What’s the Real Home Language Story? Making your Head Start Classroom Welcoming for Multilingual Kids

 

photo credit: meadowsaffron at flickr.com

Every Head Start teacher has the privilege and responsibility to make his or her children feel valued and comfortable from day one in the classroom.   Enrollment form information can help with this: knowing all you can about a student’s background will help you to help them get used to their new school.  Sometimes, it’s not easy to be sure you are getting the most accurate information.  Many families who speak a language other than English or have another culture in their home do not include this information on their enrolment forms. They may write instead that English is their only or primary language.

Why?  It’s a good question.

Experts suggest that some Head Start families don’t report the whole truth because they think that English is what they are expected to speak.

Many may genuinely try to put their heritage languages aside and speak only in English to their multilingual children at home because they believe this will help their child succeed – as though these heritage languages are something to be ashamed of!

Most teachers don’t get to know what’s going on in the home, but the Head Start home visiting component can be especially helpful when getting to know multilingual families.  The more you know, the more you can do to make your classroom comfortable for bilingual and multilingual children and their family members, and to honor their needs and their backgrounds.

Welcoming families starts with that first warm conversation: a simple “hello” in the family’s home language will do so much towards breaking down barriers and awkwardness, and showing families that their cultures are valued.

So what next?

There are plenty of things that you can do to help people from all cultures feel at ease in your classroom:

  • Classroom displays

The first thing that any parent or caregiver experiences about a Head Start class is the way the room looks, of course!  If all they see staring at them from the walls is the English language and American imagery, it stands to reason they might feel they don’t fit in.

Why not fill your room with colorful artwork and photos that depict subjects from around the world?  Try different flags, drawings of animals from different continents, national landmarks, or folk art from different cultures.  You could even get parents from the community to make posters for you in their home languages which welcome the newcomer into your classroom.

  • Songs

Bingo and Old MCDonald certainly have their place in the preschool music repertoire.  But wouldn’t it be much more interesting to include kids’ songs from other cultures too?  Ask students to get their parents to help them memorize a song in their home language to sing to the class.  The whole class can practice it and sing with them.  Bring out instruments so everyone can get involved, even if they find the language of the song difficult to replicate!

  • Visitors

It’s such a treat to have someone from the local community (or even further afield) visit the classroom to show the students something interesting or teach them about careers, community, nature – or anything else you can think of! But these visitors don’t always have to speak to the children in English, especially if they are doing a demonstration or making something. Can you find a local fire fighter who’s bilingual and could show the students pictures and fire fighting gear while speaking to them in his or her heritage language?  What about a chef from a restaurant that cooks food from a different culture?  Which brings us to…

  • Culture/Food events

What an amazing opportunity to spend time with multilingual parents and caregivers in your newly-(and multiculturally!) decorated classroom!  Families can bring in exciting dishes for everyone to try and discuss.  If you get a list of what’s being made ahead of time, you can start to talk to the children about different ingredients before the event and get them excited to try new foods.

 

Many of you may already hold a multicultural celebration of food, so try this twist: link your event with multilingual and multicultural books from your library.  Why not read Lima’s Red Hot Chilli, and make sure families bring in all the foods the book mentions, like jelly, mango, and of course, something a bit spicy?   Or choose Grandma’s Saturday Soup, a Jamaican tale, and ask everyone to bring in food that reminds them of their families!  There are so many other food books to choose from; click back to our main site and have a look.

 

Obviously, if you are going to try this activity, you are going to need a fantastic multilingual library, right?

 

  • Library

You’ve got to make your Head Start library an inviting place for all students – not just the ones who speak English.  As your children are learning to read, they need to see the words and print of their home languages as well as English.  They need to see images of gender, ethnicity and culture that they can relate to on the covers of books.  And when families visit your classroom, they need to see reflections of themselves.  A family from South Korea might not feel welcome if they visit a classroom where only English and Spanish books are on display in the reading area.  But seeing some books with the language and images they recognize (have a look at this book, The Crow King, for an example in Korean) even if their child cannot read yet, will help them to feel that your Head Start classroom is a welcoming place for their whole family.

 

As Head Start teachers, and teachers of preschool more generally, you are so lucky to share and shape formative experiences with so many children.  Let’s make sure those experiences are inclusive of every child and every family, so that future enrollment forms will reflect families’ pride in their heritage languages and cultures.

For more information, have a look at this document from the National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness:

Head Start DLLs

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