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Math Makes More Sense In Many Languages


The staff at Seattles Wing Luke Elementary School was looking for ways to connect with families of many cultures. In order to learn how they might help parents support students, they held a Family Night meeting in the fall of 2005.

"In 2005, we held one meeting in each of our major languages, Principal Ellen Punyon told Education World. Each meeting began by inviting parents to share stories about their own education and how it was different from the education they see their children getting.

We asked parents a series of questions: What do you like best about Wing Luke? What surprises you the most? What could we be doing better? How can we help you?...

From those meetings, one of the greatest needs that surfaced was the desire parents had for guidance in helping their children with math homework. The parents did not understand how the school was teaching math. They felt the need for more information in order to support their children at home.

In response to that need, Punyon and her staff created "math nights" in the home languages of the parents. Doing that was preferable to offering translators at meetings presented in English because parents could get more fully involved, said Punyon.

"We showed the parents our expectations for the children, had them work on math problems at a few different grade levels, reviewed the expectations, and answered questions, she explained.

Results of a later survey of parents were positive. Parents told us the meetings were good experiences for them, said Punyon, and math homework improved following those evening sessions."

Hosting "Math Nights"
In Many Languages

Organizing math nights that reach families who speak many different languages takes time and energy. Principal Ellen Punyon says that a committee is needed to make such a program work, and classroom teachers must be involved in planning so the quality of the presentations meets their expectations.

Punyon offers the following advice to administrators who are setting up similar events.

Choose the right presenter. Have native-speaking certified teachers teach and present at the different sessions. It is crucial that the presenter knows the subject matter and the language, not just the language.

Promote the event. Be sure promotional materials for the event are translated into all languages.

Promote by phone too. Some families are not literate in their home language, and some do not believe they are really wanted at school until they receive a phone call.

Involve students. Encourage children to promote the event, to persuade their families to come.

Provide childcare. The childcare staff at Wing Luke played math-skills card games with the children. Each child took home a deck of cards, which the school received for free from a local casino.

Feed the families. Provide healthy snacks or meals for the parents and children. If you provide snacks, encourage families to mingle for the first 15 to 20 minutes of the meeting.

Watch the clock. Keep the session to 90 minutes.

Funding for Wing Luke's math nights came from Title I funds and a small grant written by the English language learning teacher.

In addition, Punyon was thrilled to see in attendance some families who didn't usually get involved because of language barriers. They became as engaged as English-speaking families when the material was presented in a familiar language.

The only translators who took part in the schools math nights were assisting families whose home languages were not represented in sufficient numbers to plan a night in that language. Those families attended the English presentations with the translators.


Punyon believes strongly that the variety of cultures and languages represented at Wing Luke enhances the educational experience of every child and adult in the school. Seattle's immigrant populations often settle in the southeastern part of the city where the school is located. Public housing and lower-income housing is available there. As more people from the same countries began to move in, neighborhood clusters formed.

"It's hard to keep track year to year of the number of languages, said Punyon, but we usually have students speaking Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Cambodian, Lao, Mien, Hmong, Amharic, Tigrinya, Somali, Oromo, Tagalog, Cambodian, and Cham. Some of our students from Mexico do not speak Spanish, but speak a native dialect. We've had students speaking Ilocono, Persian, and Arabic."

Often children who are born to immigrant families are more motivated and have fewer behavioral issues than students born in the United States, but it's very difficult for children who are just learning English to meet the No Child Left Behind standards, said Punyon. "Research shows us it takes 2 to 6 years to master English, and I believe the difference is whether a child has been [previously] educated in their home language. So, kindergarten children who have a strong base language usually become fluent in English in a year or two and can often be on grade level by second or third grade."

But students who come from a village in Mexico speaking a dialect, not Spanish, and are not literate in their first language take a longer time to learn English. They can be made to feel like failures after only a couple years in this country, which is the time when they are expected to pass the state of Washington's standardized test at the same level as a native speaker.

One of the challenges faced by Wing Luke Elementary is helping families understand their role in U.S. schools. Parent volunteerism is low because many parents work two jobs or work different shifts in order to care for the children. Those parents are often very supportive of their children's education, but they do not volunteer and cannot be expected to do so.

Events such as Wing Lukes math nights promote communication between the school and its families, shedding light on areas of confusion for both groups. "Since schools in this country are so different from the parents' school experiences, they are not sure what they should and should not do in homework help," Punyon observed. "We have to motivate the children to bring their families to school events in the evenings, because some do not understand why it is important."

"In some cultures we've learned that the boys are not held responsible for anything they do until they are eight years old," she stated. "It takes a lot of work for us to explain to the children, and the parents, our expectations for all students. Some cultures expect children to have 3 to 6 hours of homework per night. We have to explain why we do not give that much homework to small children."

Among other cultural groups, the school has more authority than the parents, and families have come to Punyon to ask the school to tell children that they cannot watch television or play video games. She explains that while the school can recommend such guidelines, families must reinforce the rules at home.

"When working with cultures, racial groups, and classes different from your own, be respectful and patient," Punyon advised. "Just because families do not respond as you would does not mean they are uninterested, rude, or don't care. Assume that the parents are advocating for their children, and listen hard to figure out what it is they want from the school. Then educate them about what can be provided and what cannot."

The meaning of body language is also different between cultures, Punyon said. And it is up to schools to recognize the differences and educate families.

It takes a generation or a large number of children coming through a school before the ways of the school and our country can become part of the families' cultures, she said.