Educating Children of Migrant Families

 
 

A while back, I had the opportunity to watch the PBS documentary, Class of '27. It is a beautiful documentary that details early educators working with children in unique circumstances and highlighting the importance of education in the lives of these children. I highly recommend watching the documentary, and I've linked to the video below. After watching the documentary I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Maria Mottaghian and Aimee Brown from the Oregon Child Development Coalition who were featured in the segment of the documentary called Fields of Promise. They generously shared their expertise in working with migrant families and children. I had some trouble with the audio, so I wrote out a full transcription of the interview--what they had to say was just that good! 

Lyndsey: Would you like to introduce yourselves first? I think that’s a good place to start.

Maria: Ok. Hi Lyndsey, my name is Maria Mottaghian and I’m the program director for Oregon Child Development Coalition here in the county of Multnomah. We’re located in Gresham, Oregon. And with me... I’ll let her introduce herself.

Aimee: Hi, my name is Aimee Brown. I am a preschool teacher with Oregon Child Development Coalition. I’ve been with this agency for about 5 years.

Lyndsey: I learned about you by watching you on the documentary about how you’re working with families there. It’s called Class of ’27, right?

Maria: That’s right. The particular segment that was done here in our location is the Fields of Promise; it’s based on the Latino migrant families. We had the pleasure of being selected. The program was filmed about 2 years ago and we had the documentary film maker meet us in California while we doing recruitment; letting the families know about our services, and then from there she let families know that we were interested in a family who was migrating here and would like to participate in the documentary. So it was all very exciting to us.

Lyndsey: It was and I’ve been sharing it with a lot of people because I was very moved by watching what you’re doing for these families and moved by the families themselves and what they want for themselves and for their children. It was very inspiring to me.

Maria: Yeah. I think that’s one of the reasons that many of us work here at Oregon Child Development Coalition because it gives us an opportunity to see the impact that Head Start has on children and their families. It’s awe inspiring.

Lyndsey: Can you talk a little bit about the background of the families that you’re working with there? 

Maria: Sure. I can tell you that the majority of the migrant families that are served by Oregon Child Development Coalition come to us from the central valley of California, which means that, for them, California is their home base. That’s where they live and work for all of the months, except for the three months that they’re with us. They come to Oregon to pick from a multitude of berry crops that we have and they come here during the months of June, July, and August. Our migrant program is a very high impact program and we’re serving children 6 weeks to 5 years of age. So it’s not uncommon for us to see the same children year after year. We bus the children for our program which operates from 5:30 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, 5 days a week, and the families live mostly in 3 of our labor camps that are located near the Center. The families themselves are primarily Latino. The families come from Mexico, the state of Oaxaca primarily, which means that they are an indigenous group of people born in Mexico, but Spanish is not their first language, they speak a dialect called Mixteco. So Mixteco is their first language, Spanish is their second, and many of them are learning English as a third language. And for the children, they are the first generation American.

Lyndsey: What’s that language called again?

Maria: It’s called Mixteco. 

Lyndsey: Okay. I’ve never heard of that. 

Maria: Yes. It sounds nothing like Spanish. It’s found in an indigenous group of people called Oaxacan and they are from the state of Oaxaca.

Lyndsey: Does anyone in your program speak that language?

Maria: Yes. We are very fortunate that we have staff who actually are able to speak that dialect, and they are a great asset to our program in that not only can they help us do the recruiting and talking to the families about our program, they can help us with enrollment and, of course, we utilize them in the classroom, so that the children can hear their first language as well.

Lyndsey: That’s really fortunate. That must be a real blessing to have.

Maria: It is! Many of the folks that we have here who speak Mixteco are former parents who have now been working for us as employees, and that’s just part of the spirit of Head Start in that we always encourage parents to consider working for us as employees themselves.

Lyndsey: Can you talk about some of the challenges that your students are facing that you think all teachers with migrant children should be aware of as they are working with them?

