Language and Learning: Home, School, and Community

Brokk Tollefson

Josiah Brown, a volunteer member of the board of the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven, sent this account of an event in which the Coalition was involved.

On Thursday, September 29, the New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) hosted a forum on “Language and Learning: Home, School, and Community,” at the Dr. Reginald Mayo Early Childhood School.  Co-sponsored also by the Connecticut Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (CALAS) and the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven, the event featured a panel of the following speakers:

  Ann Anderberg, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Education, Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU)
  Marilyn Calderón, M.Ed., Executive Director, Connecticut Parent Power
  Luis Chavez-Brumell, Manager, Young Minds & Family Learning Department, New Haven Public Library

(Another invited speaker, Coral Ortiz – the Hillhouse H.S. 2017 valedictorian and a former member of New Haven and Connecticut Boards of Education – appeared despite not feeling well, but she was encouraged to go home and rest.)

The moderator was Abie Benítez, Ph.D., Director of Instruction & English-Language Learning, NHPS; Madeline Negrón, Ph.D., another Director of Instruction who oversees early childhood for the district, offered opening remarks.  (Both colleagues are officers of CALAS, as well.)

The event, which had been previewed in an Independent story containing literacy news, was a sequel to a .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on “Language, Bilingualism, and Literacy – in School and Beyond.”  (The Connecticut Network video-taped that session, now available online.)  An earlier, 2010 Literacy Forum addressed “Reading, Culture, and ‘Quality Time’ at Home.”

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Last week’s audience included teachers—from early childhood through K-12, as well as various other educators, researchers, nonprofit staffers, and volunteers—not to mention parents.  While NHPS professionals were well-represented in the audience, others came from such districts as New Britain, along with members of CALAS from New Haven and elsewhere.

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Madeline Negrón welcomed visitors to the new Mayo Early Childhood School and introduced the panelists.

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Then moderator Abie Benítez, emphasizing not only “academic language” but “learning how to think” and how parents are children’s “first teachers,” invited Ann Anderberg (who preceded her in a UConn doctoral program) to begin her presentation.

“Family reading time”: La hora de lectura en familia

Ann Anderberg has been on the ECSU faculty for a decade, working with families who are, she said, “bilingual/bicultural.”  She distinguished between two categories of bilingual experiences: those that are “sequential” (one language, then another), versus “simultaneous.”  Believing in “democratizing” (widely sharing) “research,” she argued it shows the value of supporting a student’s first language rather than rushing into English.  This is for “academic reasons” but also relational ones, as intergenerational differences in language can cause family tensions and misunderstandings.  With the effects of a devastating hurricane on Puerto Rico fresh in mind, she speculated that more families would leave the island for the mainland U.S., including Connecticut, bringing additional Spanish-speakers to public schools.

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She displayed this ECSU site with informational videos for “family reading time”: la hora de lectura en familia.  These short videos address such topics as “Remembering the Story”; “Asking Open-Ended Questions”; “Making Connections to the Story”; and “Asking Wh (Who, What, Where, When, etc.) Questions.”  About these video models she observed, “We have found that families are very responsive.”

“Libraries are a lot more than books”

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Luis Chavez-Brumell then commented, after recounting his own origins—with a mother who came to the U.S. from Mexico at age thirteen, knowing no English, and a father whose family is from North Carolina and African American.  Luis characterized himself as “a struggling reader” early on, before books about dinosaurs—which fascinated him from trips to the Peabody Museum growing up—helped develop his reading.  “It’s about curiosity,” including at school libraries, he said.  Regarding his work at the New Haven Public Library (where he came after earning degrees from UConn, in Latin American studies, and North Carolina Central in library science), he reminded everyone that “libraries are a lot more than books”—with museum and theater passes, zoo discounts, computing, career and cultural programming (including through the Teen Center) available, and a Readmobile that aims to reach beyond the library’s branch buildings.

