Interweaving Culture with Academics

Adriana's Family Reading

It is interesting to see before ones eyes the unraveling of enthusiasm, motivation and hard work students will put forth, develop, and act on -when work has a rewarding and cultural connection to them and their families.  An inspired idea was given at an art café that interwove culture and family, which then created a closer community.  Students gain and learn more out of work that provides deeper meaning than a bland objective that gets the job done.

There is no doubt that teachers put in long hours.  At times, teachers work outside the schools walls.  That is exactly what was occurring when inspiration was kindled.  Looking up at the art in an art café, I thought, ‘My students art should be on these walls!’ The idea initially was to demonstrate to students that their work is worth noting to the extent of public recognition and motivate their academic minds to give it their all.  The idea burgeoned into a beautiful cultural, family, and community building event.
The students project was to interview a family member in order to write a biography for their informational text unit.  There were several steps and lessons involved in order to teach this to a fourth grade immersion class, however the “how to” of the unit is not the objective here but rather the importance of students’ growth and enthusiasm in academics as well as the unity of community that resulted.

At the end of the unit there were varying degrees of accomplishment.  Can I be honest here?  There were some that I wanted to display right away, others that I felt like perhaps I didn’t meet the needs of the new comer students as the work was not reflected, and others were not putting forth the needed effort to complete work.  The papers were graded and the unit had past.  In order to enhance learning on the elements of this unit, I used any spare moment in class for them to work on this writing  and for one week assigned the writing for homework as an opportunity to reinforce skills and get parental support, and involvement.  Different life and academic experiences allow some parents to be more able to assist their child with homework and some felt they could not, but would encourage their child to do their work and try to complete it.

Once students saw the new art materials brought from Pearl Art Store (in San Francisco), they were amazed the -oohs- and -ahhs- were heard as they were shown the special art paper for markers as well as the brand new markers (from Target).  Students absolutely loved expressing the gratitude and love they had for their chosen family member in the art -and art itself is a cultural element- that is appreciated within the cultures represented in the demographics of the class.  Students worked with care, love, enthusiasm and delight when they knew that this art piece, that went with their informational text biography, would be displayed in Mamá Art Cafe in the Excelsior district of San Francisco!  As one social worker at the school stated -“It’s not everyday that your work is displayed at an art café!”

Abner Proud Parent Pic

Proud father next to his son and his son’s art work (upper middle drawing).

Students had a deadline to meet. Student motivation to get their work done had greatly increased by 98% of the students, many began to show up after school requesting that they could work on the writing piece.  The week of the deadline (a Friday) there were 7 students that would constantly show up to complete their work -including students with behavioral challenges, lack of motivation, and english language barriers (ELL).  They were so eager to finish for reasons such as honoring their chosen family member, getting their art work displayed, grade purposes, and not being the only one to not complete the assignment!  It was amazing to see students with behavioral challenges accomplishing the work as if, they were a little man hard at work.  It puts a smile to my face.

On what I like to term D -Day, short for deadline day, students were working hard after school and I extended my departure time 2 hours later to give students more time, when their parents arrived to pick them up.  Parents were well aware of the project and saw with what enthusiasm students were working.  Parents also delayed their plans in order to give their child the time they needed to reach D- Day.  As a result, 98% of the students completed their work with all of the requirements on their informational text checklist.

I then created flyers with the theme Honoring Our Family -People in Your Community!  These flyers were texted and sent in hard copy to parents.  The students were very excited about the biography and art exhibit that was on display for 2 weeks at Mamá Art Cafe in the Excelsior district of San Francisco.  I had hoped that the event would be a time to gather for families to get to know each other, for bonding to occur outside the school walls but that would impact classroom community, and a time to bond individually over some Mexican hot chocolate and pastries.  Sure enough -that is exactly what happened!  Parents were able to sit and chat with the parents of their child’s best friend (whom they had gone to church with but never really spoken to), students were able to meet their friends’ siblings, cousins, uncles, and grandparents that were invited as the star of the biography and portraits.  It was a very warm and inviting atmosphere that was captured in photography by my mother, Laura Alvarez,  and the parents of the students.  Yes, my families were able to meet my parents and daughter.  This added to the closeness as it is not everyday you get to meet the family of your teacher.  It was a family event and it would not have been complete without the attendance of my own loved ones.

Two student volunteers read their biographies at the event, and all of the parents clapped and cheered for the students!  The students biographies were displayed and parents and students  went around to read them and see everyone’s work.  Afterward, the mingling and marble games slowly trickled away as people started heading home and we closed up the night with parents expressing how wonderful this event and assignment was for their child.

Alan Reading

Student proudly volunteers to read about the life of his uncle -an important person in his life.

Having students work displayed and appreciated moves students to want to do their best work.  Incorporating student work with culture and family enhances the motivational outcome of the work and makes it more rewarding for students to participate and truly burgeon.  Incorporating families in the work and inviting them to be present in the work helps students feel like the work they do matters both at home and in school.  Taking the school community outside of school walls helps foster a sense of deeper community involvement and allows for students to really get to know each other’s families.

Hightlight Group Photo

Fostering community through interweaving family and friends outside of school walls in an academic activity that parents were invited to support.

This event combined academics, student choice, art, family, and community collaboration that would not be possible without the sponsoring venue Mamá Art Cafe.

mama art

Students returning with thank you cards for Paulo one of the owners of Mamá Art Café.

Students wrote a reflection of their experience where they stated:

In my opinion, the art was amazing! One reason is it was very creative like Vincent van Gogh… In my opinion, I think people liked our biographies…Everything was amazing!…They let us hang up our art so that everybody can see it and I liked that.

– Sebastain

I was happy when my grandfather came to see the book I made for him!…I felt happy to read a book I made of him and let him know he is important to me.  When I read the book to him I felt like it was the best day of my life and I will never forget it -never.  After I read my book to him I saw my grandpa smile and he was very happy. 


…lots of people were taking pictures with my teacher, friends, and my family.  There were lots of peoples’ art over there and I liked seeing them it was one of the best days ever!…  

I was so happy seeing my art, it was so cool seeing it!  It was the most hardest work I’ve ever done.  It took me like two months to do it and it was so worth it and I got happy that people were seeing my work!…  

My art and the other kids art was so cool!  Everyone was looking at it on the walls and I was like so happy I wanted to cry because it was so amazing!…  

I really had a blast over there at Mamá Art Cafe! I really want to go there again to drink some hot chocolate and to eat some food.  Mamá Art Cafe is the best cafe ever in the world!


What are ways you invite cultural elements into academics or your work?


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