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.

Reading Season

I am a book purist, a “one-book-at-a-time” type of reader. I like to devour a story, from start to finish, without mingling in other books simultaneously.

However, this month I have found myself buried in a sea of books, reading 6 novels and “involved” with two more. Caught between the pages of a plethora of titles has left me feeling somewhat scattered, and yet also invigorated.

In Guatemala, a common saying is “hay que aprovechar,” which translates to one must take advantage of a situation. The Guatemalan school year ends in late October and begins in mid January. The school calendar was originally designed to accommodate the coffee harvest and allow a break in the school year for children to participate in the cutting of coffee beans. While child labor continues to exist in many Central American countries, fewer youth are recruited during the non-school months to work in the fields today.

As a result, la Puerta Abierta “aprovecha” the months of November and December to engage with reading circles throughout the community of Santiago Atitlan and beyond. Currently we have 3 groups dedicated to older elementary school students, two groups dedicated to jr. high level students and three adult reading groups.

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In addition, I always have a book for myself at my bedside table and a chapter book that I read at night with my two daughters.

Why is the feat of reading 6 books invigorating? The act of loosing myself in multiple novels in truth is ambitious and somewhat overwhelming. However, what sharing books with numerous children, teens, and adults represents in wildly exciting. Rural Guatemala has one of the highest illiteracy rates in Central and South America. Books are hard to come by, and often too expensive for families to purchase. Hence a culture of readers is just beginning to emerge. Discussing The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate with a group of engaged 4th graders who are receiving their first novel is gratifying. Sitting in a circle with 10 teachers who are reading Before we were Free by Julia Alvarez and pondering questions of political freedom in a group setting is deeply rewarding.

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While the “vacation” months don’t necessarily feel like holiday as I meet with a variety of reading groups, I truly wouldn’t trade “reading season” for a month rest—that is, unless I could take my reading circles with me to a glorious beach in Mexico where we could discuss novels from our hammocks and sip cold coconut water.  Until then, meeting in our school, delving into books, and creating meaningful connections with literature will be just fine.

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The Reading Season Book List

  1.  The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate, 4th grade reading circle
  2. Esperanza Rising, Pam Munoz Ryan, 5th grade reading circle
  3. The Only Road, Alexandra Diaz, 6th grade reading circle
  4. Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief, Rick Riordon,  jr. high reading circle
  5. Before we were Free, Julia Alvarez, adult reading circle
  6. Like a Fish in a Tree, Lynda Mulally Hunt, adult reading circle
  7. Like Water For Chocolate, Laura Esquivel, adult reading circle

What I am reading just for me:

The Beautiful things that Heaven Bears, Dinaw Mengestu

What I am reading with my daughters E (12 years old) and C (9 years old):

Pax, Sara Pennypacker

The First Rule of Punk

I am the mother of a tween.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a tween is defined as:

  1. Between
  2. Preteen

As I reflect on my  current  state of motherhood as mama to my nearly 12- year-old Emma, the word that resonates  with me is surreal.  How did my first born suddenly transform into an almost teenager?  She’s  as tall as I am, and, we have been sharing shoes for the past six months.  Equally as boggling is the idea that I am the mother of an almost teen!  While I celebrated my 40th birthday this year, my internal identity is at a constant 28-years -old, the age I was when Emma was born.  When I was in my early twenties, and envisioned motherhood, I often saw myself as the mother of a baby, or a toddler, or an eight-year-old, yet I rarely thought about mothering a teen.  Hence, my present day-to-day with a tween in the house has a dream like quality to it.  Emma will graduate from primary school this year, she’s desperate to dye the points of her silky blond hair blue, her favorite past-time is filming herself or her sister performing remakes of songs by artists I’ve never heard of.

And yet, she continues to hold onto the fringes of her childhood innocence.  She enjoys having a snack after school prepared by mom, she is totally  oblivious to her own beauty and she still solicits cuddles before falling asleep at night.

Luckily for us both, my tween hasn’t given up our ritual of bedtime stories.   While we are no longer reading Beatrix Potter and Eric Carle,  we do take delight in loosing ourselves in the pages of great novels read aloud before the lights are turned off.

We both relished The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez which just happens to highlight 12 -year -old Malu, in the midst of tween life.  Emma loved the voice of Malú, one of curiosity, authenticity and sensitivity.  As a mother, I appreciated reading a story with a confident girl  main character to my daughter.

Regional/Cultural focus:  The United States with attention to latino culture

Author:  Celia C. Pérez

Genre:  juvenile fiction

Twelve year old Maria Luisa (Malú) is beginning the school year in a new city.  She’s not happy about the changes on the horizon, and  she’s only mildly open-minded about attending a different school.  Her father, who hasn’t made the move to Chicago with Malu and her mother, owns a record shop a thousand miles away.  He and Malú share a deep love for music, especially rock.  He reminds his daughter that the first rule of punk is, “always be yourself.”

Taking this message to heart, Malú embraces the challenges of being “the new student” at a delicate age.  The reader discovers that Malú is fiercely independent, funny, empathetic, and a little rebellious.  She loves designing zines, practicing music with her band, The Co-Cos, and skateboarding.  As the novel progresses, we journey with Malú through her tween days, as she finds her  voice (both literally and figuratively)  and claims her own unique identity.

What I love:

  • The zines that are woven through The First Rule of Punk are engaging, fun and innovative.
  • Malú is an ordinary girl with an extraordinary spirit.  She is a positive and real role model for tweens.
  • Pérez incorporates Mexican-American culture and history into Malu’s story.  We learn of Lola Beltran, a celebrated Mexican singer and explore cultural celebrations such as Dia de los Muertos.

Discussion:

  • What kind of music do you like?  Do you have a favorite band? What genre of music speaks to you?  Why?
  • Malú uses zines as a way to express herself.  How do you express yourself?
  • Do you ever feel that the rules are your school are unfair?  Why?

Activities:

  • Create you own zine.  Find ideas here.
  • Look at different altars made for Dia de los Muertos.  Arrange your own altar to remember and honor friends, family and pets who have passed away.  17d19b78c3dca98f2f152dc17f0fa922
  • Investigate Lola Beltran and learn more about her life.

Rechenka’s Eggs

Regional Focus: Ukraine/Russia

Author:  Patricia Polacco

Genre:  Children’s literature

In Patricia Polacco’s heart-felt story, Babushka is known throughout all of Moskva for her beautifully painted eggs. She also has an eye for the wonders of nature, so it is no surprise when she befriends an injured goose she names Rechenka. But, when Rechenka turns over a basket of Babushka’s specially prepared eggs, the reader is surprised by another wonder that saves the day!

What I love:

A tale of friendship between a caring adult and a goose.

  • A reminder to appreciate the simple miracles of life.
  • A carefree approach to difficulties and unexpected circumstances.
  • Flow of foreign words woven into the text.

Themes:  miracles, natural wonders, kindness

Discussion:

  • What words would you use to describe Babushka? Would you like her to be your friend? Why?
  • Have you ever rescued an injured animal? What happened?
  • Babushka witnesses many “natural” wonders as she journeys through her day such as a visit from deer or a flock of flying birds. What natural wonders have you seen today?

Connections:

  • Find the Ukraine on the map. Investigate culture and tradition from this country.
  • Using natural dyes, paint and decorate your own eggshells.
  • How are the buildings in the story Rechenka’s Eggs similar or different from the buildings in your community? Make a picture of a building or a house in your town and compare it with the buildings of the “onion domes” in Moscow.