As we welcome students into our classrooms each year, we are reminded of the important role families play in our students' education. We listen as administrators discuss the importance of community and parental involvement. We attend workshops that share strategies for engaging families and absorbing the rich culture our students bring into our classrooms.
But, how much of our involvement with families is lip service and how much is our honest attempt to cultivate connections?
It is well-documented that strong home–school connections are essential for the academic success of all learners, yet many of us struggle to engage families, especially linguistically and culturally diverse families. In light of the achievement gap that disproportionately affects this population, improving home–school connections should be at the forefront of every teacher's mind.
Getting to Know Them
Our work should begin by finding ways to learn about and from the families of our students and communities in which we teach.
We need a strengths perspective. As Lisa Delpit suggests in her book, Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, we must learn to see and appreciate what our students' families and communities do know and do bring with them rather than focusing on what we perceive they don't know or don't have.
To see their strengths, we should first reflect on the way in which our own culture and background affect how we interpret the experiences and stories our students and their families bring. To inventory our own attitudes, we can create checklists to determine our biases, take privilege walks to recognize subtle inequities that may shape our families' experiences, keep reflective journals, and participate in ongoing discussions with others who can challenge our assumptions and push us to see differently.
Then we can begin to learn about and from our families and communities. Several strategies can give us access to their unique knowledge and perspectives and open our minds to the assets of their cultures, experiences, and languages.
Begin the year with a take-home questionnaire that includes such items as, “What are your goals and expectations for the year?” “What is some background information you would like for us to know about you and your child?” “What are some concerns you may have?” “Where is your family from/where have you lived?” Sometimes these questionnaires are sent home, but they can be done virtually or during face-to-face conversations and conferences.
Get to know families through back-to-school night community-building activities. These activities, such as reenacting a sample morning meeting with parents/guardians, using icebreakers, or encouraging open conversations about questions, concerns, and perspectives, are ways to encourage families to share and get to know one another.
Integrate families and community members into the curriculum. We might invite family and community members into the classroom to teach students about their cultures, knowledge, or skills. Many teachers use the “interview a family member” activity as part of curricular connections; others create curriculum units around the family, such as collecting folktales, writing memoirs, or exploring history from the perspectives of adults who lived during the historical period being studied.
Through this work, we learn and grow as teachers and our families and community members feel appreciated for their strengths. These efforts can change attitudes and improve the comfort levels of parents and guardians as we continue to engage them in the classroom.
Classroom Communication Strategies
Families of English Language Learners (ELLs) and students of color often face cultural, linguistic, and other barriers as they try to become involved in their children's education. Becoming familiar with our students' families, establishing communication, varying communication techniques, and gaining a cultural orientation are all important communication strategies.
Establishing Communication. Once we become familiar with the diversity reflected within our students and families, it's time to work on developing a strategy for communicating with them.
First, promoting welcoming and engaging environments for diverse families is critical to establishing successful communication. When we make an effort to reach out to families in daily interactions, we are doing more than participating in small talk—we are establishing trust. When we encourage two-way communication, we demonstrate our concern and value for their input.
Varying Communication Techniques. The next step to effective home–school communication with linguistically and culturally diverse families is to vary our communication techniques. We must communicate information to parents and guardians in culturally and linguistically responsive ways.
We ask families about their preferred language and method of communication and communicate with them in that way. Even if we do not speak the home language, we can locate someone in the school or community who is willing to help translate.
Although many families prefer online communication in this world of technology, we cannot assume all families have regular access to the Internet. Home visits, informal conversations at drop-off and pick-up time, phone conferences, newsletters, and bulletin boards are other means of communication.
Designing Parent Education Events. Another powerful communication strategy is to develop an action plan for educating linguistically and culturally diverse families about the ways they can support their child's academic achievement and provide them with information about school resources, routines, and expectations. Translators should be available in the languages represented in the school community.
During orientation events, we can suggest ways parents and guardians can acquire skills and knowledge necessary to participate in their children's educational process, including strategies for navigating the U.S. school system, tips for promoting their child's academic progress, school resources (access to libraries and labs), parent-teacher conferences, standardized testing, and the benefits of reading at home.
Forming a Philosophy of Practice. Finally, we want to find ways to infuse this practice into our personal philosophy. We want to reflect on our efforts to incorporate families into our classroom. Do we take into account cultural factors when crafting our lessons? What do our classroom materials and décor say about the representation of diversity? Are we incorporating our students' families and community within our assessments?
As we consider the way in which our classroom reflects the culture that surrounds us, we must consider our own cultural identity. How is our personal identity influencing our interpretation of diversity? In what ways is our own lens filtering our interpretations? What assumptions do we need to question?
Once we've taken an honest look at our practice, it's time to shape our philosophy. We want to start at the interpersonal level by making necessary adjustments for the cultural and linguistic diversity of our students. Considering our approach to holidays, classroom directives, and similar, often taken-for-granted instructional techniques, can go a long way to shaping our philosophy of practice.
In addition, we want to foster a sense of community within our classroom. We want to teach our students to value their culture and the diversity of others in daily classroom activities and dialogue.
Finally, we want to move beyond a mentality that views diversity only through holidays, language, and heroes. If we want to implement multicultural/anti-bias education into our philosophy, we must make it a daily practice to weave our students' cultures throughout our lessons.
Our classrooms are filled with rich diversity. It's important to cherish this diversity and allow students and families to see the value they bring to our daily interactions.
Brooke Eisenbach is assistant professor of middle and secondary education at Lesley University.
Summer Clark is assistant professor of elementary literacy education at Lesley University.
Amy Gooden is assistant professor of TESOL and bilingual education at Lesley University.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, September 2016.