When I was a child, my mother couldn’t help us with our homework. She had gone to work as a maid in a Mexican hacienda at age 11 and hadn’t learned to read or write in Spanish. She was embarrassed when asked to sign her name. She worked in the farm labor fields of the Salinas Valley until she was 80 years old.
I thought a lot about my mother’s life when I worked on a school-readiness project with the children of Mexican farmworkers in a migrant labor camp outside of Watsonville, Calif. I wanted the children I worked with to be proud of where they came from, and I wanted to help them develop literacy in Spanish before they were launched into kindergarten.
In some ways, the camp was a familiar setting. I grew up in migrant labor camps in California and Texas. My childhood camps share one big similarity with the camp I worked in; they are isolated and hidden from the world around them, and become small, contained little worlds for the inhabitants.
I had been to the camp outside of Watsonville before, although I barely recognized it. It had been torn down and rebuilt a few years back, and bore little resemblance to the cold, isolated, run-down dump I first visited in the early 1980s.
Back then, the camp was surrounded by strawberry fields, which served as the children’s playground. Two gigantic, gnarled weeping willows guarded the entrance like menacing gatekeepers. The trees hid the squalid living conditions from view. The majority of the homes had no screens or windows. I remember visiting a family consisting of a mother, father, three small children, and a young adult male. The home was a large room that served as living room, bedroom, and kitchen. There was a closet-sized bathroom in the corner. The room was dark and cold, and the family used the stove as a heating source.
Twenty years later, many things had changed. The old weeping willows had been cut down and replaced with brand-new, prefabricated two-story apartments. There was a laundry room, a large playground for the children, and a community room for meetings. There were computers for parents who wanted to learn how to use them. On the surface, it looked wonderful.
But was it wonderful? Did these new improvements signal better working conditions for the children’s parents? Did they bring about a better life for the children? And, were these kids destined to have trouble in school?
Getting Students Ready
An organization called First Five of Santa Cruz County funded the school-readiness project. The school district was concerned about the number of migrant children who failed kindergarten each year and wanted us to focus on reading and writing in English. I was more concerned with what was developmentally appropriate for the children. To me, that meant finding out what the children knew about the world around them and incorporating their interests into the curriculum. For example, if they were interested in tortillas, I created a lesson on the subject. We would start by reading a book on tortillas and then make our own flour and corn tortillas. The activity would include math and science concepts to meet school district requirements. If their parents worked picking strawberries, I created activities to validate their parents’ work.
Because I spent so much time in the camp, I had a unique opportunity to interact with the students and their families. After a while, I noticed that many of the children exhibited only limited vocabulary in Spanish, their primary language.
I decided that I needed to incorporate lots of literacy activities to help the children develop an extensive vocabulary in Spanish. I believed that if the children had a strong and rich vocabulary in their first language it would make it easier for them to learn English. I brought a variety of books for the children to read. We read a book in the morning and one before they got ready to go home. Books served as a refuge for Jaime, who often came in upset because his father yelled at his mother. I also set up small-group activities to encourage the children to interact in positive ways with one another. One activity the children enjoyed was looking at and discussing pictures of themselves and their parents. I would sit nearby and listen to their conversations. Alejandra would talk about making carnitas (marinated pork meat), and Jaime would describe his Spiderman tennis shoes. As the students got more comfortable with me and with each other, rich and descriptive conversations took place.
Living in the Present
Migrant families’ main priorities hadn’t changed much in the 20 years between my visits. They were concerned with keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table—just like my mother was when I was growing up. “The rest will take care of itself,” she would tell me. “The present is what is important, not what will happen tomorrow or a week from now.”
An outsider to this world might have a hard time understanding the idea that “right now” is more important than the future. Some would say it’s backward thinking. But these families—as well as my own—share many parallels with families of mainstream America. They want a home, and they want their children to get an education. It is frustrating for them when they can’t help their children with their homework or communicate in a meaningful way with the administrator at their child’s school. For many, it’s painful to admit they are not literate in their own language. Their children’s homework is foreign to them. And often they cannot afford to think beyond the present because survival requires all their attention.
At the camp I saw dedicated teachers as well as other volunteers come in one day a week to assist the children with their homework. They brought to mind the impact Mr. Smith, my history teacher in high school, had on me. He believed in me—a special education student who ended up in his class by mistake. Within a few days I found myself beaming with joy that someone believed in my potential. He also instilled in me a love of history.
Looking back, I realize that growing up in migrant camps and my mother’s life helped shape the kind of teacher I have become. My mother is now 90 years old and suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. She longed to become a citizen, but not knowing how to read or write English made the dream impossible. She often worked seven days a week from before sunrise until sunset. She had little time for socializing and less for listening to the conversations of a three-year-old.
I entered the field of child development to escape working in the fields myself. I know it is important for students to learn English—especially if they are to succeed in school. But I believe we can accomplish that by validating what they already know in their first language. By providing a variety of activities that integrate their lives in the camp with concepts of math, science, and literacy, we can provide an environment that will get them ready for kindergarten. We can give them the tools to become independent learners and thinkers. And more important, we can teach them not to be ashamed of living in a migrant camp.
Now my hope is that the mainstream education establishment can step up, recognize these students’ educational progress, validate their heritage, and believe in their potential.