Reading, Culture, And ‘Quality Time’ At Home

Josiah Brown PhotosJunta for Progressive Action and the Greater New Haven Literacy Coalition sponsored a forum Wednesday, March 31, featuring Joyleen Albarracin on “¿Dónde está mi abuelita? (Where is my grandmother?)”  Held at the Fair Haven Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, the event attracted parents, grandparents, adult education students, current and prospective literacy volunteers working with both children and adults, and nonprofit staffers all seeking to learn more about family literacy support strategies.  The session was conducted in Spanish and in English, reflecting the primary languages of the participants.

Joyleen Albarracin, who is a Head Start manager for the Windham Public Schools in eastern Connecticut’s post-industrial “Thread City” of Willimantic, easily alternated between Spanish and English in leading the discussion.  She invoked grandmothers – their presence, absence, age, and roles – as representative of changes in family and society.  She suggested the implications of those changes for children, neighborhoods, and schools, including how secure young people do or don’t feel, to what extent they receive adult supervision outside of school, and how they spend their time. 

Ms. Albarracin opened this exploration with an introduction of her own personal experiences, before inviting each participant to recount a lesson from his or her grandmother and then engaging a broader conversation about families, culture, and schools.  She recalled how, three decades ago, she came from Puerto Rico to Hartford when her mother received a job as a nurse.  She herself went on to graduate from the University of Connecticut with a degree in women’s health counseling and has been working not far from the Storrs campus, in Willimantic, since.  She is the mother of a 21-year-old and a 19-year-old, as well.  Her own grandmother, despite having reached only fourth grade in her formal education, “could read” and had a major influence on young Joyleen. Now she observes that in ten years, she will look forward to the possibility of becoming a grandmother herself and similarly helping to nurture another generation in her family.  In the meantime, she has no intention of becoming a grandmother and accordingly has no hesitation encouraging her children to use “birth control” if necessary. 

Such refreshing candor helped invite other participants in the room to relate information about their families and, in particular, what they learned from their grandmothers.  Those lessons included “how to protect myself,” “how to cook,” and – according to one young father sitting with his wife – “to be good to my family.”

Joyleen Albarracin suggested such lessons may be lacking with grandmothers less likely to be living as part of an extended family unit, due to migration, women’s increased labor force participation, and other social changes.  Among other things, children may miss learning about their own culture, in which she asserted they need to be “secure” in order to enter fully and “succeed” in “mainstream culture.” (1)

She argued the consequences may be particularly serious for immigrant families: “We need to work harder with our children who come into the world with two languages.”  She said the work must come from both directions: from within families themselves and from institutions such as schools, whose environments – including expectations of parent involvement, complicated by language differences and difficult work shifts – may seem remote and forbidding.  (In New Haven, PTOs and others are working to address these obstacles, as reported in a February 2010 article on parents at Nathan Hale School: (2)

If grandmother is not around, who is taking care of the kids?  “La television!” was the reply. This is not surprising.  An October 2009 report from Nielsen reveals that, based on data from late 2008, children between the ages of 2 to 5 watched TV (defined as live and recorded TV, as well as VCR and game consoles) for more than 32 hours a week on average and those 6 to 11 watched more than 28 hours.  Patricia McDonough, Nielsen’s senior vice president of insights, analysis and policy, spoke to the L.A. Times.  “They’re using all the technology available in their households,” she said.  “They’re using the DVD, they’re on the Internet. They’re not giving up any media—they’re just picking up more.”  Digital Journal reports, “Programming specifically targeted at children has increased and this is one of the reasons children’s viewing time has risen.” Young children enjoy their favorite shows, repeatedly, including via video on demand.

This has consequences for children’s physical health (sedentary behavior and obesity versus exercise), development, and social engagement. According to Joyleen Albarracin, children under age 2 especially absolutely “should not be exposed to the TV.”  She observed, “Do you wonder why we have so many children in special ed.?” 

Beyond conventional TV, how do today’s children and youth occupy themselves during the great majority of time they are not in school?  Ms. Albarracin asked.  She received the following answers: “MySpace”; “Facebook”; “the Internet, which can be dangerous”; “video games”; “ipod”; “violent movies” (“las peliculas horribles o con violencia”) and “la calle” (the street).  The most reassuring response: “el programa de Junta [for Progressive Action]!”  Junta’s “Neighborhood Place” program, coordinated by Agueda Ocasio, is a popular resource.

Joyleen Albarracin, understanding the pressures working parents often face with one or even two stressful jobs each, then emphasized the value of “quality time” or “tiempo de calidad” for adults and children together, talking, reading, listening.  She said even 15 minutes per day of one-on-one time can matter. (3)

Her message was so well received that efforts are already underway for a return appearance, perhaps as part of a series of such neighborhood conversations about family literacy and learning in Fair Haven and elsewhere. 

