This is particularly true at East High School, as the students are so diverse. Looking up and down the hallway outside my classroom door, I see a sizable sample of the two thousand students at East. I’m still struck at how different they look: Asian, Pacific-Islander, Hispanic, Black, Native Alaskan, White, and multi-ethnic. All told, about 70% of our students are ethnically diverse. This creates opportunities for some amazing discoveries and unique challenges in the classroom.
This week, a student began to sing while doing the dishes (one of the daily student jobs). When asked what she was singing, she replied, “It’s a Samoan song my mother taught me.” Another student in the classroom sang us a traditional Hmong song. When a teacher assistant joked that he and one of the students might be brothers, the student shot back, “But I’m Black and you’re White!”
I’ve found that while students at East are adept at noticing differences, like all high school students, they’re also generally accepting and curious about where others are from, what languages they speak at home, and what traditions they hold.
Last week our class created family trees that featured their family members, caregivers, and other individuals who were important to them. Initially some of the students were apprehensive. “My dad isn’t here,” one student said.
I drew my family tree on the board as an example. “My mom and dad are divorced and have different names,” I told them. “I‘m going to put both of them on my tree, even though they don’t live together.” In that moment, I stepped out of my role as teacher to share something important and personal with my students. By doing so, I think I earned their trust; if I could share information about my family, they could at least consider sharing information about theirs.
As each of the adults in the room shared their family trees, the students began to open up—even if their family was nontraditional (and in our classroom, nontraditional is the norm). The teacher assistants and I helped the students create a list, which they then transferred to a poster and decorated with pictures and drawings that represented their families.
When the questions and subject matter are real, student engagement soars. On top of that, the staff and I learned through this project some new names connected to our students. We found out who speaks other languages at home, which families are here in Anchorage, and which ones are spread out over the state or over the world.
Most of all, we had the students talking, looking around at one another’s posters, and asking questions. All of this led up to an activity where each student explained their family tree to the class. I think one of the best moments was when one of our Asian students introduced his seven brothers to the class: “This is my brother, and my other brother . . . and my other brother. . . .”
Classroom teachers are charged with communicating with the families of their students. Activities that facilitate learning among students, staff, and family can make those conversations a bit easier. It’s hard enough on both ends, but issues of language and cultural differences can, at times, complicate even the most basic messages. When we draw students into the process, at whatever level they’re capable, it increases our abilities to forge positive connections between school and home.