By Leanna Agcaoili
On the third day of school this year, we made a circle graph about “Family.” I asked my students, “Friends, what do you like to do with your family? I’ll be writing your responses on our circle graph.”
My students shared activities they like to do with their families:
“Playing games at Chuck E. Cheese.”
“Playing at the park.”
Then one child said, “I like eating pancit with my family.”
Five minutes passed. Everyone shared their thoughts.
I asked that same student, “What culture is pancit from?”
He said, “I don’t know. My family just makes it!”
My jaw dropped. How does this student not know where pancit originates from? I’m half-Filipino, and it’s the only Filipino food I will eat! How does my student not know this is a food of his culture?
When I asked students how many of them have heard the word culture before, only one out of my 23 students raised a hand. This lack of knowledge was evident when I read their pre-writes about their families because no one wrote about their culture. Granted, my original question was overly general to leave room for students’ interpretation, but they just wrote about the activities they do together, or how many people are in their family.
Some typical responses:
“I’m proud of my family because I get to play X-Box”
“I’m proud of my family because I get to go to Ice Palace and the water park.”
This indicated to me a huge problem: My students lack an understanding of how unique our cultural diversity is, and how each one of them has a cultural identity that they bring to our communities.
I was very surprised that my students were unaware of their cultural heritage, but I had some guesses as to why. For one, it might not have been a topic of conversation at home. My students often seem more interested in being on technology devices to play video games with their family and friends, than engaging in dialogue. Another thought might be that people are so busy; some work multiple jobs to keep the food in the kitchen. With a large immigrant population in my community, many families keep their culture but are trying to also adapt to a more modern and technological lifestyle. One of my students said, “I asked [why we eat this food]. But my family just told me, ‘We just do it’.”
As I planned for our first project-based learning unit, I reread our GLAD Inquiry Chart created by my students. I looked at the fact that only one student knew a little more about their family history, but many students later asked, “Why did our families go from one country to another?”.
Then it occurred to me: No expert can answer this question better than families.
Having been a teacher in my school for six years, parent involvement has often been a challenge school wide. This year alone, I had to stop parents outside of my door to invite them in for Open House. I also had to call 10 out of 23 parents to attend parent-teacher conferences. Some attended their rescheduled time, and some didn’t attend the second time they selected. Oftentimes, my parents will attend if their child receives an award, they perform, or they attend the fifth grade promotion ceremony.
I want to break the status quo. I want them to believe that their child’s learning is important, and their culture needs to be incorporated into our classrooms. I want them to know that they can be a part of their child’s learning.
I sent home an invitation to families to volunteer and share a part of their culture with students. Anything was welcome: a song, dance, story, or food. I was thrilled to have six families share:
- A Chuukese mother and father shared stories about taking a boat to school.
- A Filipino father shared a story about walking through fields to get to school, but he always had to bring an extra change of clothes so he wouldn’t be muddy in the schoolhouse. “Daddy, I didn’t know that!”, their daughter exclaimed. He and his wife also made pancit because that was their daughter’s favorite Filipino dish.
- A Japanese-American father made sushi for the class, and all the students made a sour face while eating vinegar rice. But they sure loved the crab mayo!
- Another Chuukese mother brought breadfruit, a staple starch in their culture. “That story sounds just like my family’s story,” said the boy whose parents presented previously. “They said my dad had to climb the tree to get the breadfruit!”
- Another Filipino family, from a different island, brought a chicken soup called sopas. “Mmm! Can I have more? Wait, no…can I have the recipe so my mom can make it?” said a Samoan boy. “My mom makes this, but she doesn’t put hot dog! I want hot dog in mine next time!”
- Lastly, a Samoan mother sang two songs that her family sings often at family parties. “Why did your family come to Hawaii?” a student asked. “For work, and we had to send money home to help pay for our grandmother’s health in American Samoa.”
“You know why I chose to come? Because I want my son to be proud of me and our culture,” one parent shared with me privately on her way out.
Since this activity, my students look forward to looking at a map and pointing out, “Yup, that’s where I’m from!”
In a world full of cultural diversity and thriving technology, oftentimes we forget that sometimes our most valuable resource is right in front of us, in the form of the humans we live and work with.
So I challenge you, how can you involve your families more in your classroom?
Leanna Agcaoili is a second grade teacher at Mayor Joseph J. Fern Elementary School in the Farrington-Kaiser-Kalani Complex in Honolulu. A 2018–2020 Hope Street Group Hawai’i Teacher Fellow, she has been teaching for six years in Hawai’i’s DOE. She is a National Board candidate and 2017 Locations Foundation Top Teacher Award finalist. Follow her via Twitter @LeannaAgcaoili.