Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Literacy As A Doorway for Family Engagement /Parent Involvement

I'm a regular follower of Dr. Catherine Snow's work at Harvard's Family Research Project.  When I talk with everyday teachers, I always hear strong feelings that family engagement might be a good thing but who has the time with all the other requirements and pressured placed on educators.  Do you feel like that?

Let me suggest a different perspective. 

Consider that every time you effectively engage families in their children's learning, you lessen your workload.  You expand the horizons of a student and, especially among those who are termed "at-risk", you foster an extra level of intervention; you find a new resource for helping you bring more children to competency in the standards you are required to teach and in benchmarking those important assessments.

The secret is not to expect the parent to do what you do.  Meet them where they are, not where you want them to be.  That mostly just takes a little thinking time.

Families have important but unique roles, especially when it comes to literacy.   Early elementary school teachers have a special job since they are often the first face of education new parents in the school meet.  Take a little time to get to know your students' families early in the year and resist the temptation to write off those who don't come to the first open house.  Find out through a simple survey or a brief 1-2 minute chat what questions they have about their children's learning and what their goals are for their child.

A tiered, systematic approach works best, no matter what grade you teach.  

Tier #1:

For those that come to the school regularly and are comfortable, all you really need to do is to provide resources (books, a BIT of information about what assessment results mean and areas that they might help their child with at home).  They will take that information and run with it.

Tier I 2:

Send a personal note to every parent who wasn't able to attend.  You can get inexpensive, custom designed postcards or even business-card sized notes from Vistaprint (they even run specials where you can get as many as 100 postcards free, only paying shipping). 

In that note, voice your genuine regret that they were not able to come and share some small tidbit of information that they can use at home. It might just be that the family wanted to be there but they had a sick child, couldn't get a ride to the school or had to work.  Don't assume that an absent face is an uninterested one.  You're beginning to build a positive face for your classroom and your school.  Remember that busy or stressed families need regular encouragement to move them toward engagement.

Tier #3:

Determine that you will continue to send positive encouraging messages, even when you get no response, on a regular basis.  Schedule it into your calendar and stagger the notes so that you are only sending out a few a week or certain times of the month. 

An absence of response is not a "get away from me, I don't want any part of this" like we can assume too often.  It more likely reflects a negative experience with authority or schools on the part of the parent (either as a mom or dad or as a student when they were young), an incredible personal struggle just to put food on the table and a roof over their family's head, or some other personal barrier.  In a national study by, fewer than half of all parents had been formally asked by schools what assistance they might need to be more involved in their child's education.  That's a place to begin.

Literacy As the Doorway
 Every family has literacy in some form; it just may not be the formal, academic literacy we focus on in school.  Hook on to that literacy, at whatever level you find it.  It may not be reading with their children, the traditional place we want families to start.  If that is not a part of their everyday lives, finger wagging and nagging them to do it is not going to be effective.  We have to start at a place that connects more to the current experiences of that family.

The National Center for Family Literacy has a wealth of information and ideas to help you get started.  Here are a few additional examples:

 Building on Parent Strengths to Promote Literacy is full of ideas that reach out to families.

Start at a level where parents are comfortable.  One principal in California began a storytelling festival at his school which eventually led to his students documenting their parents' stories and writing them down for a school-specific book that could be shared over and over again.  Everyone has at least one story to tell.  Think baby steps to move families a little closer to understanding your challenges and standards in the classroom.

The Council for Exceptional Children has an excellent, brief article with even more ideas to get you started.  Consider taking this resource and others you find here to your principal and asking if you can devote at least part of a staff meeting to discussing this important issue and what might work at your school with your population of families.  Not possible or the administrator not on that "channel"?  Take it to your grade level meeting and start there.

Involve your PTA/PTO (they support family involvement).  But ask them to think off the volunteer and fund-raising channel.  The voices of parent peers can sometimes be more effective than educators and they often know their communities, especially in these days where teachers may not be living in the neighborhoods where their schools are located.  If you aren't a member, join.

Ask the more involved parents, PTA/PTO or not, to reach out to a specific number of families (maybe only one other, or maybe two or three, as their time allows).  The ripple effect of this personal contact, without taking time away from your teaching, is an untapped resource.

Finally, if you have parents who are computer-savvy, send home a few assignments that create learning together opportunties at home.
and Adprima's resource list of free websites that are child and family friendly

The main consideration that educators often ignore is that presenting literacy in the light of real-life skills rather than an academic exercise is more meaningful to parents.  Think about literacy activities that will promote communication and relationship with their children, are fun and interactive, and connect to their everyday environment.

As you try these resources, I encourage you will also share your own through posts to this blog. 

Don't forget to visit Share a Story: Shape A Future  this week and share this family-friendly resource with the parents and caregivers you interact with.  It's a virtual blogging tour talking about all kinds of connections with reading and writing, brought to you by the Reading Tub.

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