Building Bridges as We Go: Connecting Schools with Multilingual Families

This month we are publishing Connecting School and the Multilingual Home by Maria R. Coady. In this post the author explains how her own experiences provided the inspiration for the book.

I grew up navigating various ethnic and linguistic enclaves north of Boston, Massachusetts, where I was born. My grandparents’ families had emigrated from parts of Italy, and I fondly recall my great uncles and aunts speaking their local language and mixing English and Italian. I imagined what they thought while sitting under the cool shade of the apple trees while younger generations of American kids ran through the yard and played bocci. Family was central to our identity, and our identity was our culture, our history, and our language.

My sense of both family and language permeated every aspect of my own educational experience up through college: what I thought I could do, how I could do it, what I would study, and who I could become. One thing for sure was the message that I received from my family: being successful in school was paramount. I was the first generation to navigate access to college, so I learned the hard way (alone) to unravel the complexities surrounding educational programs, relationships, and even financial aid.

As my career matured from an early start in business into bilingual education, the same lens of access to education illuminated the barriers that other families—children, parents, and caregivers—faced. I could envision the bridges between the school and immigrant, multilingual families but remained dismayed by how infrequently I actually saw them built. What remained obvious to me was how many multilinguals have a similar experience—valuing education without having the knowledge of how to access it fully.

Rural multilingual family working in the horse farming industry, southeast United States

The inspiration for this book stems from my own experiences and 25 years of working with multilingual families in the northeast US, Colorado, and rural north central Florida. I have also had the experiences of working with international rural communities. I find that rural, multilingual families’ strengths go largely unnoticed, and are definitely not tapped into as a resource. Their many languages and literacy practices differ from those assumed by educators, leaving families positioned as disinterested in their child’s education.

The Gómez family is one telling example. A family of five children, I recall the second youngest daughter wanting to participate in a 4 day, overnight field trip to Washington, DC—a very long distance from Florida. This annual 5th grade trip, organized by the school, required students to have cameras (back then, disposable cameras), a suitcase, spending money, and good walking shoes. Although the parents understood the importance of the trip to their daughter, they did not understand the process of completing the extensive field trip paperwork, which was provided in only English, nor the details and items needed for the trip. The father and mother worked overtime and sold personal items in order to pay for some of the trip itself. My students and I fundraised to ensure that the daughter had the shoes, camera, and suitcase needed, and while advocating for one family at a time is important, we need the tools to make more systemic changes in schools on behalf of multilingual families.

Our job is to build relational trust (Bryk & Schneider, 2002) with families, and as Michal Domínguez (2017) notes, hacer puentes al andar – building bridges as we go.  That is the spirit of this book, which is filled with concrete ways to support reflection, action, and to humanize our work as educators by connecting schools with multilingual families.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Narratives of Adult English Learners and Teachers by Clarena Larrotta.

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