How Honoring Cultural Heritage Transforms District Environment

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Written by Courtney Carmichael

Know your audience might be an often-used tip for writers but it aptly applies for teaching ELLs. A tenet for teaching with students from other countries is to celebrate what makes them special. Recognizing customs or cultural identity honors the students and creates a welcoming environment for learning. Family involvement is a key component in honoring traditions and acknowledging heritage.

Parent Involvement is Key to District’s Success

While many languages are represented in my district, the primary ESL group and immigrant cultural background is Korean. About 40% of the district is either Korean speaking or first-generation Korean-American. To be successful, we have instituted at least two practices that have shaped the district’s educational landscape.

Greater Power in Numbers

The first practice is to have a strong network of parents to be part of the school climate. The Korean parents have formed a group within the parent home association. They meet semi-regularly under the auspices of the Parent Teacher Organization and sponsor a couple of activities during the year. The parents who belong help new families navigate school registration and acclimation to the area. Many parents serve as unofficial translators for newcomers. As we know, strong parent involvement in school life is shown to be a key indicator for academic success.

Many Korean parents participate in Families as Reading Partners. It is a school wide event held in each grade for the entire student body. Organized by the ESL teachers, a few non-English speaking parents read stories in school during FARP days to honor the language and culture. Parents come into the elementary school to read in their native language a few times per year. This practice acknowledges the importance of their heritage and reinforces reading aloud to build on literacy skills.

Without the Korean parent group new immigrants might feel marginalized but, overall, the parent group unofficially serves as a voice to the district for policies and practice. In consequence to parent involvement, several Korean-speaking members of the board have been elected over the years to help shape district policy.

Parents Sponsor School Events

The second strategy that is in place in the district is for parents to support educational opportunities that goes beyond classroom practice. The Korean parents sponsor two assemblies each year. The first event is for Veterans Day. The parents bring in food for the guest veterans, some who served in the Korean War. The gesture by the Korean parents fosters good will between the service members of the area and an immigrant group recently moved to the area.

The largest event sponsored by the Korean parents is Lunar New Year. In addition, other Asian students attend the district and celebrate the winter holiday. The Korean parents host the annual event which includes songs sung by the chorus and performed by the orchestra, costumes for the participants, video documentary created by students, and games and other activities for all of the student body. Some students are featured as dancers and musicians. Each school participates and a different country is recognized on a rotating basis. For example, last year the students learned about Vietnam, while the year before was about China. All teachers participate by getting dressed up in traditional hanbok, or Korean clothing.  A few have worn ao dai, Vietnamese traditional dress, or even Mongolian deel. The assembly is one of the highlights of the year in our schools.

Support By the Administration and Staff

In order to have the parents feel like they can have a prominent place in the customs of the school district, structural supports are in place to garner a collaborative culture. Frequent communication with the parents and staff is very important to successful celebrations. Documents that are easily translated into the home language is essential. In order for the parents to sponsor student activities, teachers, principals and the superintendent all have to be part of the process. They all must be open minded to having parents be active with student learning in the school not just at home. Parents need to feel like they have the political capital to be involved with their students education. By honoring cultural traditions, such as favorite books, current events, songs, and games that are shared with all, families feel connected to the schools. In general, parent participation is essential to a thriving district and helps support a friendly culture of learning.


Courtney Carmichael, Ed.D. is a 2017 Emerging Leader and earned her doctorate in education from Seton Hall University in educational policy. She previously taught English Language Learners in American Schools to pre-service teachers at Kean University. Currently, she is the Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction for Closter Public Schools in New Jersey. Connect with Courtney on Twitter @Court1224.

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