Differentiation for Families

How developing a Dream Team can promote student success

Many years ago, after a meeting about a student with the child’s grandmother, I realized the short-sightedness of my communication salutation, “Dear Parents.” At the time, I switched it to “Dear Families,” but lately, I’m wondering if there is a need for another shift, another innovation, that is necessary.

I’ve already made that shift in my classroom thinking, taking the approach that I call the Flexible Classroom, and write about in The Flexible ELA Classroom: Differentiation Tools for Teachers in Grades 4-8. In this type of classroom, students know that we are all “works in progress” and that as their teacher, it is my job to do whatever it takes for them to reach their next goal as students and as human beings, and we are more than the sum total of our report cards.

The first step, of course, is redefining what we mean by “family” in the first place. Even in a non-election year, the weight of this topic can suck the air out of the room. However, we would be remiss if we ignored the fact that families themselves have flexible definitions, depending on the demographic you ask.

The political rhetoric doesn’t keep up with the actualities of life in America, as Syreeta McFadden explains in her column, “Politicians Don’t Talk About ‘Family’ Like It Has Only One Definition” in The Guardian, “Family compositions now include “good friends [who] join forces as part of the ‘voluntary kin’ movement, sharing medical directives, wills, even adopting one another legally.” Clearly, when educators approach “family” we must now do so with an open mind and without preconceived notions of what works best.

Instead of looking at a child’s genealogy on a screen and inviting those at the top of the list, what if we tried to reimagine family involvement instead as a creation of a “Dream Team.” Not only can we hope for academic results, but social and emotional ones as well. Here are three ways we can shift our thinking right now and dramatically impact the lives of our students:

Tribes and Voluntary Kin

I’m not sure of the origins, but anyone on Facebook has seen the memes about your “tribe”: a group of people who have allowed you in, support you, “get you,” and have your back. They may be family members, but the implication is that they are not. Rather, they are the people you’ve sought for yourself; in other words, the family members you choose for yourself, not the ones you are born to.

The necessity for the creation of these tribes varies. In my own case, the line on the Emergency Card for who to contact was one such realization. After the first line for my husband, those other lines loomed large. My family is hundreds and some thousands of miles away. My mother-in-law lives in an assisted living facility. My best friend is line number two, and her husband is line number three.

In other circumstances, these tribes are born of financial necessity when groups split rent, others are born when there are tragedies, as my widowed friend quickly found out. We can also call these alliances built by choice “voluntary kin” who often serve a more immediate and practical need in our lives.

Now imagine this: instead of simply asking the name at the top of the list for a meeting, why not ask that name who might be important to invite? Who might be a critical member of the child’s Dream Team?

A few years ago, I invited, with the permission of the grandmother who was the head of the household, my student, Mike’s, 17-year-old brother to a meeting. I had taught Mike’s older brother, and we had an established relationship. I also knew that my student looked up to his brother. It was an interesting tribe that we assembled, to be sure—three teachers, a grandmother, and a high schooler, but it was a success. The older brother was secretly proud to have been included in this family business, and he quickly stepped up and took an even bigger interest in his brother, thus helping him academically, socially, and emotionally.

Another underutilized tribe member is the coach, director, or other adult in the building who is not directly involved in the student’s academic life, but may be a lifeline in his or her emotional needs. We need not threaten, “Well, I’m just going to call the coach and see what he has to say about this.” Instead, why not invite the coach to act almost as a character reference in meetings, willing to share with the Dream Team how hard the student is willing to work and how determined she is on the court?

If we can teach a child to translate her discipline and dedication in one area where she is successful, to another where she struggles, we will have truly impacted her present and future.

If we create a Dream Team for our students—whether it be older siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, coaches, directors, or any other “voluntary kin,”—we are showing our students that they are a work in progress, and we are all there to help them become the best version of themselves. It takes the threat of “family” involvement and reclaims it, creating a Flexible Classroom, one that is comprised of adults and students who are willing to do whatever it takes.

Peer-to-Peer Support

Amber Chandler’s student, Ah’kiera Gray, holds her baby sister Bella who came with Ah’kiera’s mom and step-dad to see her presentation.

We can all recognize that students are far more influenced by their peers on a daily basis than we might be. This is one area that I focus on in my classroom from day one when I ask students to fill out informational surveys. I’ve done this for years, of course, as most of us have; however, after I moved in the direction of a Flexible Classroom, I didn’t just put them in a filing cabinet or a drawer in my desk along with my good intentions. Instead, I do some serious social engineering. It is akin to planning a wedding, but it is worth it.

If I can arrange for students with similar struggles to “just happen” to end up in a group together, or place my nurturers with someone who needs a little extra TLC, I watch the influence impact the Flexible Classroom exponentially. If I see a compulsive organizer and a child like my own who is a little scatterbrained, I am thrilled to orchestrate their work on a project together.

Additionally, as we all work towards inclusive and diverse learning environments, there are benefits of this type of grouping. According to the Inclusive Schools Network, in their article, “Peers Supporting an Inclusive School Climate” by Toni Riester-Wood, Ph.D, there are important benefits for students with disabilities, that are equally beneficial to those without.

Benefits for Students With Disabilities

  • Friendships
  • Increased social initiations, relationships and networks
  • Peer role models for academic, social and behavior skills
  • Increased achievement of IEP goals
  • Greater access to general curriculum
  • Enhanced skill acquisition and generalization
  • Increased inclusion in future environments
  • Greater opportunities for interactions
  • Higher expectations
  • Increased school staff collaboration
  • Increased parent participation
  • Families are more integrated into community

Benefits of Inclusion for Students Without Disabilities

  • Meaningful friendships
  • Increased appreciation and acceptance of individual differences
  • Increased understanding and acceptance of diversity
  • Respect for all people
  • Prepares all students for adult life in an inclusive society
  • Opportunities to master activities by practicing and teaching others
  • Greater academic outcomes
  • All students needs are better met, greater resources for everyone

Valuing Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning

Another way we can differentiate for our students, along with their Dream Team, is to value the whole child and share the non-academic with them. I try to send an email when I notice any positive social or emotional contribution to our class community.

Most caregivers are well-aware of their child’s academic strengths and weaknesses, but few have heard directly from a teacher how the child is doing socially or emotionally, two important layers of learning. For example, last year I emailed a young man’s dad when I noticed that he always stayed to push in chairs and help tidy up my room. As teachers, we all know that part of this behavior is likely avoidance of the social crush of the hallway, but I also appreciated the gesture, realizing that this student was always helpful and polite.

When I conveyed this to his dad, his dad’s response was a clear reminder that we often miss looking at the whole child. What did he say? Sadly, “I’ve never gotten a good email about him. He’s not good at school, but he is a good kid.” My heart broke, but it also was a reminder: we need to see each child.

Though I still have a long way to go, I know that shifting to a Flexible Classroom, assuming a “whatever it takes” mindset, is the best thing I can do to reach all students and positively impact their lives. I am certain that creating a Dream Team, instead of only relying on the top name on the contact list, will increase the chances that students are successful both in and out of the classroom.

Additionally, I see that when the “family,” in whatever configuration, knows that I value and want their help, a partnership is formed. The positive impact of differentiating academic tasks for students is well-established, and extending this flexibility to family involvement in education will positively impact the academic, social, and emotional learning of our students.