Aimee: Well sure. One of the things that we know is migrant families experience a unique lifestyle. They are seeing a lot of change as they move and so the children have the potential to teach them about flexibility and teach them about resilience, but we also know it can lead to a lot of stress. Sometimes our students come in and they’ve never left their parents before; they’ve never left their other family members before and this is their first time being separated from them and that’s pretty stressful for a child. On top of that, this is oftentimes their first experience in a school or in any kind of classroom setting, so they’re probably feeling pretty out of their element. For us, we know that relationship building with these students is particularly important, because they won’t be able to focus their learning on areas like math and literacy until they can feel safe and secure; like they know their teachers and they know the other children in the classroom. In our case, we are only seeing them for nine weeks. That’s a really short amount of time, and, like Maria said, it’s high impact. We’re trying to put a lot into those nine weeks. For teachers, it can feel like you haven’t really helped them or you aren’t even teaching, but we have the opportunity to see certain families, like Maria said, year after year they’re returning. We’re seeing the children grow from 6 weeks until they go to kindergarten and even after. So it’s a great feeling to look at a child and say, you know, they did learn something from me, because they remember that routine from last year, they remember how to sing a certain song that we sang or they’re more engaged in circle time than other kids who are coming in and are new. So we do see the impact and we know it is beneficial for them.

For us, we know that relationship building with these students is particularly important, because they won’t be able to focus their learning on areas like math and literacy until they can feel safe and secure; like they know their teachers and they know the other children in the classroom.

Lyndsey: That must be so nice, because I know in my experience when I had migrant students who would come in and be there for such a short time. I would feel, when they left, did I even make a difference for them? So it must be so nice that you get to see them every year and see the growth.

Maria: It is exciting! We are always very excited to see them when they come in the summer. We’re also very sad to see them go leave in August, but we always know that they might be returning to us the following year, and they do, and the children, of course, have grown, and some of them remember us and it’s a very unique experience working with these migrant families.

Lyndsey: Are there any barriers to the education of these children that we can help them overcome as we’re working with them in our classrooms?

Maria: Did you say children or families? I’m sorry.

Lyndsey: Well, both. What are the barriers that they’re facing that we can help them with?

Maria: Do you want to talk about the children Aimee and I’ll cover the parents?

Aimee: Sure. Well a lot of the time what we see, kind of with children, but it comes from their families too, is we know the families understand how important education is for their child. They know that. Sometimes though, the parents need a little bit of guidance on what they can do at home or how they can promote their child’s learning at home and that’s where we can really help them. We are trying to give the children ideas of what kind of opportunities education can open up for them: what kind of careers, or different paths in life, they can look for that education can help them succeed in. So when we find a child who particularly excels in an area, or has a particular interest, a strong interest, in an area, we’re trying to promote that in the classroom, while sharing it with the parents at home, maybe giving them ideas on activities they can do at home that would help the child focus in on what they might naturally be gifted at.

Well a lot of the time what we see, kind of with children, but it comes from their families too, is we know the families understand how important education is for their child. They know that. Sometimes though, the parents need a little bit of guidance on what they can do at home or how they can promote their child’s learning at home and that’s where we can really help them.

Maria: Yeah. Many times for us here in the summer program we see that the families have very little resources out in the farm labor camp where they live. Theres no books. Theres no paper. Theres no crayons or pencils. There no playground for these children, and so the teachers use all these resources that we have here available here at the center, and I think Aimee can probably talk about some of the things that when the teachers go out on home visits they take these things to the families so that they can do activities with the children.

Aimee: Yeah. We’ve taken before, of course, writing utensils and paper, like Maria mentioned. I’ve taken goal charts for children and explained to a parent how that works: if you’re trying to motivate your child to do something. We kind of demonstrate, you know, giving them a sticker (or something like that) and then at the end they get a reward. Kind of like a reward system. A lot of times that’s the kind of guidance parents are looking for. We definitely take them books. We take small games that they can play together. We’re teaching the kids who are going to kindergarten how to so tic tac toe; little recreational things that we can do that are going to help them pass time recreationally with their parents.

Maria: At the end of the summer we usually have a celebration. It’s our way of saying, “Come and join us for a party, where we’re going to thank you for letting us have your children for the summer and we wish you well as you travel back to California.” And we get a very good response during that time. We also have people from the community. For example, the library comes and they give books out to the kids, and the children and the parents are so happy to receive those free books, and I can give you a story if there’s time, about one of our teachers going out to a home visit and when she got there she went into the room where the mother and the child slept, and there on the bed was the mother (who couldn’t read and write) and there was her preschool child reading the book to the mother, and that one little book that the library gave to that child made such a difference. That’s a beautiful interaction between parent and child and that’s what we try to promote here at OCDC.

