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School of Education at Johns Hopkins University-Learning to Listen through Home Visits with Somali, Mien, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Latino Families

by Betty J. Cobbs and Margery B. Ginsberg

This article describes a summer learning experience that helped educational leaders listen to and learn from underrepresented voices. It provides a mosaic of insights contributed by 24 doctoral students from the University of Washington's Leadership for Learning (L4L) superintendent program. In July of 2005, these students, most of whom were currently principals, visited the homes of Somali, Mien, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Latino families living in a Seattle-area school community. Although several of the students had visited low-income homes in their own districts, this was the first time they had done so with the primary purpose of listening to under-represented voices on matters of district policy.

The leadership students sought to understand how members of linguistic minority communities respond to policy decisions such a school closure. In addition to learning about perspectives on policy, home visits also helped students challenge assumptions regarding equitable communication and cultural awareness. The process revealed a structure for encouraging high-level decision-makers and administrators to meet with diverse families in their homes—one that we hope others will also consider using.


As part of a one-week collaborative action research project, pairs of doctoral students along with an interpreter visited two homes of families in the same language group. While one student carried out an interview of the family, the other wrote field notes. In the second home, they reversed roles.

The questions posed by the leadership students focused primarily on the topic of school closure. This was a timely issue because the school district was proposing the closure of several neighborhood elementary schools the following year. Questions in the semi-structured interview included the following:

What have you heard about school closings?
How do you get information about this and other school-related issues?
How do you imagine that sending your child to another school would influence your everyday life?
What questions would you hope to be able to ask the school district regarding school closure?
What community resources assist your children with school success?
In addition to the topic of school closure, what are your concerns as a parent who speaks a language that school leaders may not understand?
Is there anything else you would like to express that you may not have had an opportunity to communicate?

The Leadership students had the support of interpreters from the Seattle School District who speak languages from the five largest non-English linguistic communities. As recent immigrants themselves, the interpreters were able to provide a context for students to begin to understand the complicated histories and experiences with which families struggle. The interpreters went with students to visit Somali, Mien, Cambodian, Spanish, and Vietnamese homes. Each visit totaled two hours, including one-half hour on each end of the visit for informal conversation between the students and the interpreter.

In some ways, scheduling the visits was the most revealing part of the experience. It reflected the complicated schedules of family members and interpreters, many of whom worked two or three jobs. The interpreters were fully committed to connecting the Leadership students to families, despite existing demands. Through phone conversations complicated by the co-mingling of dialects and limited computer access, they helped identify and coordinate home visit times.

With the experience spanning five days, the first day was designated for preparation. Students reviewed literature on the topic of school closure (Rowley, 1984), read Funds of Knowledge (Moll, 1992), and practiced taking field notes (Glesne, 1999). They interviewed the interpreters from the linguistic community they would be visiting. Through role play and simulation, they practiced the interview experience from start to finish, serving as a guest and interviewer in the home of an under-represented family. The role play was intended to provide a context, though simulated, within which students could consider the influence of their power and the weight of their responsibility to the families they visited. Then, and only then, the visits began.

When the students were not visiting homes, they were on-campus preparing their final projects -- portfolios that included a review of literature, a series of ethnographic field notes, a field note analysis, a "Where I'm From" poem written in the voice of a child from one of the families (Christensen, 1997), and personal reflections. In language-specific discussion groups, the L4L students exchanged knowledge and insights.

Conversations with students and analysis of documents suggest that the experience influenced the students in several ways. They noted consistently that home visits provided a context for a) learning within an authentic, problem-based setting, b) deep listening to personal stories, c) making decisions about when and how to deviate from an interview schedule, d) becoming competent as new researchers, e) probing the limits of cultural awareness, and f) challenging personal assumptions about the lives of underserved linguistically diverse families.

The home visits also provided an opportunity to integrate concepts from various Leadership for Learning modules that occur throughout the three-year program. These modules include moral and historical foundations of education, organizational development and change, linguistic diversity, closing the achievement gap, special education, school law, and inquiry. Throughout the week, an overriding question students were asked to consider was: What is the significance of any of this to you as a future systems-level leader?