“The value of storytelling” and “co-creating leaders”; the goal: “equitable for all”

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Marilyn Calderón explained that she was a teacher at Hamden Middle School, known for visiting students’ families at home, before (as a parent of three boys) she assumed her current role with Connecticut Parent Power.  There, in “engaging, educating, and mobilizing parents to act on children’s issues,” she is “charged with making educational opportunities … more equitable.”  In this pursuit, she stressed “the value of storytelling” and communicating clearly, without jargon, so parents can understand. “Speaking to—not at—them” is key.  She identifies as a Latina and recalls the experiences of her own parents, who came to the mainland from Puerto Rico.  While recognizing the centrality of books, she asserted that a “literacy-rich environment” can also include, for example, Sesame Street on TV and singing along with music on the radio.  She cited a 38-year-old Waterbury father unable to read until he enrolled in the Literacy Volunteers chapter there.  Engaging such parents—as well as grandparents—“from all walks of life” is what she tries to do in “co-creating leaders” among families across the state.

Curiosity, Relationships, and Respect

Moderator Abie Benítez—who was principal of Columbus Family Academy before becoming a director of instruction in the NHPS—summarized and synthesized the panelists’ presentations.  They agreed, she pointed out, that “families are important” not just at the outset of school but throughout.  Highlights included Ann Anderberg’s emphasis on supporting a speaker’s first language, with which families should feel comfortable even as students may also cultivate a second language in school.  Encouraging “curiosity,” as Luis Chavez-Brumell underscored, can encompass field trips and inquiry at home, as well as books at school or the library.  Bridging also the comments of Marilyn Calderón, moderator Benítez reinforced the relational dynamic of learning—and what we might often simply call respect.  She said, “It’s important that we do encourage parents to talk about their experiences,” know “what interests them” and “what they’re about” in order for educators to engage and support them.

In the round of questions and discussion, the severity of the Connecticut budget situation emerged immediately.  With the state facing a projected deficit of more than $3 billion over the next two years, some combination of cuts and new revenue seems inevitable.  The shape that combination takes, however, can have profound consequences and remains a subject for civic debate and political pressure.  An example of a possible target: the Family Resource Centers, intended to complement more narrowly academic priorities, in some schools.  Marilyn Calderón spoke of the need to mobilize political “action” in defense of such a “more humanistic touch,” attentive to children’s emotional and physical health and social services.  Luis Chavez-Brumell cited the “next” Stetson branch public library planned for the revived Dixwell Community “Q” House—and how individual donors are called to match public funding for this institution.  Illustrating another public/private collaboration, a member of the audience who works at a Family Resource Center mentioned having received books from Read to Grow and then given them to an avid young reader who asked for more.  Her lesson: “If you give them the tool, they will take the lead.”

Other questions probed such matters as, “Are we doing enough, culturally, to welcome people?”

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Ann Anderberg recounted how Windham/Willimantic (where ECSU is located) had used dance to build trust and appreciation among families of Mexican as well as Puerto Rican origin.

Responding to another question, she reported that research indicates that while the dual-language approach is most effective, there are different types of programs.  The approach’s “guiding principles” can be applied, she maintained, “regardless of the program model.”  She believes the Connecticut “legislature and universities” could be doing more to help prepare and certify bilingual educators.  According to her, “The irony is that Utah [not the most culturally diverse state] has probably the most … expansive dual-language program,” to assist Mormons on missionary trips around the world.  She asserted that, as in New Britain, when dual-language programs are “shut down,” it’s been “an abject failure” and warned of the danger – for example in Lowell, Massachusetts with its significant Cambodian population—of “politicizing” education.

(Jacqueline Rabe Thomas of the CT Mirror wrote a series of articles on English language learning this year; she and the Mirror are also involved in an October 14 conference at Central Connecticut State University that will feature the State Commissioner of Education and faculty from K-12, CCSU, SCSU, and UConn.) 

Marilyn Calderón echoed a comment from a questioner regarding a “need to break down the institutionalized racism” that can still be found, and expressed faith in patient, unified advocacy: how “five to ten” parents can join to “galvanize” progress, but that “systemic change takes time.”

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Toward action: “The language of enthusiasm” and “love for learning”

Public librarian Luis Chavez-Brumell—who spoke of encouraging “kindness,” “resilience,” and a “love for learning,” in children—reminded listeners that the “oral tradition” crosses cultures and fueled classics like the Iliad and Odyssey.  Then he paraphrased Paolo Coelho’s book The Alchemist, which includes these lines:
“…there was a language in the world that everyone understood…. It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.”

