Episode 223 – Multicultural classrooms are quickly becoming the norm across North America. In this episode, we chat with K’Sandra Earle, Associate Director of Early Learning Neighbourhood Collective (ELNC), about how to be intentional about diversity in our early learning classrooms. She shares tips on empowering teachers and involving parents to create a space that celebrates young children and their unique cultural backgrounds.
And I think the key is just being intentional about those practices. So much happens throughout the day for a teacher. We want to make sure that teachers are beginning to know about those interactions they have with children to increase those language and literacy experiences for children.
K’Sandra, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you so much! Thank you for having me.
It’s our pleasure to have you, K’Sandra. Our guests will be delighted to hear more from you today. Everybody, we have on our show K’Sandra Earle. She’s associate director at Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative.
And K’Sandra, we’re looking forward to talking to you today about culturally and linguistically responsive practices to support emerging bilingual learners. Excited to talk to you about this. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you and how you ended up doing this important work.
Well, I am originally from the state of Texas – I am a Texan. And I’m moved to Grand Rapids [Michigan] probably about fifteen years ago. In Texas, I was a teacher. I was a teacher for the Houston Independent School District and I taught second and third grade. I taught for about six years.
And then my family moved to Grand Rapids. Like I said, we’ve been here for 15 years. I was a stay at home mom for six years. And then I became the childcare center director at Baxter Community Center, which is one of our community-based agencies in Grand Rapids.
From there I went to the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative [ELNC] and I’ve been there for about seven years. I started as a volunteer, actually, with ELNC as one of our organize volunteers. And it has been a wonderful ride. We have seen so much growth, not only in our community but families and the children of our community.
So, this work is so important and vital. And I’m just so grateful to be a part of the early learning and education of young children and families in our community.
And tell us what Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative is all about and what you’re doing there.
So, Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative is a group, it’s a collaborative. We have community partners who are community-based institutions. They are institutions of trust in our neighborhood. And about ten years ago, we got together with this group to determine, how can we make them most collective path in our community?
And our group determined that it would be through early-childhood education. These programs were already doing the work of families but they were not necessarily doing the work of early-childhood [education]. So, what we do here in a lot of these programs is to help them reimagine themselves.
So, for instance, we have a partner, SECOM. And so SECOM is traditionally a food pantry. They have been able to serve families who are experiencing food insecurity. And what they did, they had a classroom. – well, they had a room that was available to be used throughout the day. But there were no children in the room. So, what we did was, we revamped that classroom, revamped that space and opened a classroom.
So, we have about 35 classrooms that we operate. We serve children from the ages of birth to four years old. And we operate 11 Early Head Start classrooms, as well as a three-year-old classroom, that are funded through W.K. Kellogg [Foundation]. And we also have 11 classrooms that are funded through Great Start Readiness programs – that’s our state-funded program in the state of Michigan.
So we are 10 years old. And our agents provide the technical assistance to be able to support our partners as they develop, as they deliver quality early-childhood experiences for young children and families.
Very cool. And how do the programs support immersion bilingual children in their families? Because that’s one of the things we wanted to talk about today. How does that weave into what you’re doing at Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative?
Right, great question. One of the things we noticed… we’ve been operating for 10 years, so we’ve learned a lot of lessons. But as we have been growing, the demographics of our early learning programs and our partners’ programs have shifted and have changed.
So, last year we had about 29% of our children were emerging bilingual children, meaning that they came to our programs where English was not their home language. And our program is not an anomaly. This is happening across the country. More children are entering programs, early childhood programs, and English is not the first language; it’s not their home language.
So, we wanted to create experiences for these children and their families to be supported, to also be able to maintain and hold on and actually retain their home language while acquiring the English language. And so our team noticed that we operate an Early Head Start program as well. And so, planning language approached that as one of the hallmarks of the HS program, the Head Start program.
So, we really wanted to have a more intentional and focused way to support our emerging model children and families. So, really this work started about last year, 2019, where we developed a plan. And then when COVID  hit, we had to make some shifts in our plans.
While our fights were… I’ll say, hunkered down. While we were hunkered down, we were really able to build and create some goals for our plans. And so figuring out when our program started back to open in July, at the end of the summer, we had planned language approach plans we are going to implement for this school year.
Cool. Can you tell us a little bit more about what those are all about?
So, we really we have three major goals. Our first goal is able to enhance all of our staff’s level of culturally responsive practices. Because a lot of times we know that there can be sometimes a disconnect between what we do in theory and what we do in practice. So, we want us to be able to have that level of training for our staff.
We also want to make sure that we are able to honor and protect our individual families’ cultural values through our systems and our services. And then we wanted to be sure we have high-quality language and literacy experiences every day for children.
And not only emerging bilingual children, but all children. That’s the great thing. We focus and are intentional on lifting up those groups that are marginalized, also for all children within the program. So, we are really excited about what this means not only for our emerging bilingual children but for all of our children to be successful and be ready to go to school as they leave our programming.
And could you talk a little bit more about that? So, how your response to emergent bilingual children helps support all the children in the classroom and how those children that maybe English is their first language are also benefiting?
Right. Some of the things we’ve been wanting to be sure over was that we an important language and literacy risk experience is for children. We know when we are intentional about these experiences, we tell children to move forward. We ensure they are prepared for leading which also ensures that they are prepared for life.
So, these experiences, we focus on having how we support teachers with alphabet knowledge and early writing. We wanted to make sure that we provide having children expand on basic knowledge, just knowledge and pre-concepts.
Also, oral language is very important. And so we want to be sure that children are also hearing their home language in the classroom, which may be a little difficult. I’ll be very honest: we have some children who speak Swahili; we have some children who speak French, Spanish, Kinyarwanda. And so we have a lot of languages.
