By Jennifer Orr
For seventeen years, I have worked in schools with students and families who are different from me in a variety of ways. My elementary students typically speak at least one more language than I do, sometimes several more. They are growing up without many of the financial privileges I had. Between language barriers and cultural differences, I spent many years struggling to communicate with families. I was uncomfortable with making phone calls home, positive or negative, because I was afraid of language challenges. In my first years of teaching, my communication with families was limited to sending home a monthly newsletter, in English, and once-a-year conferences, usually with translators.
Fortunately, I came to realize that partnering with my students’ families was critical, despite my discomfort or fear. I gradually worked out ways to communicate and welcome families into the world I share with my students.
I began slowly, with tools that didn’t require interaction. A class blog is a great way to share photos and stories of our learning and fun. In the beginning of the year, I do the work for the blog, but I turn it over to students as soon as possible. They choose which photos to post and craft the writing. We use online tools to translate our writing into other languages. The translation isn’t perfect, but parents have shared their appreciation for it because they can feel like they are a part of their child’s time at school.
My next step was postcards. I send postcards to students when they do something notable. My goal is to send at least one postcard to each student per quarter. Everyone, including children, likes to receive mail. I feel confident their parents will also see the postcards. I’ve had many students share their excitement about the postcards and many parents who have told me how much they value them.
Both the blog and postcards are useful and help build a positive relationship with my students’ families. They aren’t, however, enough. I wanted to create a partnership with families, not just communicate with them. In order to do so, I began inviting families into our classroom once a month. The first event each year is simply to have parents to join us for our morning meeting. As this is how we as a classroom community begin every day together, I think it is a wonderful thing to have parents take part in. Spending that 15 minutes with us (although many stay longer) gives families a chance to see their children where they spend so much of their time. It helps them visualize their children at school when they are apart.
We invite families in to learn math games, explore ways we are using technology, read with us, enjoy our writing, and more. The students do the majority of the planning for these events, and they take on the responsibility of hosting their families. Events are planned at different times during the day, including evenings, in the hopes that all families will find a time throughout the year when they can join us.
During these events, I step back to allow the students to take charge. I have found that doing so changes the feeling of power in the classroom in such a way that parents feel more like an equal player. These events are not times for me to teach parents how to help their children or to detail the curriculum and standards; they are chances for us to learn from one another and to learn together. By stepping back and letting the students step up, we become three players with one goal: teacher, students, and families all working to achieve success in every way possible.
Explicitly inviting families in has been a great success. We typically have families of at least one-third of the students attend. At one evening event with a focus on bedtime reading, about three-quarters of the families attended. We all wore pajamas and curled up around the room to read with our families. Every child who came, both my students and their siblings, took home a new book at the end of the evening. When I stopped everyone from reading in order to go home, I heard both parents and children remarking on how quickly the time had passed and how they wanted to continue.
When I began these events, I expected to learn about my students’ families. That has definitely happened. But I did not expect to learn so much more about my students. Watching them interact with their parents and siblings has given me a new perspective. Parents have shared things they notice about how their child learns or what their child shares about school. Communication with families is no longer a one-way street.
Having these events has definitely built a bridge with families. More parents have come to visit our classroom at other times than ever before, and I have received more communication (email, phone calls, and notes) than in the years before these events. Together, we opened the door to the classroom and made it a place where all of us learn together.
Jennifer Orr teaches kindergartners at a Title I school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She was in ASCD’s 2013 class of Emerging Leaders.