The Pajaro Valley Experience

By Alma Flor Ada

A young mother, somewhat intimidated in a group of nearly a hundred people, is about to read a story written by her daughter. She hesitates, unsure whether the story is appropriate, and apologizes because it contains words which she considers unseemly.

At last, she holds up the title page. It shows a man in field workers’ clothing, wearing boots and a hat and holding a long whip in his hand. A small girl is standing next to him, reaching barely to his knee. The mother begins to read: “I am going to tell you a story about a father who returned home from work very angry,” and here the mother interrupts the story to explain: “All of this is true. My husband is much older than me, and he comes home from work very tired. And if the children are talking loudly or making noise he gets upset and,” she adds with obvious pain, “he sometimes scolds and even punishes them.”

The story tells us that the father returned home upset: his daughter asked him what wq_r!he “later. Upon finding out that he was tired, his little daughter told him, “Look, Father I have a cure for your tiredness … I will tell you a very pretty story that Mother read me from a book…” And the story was so amusing that the father forgot how tired he was. He laughed and hugged his daughter and gave her a kiss.

Celi, the five-year-old girl who dictated this story to her older sister Pati, had discovered not only that books can be entertaining, but that they offer the possibility of influencing our immediate reality. Celi faced a problem: her elderly father, exhausted from work, got angry and upset when he returned home. But Celi learned that she could do something about this problem. By her actions she not only put her father in a good mood, but had the satisfaction of knowing that reality can be shaped, influenced, and improved upon. So strong is the impact of this experience that she turns it into a story and has her sister write it down for her, thus creating a compelling example of what children’s interaction with books can produce.

Celi’s mother is a participant in a discussion-oriented project on children’s literature designed for parents. The program was developed under the auspices of the Bilingual Program of the Pajaro Valley School District. The Pajaro Valley School District serves a mostly rural population of 14,497 students in the area surrounding Watsonville, California.

Of those students, 54% are Hispanic, mostly of Mexican peasant origins; 26.9% are migrant children; and 34.5% do not speak English fully yet. The percentage of students who do not complete their high school education is 34.5% for the general population  and 53.6% for the Hispanic population.

Once a month, since February of 1986, a group of Spanish-speaking parents, varying in size between 60 and 100, meet to dialogue about children’s literature and to read the stories and poems written by the children and, more and more frequently, by the parents themselves.

This activity  is in itself unusual, but what makes it even more significant is that these parents themselves have had very little schooling. Many of them had never read a book before, much less thought about with one. This program has allowed these parents to encourage their children to write, and to begin to do so themselves.

The program grew out of an an awareness of the importance of parents’ involvement in their children’s education, the desire to encourage parents’ consciousness of the importance of their role shaping their chil­dren’s future, and the decision to help parents recover their sense of dignity and self-identity. These, then, were our general motivations and goals when we began the program. The actual procedures were developed and improved upon as we went along, through the process of our experience and our reflection upon it, in the true meaning of praxis.

The Inspiration for the Project

The initial spark was provided by the children themselves. Desiring to provide the students with new experiences and to offer them role models of Hispanics who have distinguished themselves in creative endeavors, Paula Cole, specialist in school libraries, arranged for the Pajaro Valley school district to invite me to tell stories and to talk with the children as part of a “Meet the Author” program which until then had featured only English-speaking authors.

The presentation of the stories was accompanied by dialogue with the children about how a book is made, what a literary work is, what the motivations are that lead an author to write, and my own feelings about my mother tongue and my decision to speak and write in Spanish.

The children’s enthusiasm was enor­mous. Their teachers and school librarians had laid the groundwork: the children had read some of my stories and some of the books I had translated into Spanish, but most importantly, they themselves had written as well. The conversations with the children were delightful. It was made very clear that everybody can write, that what is essential is to observe one’s surroundings, to observe one’s self, and to let one’s imagination run wild. When a third-grade boy asked, “Well, what advice would you give to future writers?” we knew that a spark had been lit which we wanted to keep alive.

The director of the bilingual program, Alfonso Anaya, decided that the interest which had been stimulated in the children could serve as a base from which to begin working with parents in a project aimed at developing a greater interaction between parents and children. This would strengthen the cooperation between home and school, and in turn contribute to strengthening the reading and writing skills which are essen­tial for all schooling.

Key Planning Issues

While planning the project, we decided that it was important to take several aspects into account in order to ensure its success.

The Environment. It was decided to choose a location where the parents would feel comfortable and at ease. We decided to meet in a library rather than i a schoolroom because, unfortunately, schools often have negative associations of fear and of possible failure. Parents may feel shame about their own lack of academic success, or they may visit schools only when their children are in trouble. The library offers other advantages. It is a pleasant, roomy, well-lit environment, with chairs designed for adults. It is a “special” place for parents. It surrounds them with books, thus subliminally reinforcing the message we want to convey.

The Subject. The subject we chose to draw the parents was children’s literature. We feared that if we proposed an academic subject, parents would feel unsure or intimidated, whereas the subject of children’s books would seem less threatening.

The Character of the Meeting. We insisted upon making the meeting with the parents a special event. Children were sent home from school with invitations in Spanish for their parents to a meeting about children’s literature with a writer of children’s books. This invitation conveyed respect for the parents. We were careful not to ask something of them, or to tell them what they must do, but rather we invited them to participate. This participatory tone has been maintained throughout the whole program, and we consider it to be one of the elements which has contributed to its success.

Attention to the Children. During every meeting children of all ages are offered a parallel program, with films, story­telling and other activities in a nearby room, so that parents are not  prevented from attending in order to care for their children.

Personal Contact. Before the first meeting, telephone calls were made to the. parents to reiterate personally the invitation which they had received in writing. In addition, several teacher’s aides offered to give rides to parents who lacked means of transportation.

The Procedure for the Meetings

At the first meeting, we began by talking with the whole group of parents, numbering nearly a hundred, about the purpose of the program.  The basic points covered were:

  1. The recognition that children, each and every one of them, represent the future of the world, and the need for helping them shape that future and make it theirs.
  2. The importance of the relationships between family members.
  3. The fact that parents are their children’s first and best teachers.
  4. The impact that the development of skills in the home has on academic progress, specifically the acquisition of language skills and reasoning.
  5. The need to develop these skills in the home language, since this is the language in which the parents can best do so.
  6. The recognition that there is nothing negative about the use of Spanish, not only because Spanish is a language of great international importance in and of itself, but because the use of the mother tongue and the transmission. of that language to one’s children is an inalienable right.
  7. The understanding of the pain and psychological harm which is produced when an individual feels obliged to reject his or her language and, along with it. a part of his or her identity.
  8. The fact.that in the case of minority children a well-developed home language is the best basis for the acquisition of a second language.
  9. The value of self-esteem and parents’ responsibility in helping their children develop a positive self-image.
  10. The importance of communication based on respect, understanding and trust.

Each of these issues was followed by concrete suggestions for their implementation. Parents were given a booklet, specifically designed for this program, which covered the use of Spanish in the home; the importance of demonstrating affection; and suggestions for the development of language skills, clarity of expression, critical thinking skills, and reading, writing and memory skills.

The results of this initial discussion were overwhelming. It was obvious that the parents were deeply moved. One mother stood up and explained: “What is happening to us is that no one has ever told us that our children are worth something, and no one has ever told us that we are worth something.”

This stage of group reflection set the tone for alJ of the following work. The dialogue on these general themes was followed by a presentation of five picture books. The books had been selected primarily for their appeal, in terms both of literary content and presentation. We wanted to motivate the children to interact with the books, as well as tci show parents and children that, just as there arc in English, there are beautiful and well­ produced Spanish-language books of which they can be proud.

Initially we had thought to present one book at each meeting. Because it was impossible to obtain a hundred copies of the same book on such short notice, we were obliged to present five different titles from which each parent could choose one to take home.

As it turned out, this was an advantage. Not only did it allow parents to better appreciate the diversity of good books which exist in Spanish, but it also contributed to a more active involvement of the participants.

I read each of the books aloud to the whole group of parents as they would be read to children, dramatizing the action and showing the illustrations. The readings were followed by a few comments and a brief period of dialogue. Then each parent was invited to select the book she or he wanted to take home and to join a small group for discussion of that particular book. In each of those groups a teacher facilitated the dialogue.

The teachers are in fact largely responsible for the continued success of this pro­ject. In order to make the parents feel comfortable and at ease, they have made it a point to invite each one to participate in the discussion. Moreover, they make sure that the group understands what each parent has to say, whether by repeating, paraphrasing, or asking further questions if necessary. They know how to accept and validate everyone’s participation, upholding the value of different points of view, yet they guide the discussion to more reflective levels of analysis when the parents, as a result of internalized oppression, feel un­ able to help their children as much as they would like to. 

Creative Reading

In facilitating the small-group discussion in each of the groups the teachers followed the creative reading methodology. Here the dialogue consist of four phases: the descriptive phase, in which information is identified; the interpretive/personal phase, in which personal reactions to and feelings about the reading are discussed and information in the story is related to previous personal experience; the critical phase, in which a critical analysis is made of the events and ideas presented in the story; and the creative phase, in which the reading is brought to bear on the discovery of real-life applications.

Besides a copy of the book he or she has chosen, each parent was handed a list of questions organized according to those four phases as a guide for home discussion with their children. Also provided were a list of suggested activities related to the book and a blank book in which their children might be encouraged to write their own stories.

It was emphasized that the lists of questions and of suggested activities were not to be followed to the letter but, instead looked upon as a source of inspiration. The parents were encouraged to proceed freely; they might give their children the book and ask them to read it aloud; they might read the story to the children; or they might tell the children the story as they remembered it, using the pictures as an aid. Wha\.wa essential was that they spend some ,ime every evening with their children and with a book; that at all times they .encourage the children to reason and express themselves clearly; that they listen to the children with interest and affection; and that they encourage the children to write their own stories in the blank books.

From the second session on, the parents have been meeting first in the small groups according to which book they selected the previous month. There they talk about their experiences over the last month. Then, all together, they read and listen to some of the stories the children have written. Finally the new books are presented and new small groups are formed to discuss them.

The Parents’ Experience

What the parents shared with us about their home experience has varied. After the first meeting, one father bought a black board and placed it in the garage so that every day he can write a question for his children to answer, in writing, when they come home from school; later they discuss both questions and answers together. Other parents encouraged their children to write answers to the questions we handed out. In general, these have been the principal reactions: parents have begun to read aloud to their children, the children have begun to bring home books from the library, and parents and children have gone to the public library in search of books. At the first meeting we had a show of hands-to find out how many parents had public library cards. None did. At a meeting nine months late almost everyone reported several visits to the library to check out books.

All the sessions have been video-taped. This idea, initially conceived as part of an evaluation process, has turned out to be a highly significant part of the whole project. The aides borrowed the tapes and took them into the community. Thus the children had the opportunity of seeing their parents as characters on the television screen, reading aloud the stories created by the children. This has had several effects. The parents have re-experienced the process and have been able to further analyze the dialogue. The concepts presented have been reinforced, along with the model of how a story can be read or told. The children have felt double pride, both in seeing their parents on the screen, and in hearing their own stories being read aloud. This might explain why not only elementary school children but high-schoolers as well have shown great interest in writing stories every month.

The video camera also captures the bearing and level of confidence that parents display as they participate in the group discussion. Clearly, their self-confidence, self-assuredness, and self-expression have been strengthened during the course of the project.

There are other signs of the parents’ development. They have gradually replaced the teachers as facilitators in the small­ group discussions. A number of them petitioned the District School Board for a meeting to talk about the academic future of their children. Another group offered, on their own, to give a presentation on the use of children’s literature at the Regional Mi­grant Education Conference A very revealing ,incident was that, after several meetings, e parents themselves said that while they were very happy to receive the books we were giving them, one book a month seemed too little, and they were interested in purchasing add!tional books for themselves. This led to an invitation to Mariuccia Iaconi, of Iaconi Books in San Francisco, who took several hundred books to the next meeting. The parents (many perhaps for the first time) bought books for their children.

Of even greater importance is the fact that when, at the end of the summer, we asked the parents what direction the program should take in the future, they did not hesitate to suggest that, since their children had written such good stories, it would be worthwhile to compile a book of them. The book is underway.

The Words of the Parents

Finally, the best evaluation of the program was expressed by the parents themselves. During the eighth and ninth meetings, when asked to suggest what they have gained through participation in the program, the comments offered by the participants allowed us to see that the growth which has occurred affects the children as well as the adults.

“I feel,” said one mother, “that since we began talking every night about the books which they are reading, and since they began writing themselves, our two children have become closer, and we feel closer to them also. This process is so important to my fourteen-year-old daughter,” she added, “that even though there is a party tonight, she decided to come here instead, because she knew we were going to read her story.”

Her husband said, “Our children have discovered that from each story, no matter how simple, one can learn about how to help ourselves and how to help others, and now  when they  write their stories they concern themselves with understanding and explaining reality.” (The younger son of this couple had written a story about a boy who refuses to obey his mother; the older one, about a girl who, following her friend’s lead, drops out of school.)

Another mother said: “Ever since I know I have no need to feel ashamed of speaking Spanish I have become strong. Now I feel that I can speak with the teachers about my children’s education and I can tell them I want my children to know Spanish. I have gained courage.”

One father held forth the value of the meetings as an opportunity for getting to know one another better, on a deeper level. After elaborating on how impersonal society has become and how people tend to perceive one another with fear rather than with trust, he said: “Maybe after seeing each other at these meetings, we might be able to help one another more, offer to lend a hand if anyone needs it. It is very good to have the opportunity to meet each other here.”

And a final positive note. One of the fathers said: “I have discovered that my children can write. But also I have discovered something personal. I have discovered that by reading books one can find out many things. Since my children want me to read to them the same stories over and over again, I took them to the public Library to look for more books. There I discovered books about our culture. I borrowed them and I run reading, and now I am finding out things I never knew about our roots and about what happened to them and I have discovered that I can read in Spanish about the history of this country and of other countries.”

The girl who discovered that she can influence her reality by using, like a modem­ day Scheherazade, a story to entertain her tired father and thus avoid being yelled at or punished, and the father who, through his children’s enjoyment, discovered a path to reading and to the wealth of information offered by books are examples of why all who have participated in the Pajaro Valley experience feel privileged and want to share with others its message of hope.

Alma Flor Ada is an author of children’s books and director of the PhD Multicultural Program at the University of San Francisco.

This is an edited version of a selection from the soon to be published book, From Shame to Struggle , ed. by Tove Skullnab Kangos and Jim Cummins, Clevedon, England, Multilingual Matters. Reprinted with permission of the author.