Parents are a child’s first teacher, but immigrant parents in low-income environments whose first language is not English are often not treated that way. Janise Hurtig, PhD, co-director of the PRAIRIE Group and coordinator of the Community Writing and Research Project at the College of Education, says schools often treat these parents as learners more than teachers.
Hurtig and P. Zitlali Morales, PhD, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, coordinated a Dean’s Community Engagement project to position dual language parents from two CPS schools as expert teachers through a community writing magazine called Real Conditions.
“Parents need to flourish as experts in their own lives and their children’s lives, in all the things they do in the world,” Hurtig said. “They are not brought into schools in this spirit when it is assumed they don’t have much intellectual or creative ability to share and teach.”
Hurtig and Morales worked with principals and dual language coordinators at Volta Elementary School in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood and Whittier Dual Language School in Pilsen to create opportunities for parents of children in dual language programs to share their own writing within school settings in a variety of ways. Hurtig and Morales initially envisioned parents writing about their experiences of raising children with dual language skills, but parent writers focused on the difficulties of raising their children in Chicago, their experiences with their children in CPS schools, their own experiences growing up in their native towns in Latin America, and eventually coming to the United States in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Parent groups from the two schools shared their writings with each other, their families, as well as with teachers from both schools. Finalized stories were published in a new edition of Real Conditions.
Outside of the school environment, Hurtig says parents strengthen their skills as literacy teachers in the home by building relationships with writing. Some of the parents in the group already engaged with reading to their children; one parent writer with vision problems and developing literacy skills worked with her daughter to write her story for the magazine.
“Literacy is a social and collective process, so for these kids to see their parents recognized as writers is really powerful,” Hurtig said. “Parents’ relationship with writing extends to their kids and builds the kids’ relationship to literacy as budding writers.”
Hurtig and Morales worry that low-income and English learner parents have internalized deficit perspectives propagated in public narratives about their lives. Parents without access to education and resources may self-invalidate the importance of their work raising their children. Hurtig sees projects like the Community Writing Project as opportunities to create spaces in which parents can explore their lives from meaningful perspectives to realize their life experiences are incredibly rich, powerful, strong and resilient. Sharing those stories with each other creates community building and often healing opportunities.
Morales and Hurtig recommend that schools seek out activities for parents that offer opportunities for them to flourish as thinkers and leaders, as opposed to only offering aid and assistance opportunities. They also note that teachers and teacher candidates who engage with parent writers will benefit from getting to know members of the community in authentic ways and appreciate aspects of the community they may not be familiar with. Schools may also want to explore ways of using the Real Conditions magazines as resources in their classrooms.