Cultural perspectives: School as people and their past |

Cultural perspectives: School as people and their past

by Reid Williams

Nara Choinzon came halfway around the world two years ago, leaving Mongolia for Breckenridge, with a layover in Nebraska.Life here is a far cry from what she and her family experienced in the dominantly Tibetan Buddhist Lamaist Asian country. And though she approves of the structure of American schools, it1s taken her some time to get used to her daughter1s first years in the education system.”Oh, yes, the schools are very different in Mongolia,” Choinzon said Thursdayafter watching her daughter, Urna, dance in a multi-cultural variety show atBreckenridge Elementary. “There, they are very strict. Students have to work hard, they have a lot of homework and they must sit (in the proper position) at all times. School is school, and it is for learning.”Educators, too, must make adjustments in their expectations and understanding.3Culture isn’t just about recognizing names on test questions,” saidSarah Cox, Summit Schools’ ESL program director. “It also means the attitude toward education in that culture.”Summit teachers have learned reaching a student requires anunderstanding of their ESL students’, and their families’, perceptions of theimportance of education and their role in the curriculum. Just as Choinzonhas adjusted to the culture of American schools, Silverthorne Elementary ESL teacher Mary Smith-Wasserman has adjusted to the culture that’s climbed into her lap, literally.Latino students, says Smith-Wasserman, are used to a stronger bond withteachers than are American students. They want a teacher, but they also want a friend who will go ice-skating with them or attend church with their family. She realized this, as students of all ages would reach for herhands or lean on her shoulder as she read a book.”People might think, oh, their lives must be so sad,” she said. “Their livesare richer, actually, and they just want a stronger tie. And when you showthem you care, they’re more willing to take risks.”Teachers try to get parents of ESL students to take more risks, too.Immigrant parents miss conferences, meetings and school events for the same reason American parents do: time, apprehension or disinterest. There are differences, though, subtle and no less frustrating to teachers because of this. Fears of reporting and deportation are common. Most Russian parents, for example, consider the teacher to be the expert. Parents have been reluctant to make decisions, say, on a strategy for teaching their child, deferring instead to the professional.”And it’s hard for parents<we understand,” Smith-Wasserman said. “It takes four or five times to contact them just to establish that we’re not scary and we’re here to help the kids. Flexibility is the key. The parents come when they’re ready, and I’m here until eight at night.”Establishing a rapport with parents is important to teachers because theydon’t want English-learning to stop when the last daily bell rings. Summitteachers have seen the positive results that come from support at home.Upper Blue Elementary ESL teachers are sending Spanish-speaking parents bilingual books: Even if mom or dad doesn’t speak English, the child canfollow it as the parent reads the Spanish.”Happily, many parents have been asking for them,” paraprofessional LisaDurban said. “We’re encouraging parents to read with them because we don’twant the kids losing what they’ve gained when they go out the door.”Fellow Upper Blue Elementary teacher Holly Tallman hosts a mixed group ofparents every Thursday morning, as well. English- and Spanish-speakingmothers talk about their children and school while trading language skills.The group takes outings, snowshoeing and skiing.Mixing Mongolian and American ideas is good, too, said Breckenridge motherChoinzon.”Both attitudes are good,” Choinzon said. “Children have to be free becausethey learn the language on their own. But they must have some structure. Ifyou can mix the ideas, that is best. The parents and teachers have to worktogether.”Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237

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