September 11, 2015 by

Crossing Boundaries to Partner with Families

By Simona Goldin, Debi Khasnabis, and Susan Atkins

Crossing Boundries 300x300As school- and university-based personnel commit to building equitable and ambitious learning opportunities for students in diverse schools, the Learning Initiatives for Families and Educators (LIFE) project works to help beginning teachers learn to partner with families. We, as teacher educators and members of the project team, help to support a collaboration between the University of Michigan School of Education, Scarlett Middle School staff, and Ann Arbor Public Schools families. The principle that guides every aspect of the project is that families have unique and valuable knowledge about their children. Partnerships between families and educators build on that knowledge in ways that benefit students, fostering their growth and success.

The LIFE Project

In the LIFE project, University of Michigan teacher candidates and Scarlett Middle School teachers learn to interact substantively with families by conducting a series of home visits with Scarlett Middle School families. These educators learn how to formulate questions that effectively elicit information about the experiences, knowledge, and practices of a family. The visits enable educators to learn about families in new and meaningful ways; they learn about the cultural and language backgrounds of families and the hopes and dreams the parents have for their children. In some cases, educators learn about social networks that families use to access academic support or the musical and artistic talents of family members. These experiences help educators become competent in “partnering practices,” which we define as practices that bridge children’s academic experiences with those in their home and community.

Boundary Crossing and Directionality

Partnering with families and caregivers requires that educators expand traditional conceptions about parent involvement in two ways. First, educators can improve their work when they recognize that families have knowledge that can inform and enrich educators’ work with children. Developing a better understanding of a student’s family can help educators tailor instructional practices to facilitate differentiated learning.

Second, partnership commitments encourage educators to transcend the traditional boundaries regarding where to meet with families and caretakers. School meetings—such as curriculum nights, parent-teacher conferences, and evening performances—usually align with educators’ schedules and are located “on their turf.” However, educators can also meet families in their “home” environments—that is, their neighborhoods, their libraries, their parks, and most certainly their actual homes. When school principals, teachers, and teacher candidates conducted home visits during the LIFE project, families beamed with pride to have school representatives in their home. They were welcomed with invitations for dinner, conversation, and generous sharing. Meeting families in their homes positions educators as learners and partners and facilitates important conversations about children, their families, and their cultural contexts. All of these things help to connect educators and families in ways that enrich and support effective collaboration.

Home Visits: Why and How?

Through the home visits, educators learned that crossing boundaries into families’ homes is productive. They witnessed the rich relationships that bloomed over the course of a five-month period. For example, one family took educators on a home tour and showed them pieces of African art. In another series of home visits, educators learned that Yadira, the student they visited, had an impressive talent—crafting dozens of small, geometrically complex animals out of rainbow loom bands. While at school, Yadira may have appeared to be a typical student, in her home, she was an expert. She effectively navigated multimedia resources, such as online videos, to support her craft. We, as teacher educators, helped the educators learn how to leverage home-based knowledge in their own classroom contexts. For example, Yadira’s knowledge of multimedia resources could apply to instruction on how to read and write informational procedural texts, and her ability to construct rainbow loom objects could help in her development of geometrical concepts. This strategy of recognizing home-based knowledge and creating instructional connections is an example of our efforts to bridge theory and practice. This work directly positions educators to teach more equitably and consider the individual experiences of their students.

Stepping into a family’s home does not automatically result in a learning experience or lead educators to infuse their teaching with community- and family-based knowledge of children. Educators need to ask questions that invite sharing and encourage elaboration. A simple “How are you?” is not as effective as “What have you been up to?” And merely asking “Where was your child born?” does not invite the same detail as “Have you always lived in Ann Arbor?” Educators should practice open-ended questioning, along with follow-up questioning, to help deepen conversation and develop rapport with families.

Educators must also recognize—and listen for—the knowledge that families and students possess. They need to appreciate the ways shared information can enrich instruction. Noticing that Yadira liked rainbow looms is different than noticing that she has literacy and mathematical knowledge that goes along with this expertise. We believe educators can and should make efforts to instruct in a way that builds on home-based knowledge. This takes discipline, practice, and professional commitment.

Home Visits, But Not Just Home Visits

Home visits are fruitful, but they also involve challenges. There are intellectual challenges and many things that educators need to learn for the visits to engender rich partnerships. There are also logistical challenges, such as scheduling and translation demands. This is why some educators rarely cross these boundaries, even though the payoff is ultimately worth it.

We recommend that educators consider a wide range of ways to learn from families and cross traditional school-community boundaries. Sending messages home, creating multilingual dialogue journals, calling or texting home numbers, or coordinating community-based gatherings are other ways that educators can connect with families and create new opportunities for sharing and learning. All of these approaches support strong partnerships between families, communities, and teachers that help students grow and learn in ambitious ways.

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Simona Goldin is a research specialist for TeachingWorks at the University of Michigan. Her research interests include the dynamics of teaching and learning and how the two intersect with equity in classrooms. Her work at TeachingWorks has included codirecting the Elementary Mathematics Laboratory and directing the journal club and streaming seminar series.

Debi Khasnabis is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Education. She teaches courses in multicultural education, literacy studies, and sociocultural contexts of second language acquisition. Her research focuses on the development of expertise in literacy teaching pedagogies and culturally relevant teaching pedagogies in beginning teachers.

Susan Atkins has worked with English language learners and their families for the last 16 years as a late transitional bilingual and sheltered classroom teacher, an English language development specialist, and a district coach and trainer. She has also worked as a consultant for the LIFE Project at the University of Michigan’s School of Education for the past year and a half.