Workshops help teachers connect with Spanish-speaking families

Aug. 07, 2013 @ 07:07 PM

Maria del Carmen has spent every night translating her son’s homework assignments from English to Spanish. She’s had a translation dictionary at her side for years to help her gain the most basic knowledge about what her child is learning in school.

“So I could help him,” Carmen said through a translator Wednesday. Nine teachers from New Hope Elementary School in Orange County and North Chatham Elementary School in Chatham County listened to Latino mothers voice their concerns about language barriers. The lack of understanding has not only affected helping their children with homework - It has seeped into open houses, parent-teacher conferences and progress reports.

The K-2 teachers are using this workshop week to discuss how to further include their English as a Second Language students and families in their classrooms.

The three-year project is funded by an Institute of Education Sciences grant and is a partnership between Duke, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and N.C. State.

The parents and teachers met for a few hours Wednesday, shared a meal together and asked each other questions through a translator.

Steve Knotek, a UNC-Chapel Hill associate professor of school psychology, said the teachers have been working on ways to best incorporate phonics, vocabulary and cultural lessons into the classroom, as well as partner classroom teachers and English as a Second Language teachers together to create the most effective school programs.

“They’re often not collaborating in a way that’s effective,” Knotek said.

He said the three-year project also is about realizing the American dream for these ESL families, and the universities involved hope to take a honed version of the project statewide and, eventually, across the country.

“The parents are saying we’re doing the best we can and the teachers are saying help us,” Knotek said. “In this program, everyone’s out of their comfort zone.”

Leslie Babinski is helping lead the project. She is a research scientist with the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, and she said the program is in its second, “pre-pilot” year to identify ESL skills that teachers need that have not necessarily been taught during their beginning teacher education.  

“We’re finding that there’s some structural barriers between classroom teachers and ESL teachers spending time together,” Babinski said. “ESL teachers have a full schedule of working with small groups of ESL students. (There’s) limited time for in-depth professional conversation, and we think that’s one of the most important things.”

This program grew out of an Orange County project that helped Latino mothers prepare their children for kindergarten.

Rosemary Deane, an ESL teacher at New Hope, said this is one of the first programs she’s attended where teachers are asked their input, rather than going through a pre-structured training where they have none.

Deane invited the four mothers to the workshop to share their experiences with the public school system.

“The families and the kids, I love them. I love spending time with them,” Deane said.

The teachers and mothers agreed that there should be more opportunities for Latino families to read Spanish in the classroom, observe their child’s classroom, and send notes in Spanish to the teacher to receive updates on their child’s progress.

Maria Dolores Mendez Campos said even though there were four mothers speaking that day, they represented a large group of parents looking for help.

She said she would like to have a closer relationship with her child’s ESL teacher and have interpreters present at conferences and open houses.

“We’re there, present, but it’s as if we’re absent because we don’t understand what the teacher’s explaining,” Campos said.

She also added that because of language and cultural barriers, it’s hard to understand the way math is taught in the school system as their children progress through the grade levels.

“I have to say, ‘Honey, you’re going to have to pay attention because I can’t really help you anymore with math,’” Campos said. “We are learners ourselves in the way it’s taught.”

Carmen has a son in sixth grade and a daughter in second. She said her sixth grader translates for her, and she tries to understand.

She added she would like more information sent home in Spanish so she can keep updated on what her children are learning in school. Even if it’s translated using Google Translate and partially incorrect, she said, that effort is better than nothing.

“I’ve been in the U.S. for nine years and I haven’t learned English. It’s very hard for me,” Carmen said, her eyes filling with tears. “The reason I went to this country nine years ago is because of my children’s education.”

“We wanted to talk with the heart first,” said Marta Sanchez, who works at Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy. “This isn’t an accusation toward the schools. These are needs they need to express that have been inside for a very long time.”