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Books in Translation

Family-School Relationships
December 5, 2013 | Volume 9 | Issue 5
Table of Contents 

Home Visits for Relationships, Relevance, and Results

Julia Zigarelli , Rebecca Nilsen , Trise Moore , and Margery Ginsberg

Home visits build a bridge between a student's family life and the school. In 2011, we began a project in Washington State's Federal Way Public Schools to use home visits not only to strengthen family-to-school relationships, but to also make our curriculum and instruction more culturally responsive and inclusive of our students' diverse backgrounds. We call our approach dynamic home visits because of the interactive and reciprocal nature of our approach to learning with and from families. Through a process of data mining, purpose setting, logistical preparation, and pedagogical inquiry, we use home visits to shine a light on the strengths and stories within our community and to inform our curriculum and instruction.

Drawing on Data, Purpose, and Inquiry

Currently, with assistance from the Center for Action, Inquiry, and Motivation (AIM Center), we are piloting the Dynamic Home Visit program at Illahee Middle School. Our two lead facilitators developed a process that structures these visits. First, we use data to inform which students we will ask to participate in home visits. A core team of four teachers, an instructional coach, and the school principal analyze student learning and student discipline data. This analysis allows us to select students from various academic and behavioral profiles, in addition to considering economic and linguistic diversity. This baseline data also helps us recognize shifts in learning and behavior over time.

Once we have analyzed student data and selected a diverse sample of students, we set a shared purpose for the visits. We're reaching out to families to listen and learn about their strengths so that we can build better interpersonal relationships that will be mutually beneficial to our instructional effectiveness. It's important that we emphasize this open and strengths-oriented stance, because many educators have previously experienced home visits as a time to act as social workers with clients rather than as reciprocal learners. We want to safeguard against this and construct visits that allow us to listen and learn. Families have stories, experiences, and forms of resourcefulness that teachers can use to make school and curriculum more relevant and engaging.

With a clear, shared purpose, we outline the logistics of our 45-minute visits from start to finish. For example, we run through the details of how to work well with interpreters, and we practice taking notes on a graphic organizer that keeps us focused on strengths. We keep our visits brief to respect each family's busy schedule but are prepared to stay longer when the opportunity is offered. To support these visits, all participating teachers receive an informational booklet that includes relevant research, protocols and scripts, resources for visits, and reflection forms. We use this information throughout the process, including after the visits, when teachers connect their insight to instruction.

Finally, teachers engage in pedagogical inquiry and practice on how to apply insight from these visits to their own curriculum and instruction. We use Linda Christensen's model for prompting “Where I'm From” poems (PDF)—an exercise that encourages writers to reflect by exploring the sources of their individual identities—to get teachers thinking about how stories of students and their families can be a foundation for creating intrinsically motivating and academically rigorous learning experiences for diverse student groups. Teachers practice creating their own "Where I'm From" poems and then discuss examples of lessons that have used this prompt. For example, one teacher had students use photographs as a springboard to writing the poems and then sent the poems to relatives in other parts of the world.

Cultivating a Desire to Learn

Strengths and stories uncovered during dynamic home visits provide a foundation for curriculum and instruction that taps into students’ intrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated students have a natural desire to learn, free from coercion. Research from Deci, Ryan, and Csikszentmihalyi shows that when students are intrinsically motivated to learn, as opposed to learning for a reward or to avoid punishment, they are more likely to think more deeply about subject matter, persevere through challenges, and exercise greater creativity. We want our interactions during home visits to engender this natural desire to learn in our teachers, students, and families, so we use Ginsberg and Wlodkowski's Motivational Framework for Culturally Responsive Teaching to guide the visits and subsequent pedagogy. This framework establishes four ways teachers design intrinsically motivating learning experiences:

  1. Establishing inclusion (feeling respected and connected)
  2. Developing a positive attitude (finding the subject and approach to learning relevant)
  3. Enhancing meaning (feeling challenged and engaged)
  4. Engendering competence (feeling effective in what we value and learn)


These four conditions give us guideposts for how to structure our interactions with families in ways that support everyone's natural desire to learn. After our visits, we return to these four points to stimulate our own thinking on how to take insight from the visits and put it into action in the classroom. For example, we ask ourselves questions like the following:

  • What did you learn that could help you strengthen the respect and sense of connectedness that students experience in your classroom?
  • What did you learn that could help you elaborate on how you make learning relevant to a range of students?
  • What did you learn that could help you deepen the level of challenge and engagement among students?
  • What did you learn that could help your assessment practices show students that they are becoming more effective in ways that they value?


In a concluding workshop (after the visits), we guide teachers as they use the framework to create an intrinsically motivating lesson for a range of students, an approach to implementing the lesson that includes peer support and feedback, and a method for examining student work from their lesson to further strengthen instruction.

Ultimately, we hope to understand how, if at all, home visits strengthen teaching and learning from a range of students. We are using pre- and post-visit questions as part of our assessment of this program. For example,

  • To what extent, if at all, did teachers (and students) report an increase in connectedness between students and teachers?
  • To what extent, if at all, did teachers demonstrate an enriched approach to instruction? Did students report a change in relevance or opportunity to connect instruction to the real world?
  • To what extent, if at all, did teachers report increased differentiation or approach to student learning? Did students feel more engaged?
  • To what extent, if at all, did teachers (and students) report thinking about family involvement before and after the visits?


We are learning that our approach to visits helps teachers step out of their roles of "information givers," as they learn about their students outside of the classroom. Our teachers say this makes their instruction more relevant and engaging and the school more welcoming to all families. For example, after one of our families whose primary language is Spanish participated in a home visit, the mom began to visit the school for conferences, return phone calls, and request additional support from Spanish-English interpreters to communicate with teachers and the school. After just 30 minutes visiting in this home, “we've begun to develop an entirely different relationship,” our teachers relate. Other teachers have noticed tremendous, positive changes in the students who participate in home visits.

Although these comments may reflect shifts in teachers’ attitudes, as much as those of students and families, they are nonetheless promising. We see these shifts as the possible beginning of a transformative experience, and as we continue to analyze data from our work, we are hopeful that families, students, and teachers will continue to unlock one another's potential as motivated and dynamic learners.

Julia Zigarelli is a school psychologist with Federal Way Public Schools in Washington State. She helped inaugurate the dynamic home visit pilot program, which currently includes six schools. Rebecca Nilsen is a Title 1 interventionist with Federal Way Public Schools in Washington State. She is a partner in the dynamic home visits pilot program, supporting teachers integrating this work into practice. Trise Moore is the director of family and community with Federal Way Public Schools in Washington State. She sponsored the dynamic home visits pilot and continues to be a partner as the program expands. Margery Ginsberg leads the Adult and Professional Learning Program at Edgewood College in Madison, Wis.


ASCD Express, Vol. 9, No. 5. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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