[T]he library comes and they give books out to the kids, and the children and the parents are so happy to receive those free books, and I can give you a story if there’s time, about one of our teachers going out to a home visit and when she got there she went into the room where the mother and the child slept, and there on the bed was the mother (who couldn’t read and write) and there was her preschool child reading the book to the mother, and that one little book that the library gave to that child made such a difference.

Lyndsey: That’s beautiful. You’re making me cry Maria, don’t do that!

Maria: I think you’re probably feeling some of the things we feel throughout the summer. When we talk about education and migrant families, being a migrant child myself, and I’ve now been in Head Start for over 40 years, I can tell you that there’s been the misconception that migrant families don’t care about the education of their children because many families in the past were forced to take their children out of school in order to travel to another state or another area to work in the fields, and so teachers were always very disappointed to see the children being taken out school, and so they thought, “Well, these parents don’t care about education”. We know, from our own experience, that parents truly, from the heart, do care about education for their children. I think that was evidenced in the segment Field of Promise when you saw the mother, when she came to tears was when she was talking about what she wanted for the children--when the father said how important it was for his children to be educated. He has a 4th grade education. Mom has a 1st grade education. That’s not what they want for their kids. That’s one of the reasons they’ve come to this country, is because of the opportunities that are available to their children, and that they know that the only way those children are going to get out of the fields is through that education. Iris is probably going to go to college, and I can’t tell you how proud that is going to make her parents.

We know, from our own experience, that parents truly, from the heart, do care about education for their children. I think that was evidenced in the segment Field of Promise when you saw the mother, when she came to tears was when she was talking about what she wanted for the children—when the father said how important it was for his children to be educated. He has a 4th grade education. Mom has a 1st grade education. That’s not what they want for their kids.

Lyndsey: I agree. I felt a lot of love from the families as I was watching the program. I felt so much love from them, and so much pride for their children and their families. It was really moving.

Maria: And the children are so proud of their parents. Iris, who also has a child who’s been our program. Iris--we were able to see the making of the documentary, so there were a lot of things that were filmed didn’t go into the actually documentary--but Iris was talking about her parents and she said that her parents are her heroes, they are her role models, because she realizes the sacrifices that her parents have made so that she can now go to Fresno State, and so I think that’s a beautiful thing that you can hear children talk about how much they admire their parents. That tells you that those parents have given a lot to their children.

Lyndsey: They have. As we are educating these kids, if we are outside of their culture, or we don’t understand their culture, is there anything that you could share that could help us connect better or make more room for the culture in our classrooms?

Maria: Well, I can only tell you what we do here at OCDC. We believe that our environment must reflect the culture of every family that comes into this building, and by doing so you are telling the parents: we value you; we welcome you; we respect you. And that is what makes parents feel comfortable coming back again and again to our facility. We have people here who speak, not only Mixteco, but Spanish and English. So there’s always someone here who can attend to the parents needs. So that would be number 1: setting up an environment that makes the children and the parents and the staff feel comfortable. It’s about quality of environment. The other thing that we highly promote and that is that teachers, family advocates, anyone who needs to make a connection with the family do a home visit. We feel that home visits are a way to connect with families, to check out the environment in which that family is living, and to better understand some of the obstacles, barriers, and the successes that are going on in the home, and Aimee, I know you’ve gone on plenty of home visits, you wanna talk about one?

Aimee: As someone who, unlike Maria, doesn’t have a background from a migrant family, I didn’t work with migrant families before coming to OCDC, the home visits are enlightening, and I would say crucial, to anyone who is unfamiliar with the background of a family. As educators, it’s really important to go and see how the families are living. You get a real sense of what they need; of where their resources need to go. It becomes clear where they need support. You’re gonna see if a child needs help because they’re potty training. If a child needs help with any type of goal. That’s going to become clear how they might be bringing their circumstances in at home or in their environment into the classroom. It’s going to help you connect to the family, and at the same time, know where the child’s coming from, and what kind of experiences they’re bringing to you every day.

