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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 8

A Village of Learners

Workshops in literacy instruction enable parents to help their children develop effective writing skills.

A Village of Learners- thumbnail
The graduate classes that I taught in the university's Literacy Master's Program were humming with teachers discussing the major changes taking place in their schools as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act: how teachers were restructuring their classrooms; which literacy and math programs they were instructed to use; how much time they could allot for each lesson; how many lessons were scripted. The changes focused on teachers and students.
One evening, I asked my graduate students, “What is being done to include parents in this process of reform?” A silence fell on the class. Then, after a moment, many teachers voiced their perceptions about the lack of parent involvement.
All too often, schools perceive parents—especially those in urban areas, of low socioeconomic status, or from single-parent or nontraditional families—as uninterested in getting involved in their children's education (Pong, 1997). My 16 years of experience as an elementary school principal in an inner-city school in Brooklyn, New York, says otherwise. Parents do want to help their children, but parents who are unaware of the school's curriculum and standards for achievement are unsure just how they can help.

No Parent Left Behind

To succeed, No Child Left Behind needs to include parents. School reformers must recognize that parents are the key motivating dynamic in a child's life (Hara & Burke, 1998). It is often said that it takes an entire village to educate a child. The creation and implementation of new and more challenging standards and curriculums in schools require educating that village. If parents are to support the schools' efforts in fulfilling accountability-related demands and improving teaching and learning, they must understand the expectations placed on their child in terms of learning outcomes and achievement.
As their child's first teachers, parents have a highly influential role in preparing their child for school through language and literacy activities in the home. Walberg (1984) contended that parent involvement and home factors are more important for student achievement than are student characteristics, instructional strategies, environmental factors, and increased time on academic learning. These findings are consistent with more current research (LeTendre, 1997; Lytle, 1992; Perla & O'Donnell, 2002), which continues to reveal a strong positive correlation between parents communicating their expectations to their child and the grades that their child attains in school (Duke, 1992; Gyles, 1990).

Training Innovative Educators

A colleague and I decided to step out of the university classroom and work within the community in a joint venture to cultivate the ideals and goals of No Child Left Behind. Thus was born Project TIE—Training Innovative Educators—a schoolwide initiative funded through No Child Left Behind to improve literacy and math instruction and achievement. Now in its second year of implementation, the three-year project focuses on instructing administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Ten small, inner-city, low-income, multiethnic K-8 schools in New York City participate.
I focused on the literacy portion of the project. In September 2002, approximately 2,100 students wrote personalized invitations to their parents to attend the orientation meeting for Project TIE. Eighty-five percent of the parents attended the meetings, which were held in the evening at each of the 10 schools. We asked parents to respond to a survey and interview questions that clarified a number of issues: the parents' perceptions of their child's attitude toward writing, the parents' knowledge of the writing process and writing assessment, and the parents' knowledge of the state standards and how those standards affected their child's achievement.

What Parents Want to Know

Ninety-five percent of the parents in attendance indicated that they were eager to know more about how teachers taught writing to their child, what the English Language Arts Standards were, how they could help their child achieve the benchmarks for success, how teachers evaluated student writing, how parents might use a scoring rubric to guide their child's writing, and how they could help their child develop more effective writing skills.
In their written responses to additional questions included at the end of the questionnaire, parents of primary grade students expressed interest in helping their child write longer and more detailed sentences. They wanted to understand how teachers taught the writing process so they could follow the same procedure at home. They asked how to help their child think of writing topics, organize his or her thoughts, and develop ideas.
Parents of middle grade students inquired about techniques to help their child organize ideas, engage in more effective editing, and use more vivid and sophisticated vocabulary. They were also interested in helping their child learn to enjoy writing and understand the value of being a good writer.
Parents of junior high students lamented their child's lack of motivation and concern for detail and poor revision and editing skills. These parents asked how they could help their child with informative and persuasive writing and how they could interact with their child so he or she would not take suggestions for improvement so personally. They also asked for suggestions on how to use computer programs for motivating children to write.
Many parents indicated that getting their child to write was like pulling teeth. Most parents believed that their child didn't like to write because the child didn't think he or she had anything to write about. This was also the number-one reason that the students gave, in a similar student survey, for not enjoying writing. Other parents suggested that their child didn't enjoy writing because he or she didn't understand the purpose of a given writing assignment or believed that he or she was doing too much writing, especially in the classes administering state English language arts tests.
Parents wanted to know how the English Language Arts Standards (1996) influenced the expectation for quality writing. They wanted to see a demonstration of the writing process to understand how writing was taught and evaluated. They were also interested in learning to use the scoring rubric to help their child critique his or her own work.
We shared the results of these surveys with administrators and teachers. Lazar and Weisberg (1996) noted that parents observe their child using language and print for various purposes, such as conversing with their peers, writing creatively at home, and completing homework assignments. These observations, when shared with educators, can enrich teachers' understanding of their students' attitudes toward, difficulties with, and preferences for literacy learning. Likewise, Shockley (1994) reported that she was able to extend to parents a program of home support for student learning by inviting parents to share insights about their child's literacy experiences through home-response journals.
These survey responses helped create a series of workshops that would address parents' concerns and enable parents to assist their child in developing more effective writing skills.