One of the great things we are really intentional [about] is about hiring teachers that speak the language of the children. So, we also have staff that reflect that same language. So, children do hear that language. They hear their native language in the classroom throughout the day.
But also, we are working to ensure that we have the parents’ voices also in the classroom. So, giving families – especially with COVID-19 – we have different parameters we can navigate around for making sure that families are still able to record family stories and that children are able to hear those family stories in the classroom.
So, that language-rich and that literacy-rich environment not only helps those emergent bilingual children, but it also helps those English-speaking children, as well. And I think the key is just the intent, being intentional about those practices.
So much happens throughout the day for a teacher. You have to get lunch; you have to make sure you have large group times, small group times, transitions and the daily routines. And then the lesson plans. We want to make sure that the teachers are being intentional about those interactions that they have with children to increase those language and literacy experiences for children.
And if we take that right down to that interaction, what does that look like, as a teacher? Because you mention there’s lots of different languages that you’re seeing in your programs. And, of course, the teachers aren’t going to know all of these languages. So, how can they be intentional about those interactions?
So, making sure that… take story time, for instance. Making sure that we introduce stories from different cultural backgrounds, different experiences. Also, bringing and children’s own background knowledge and experiences into small groups, into large groups. Sometimes it’s hard for children to be able to connect because their prior knowledge is not ignited. So, making sure that teachers have space for that, that children can bring in their prior knowledge and so that they can be a part of the conversation.
And can you talk a little bit more about what role culture plays in being linguistically responsive? I know you’ve mentioned not a couple of times.
So, culture is who we are. It’s all a part of who we are as people, as students, as families. And so I always tell teachers, we have to be students of children for their families. And we all know, research tells us in order for children to learn, they have to be comfortable. They have to feel that they belong; they have to feel they belong in that space.
And so really being intentional, even starting with the learning environment, making sure that the learning environment is one in which children see themselves and see their families. So, when you go into our classrooms, you’ll see pictures of children and their families. You’ll also see different… like in the dramatic play areas, we have a program that the majority of the families there are of Hispanic descent. So, you’ll see black cultural context in those dramatic plays in that dramatic play center.
Making sure that children see that they are reflected in their environment. Also making sure that they are able to see their home language written. You will see in some of our classrooms’ home languages, English may be in black. So, everything is labeled in a preschool classroom. So, English is labeled in black. You have Spanish labeled in red. You have Kinyarwandan in blue. So, making sure that they can see their colour, who they are reflected in the classroom.
And also we’re talking about being linguistically responsible, making sure that a home language is honored. A lot of times I think families may feel as if we want their children to speak English and only English. But there’s so much that still can be gained from being multi-linguistic. I mean, just the brain activity, just the cognitive benefits that a bilingual child has are enormous, amazing.
So, we want families to be comfortable and confident that, hey, we want to support your home language as well. And not only support your home language, but we want that child to grow in their home language because we all know with the home language there are connections; there are family ties; there is your culture tied into that as well.
One of the things we noticed in one of our programs that serves predominately refugee populations, families that have refugee background, that we have during lunch… the children were eating lunch and it was, like, chicken nuggets – you know, healthy food. But they were having an Americanized lunch, I will say that. And so when they went home, they were not eating the foods that their families prepared.
And so parents were like, “Wait a minute, I am preparing food for my family’s culture.” And I specialize in African-American culture. We show love by making food. When you sit down with your family and have dinner, that is an expression of love.
And so for our families at one center, they felt like their children were not able, were not eating their cultural food. So, what we did was to work with our contractor, with the company that provides meal service, and was really looking at, how do we bring, how do we infuse these cultural dishes into the meals that children are served?
And so as we start into our next program, this program year, we will have parent representatives who are working with our contracted meal service provider to be able to provide culturally-based foods for programs. So, not only will those emergent bilingual children be the beneficiary of that, but also all children. All children will be exposed to foods of different cultures. So, just making sure that in each area of programing that we are responsive to the cultural needs of families.
That was actually a really great example because you’re being very intentional, which is a word you’ve used a lot, with the food, even. And also so collaborative with the families and asking them about that. And then also getting their input on the meals and the food that’s being served, which is things that you might not think about doing if you’re not being very intentional about this piece around culture and linguistics. So, I think it’s a perfect example.
We’re running at a time, K’Sandra. Anything you would leave as parting thoughts with our listeners here today?
As early childhood providers, we have a wonderful opportunity to be able to grow and to know young children and families. And one way that we do that is through intentionality, being sure that every child, no matter what background, no matter their family’s background, each child feels as if they belong in a classroom.
That is the best feeling in the world; that is the best thing we can do as educators, is to give children space where they feel they belong. And that’s very important for families and children who have felt or who have been marginalized. So, one way that we can break down these systems is be sure that we give them a space to learn, to grow in a space where they belong and feel valued.
Awesome, that’s it. And as you were saying that I was kind of thinking to myself, even if you think back to when you were a child, that’s when you felt special in the classroom, you felt like you belonged and your teachers were paying attention to you, really. Very cool.
And if our listeners want to learn more about your work at Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative, where can they go to get more information?
You can get more information, we’re on the web at www.ELNCGR.org. We’re also on Facebook at the same name and Twitter. We also have a LinkedIn page. And the great thing is, our work is … based in Grand Rapids but also opening another branch in Battle Creek, Michigan. So, we are growing; our work is growing. And we are so excited that we are able to impact children and families.
Awesome. Thanks for all the amazing work you’re doing, K’Sandra. And thanks for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today!
Thank you so much, Ron, I appreciate it!