Maria: I think it also promotes empathy. I think there’s nothing like finding out what a farm labor camp actually looks like. Many of our teachers have never been out to one, so the first time they go out there they find out that our families are living in extremely tight quarters, they may be sharing living space with other families that they don’t even know. There may be communal kitchens that they have to share. The sanitation facilities might not be the best. In some cases there’s a spigot for running water for drinking and washing hands. They’re not always the best conditions, and also, because it does get hot here in Oregon we find that our families are living in stifling environments where there’s no proper ventilation--certainly no air conditioning. I can tell you one summer we went out and did a home visit and we were wondering, why are the children so tired when they’re coming to school every day and the families also looked very tired. So when the parents showed us the rooms that they were sleeping in, these were rooms that had no windows, there was no way for them to sleep comfortably at night so the children were waking up crying, parents were not sleeping well either, so that was an opportunity for us. We went out and we got some fans, we brought them the fans and it made a huge difference for those families. We lent them to them. At the end of the summer they returned them to us. They were very grateful, but had we not gone out to the camp to see the environment, we may not have known about that need. And by being in their own environment the families felt comfortable in talking to us and explaining to us. So, again, I think that home visits are invaluable and sometimes you don’t even have to speak the language of the family. It’s the smiling face, the kind face, it’s the body language that can covey a lot. It’s what we call in Spanish, well, I call it “breaking bread”: it’s where you sit down with the family and get to know them. And I can tell you, you will never go to a Latino home without them offering you a cup of coffee, a piece of bread, something. And it is through those conversations that the parents will feel comfortable with you and you [will feel comfortable] with the family because, keeping in mind, school, for many of our parents, it’s an institution. It’s not the most comfortable place to go. If we can be in the environment that is comfortable and relaxing to them, then we are making them feel respected and cared for.

It’s what we call in Spanish, well, I call it “breaking bread”: it’s where you sit down with the family and get to know them... And it is through those conversations that the parents will feel comfortable with you and you [will feel comfortable] with the family because, keeping in mind, school, for many of our parents, it’s an institution. It’s not the most comfortable place to go. If we can be in the environment that is comfortable and relaxing to them, then we are making them feel respected and cared for.

Lyndsey: I am so moved by everything you’re saying Maria.

Maria: Thank you, you know, we talked about home visits, I think the other thing that I want to encourage is parent engagement. We are always proponents of asking parents to be participants in our program. We invite parents to come and volunteer if they have a day off. We invite parents to sit in on our trainings, on our committees: to be an active part of their child’s school. We promote the belief that they are their child’s first teacher. The home is the child’s first school and that together, working with them, we can make the life of the child that much better. So, again, it’s that parent engagement. You have to draw them in. What is it that’s going to bring them into the school so that they can be an active part of their child’s school?

Aimee: And I would say for educators, all of that (parent engagement, home visits) it helps the educator from their side, looking at it from a parent’s point of view, from a parent’s perspective, because it does make it easier to see that they do care about their child’s education, when you’re going out to the homes and they’re engaging with you in a home visit and they’re asking questions you see how involved they want to be. They might not always be able to be at every training or every meeting that we have at the center, but they are definitely engaged in what their child is learning

Maria: And the parents, when we invite them to parent meetings in the evening, they’ve been working the field. They’ve gotten up at 4:00 in the morning and they don’t get back from the fields until, maybe, 5:30. We have parent meetings as 6:00 and we have parents that walk in, they haven’t had an opportunity to even go home and change, their hands are covered in stains from all of the berries that they’ve picked that day, and yet there they are sitting in a meeting, or a training or, whatever the event may be, with us for those 2 hours, knowing that they’ve got to get home and get everything ready for the next day, because the next day starts again at 4:00. So, to me, again, it’s inspiring, to see the commitment that these families have and they also come to our meetings to express their appreciation. They are very appreciative of the services that we provide, and, of course, that makes us all feel so good. 

Lyndsey: Do you have any other suggestions for educators, Aimee?