Educating the Village

During the first year of the program, parents attended four workshops. The first described the English Language Arts Standards and school expectations regarding student achievement. Through demonstrations, we showed parents of primary and middle school students how to read with their child and practice prereading, reading, and postreading strategies. Parents learned how to question their child about reading in ways that would require the child to use higher-order thinking skills. Parents also learned how to help their child make the reading-to-writing connection.
During the second workshop, we used a picture prompt to engage parents in the writing process. Parents learned what cumulative and recursive writing meant as they engaged in the writing experience, cumulative referring to the process of adding information to build on an original idea and recursive referring to the process of revisiting various stages of the writing process before producing a final product. Prewriting activities highlighted the importance of having students write about life experiences—something known and relevant to them. This workshop focused on the same techniques that teachers used in the classroom, especially with regard to editing and revising.
The third workshop involved writing assessment. Parents learned about the concepts of meaning, development, organization, language use, and mechanics. They used a rubric to score writing samples and came to understand teacher expectations in terms of a quality composition. Parents also received guide questions that serve as a starting point for parent and child to more effectively discuss the child's composition. The guide included such questions as these: Do you understand the purpose of this writing task? Do you have enough details in your writing to create a clear picture in the mind of the reader? Does your writing follow a logical sequence of events? Have you used a variety of sentences in your writing? Have you proofread for spelling errors?
The fourth workshop showed parents how to use computer programs to motivate their child to write. For example, older students could learn to use PowerPoint to write and create their presentations, and younger students could use word processing programs to write their story summaries.

Just One Year Later

In June 2003, 10 months after the project began, parents responded to the same questionnaire that they had filled out in the fall. Parents noted changes in their child's attitude toward writing. Fifty percent indicated that their child had become less resistant to the writing process by using specific writing strategies at home that he or she had learned in school. Students were also learning how to generate ideas for compositions when engaged in activities in the home. For example, one social studies assignment required students to write about the qualities that a U.S. president should possess. Students discussed this topic with their families and then incorporated the ideas into their writing.
Seventy-three percent of parents indicated that using the questions from the parent-child guide encouraged their child to discuss his or her writing experiences with them. Students were less resistant to parental input about a given piece of writing—perhaps the parent found that the child overused the phrase “so then,” for example—because the guide's questions brought both child and parent to the same conclusions. Parents indicated that the questions in the guide provided a starting point for discussions with their child about writing, and 90 percent of parents reported that they felt more confident in their abilities to interact with their child on this topic.
Understanding the rubrics (Andrade, 2000; Goodrich, 1997) enabled parents to identify areas in which their child could improve: in meaning, development, organization, language use, or mechanics. Parents participated in home activities that reiterated what their child was learning in school about the writing process. In school, for example, students use a yellow highlighter to proofread first drafts for mechanical errors and a pink highlighter to locate words they wish to replace by referring to their thesaurus. By reinforcing such strategies at home, parents helped motivate students to improve their writing (Howard, 1996; Howard & LeMahieu, 1995).

Engaging Parents in Literacy Instruction

If schools give parents the tools of the craft, parents will be able to interact with their child more confidently and motivate him or her to higher achievement (Davis, 1991). Parents can also share with educators their perceptions about how their child feels about different types of writing, such as creative writing or writing assignments related to science or social studies. Students' responses in a similar survey confirmed the accuracy of parent perceptions about their child's likes, dislikes, difficulties, and understandings in writing.
To actively participate in their child's literacy learning, parents need to understand how the school's literacy program works. Responses to the parent survey and the high rate of attendance at the parent workshops dispel the myth that parents in urban districts do not want to get involved with their child's learning experiences. The village clearly wants to know how it can help its children in the learning process. If schools and students invite parents, they will come.

Andrade, H. G. (2000). Using rubrics to promote thinking and learning. Educational Leadership, 57(5), 13–18.

Davis, P. (1991). Parents writing with students. English Journal, 80(4), 62–64.

Duke, D. G. (1992). Parental expectation and its relationship to achievement in algebra. Doctoral dissertation, Memphis State University.

English language arts standards. (1996). Newark, DE: International Reading Association and Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Goodrich, H. (1997). Understanding rubrics. Educational Leadership, 54(4), 14–17.

Gyles, R. (1990). Learning mathematics: A quantitative inquiry on parental involvement as reported by urban, poor black parents and their fourth-grade children. Doctoral dissertation, New York University.

Hara, S. R., & Burke, D. J. (1998). Parent involvement: The key to student achievement. School Community Journal, 8(2), 9–19.

Howard, K. (1996). When parents serve as writing critics. Teaching PreK-8, 27(2), 61–62.

Howard, K., & LeMahieu, P. (1995). Parents as assessors of student writing: Enlarging the community of learners. Teaching and Change, 2(4), 392–414.

Lazar, A. M., & Weisberg, R. (1996). Inviting parents' perspective: Building home-school partnerships to support children who struggle with literacy. The Reading Teacher, 50(3), 228–237.

LeTendre, M. J. (1997). Strengthening the ties between Title I and family literacy. Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk, 2(1), 1–3.

Lytle, V. (1992). The parent paradox. NEA Today, 10(7), 1–4.

Perla, F., & O'Donnell, B. (2002). Reaching out: Encouraging family involvement in orientation and mobility. Re:View, 34(3), 103–110.

Pong, S. L. (1997). Family structure, school context, and eighth-grade math and reading achievement. Journal of Marriage & Family, 59(3), 734–747.

Shockley, B. (1994). Extending the literate community: Home-to-school and school to home. The Reading Teacher, 47(6), 500–503.

Walberg, H. J. (1984). Families as partners in education productivity. Phi Delta Kappan, 65(6), 397–400.

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