Shared Learning Themes

Cross-group ethnographic analyses of the students' personal reflections suggest eight primary learning themes. Each quotation below represents a theme that grew from the common student experiences across all five language groups, though there were other themes that applied only to a certain language group. The latter are not included in this discussion.

Theme One: Interpreters, as mediators of language and culture, are essential.

I heard over and over again during the interview process how important it is for families to communicate with people at the school who speak their language. The interpreters were a gold-mine of information—about culture, the needs of particular children and their families, how to navigate the public school system and American life.

Theme Two: Home visits can help educators become aware of how much we don't know, even when we think we do, about the families we serve.

I have had a false satisfaction that I was communicating with my parents when I was able to get school communiqués translated into different languages. But I was not communicating with them, I was communicating to them—because their own language tradition was primarily oral.

Theme Three: Written communication, even when it is translated, can fail to reach a large number of people, especially in linguistic groups steeped in rich oral tradition.

Rising above the language barriers and developing cultural understandings are necessary steps. But, even more basic than that, is taking the time to create processes that foster this communication. There is tremendous tenacity among linguistically diverse parents to seek translation from their children, relatives, neighbors and community resources regarding school matters.

Theme Four: Families are more than willing to welcome and interact with educators in their homes.

There was a sense of honor in having a "school official" visiting their home. There was a very welcoming attitude the minute you entered the room and there was also a sincere invitation to return to their home. I came away feeling humbled and in many ways grounded.

Theme Five: There is commitment and passion among families who are new to the United States.

To sit in a home of yet another family in this neighborhood whose aspirations must have been so similar to my non-English speaking grandparents was profound. A subtle kinship existed in my mind as I sat and listened to a mother's concerns for her children's schooling.

Theme Six: There seems to be a willingness to accept that school officials will make decisions that are in all children's bests interests.

For the most part, the families we visited seemed to have a lot of trust in their schools. When people are struggling to make ends meet and do not have information regarding schools, it would seem to me that this creates a special responsibility for those in positions of power (in this case, school officials). We have a moral obligation to advocate for families.

Theme Seven: Educational leaders play a critical role in ensuring that participation in policy-making involves everyone.

The key " take away" for me is that the people with whom we spoke really don't have a voice or communication path in our schools. Now that I know this, I need to ensure that I walk the talk of true partnerships between home and school. It is key to the success of children.

Theme Eight: Listening to stories is a challenge for systems-level leaders.

As we get further away from the classroom we tend to lose the personal stories that make up all of our work. Superintendent programs tend to focus on systems, and they tend to forget the stories that make up the system. It is important to get to know our students and families on an individual basis, and provide avenues in our schools and districts where families can become well known and have their voices heard.


Although the Seattle School Board decided to abandon the immediate plan for school closures, the experience of listening to families in their homes provided a powerful reminder about the importance and the luxury of communication. There are stories to be told, there are assumptions to examine, and there is always a responsibility to ask, "Whose interests are being served?" (Sirotnik, 1987). Try as we may to dignify success in schooling with test scores and bar charts, it is in relationships that educators become significant (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2000).


Christensen, L. (1997). "Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word." Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 12(2), pp. 22-23.

Ginsberg, M. B. & Wlodkowski, R.J. (2000). Creating highly motivating classrooms for all students. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Glesne, C. (1998). Becoming Qualitative Researchers: An Introduction (2nd ed.). New York: Longman.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992)."Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms." Theory Into Practice, XXXI (2), pp. 132-141.

Rowley, S. R. (1984). "School Closure in Seattle: A Case Study of Educational Decision Making" (Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University, 1984).

Sirotnik, K. A. (1987). "Evaluation in the ecology of schooling: The process of school renewal." In J. I. Goodlad (Ed.), The ecology of school renewal: Eighty-sixth yearbook of the National Society of Education.

About the Authors

Betty J. Cobbs is an experienced elementary principal in public education and has received national recognition for her work in area of reform and leadership for struggling schools. She is currently working on a doctoral degree in the Leadership for Learning Program at the University of Washington, and is principal of Hawthorne Elementary in Everett, Wash. Her email address is

Margery B. Ginsberg is a faculty member in the Leadership for Learning program in the College of Education at the University of Washington. Her teaching and research interests are instructionally-focused school transformation, motivation and cultural diversity, and adult learning. Contact Ms. Gisberg at

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