Learning cannot entirely depend on one learning environment each learner enters. Consequently, any educational change requires shifts in thought in many individuals – not only in educators and administrators, but also in parents, students, and community members. To create exciting, engaging learning environments for all learners, educators have to transform much more than their classrooms; they need to become a source of change within their communities as well, constructing and nurturing a larger learning environment.
To do so, schools have to design intentional partnerships with families and community members. Even though this involves much more than efforts of individual teachers, teachers have immediate connections with families. Here are some bold moves that will help re-shape the canvas for learning.
Bold Move #1 –“Dear Colleagues…”
If families are indeed to be partners in education of their children, they need to be treated as colleagues, not helpers. Families play a vital role in nurturing home learning environments that promote academic, social, and emotional growth. While schools might claim expertise in education, parents know what works for their child.
A steady stream of communication from a teacher, focused on the process of learning and emphasizing collegiality, is essential. Collegial relationships are based on mutual ownership and shared responsibility for decision-making. People have to see each other as partners and value each other’s contributions of ideas and resources.
Here are some steps to start nurturing collegial relationships:
- Always start your email to families with “Dear Colleagues.” This alone will lead to increased attention and sense of ownership.
- Make it clear to families what you expect from them as your colleagues in education of their children. Broad expectations can be established at Curriculum Nights, while expectations pertaining to concrete tasks can be communicated as needed. It is important to keep parents aware of how, specifically, they can assist their child, what language they should use to initiate independent discovery, and how to be effective coaches.
- Regularly solicit learning feedback from families throughout the school year, at least monthly. It usually works best if this feedback is about something specific, such as the appropriate amount and usefulness of homework, report cards and learning feedback, or simply how a child feels about a particular concept. A simple email invitation to share what works and what doesn’t can open a door to a productive dialogue between parents and educators.
- Invite parents to participate in decision-making process. It is important to let parents know about various options that exist within the school system, such as accelerated classes and gifted or remedial programs, well in advance and work with them on their students’ placements.
Bold Move #2 – “I would like to include you in my professional learning network”
Many adults were schooled at the time when there was one right way to arrive to one right answer. Without understanding the dynamics of learning and individual variations, it might be difficult for them to create a learning environment at home that nurtures their learner. Regardless of degrees parents hold, knowing how to support their children’s learning at home often requires some basic knowledge of methodology, learning-related concepts, and frameworks practiced in their children’s schools. Learning and discussing concepts with a teacher is a great way to achieve coherency and nurture collegiality.
Here are some things to try:
- During Curriculum Nights show parents a short documentary or a video featuring practices from a prior year and explaining the skills children will be developing in this classroom. Ask parents to notice things unfamiliar to them – this is likely to initiate questions leading to rich discussions. Use these questions in the future correspondence with parents to offer additional information. Since an initial inquiry has been made, parents are more willing to read what will follow.
- Create a monthly Ed Talk club focused on the latest educational research and effective practices that are targeted in your school and district and invite families to join online discussions. This can be done as a Twitter chat or using any other digital platform. Make sure to provide families with the materials (links to articles or chapters of a book) ahead of time. As a facilitator, be prepared to have probing questions ready for a good discussion. While an hour is the ideal duration, 30 minutes also work well. When parents read about and discuss educational ideas, the level of learning support at home is likely to increase.
- Ask families to share with you their ideas and any good read on subjects related to education. Parents tend to seek out information that relates to their children’s needs, which might be very helpful to know.
Bold Move #3 – “Would you teach a lesson on…”
As human beings with diverse interests, all families are experts in something. Moreover, investing their expertise in education of their children is important to most parents. Therefore, using parental expertise in a classroom can serve multiple purposes: to enhance student learning, communicate to parents that their expertise is needed and important, and let families experience your side – how it feels to be a teacher.
Consider the following:
- Identify special talents, skills, or knowledge of class parents with a simple questionnaire at the beginning of a school year.
- Based on this information, match a family with a unit of study or an activity that is planned for the school year.
- Contact a parent, well in advance, with a request to teach a mini-lesson, demonstrate an experiment, lead an activity or a workshop, or do anything else that enhances student learning.
Even though there might not be enough opportunities do this for every family, parents share their experiences with other parents. Singling parents out for their skills and asking them to be part of the instructional process at school sends a powerful message that all parents are valued and teachers welcome their expertise. Educators can get invaluable free resources for nearly all their needs, but more importantly, parents, teachers, and students will learn from each other.
Educators can drastically enhance a larger learning environment of their students if they make families and community members part of the educational system. By giving families a voice, providing them with multiple opportunities to learn and contribute, and utilizing human capital of the community, teachers can indeed transform learning environments of many learners into exciting, engaging experiences that foster life-long learning.
Arina Bokas is a producer and a host of the Future of Learning television series on Independence TV and the editor of Kids’ Standard magazine in Clarkston, Mich. She is also a faculty member at Mott Community College in Flint, Mich. Connect with Bokas on Twitter.