Frustrated by classroom management issues, a young, white first grade teacher seeks guidance and understanding of how to best meet the needs of her largely immigrant Latino student population. Encouraged to attend a “Bridging Cultures” workshop, she learns valuable lessons about examining how her own cultural understanding impacts the choices she makes in the classroom. With a newfound appreciation of the varying needs of “individualistic” and “collectivist” cultures, she returns to the classroom and makes changes that benefit her students.
In her third year of teaching first graders, Larissa Dill has experimented with various approaches to classroom management in her quest to “get things right” for her largely immigrant Latino student population and their families. Despite large class sizes, Larissa strove in these first years to focus as much as possible on individualizing learning for her students. Through her own educational experiences, Larissa came to assume that an individualized approach to managing her students would give them the best opportunity for learning. All of her students had individual rotating classroom jobs and she made certain that they remained focused on their own work during seat time. While this worked well for some students, Larissa started to notice that many of her first graders would interrupt each other during work time, and seemed eager to help each other with assigned classroom jobs. Although Larissa admits to scolding them to stay on task, she also wondered if this was really a “behavior problem,” or if there was a cultural orientation towards collective work that she was not adequately understanding or respecting.
In her wonderings if culture has anything to do with best classroom management practices, Larissa submits a request to attend “The Bridging Cultures Workshop” (developed by Carrie Rothstein-Fisch & Elise Trumbull). There, she learns about two types of cultural orientation – individualistic and collectivist- and how culturally responsive teaching to these orientations can help develop harmony between home and school. What Larissa learns at the workshop confirms many of her recent musings – that in order to respect the learning/cultural differences in her classroom, she needs to create more opportunities and space for physical and intellectual connection among her first graders. When she changes all classroom jobs to partnerships, Larissa observes that the more collectivist approach shifts the students from a competitive nature of “finishing first,” to one where they assist other groups until all tasks are complete. By aligning the approach to building a classroom community with what many are exposed to at home, Larissa further finds that her students work harder, seem more comfortable, and are more willing to take risks. Larissa shares that the opportunity for her young students to be near one another seems to contribute to the cohesion of the group. Throughout the day, she splits the first graders into various groups for instruction and project work. For literature groups there are “frogs” and “toads.” For math time there are “inches” and “centimeters.” The students seem to enjoy being part of groups and Larissa is thrilled by the smoother daily transitions between activities.
The bulletin boards in Larissa’s classroom reveal a balance of individual and collective work. While Larissa makes a commitment to creating a cultural environment that celebrates the collectivist backgrounds of many of her students, she also concurs with others from the Bridging Cultures Project, that “students need to acquire a dual-cultural perspective and the ability to function in the cultures of both school and home” (Trumbell, Rothstein-Fisch, & Hernandez, 2003). One bulletin board highlights the work of individual students – poetry, science observations, and lists of individual student goals for the year. A bulletin board on the adjoining wall is clearly more collectivist – both in the process of its creation and in its content. “Mi Familia,” “Minha Familia,” and “My Family” roll across the bulletin board in an array of letter sizes and designs. Photographs and hand drawings reveal families large and small – some with grandparents, some with two mothers, and some with just one adult figure. Far from static, this bulletin board is a living, evolving, and collectively created work of pride, awareness and seeming celebration. Larissa reveals that she gave them the task to decorate and create a group board where they could “learn more about each other.” The students come up with various ideas, but ultimately agree to make it a “family board.” Even Larissa’s family is pasted on the board! She further shares that while the students line up for recess, they often point to parts of the board, ask questions, and share stories with each other. It has become a common place for the children to make a comfortable bridge between home and school. Larissa finds that helping students to connect their lives outside of the classroom with work inside of the classroom is an effective way to alleviate behavioral issues and get her students more invested in their work. She feels classroom management has become easier as her students embrace more of a group commitment approach to the classroom. By addressing how her own dominant cultural background differs from her students, Larissa becomes more capable of affirming her students cultural differences and is on her way to creating a more respectful and thriving learning environment for all.
- Bridging Cultures with Classroom Strategies – This short article captures some of Trumbell, Rothstein-Fisch, and Greenfield’s rationale for why it is important for teachers to understand the collectivistic value system of Latino Culture and the more individualistic culture of U.S. schools as a means of building important bridges of understanding between home and school.
- This website provides information about the Bridging Cultures Project, including strands of the work and the various resources created by the work.
- This short article about “Honoring Family in the Classroom” speaks to the significance of finding ways to engage parents by providing opportunities for them to connect with teachers in their home languages. By sending home questionnaires and materials that create exchanges between teachers and families, classrooms can be further enriched as parents contribute to the curriculum.