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Marilyn Calderón reported one of her own enthusiastic practices as a parent: introducing a word of the day (e.g., “serendipity”) to make what might seem intimidating instead a more routine, fun opportunity to connect life and learning.  She added, “Speak truth to power,” so “our kids don’t suffer…. Acts of kindness begin with you.”

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This free event reflected a collaborative effort.  In addition to the speakers, CALAS, and host Principal Monique Brunson and her team at the Mayo Early Childhood School, thanks go to Coalition board member Rob Coro and Marcum LLP for donating promotional design/printing services, and to other board colleagues Genevive Walker of ConnCAT, Susan Holahan (a teacher of ESOL in the NHPS and grandparent of district students), and Curtis Hill (founder of Concepts for Adaptive Learning) for helping to organize the forum.  Other participating board members ranged from Brad Bullis of the Public Library to Kirsten Levinsohn of New Haven Reads and Kyn Tolson of Read to Grow.

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The Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven – sponsor of the Literacy Forum series – is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization with a mission to promote, support, and advance literacy for people of all ages.  Visit LiteracyEveryday to share or obtain information on free events, resources, and ways to get involved in pursuit of a region of readers.

The LiteracyEveryday site has portals to Get Help, Volunteer, Donate, and Learn More, as well as a blog, News/Events calendar, and presence on Facebook and Twitter, @LiteracyGNH.

October 24, 12-2 p.m. lunch with Ralph Smith of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

For example, on Tuesday, October 24 the Coalition is working with the NewAlliance Foundation on an event—also sponsored by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation—featuring a talk by Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.  Over lunch from 12-2 p.m., the discussion is free, but seating is limited.  (Please register in advance: sburlingame@newalliancefoundation.org, or call Maryann Ott at 203.859.6555 with any questions.  The hope is that a number of teachers will be among those able to attend, despite the mid-day scheduling.)

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There is a need for additional volunteer tutors and mentors at such organizations as the Boys and Girls Club, Jewish Coalition for Literacy, Junta for Progressive Action, LEAP, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, New Haven Public Schools, New Haven Reads, and Solar Youth.

Neighbors are invited to visit the Literacy Resource Center on Winchester Avenue, in space at 4 Science Park donated by Science Park Development Corporation.  The Literacy Resource Center, or LRC, represents a partnership among Concepts for Adaptive Learning, the Coalition, New Haven Reads, Literacy Volunteers, and the Economic Development Corporation.  In the same building at 4 Science Park are the offices, classrooms, kitchen, cafe, and art gallery of ConnCAT.

You can help by:
  • Reading in the home, promoted by libraries such as the New Haven Public Library—and involving grandparents as well as parents, and free books from sources including Read to Grow and New Haven Reads;
  • Encouraging friends, family, and others to seek literacy assistance whenever useful;
  • Volunteering as a tutor or mentor;
  • Bolstering literacy in other ways, such as through donations of money—whether directly, via the Community Foundation or the United Way—or of books and by advocating and voting.

For more information: info@literacyeveryday.org

Articles on the Coalition and Its Events:

“Literacy Coalition News”

“Philanthropy, Literacy, and Youth Development Explored”

“Language, Bilingualism, and Literacy – in School and Beyond”

“Literacy Coalition Welcomes New Colleague, Previews Forum”

“Early Literacy Experiences, the Brain, and Child Development”

“Literacy Coalition Welcomes New Board Members; Forum Approaches”

“Why Is Math Important?”

“Libraries in the 21st Century”

“Literacy Coalition Welcomes New Board Colleagues”

“Why Read?”

“It’s about WORDS”

“Literacy Paths Plotted”

“Literacy, Every Day”

“Learning in the 21st Century, in Ways New and Old”

“Reading, Culture, and ‘Quality Time’ at Home”

“‘Empowering Teachers,’ Reading Research, Instruction, and Supports”

“Margie Gillis Discusses Using the Latest Research on Reading”

“Early Reading, Community Action, and Catalytic Philanthropy”

“Literacy Coalition Forum: State Legislative Update and the Big Read”

“A Day for Literacy”

“Commissioner Ted Sergi: Their ‘Second Chance’ Starts with Reading”

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