• by Kate Mahoney and Kirby Gehachu • IDRA Newsletter • June – July 1996 • 

Sigmund Boloz brings to mind the struggle that many students experience daily upon entering the school grounds:

“Learning does not come from one source, nor is it best learned from behind a desk, hands folded, feet flat on the floor and eyes front. Before the child entered school, he learned language actively, by interacting with his environment. He used language purposely to get things done. As educators, we must go back to the roots of his learning, to use language to get things done. We must merge our traditional sense of schooling with the real world. What we do in school must not insult the child’s past but must build upon his past and encourage future learning” (1985).

A child’s home culture can and should be used as a springboard to learning science and mathematics. Building on a child’s background creates a wealth of information that can be used to increase the knowledge base of all students. If one child’s background remains untapped, all students miss out on this valuable information. Language, history and cultural perspectives on environment and family structure should be used to enhance science and mathematics learning for the entire class.

The classroom teacher has tremendous power. The teacher can empower a child to become a critical thinker who is proud of his or her heritage and has high self-esteem. On the other hand, the teacher also has the power to destroy aspirations by not allowing a child to recognize and celebrate the importance of his or her own culture. Recognizing a student’s culture and using this to create a positive learning environment takes a great deal of energy and resources.

Recruiting parents as a source of this energy and these resources is one way of enhancing the learning environment for a second language learner. Parents can create a bridge between home and school to help ease the transition for many students.

Recently, A:shiwi Elementary School in Zuni, New Mexico, hosted a workshop on the Playtime Is Science program. This involved parents in experiencing how everyday activities and chores are related directly to science. It was designed specifically to increase parents’ confidence in encouraging their children’s interest in science. Having parents present also gives teachers more opportunities to apply cultural values to science and math concepts used in the classroom.

Playtime Is Science was developed by Educational Equity Concepts, a non-profit organization in New York City. A:shiwi Elementary provided this workshop with support from SIMSE (Systemic Initiative in Math and Science Education), a five-year state initiative funded by the National Science Foundation, as well as the Title IV desegregation assistance program, New Mexico State Department of Education, and IDRA’s Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative.

One of SIMSE’s foci is equity in education. More specifically, SIMSE provides relevant math, science and technology for children from New Mexico’s unique cultures, much as Playtime Is Science does. A:shiwi Elementary School has been a part of the SIMSE process for two years. The Zuni Public School District is located in the extreme western part of New Mexico. The nearest town is Gallup, located 35 miles north of Zuni Pueblo. Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico, is 160 miles to the east. The present pueblo has occupied this site since 1692. Because of their remote location, the Zuni people have maintained a strong traditional religious, linguistic and cultural heritage. The Zuni language is unique among the seven Native American languages spoken in New Mexico. It is predominant in homes in the community and in all tribal government, religious, social and cultural interactions. The Zuni people value education and have made communication with parents and the community a priority. The Playtime Is Science workshop enabled parents and teachers to interact, and it has encouraged building bridges and maintaining ties between families and schools.

Science concepts are the same across cultures; it is just the way in which we interpret the utilization of these concepts that differs. However, to use a child’s language to provide a bridge for better and faster understanding is powerful. The Playtime Is Science workshop provided science and mathematics concepts that are used every day in the Zuni world, as well as being expressed in national benchmarks.

Using both the Zuni and English languages is very important. Specific expressions used during any class session do not have to constitute a deliberate lesson, but their use should be timely and within the context of the activity.

For example, when teachers and students explore the concept of “cycle” many activities that are relevant to the child’s environment can be utilized and opportunities to include language that expresses the child’s thought and extends it to a higher level can be provided. Rather than using pictures or CD-ROM programs that have no relationship to the child’s background, experiential activities can tie this background to the academic world. The list in the box on page 9 gives an example of how rich such an experience can be with the inclusion of the child’s home language. This dual language not only extends to the child’s home language experience, but also expands the child’s English language acquisition.

As educators, we must go back to the roots of the child’s learning. The roots are at home, in the grandparents’ house, in the community, in the culture. Use the power of the child. See through the eyes of a child. Experience the world through a child.


Boloz, Sigmund. Stated in a workshop handout (1985).
Kate Mahoney is a Northwest SIMSE associate field specialist and Kirby Gchachu is a Northwest SIMSE field specialist. SIMSE is the Systemic Initiative in Math Science Education.

The IDRA Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative has been working with Educational Equity Concepts (EEC) to implement the Playtime Is Science curriculum in Region VI, which includes Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Playtime Is Science was created to help give all children – regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, disability or income level – equal access to the study of science. The program’s motto is that science is for everyone – not just a privileged few! For more information on Playtime Is Science see “Playtime Is Science Expands in Region VI” by Bradley Scott (IDRA Newsletter, February 1995, pg. 13) or contact IDRA at 210-444-1710.

Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June – July 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]