individualism. After completing their workshop training, teachers met together twice a month to continue researching and using the framework in their schools.

The project itself is an excellent example of partnership between classroom teachers and university researchers. Several things were accomplished at once; information was collected, teachers were trained to evaluate their teaching practices and to restructure them when needed, educational partnerships between home and school were strengthened, and the teachers/participants developed their professional skills and status. As a result of this ongoing partnership, some of these teachers have been published (including co-authorship of Bridging Cultures: A Guide for Teachers) as well as become educational trainers themselves.

The Bridging Cultures project has promoted a long-term process of inquiry and discovery. The framework it presents for understanding cultural diversity is both nimble and effective. Rather than define culture by examining five, or seven, or even ten different components, the framework presents a single continuum--individualism vs. collectivism. The goal is to identify the underlying deep value orientations that differ so greatly between the predominate North American culture and immigrant cultures from countries such as Mexico, Thailand, South Korea, West African countries, as well as many others. Behaviors and beliefs rise out of these deep values and surface in classroom situations and parent-teacher conferences, resulting in dissonance that, when misperceived by both sides, leads very quickly to conflict or withdrawal. [-1-]

The Bridging Cultures Framework

The individualism vs. collectivism framework distills the complexities of cultural analysis into a straightforward tool that is easy to understand and apply. The goal of the Bridging Cultures project was not to prescribe "best practice" for handling cultural diversity, but to train teachers to engage with dissonance in order to understand deep values imbedded in immigrant cultures, in turn developing school procedures and policies that take these deep values into account and lead to stronger relationships and educational partnerships between families and schools.

Most educators are familiar with the multicultural approach to curriculum and instruction. Bridging Cultures does not deal with multicultural education or curriculum design; the focus is on more than incorporating surface culture elements into classroom settings and instructional conversations, although that is certainly likely to occur in a classroom designed by a culturally skilled teacher. The ideas in Bridging Cultures are presented with a clear aim--to increase understanding between school personnel and family members of immigrant children. Tools are suggested for monitoring parent-teacher conference conversations in order to determine the degree of successful communication. Examples of conflict and misunderstandings between parents and schools are discussed in the book, and guidelines for examining and improving communication are suggested.

Children of immigrant children move between two cultures every day. If the predominant culture does not recognize and respect the children's home culture, their assimilation often includes a rejection of their home cultural values, their elders, and their families. Bridging Cultures trains teachers to identify cultural values, to reduce or avoid conflict, and to become familiar with students' home culture, including their language. Of course, teachers are not expected to recreate an educational environment that is the same as the students' home environment; instead, teachers affirm the existence of both cultures and support students' journey through school and eventually work in the predominate culture.

Amada Irma Perez, now a third-grade teacher and a participant in the Bridging Cultures project, remembers how, as new immigrants, the children in her family came to believe that the rules at school were more "right" than the rules at home. Her brothers even stopped communicating with the family and with their father because they saw him as ignorant. One of the results of realizing the disparity of messages immigrant children may be receiving is often a more informed, compassionate approach to discipline issues. Recognizing cultural differences does not require teachers to revamp the predominant culture, but it can empower them to train children to see with bicultural eyes and acquire the skills they need to survive and thrive in the individualistic environment of North American schools.

Cultural Issues in the Classroom

Areas of potential conflict between home and school include the role of parents in their children's education. The individualistic perception is that the parents' role includes active involvement in a child's academic growth at home, while the collectivistic view is that the teacher is the one responsible for teaching the child and that the parents' role is to rear up considerate, cooperative children. Personal property and "respecting boundaries" are both highly valued in an individualistic culture, but sharing and group ownership is characteristic of collectivistic society. Recently, a kindergarten in western Colorado became the hot topic of the day on national talk radio because a teacher took school supplies from one student and added them to a collective "pot" that all the students would then use. The uproar that followed a parent call to a talk radio show included fears of communism and the violation of constitutional rights. The teacher simply saw the sharing of supplies in a classroom that included many children from migrant homes as a "normal" way to ensure that all students had everything needed for the year, at least from a collectivistic point of view. [-2-]

Parent-teacher conferences may become uncomfortable when a teacher praises a student to her parents, since criticism is more commonly used to conform a child's behavior to an established norm in collectivistic societies. One way that culturally sensitive teachers have balanced their communication with parents is to make sure that when a teacher offers compliments on a child's performance, it is directly related to how the child's strengths and achievement have contributed to the group.

Parent involvement in the education of their children has been clearly linked with the academic success of their children. Schools that receive federal funds must demonstrate that they are building vital relationships between parents and school. Although parents from more collectivistic cultures are generally very committed to the importance of their children's education, their lack of active involvement in school matters and activities often comes across to teachers and staff as passivity and disinterest. Often, in an effort to elicit more parent involvement, schools add insult to injury by offering parenting classes and prescribing behaviors at home. In order to affect change in the amount of parent involvement at their schools, teachers in the project became ethnographers. They prepared by researching a particular culture, then carefully asked questions to discover key information, such the amount of education the parent has had, in order to design appropriate ways for that parent to become more directly involved with the school. Guidelines for conducting ethnographic research are also included in the book, since information gathered can impact families negatively if misused.

Culturally Adept Innovation

An emphasis on oral expression in the predominate culture versus a strong respect for authority in collectivistic cultures creates a contrast that can lead to awkwardness for students and parents alike in student-led conferences. Some of the teachers in the project decided that student-led conferences put undue pressure on both children and parents from cultures that emphasize children listening and showing respect for elders, rather than initiating and leading a conversation in a formal setting.

One result of the Bridging Cultures project was the development of group parent-teacher conferences. Meeting with the teacher as part of a group encouraged parents to talk with each other and resulted in a much more relaxed atmosphere for parents and children. This alternative conference design also allowed more time with the teacher than the 15-minutes typically allotted for individual conferences. This type of innovation following thoughtful research and relationship-based observations is precisely what the Bridging Cultures project aims to cultivate.

The organization of the study project itself is described in detail in the appendix of the book; chapters 5 and 6 in particular focus on the value of collaborative action research. For readers primarily intrigued by the cultural study theme, these chapters may not hold interest to the same degree as earlier chapters that detail the Bridging Culture framework and illustrate its application through classroom anecdotes. [-3-]

Materials for training school personnel to use the ideas presented in this book to examine the effects of cultural difference on school improvement are on the way. Future publications that present the framework in a workshop or teacher-training module are expected by March 2003, also through Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. In addition to the book and the upcoming workshop materials, a very readable professional brief on the Bridging Cultures material is already available online at http://web.wested.org/online_pubs/bridging/welcome.shtml.

The example of cooperation in educational research set by the Bridging Culture project is inspiring. The specificity of the book's focus on immigrant family culture is relevant to schools all around the country that are experiencing tremendous growth in numbers of students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. It would not be surprising if the training materials based on this book become widely-used by educators struggling with school improvement issues. The individualistic/collectivistic framework is accessible to teachers and easily applied, and Bridging Cultures Between Home and School has great potential value in the effort to increase school effectiveness by building stronger partnerships between families, students, and their schools.

Jennifer Daniels
Mesa County Valley School District # 51
ESL/Migrant Office,Grand Junction, Colorado
<jdaniels@mesa.k12.co.us >

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