On Family Engagement

Today’s Sail Away Story post is our second edition  of  “A Little Birdy Told Me…” in which I feature a guest writer who shares about her favorite cultural children’s books or global schools.

Meet Erin Conway–friend, teacher, writer, educational coach and weaver of both textiles and words–as she delves into the importance of a book concept in education  called Family Engagement.

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In her own words:

I am not old, but I have lived many teacher lives.  I began my professional career as a bilingual teacher in the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, but my desire to seek a deeper understanding of my students and foster intercultural connections in the field of education lead me to accept a Peace Corps assignment in Guatemala.  It was during my Peace Corps years in Guatemala that I first met Amanda, and I have been fortunate to benefit from both personal and professional exchanges since then. For ten years (2005-2015), I worked both teaching and training teachers in Guatemala. These experiences were instrumental in crafting my instructional practices with expanded definitions of teacher and continue to impact my current work in outreach, coaching educators and consulting on multicultural/diverse literacy programs and resources in Wisconsin today.

“Who is your blog’s primary audience?” I asked Amanda shortly after I began writing.

“My best guess,” she responded. “Would be educators and parents and people who like me.”

I read those final words multiple times incorrectly as “People like me.”

And who are those people?

Like Amanda, I was an avid childhood reader, and books remain a means to both expand my world as I look forward, as well as make sense of my life as I look back. But, it was during a writing class my first few months in Wisconsin after returning from Guatemala that I voiced how integral books had been to my profession as much as my person. For the workshop, I had written a modern fairy tale about teaching and blank books, travelling and (re)writing your own story. The day my story was critiqued, I had stayed behind after class, sitting side by side with my writing instructor.

“What do you like about teaching?” she had asked while I bit back tears of embarrassment. My classmates’ comments had not been exactly what I expected. “The purpose for this story, you have to narrow it down.” The instructor was very matter of fact. “Why are you a teacher?”

Once upon a time, I had started professional development with questions like that with classroom teachers and parents, with children and adults. My mind shot to the books my mother had written with me. Recycled paper with stick figures and a few words. “The storytelling,” had slipped out with tears I’m not sure I hid.

If you are an adult and enjoy reading books suggested on this blog, you are not alone. My own analysis of diverse book lists for adults are too often crowded with VERY academic/thick texts. This research also tends to be EXTREMELY depressing which I do not believe is the most effective way to inspire human relationships or agency. If you are a classroom teacher and/or parent reading Sailaway Story, you may be familiar with the concept of Family Engagement. Family Engagement in education is best described as commitment and intention developed through communication between all parties, child, caregiver, school/community. This ideal influences how I select resources.

At its foundation, themes addressed by the books described are similar to those integral to other selected books on Sailaway Story’s blog: adolescent leaders, bravery, courage, hardship, friendship, kindness, ancestors, traditions, war, loss, memory, immigration, family, journey, community, responsibility, survival, optimism, empathy, hope. My focus on book groupings made up of diverse stories is the variety of formats (adult/juvenile non fiction, picture books, graphic novels, illustrated fiction, juvenile/adult fiction) in order to facilitate conversations across ages. I create these book clusters because it provides links into diverse literature that allows for all experience and reading levels to read on the topics and to encourage discussions beyond school walls.

Parents and classroom teachers, young and old, readers and listeners are all storytellers. No matter who you are, as you read I would encourage you to talk about:

  • What were your favorite books as a child?
  • How? Or, why are they still relevant today?
  • Do you see any of your favorites reflected in children’s selections?
  • How might a children’s book engage adults in conversation? And, vice versa, how might you encourage complex themes to be discussed with children?
  • What is your story? How would you tell it? In paragraphs, pictures, poetry?

In honor of the region of the world where Amanda and I first met, the first selections are all related to Latin America. I arranged them from general to specific to general in scope and somewhat chronologically.

Since the Peace Corps welcome packet had arrived at my door complete with a recommended reading list, I was familiar with U.S. intervention in Latin America. Amanda referenced this type of story in her previous selection of Caminar by Skila Brown. What I learned while reading Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II by Mary Jo McConahay was the fight for the allegiance of Latin America beginning during World War II and the impact still felt today. One example of the implications of World War II politics is detailed in the young adult book in verse Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba. Margarita Engle is a masterful voice of little known stories and her young adult novel in verse illustrates in the story of a young Jewish boy’s attempted escape from Europe the complex themes in McConahay’s large scope.

An Uninterrupted View of the Sky by Melanie Crowder speaks through present day voices about the same struggle for hearts, minds and riches of Latin America. In order to appease U.S. efforts to win the “war on drugs” Bolivia responded to pressure to make increased numbers of drug related arrests. Crowder’s novel follows the arrest of a father on false charges and sent to prison by a corrupt system that targets the uneducated, the poor, and the indigenous majority. The final books, a picture book and an adult novel, illustrate the narrative of immigration, its hope and its obstacles. In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende is narrated by three different people, a Chilean lecturer who completed her education in Canada after securing escape from Chile in the 1970s, a human rights professor, son of Jewish immigrants and an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant. Each one of them, if not in the political definition of the term, are dreamers. And, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales is the illustrated autobiography of her immigration story.

Recommended Websites:

http://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/documents/tt_abc_respect_for_families.pdf

https://www.edutopia.org/blog/kitchen-table-connections-re-envision-homework-clare-roach

socialjusticebooks.org

weneeddiversebooks.org

“What do you like about teaching?” This question that I return to for purpose is the question I pose to you, Sailaway Story reader, because my heart will always be in the answer I gave to my writing teacher on that October evening with my own narrative swirling in red ink. It will be the same as my classroom days when I impressed upon my students that everything was a story and that the same story could be told in an unnamed number of ways. I am an educator. I am not a parent. I do like Amanda. And, the books we choose to read make us storytellers.

When I have the opportunity to post as a guest storyteller on Sailaway Story, my contribution will be to connect books that connect individuals to more ways, formats, languages, to tell and hear stories. I also manage a website and blog that can be found at www.erinconway.com where I often write about diverse books as both a reader and author. Previous publishing credits include the Midwest ReviewThe Sonder ReviewVine Leaves Press and Adelaide Literary Magazine.

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