Two board members of the Greater New Haven Literacy Coalition, Junta executive director Sandra Trevino and state education consultant Maureen Wagner, organized the March 31 event, consistent with the state’s Family Learning Initiative.  Other colleagues in attendance included Erika Anderson, a Yale School of Management board fellow working with the Coalition; Cheryl Manciero, an East Haven reading consultant who writes a monthly “Reading Along” column for the New Haven Register; Susan Monroe, who teaches writing at Southern Connecticut State University and Housatonic Community College; and Lorrie Verplaetse, who also teaches at Southern and directs its bilingual education and TESOL (teachers of English to speakers of other languages) preparation programs. 

Another upcoming New Haven event is a study-skills workshop for students and parents to be led by Susan Monroe.  That event may be held at the Literacy Resource Center on Winchester Avenue in Newhallville 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 of Greater New Haven, and the Economic Development Corporation.

You can help by:

*Reading in the home, promoted by libraries such as the New Haven Free Public Library — and involving grandparents as well as parents, and free books from sources including Read to Grow and the New Haven Reads Book Bank;

*Volunteer tutoring and mentoring, including through New Haven Reads, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, the New Haven Public School Foundation, and the Jewish Coalition for Literacy;

*Supporting 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.

Waiting lists among learners at providers including Junta for Progressive Action, New Haven Reads, and Literacy Volunteers demonstrate the excess of demand for their services, compared with the services they are currently able to offer, due to a scarcity of volunteers and/or of dollars for professional staff.

Participants in the March 31 event and a prior, fall 2009 forum came from New Haven public schools as well as a wide range of other organizations. Here is a partial list, including some already mentioned:

* Concepts for Adaptive Learning (, which equips and trains New Haven parents to use computers to support their and their children’s learning;
* Connecticut Association of Adult and Continuing Education (
* Jewish Coalition for Literacy, a project of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which brings volunteer tutors into several New Haven public schools;
* Junta for Progressive Action (;
* Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven (;
* New Haven Reads and its Book Bank ( — which offers free books and tutoring;
* Read to Grow, which emphasizes early literacy and gives books to parents of newborns (
* Regional Workforce Alliance (
* Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute (, a partnership between Yale and the New Haven Public Schools that offers professional development to district teachers in a collegial setting and whose resulting curricular resources are available online to parents and students as well as teachers.

The Greater New Haven Literacy Coalition is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization whose mission is to serve as a clearinghouse to promote, support and advance literacy for people of all ages in our region.

An evolving “What Are You Reading?” blog:


Earlier articles on the Coalition:


(1) Two seminars, one New Haven and one national, that Yale historian Stephen Pitti led on “Latino Cultures and Communities” produced curricular resources teachers developed for their students on history and culture:

(2) Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot of Harvard has written about “what parents and teachers can learn from each other”:
Other resources include:

(3) James S. Coleman, principal author of Equality of Educational Opportunity (1966), known as the Coleman Report, wrote a 1988 article, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” that figures here.  In that 1988 American Journal of Sociology Vol. 94 Supplement (S95-S120) article, Coleman observes, “Norms in a community that support and provide effective rewards for high achievement in school greatly facilitate the school’s task.” (S104)  “Both social capital in the family and social capital in the community play roles in the creation of human capital in the rising generation.” (S109)  “The social capital of the family is the relations between children and parents (and, when families include other members, relationships with them as well). [emphasis mine]  That is, if the human capital possessed by parents is not complemented by social capital embodied in family relations, it is irrelevant to the child’s educational growth that the parent has a great deal, or a small amount, of human capital. . . . Social capital within the family that gives the child access to the adult’s human capital depends both on the physical presence of adults in the family and on the attention given by adults to the child.” Beyond particular challenges to single-parent families, “the nuclear family itself, in which one or both parents work outside the home, can be seen as structurally deficient, lacking the social capital that comes with the presence of parents during the day, or with grandparents or aunts or uncles in or near the household.  Even if adults are physically present, there is a lack of social capital in the family if there are not strong relations between children and parents. [emphasis mine] . . . The effects of a lack of social capital within the family differ for different educational outcomes.  One for which it appears to be especially important is dropping out of school. ” (S110-111)  “Data do indicate that social capital in the family is a resource for education of the family’s children, just as is financial and human capital. [Yet] The social capital that has value for a young person’s development does not reside solely in the family.  It can be found outside as well in the community consisting of the social relationships that exist among parents . . . and in the parents’ relations with the institutions of the community.” (S113)  “Because the social structural conditions that overcome the problems of supplying these public goods – that is, strong families and strong communities – are much less often present now than in the past, and promise to be even less present in the future, we can expect that [other things being equal] we confront a declining quantity of human capital embodied in each successive generation.  The obvious solution appears to be to attempt to find ways of overcoming the problem of supply of these public goods, that is, social capital employed for the benefit of children and youth.  This very likely means that substitution of some kind of formal organization for the voluntary and spontaneous social organization that has in the past been the major source of social capital available to the young.”  (S118)

The concept of cultural capital – (Pierre Bourdieu et al.) – also merits study.

Significant disparities in levels of social trust are documented in this Pew survey:

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