Irvine, Candler Professor of Urban Education at Emory, has made training teachers in dealing with children from many diverse cultures - and their parents - a centerpiece of her research. Irvine is project director of CULTURES (Center for Urban Learning/Teaching and Urban Research in Education and Schools), which has trained more than 150 teachers in five Atlanta area school districts to link classroom experiences with current research and knowledge about culture and ethnicity. The program has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as an example of best practice in professional development.
Irvine says one reason the program is needed is that too often teachers think of parental involvement in a very narrow way. "We require parents to come to the school, sit in the little chairs and hear how their children are doing and what they should be doing as parents." But many immigrant parents don't respond to that model, possibly because they feel uncomfortable, says Irvine. "If they don't visit the school or respond the way the teacher would like them to, teachers often interpret that as "the parents don't care."'
That's probably not the case. I've never met a parent who didn't want their child to do well in school.
To prove her point, Irvine takes teachers in the CULTURES program out of the classroom and into African American and other culturally diverse neighborhoods -Vietnamese, Laotian and Hispanic populations are growing rapidly in the Atlanta area - to visit in parents' homes and their communities. "Teachers inevitably say, "'Oh yeah, these parents really do care about their kids,"' says Irvine. "These cultural immersion trips allow teachers to use what they've learned about kids in the home environment as links to the curriculum and the classroom."
Teachers' new insights may be as subtle as learning that pointing at people, a favorite tactic for calling on students in class, is an insult in some cultures, or that touching one's head or failing to look someone in the eye has special significance. "If teachers know nothing about the way the Vietnamese community, for example, understands the world, they can't use their viewpoints in the classroom," says Irvine. "I see teachers as cultural bridge builders between students' homes and mainstream America."