Aimee: Well, I think that the great thing about what we are able to do here at OCDC, in our position, is that we’re able to work both with the students in the classroom and with the family in their home. We’re able to provide a safe and inviting learning environment and, at the same time, share our resources with the families, whatever their needs may be. In the classroom, particularly, we focus on building social/emotional skills, which are so critical. On top of that we’re also looking at school readiness goals, for a lot of the kids who are entering kindergarten, certainly, in preschool. We recognize the importance of preparing these kids to be engaged in the classroom; to be learning next to their peers. Simple things like that that are really going to help them when they go to kindergarten. A large part of that is making sure that they are ready to communicate in English, that they’re ready to receive and express themselves in English. It’s kind of this line that we walk, and we don’t want them to loose their first language, be it Mixteco or Spanish, but, at the same time, they need to be prepared for public school so we’re doing both at the same time--a duel learning environment. Outside of the classroom we’re helping families, like we talked about before. The families are learning themselves how to promote their child’s education at home. We’re taking them activities that their child enjoys to share with the family so they can do it at home together and also taking tools that we can give to the families, demonstrating with the family how to use them to work on a particular goal that their child might need to accomplish that would help them in school. Things like course writing materials, and showing them how to practice writing their name, things like that, because, like we said before, we know the families know the importance of their child’s education, but sometimes they’re unfamiliar with what they can do as parents to help, so we want to help them feel comfortable working with their child at home. We know that this kind of support that we provide is not just preschool, this starts a lot earlier than 5 or 6 when a child is entering public school. We’re starting with 6 week olds who’ve never left mom’s side before, helping them learn how to be cared for by a different adult, which is a skill in flexibility. Our early Head Start teachers have such a tough job an such an important job so that parents can work and they know their children are safe coming to a caring environment.

Lyndsey: You are bilingual, right Aimee?

Aimee: Yes. I’m told to say yes.

Maria: Yes you are. She is. She speaks Spanish very well.

Lyndsey: Do you have any suggestions for teachers who are not bilingual but they have multilingual students in their classrooms?

Aimee: I know from experience that you can work on conversation skills without necessarily speaking the language of the student. If you have a good relationship, if you’re playing alongside, you’re building a relationship. Conversation skills are more than just the words you’re using. It’s about a back and forth exchange. It’s about waiting your turn to express something, so that doesn’t always have to be in the same language. Just making eye contact, going back and forth, or passing things, those are all the first skills that a child learns before they learn, necessarily, an actual conversation. So I would say just try. The important thing is that you are building relationships with a child, playing together, experiencing something you both enjoy, having fun together, and the child will build the relationship with you. That would be my suggestion.

Maria: I think that applies to parents as well. I think that reaching out to parents, again, like Aimee was saying, it’s the tone of voice, the facial expression, just that reaching out.  Many of our parents may not speak English very well, but they try and I think that that’s how communication comes about between a monolingual English speaker and a monolingual Spanish speaker. We also try to ensure here that we find out from a parent what is the best way to communicate with them. Is is via written messages? Is it by the phone? Is it email? Is it texting? Is it face to face? We also find out what is the first language of that child, because just because the family is speaking to us Spanish doesn’t mean that the child is going to speak Spanish, maybe they’re only practicing English with them at home or maybe they’re only speaking Mixteco. So I think as educators we always need to ask families “what’s the best way for us to communicate with you?” in order to be successful. 

Lyndsey: Do you have any other ideas, Maria, on how we can improve our connection between the school and the home that we haven’t mentioned already.

Maria: I certainly think that films like Fields of Promise help a lot for people who have never been around migrant workers, never seen what a migrant family goes through each summer. I think the more that we can tell educators about the different families that are out there, the better that they will understand and reach out to families. I believe as educators we want to do the very best by the children and by the families, but sometimes we just don’t know. So if one doesn’t know, ask. There’s always somebody out there that can tell you a story about a migrant family and about those experiences that will help an educator to better understand an walk in the path of those families. 

I think the more that we can tell educators about the different families that are out there, the better that they will understand and reach out to families. I believe as educators we want to do the very best by the children and by the families, but sometimes we just don’t know. So if one doesn’t know, ask.

Lyndsey: Thank you both so much for sharing! Like I said, I was really moved by the documentary and what you are doing and the families that you’re working with and thank you for sharing your expertise so that we can improve education for these kids everywhere they’re at.

Maria: It’s been our pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much for reaching out and wanting to know more about OCDC here in Multnomah County. It’s a pleasure to talk to you. If there’s ever anyone out there that’s listening that wants to know more about our program all they need to do is reach out to OCDC.net and someone will be there to answer any questions they might have about our services.

Lyndsey: Thank you so much. That’s going to be a great resource for people.

Aimee: Thank you Lyndsey.

We want to help you make connections with families and provide them resources for positive educational interactions as families. That's why we've made monthly homework packets that are comprised of learning games that families can complete and play together in both English and Spanish. You can look at each packet individually, or get the complete collection here: