“When Are You Going to Come Visit?”

Home visits and seeing our students

By Elizabeth Schlessman

Illustrator: Bec Young

Bec Young

“Está diciendo gracias por venir” (She’s saying thank you for coming), Juan interpreted from the Trique language to Spanish as he stood beside his mom on the concrete kitchen floor at the migrant work camp. It wasn’t the easiest address to find—before I followed the school bus down the dirt road, I hadn’t even known Camp Sealy existed.

“When are you going to come visit?” Juan kept asking. I’d tried to stop by to meet the family once before. I couldn’t call to schedule a visit; the family had no phone. The notes I sent home were in Spanish; Juan’s parents mostly spoke Trique, an indigenous language of the Oaxaca region of Mexico. The family hadn’t come to conferences. Juan wanted to attend 4th-grade swimming lessons with the class the following week, and I still needed a signed permission slip. I wanted to update the family on Juan’s progress, let them know how much he was learning, how hard he was working. And so I parked my car, made my way between the concrete buildings of dorm rooms with bunk beds, and asked those I passed where I might find Juan’s family.

The visit was short and, to me, appeared to be effortlessly interpreted from Spanish to Trique and back to Spanish by Juan as we stood beside the pot of boiling milk on the stove in the communal kitchen. In those 10 to 15 minutes, my perspective on Juan’s life expanded from simple to complex.

Social justice curriculum is grounded in students’ lives. Yet what are our students’ lives? How do we know them? How can we push beyond our own unspoken norms and assumptions—for me, white and middle-class—to see and listen and learn and create space to understand the lives of students?

My visit to Juan’s home in the migrant work camp was one facet of an effort to better understand his life. In the classroom, students shared their lives in many ways: writing journals, narratives, and poetry; making personal connections to literature and class content; interviewing and surveying family members; choosing research projects that they were passionate about. Yet home visits expanded my perspective in new ways. Home visits invited me to ask and wonder instead of label and assume. I didn’t invent home visits, but they did transform my perspectives and my teaching.

First, I Hesitated

The process that led me to home visits was a gradual one. I sensed that on the other side of the bus ride home, students’ lives were much richer and more varied than could be taken into account by classroom conversations, curriculum, and conferences. As I talked with colleagues about the possibilities of home visits, my interest grew. But I also hesitated. There is a long history of dominant culture institutions intruding on the privacy and lives of people who are part of nondominant groups. I did not want families to feel that my visit was an obligation.

I had lots of questions: Would it be appropriate to invite myself to a student’s home? Would families be uncomfortable? Would I be uncomfortable? How would I structure the visit? Would families feel obligated to prepare food or clean the house? Could I find time for visits at the beginning of an already busy school year?

I topped off my hesitations with some carefully constructed rationalizations: I lived in the largely Latina/o community where I taught; I had a sense of the apartment complexes, streets, and neighborhoods that my students’ families called home; I saw students crossing streets with siblings, buying ice cream from a bicycle vendor, checking out library books at the public library, and jumping into the local pool. I told myself I knew my students’ lives.

And, besides, 25 homes is a lot of visits.

“I am definitely doing home visits,” my good friend and colleague Jillian Perez informed me. Did she not understand all the complications? Where would she—a first-year bilingual kindergarten teacher—find the time? As we talked about logistics and the potential of home visits, however, I realized that the best way forward was to begin—with more questions than answers, and a willingness to learn.

Then, I Leapt

And learn I did. While conversing on couches, at kitchen tables, soccer game sidelines, and front porches, I learned how much I still had to learn.

I learned that Jesús and Ale had been next-door neighbors their whole lives. I learned that Alberto’s family spoke Tarasco, an indigenous language of the Michoacán region of Mexico—which I hadn’t realized, despite teaching two of his older brothers in previous years. I learned that quiet José was the responsible oldest of five, and that Carolina’s family was thinking about moving back to Mexico. I learned that Alejandra was affectionately known as Ale, Miguel went by Junior, and Fernando was called Nando. I met babies and sisters and grandparents and pet birds. I learned that Diego’s mom was too sick to work, Antonio’s yard was full of trees, Erica’s family had a garden, and Luis’ mom spoke a secret language.

Now, more than ever, family involvement at schools is typically driven by school agendas. Whether families come to school for a game night, a young authors celebration, or 10-minute conference slots, school-based family interactions are filled with agendas, information, and activities. My hope was that home visits would create space to listen.

Although I often carried public library card applications, extra reading material, or an overdue permission slip to home visits, listening was my priority. I remember Erick’s dad standing on the front porch, asking, “Do you have any questions to ask me?” When I assured him that my purpose was to introduce myself and learn more about his hopes for his son, the conversation opened up. I learned that Erick was expected to clean his own room, and that his dad was concerned that Erick was getting into trouble with neighborhood friends. When I got to school the next day, Erick, who had been at his grandmother’s the evening before, immediately asked: “Did you meet my cats?”

In my bilingual classroom, 80 to 90 percent of my students were native Spanish speakers. Their families sometimes had roots in parts of Mexico where indigenous Mixtec and Zapotec languages were spoken, so I often asked the question: Do you speak other languages?

The language question became pivotal as it turned parents into experts and me into learner. As I struggled, my students and their parents guided and scaffolded my learning, re-pronouncing sounds and syllables until I could somewhat successfully produce a word or phrase in Amuzgo, Tarasco, or Trique. I asked parents and students to teach me at least a few words or phrases, and wrote down as much as I could.

At the end of the visit, I’d often reference the paper in my hand, and attempt a “thank you.” I kept the scraps of paper with the phonetic phrases and translations on them, and then occasionally used them during classroom transitions with students (explaining the language and translation) and again with families at conferences.

As I learned more about the linguistic diversity of my students, I changed the way I discussed bilingualism in the classroom. In monolingual classrooms, English becomes the measure of language progress, with no credit or recognition given to students for fluency in other languages. In the same way, Spanish and English acquisition had become the definitions of bilingual in my teaching. By defining bilingual as Spanish and English, I’d inadvertently missed the opportunity to recognize parents—many of whom spoke little English—as bilingual. When I failed to recognize the indigenous languages spoken by students’ families in my class discussions about being bilingual, I unintentionally diminished their value.

Through the discussions about language during home visits, I began to understand the cognitive complexity involved as students like Juan wove their way through the world in three languages. I hoped that by naming, using, wondering about, and valuing indigenous languages, I was empowering students to respect the knowledge of their families and the communities around them. We spent more time discussing language, talking about the benefits of being bilingual and speaking other languages, the occasions and situations when we use one or another language. By occasionally asking, “How do you say that in Trique?” I offered Juan the power that comes with being an expert, being a teacher. I was reminding him that he was smart, that he was lucky, that he could learn, that indigenous languages—and the people who speak them—are of great value. And I was reminding myself how little I really knew.

Making Connections

As I learned more about student lives, I also found myself searching for ways to shake the invisible lines that snaked through our community. Visiting the various apartment complexes and neighborhoods, I started to sense the subcultures within them and the lines between them. Students socialized with family and neighbors who were often of similar socioeconomic, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds. I sensed that the experience I was having—the intimate experience of visiting in homes—was not one my students were regularly experiencing outside of their own neighborhoods.

Home visits made me even more aware of the need to provide opportunities for students to learn about each other’s lives in the classroom. Although I wanted to honor students’ affinity groups, I also wanted the classroom to prompt students to step outside of social comfort zones. I became more intentional about student grouping: assigning partners, groups, and reasons for students to interact more often than I had in the past. Writing—and sharing—our lives through poetry, narratives, and essays became even more central to our classroom curriculum.

By far, the most powerful outcome of home visits was trust. Meeting parents at their homes instead of on school turf seemed to create a willingness to call, visit, and communicate during the school year. Ana Maria’s mom came to teach the class how she designs and embroiders a huipil; David’s mom came to reading workshop to work one-on-one with students. And there was something almost magical about being able to exchange a meaningful look with a student and refer to home visits—Ale’s pet care responsibilities or Jesús’ homework routine—in the middle of teaching.

Over and over I heard students proudly announcing, “She’s coming to my house tomorrow.” Parents remarked: “We’ve never had a teacher come visit before. Thank you.”

When I think I’m done learning, that I have a good enough label or assumption to work with, I stop asking questions. Home visits taught me that, although students may live in the same apartment complex or neighborhood, and may share a demographic like Latina/o or working class or native English speaker, their individual lives are incredibly complex and nuanced. Home visits taught me humility. They taught me to wonder.

Home Visit Logistics

My approach to home visits is just one of many. Here are a few ideas that helped me manage logistics:

  • Printing out a calendar for the month of September allowed me to note possible home visit slots one or two days each week. By preselecting the days and time slots, I could balance home visits with other responsibilities and commitments.
  • There are always a few parents who drop their students off on the first day of school. As I met parents in the classroom or during open house at the beginning of the school year, I took a moment to share the home visit calendar. If they were willing, I asked them to sign up for a time.
  • I printed out a list of addresses for the class so I could code home visit groups (i.e., all students who lived in a particular neighborhood or apartment complex). Once I had a parent sign up, I’d send notes home to the others who lived in close proximity to try to schedule a visit for the same evening.
  • When I scheduled home visits for parents I did not see at school, I sent a note home suggesting times that fit with nearby home visits. (I always asked the student what time parents got home from work.) The note stated that the visit would last 10–15 minutes, and that the family did not need to cook, clean, or prepare anything for the home visit.
  • If visits were hard to schedule, I’d make a few attempts to contact parents by note or phone call. Sometimes I’d see parents at a soccer game or schedule a home visit at a parent conference.

Elizabeth Schlessman (elizabeth.schlessman@gmail.com) is a doctoral student in educational equity and cultural diversity at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She taught 4th and 5th grade in a Spanish dual language immersion classroom in Woodburn, Oregon, for five years. All student names have been changed.

Illustrator Bec Young’s print work can be found at justseeds.org.