Building Partnerships Through Classroom-Based Events - ASCD
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September 1, 2017

Building Partnerships Through Classroom-Based Events

Here's how educators can design events that make families feel welcome, share their children's learning, and integrate the rich assets they bring.

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School Culture

As educators, we all want to build partnerships with families. We know that students benefit from the cooperation, care, and shared inspiration that such partnerships can create.

But deepening family engagement can be a challenge, especially in ethnically diverse schools. The traditional approaches that schools use—parent-teacher conferences, back-to-school nights, and so on—sometimes put parents in a passive role, unwittingly distancing the very people we most want to include. Simply inviting families to an occasional school music program or open house doesn't guarantee that they'll feel welcome and become more involved in their children's school.

How can we move beyond the routine and often hidebound events that occur in almost all schools? Throughout our experiences—as a classroom teacher and consultant (Michael) and as a district supervisor of programming for English learners and family outreach; a university faculty member; an administrator in an educational service agency; and a consultant (Debbie)—we've collaborated with educators nationwide. In this work, we've found that well-conceived classroom-based events have the capacity to engage all families—including ethnically diverse families and those who may not naturally feel comfortable at school.

In this article, we look at classroom-based events designed around three important purposes: building a sense of community; showcasing the curriculum; and drawing on families' rich resources. The examples we share come from our own experiences and from those of numerous educators with whom we have worked.

Building Classroom Community

Community-building classroom events can be especially helpful early in the school year as a way of reaching families who may perceive schools as unwelcoming or unfamiliar places. By inviting families to join us for a social purpose—such as a movie, game, or art night; a festival celebrating the cultural dances of the community; or a potluck picnic, breakfast, or dinner—we can create positive momentum for the school year.

For example, Janette Parks was an upper-grade elementary school teacher in a rural district. She had 25 students in her class, many of whom received special education, reading, mathematics, English as a second language, or counseling support from specialists. To plan a welcoming event for her students' families, Janette followed some essential guidelines for community-building events.

  1. She discussed the plans with school administrators in advance to secure their full, informed support.

  2. She met with colleagues, including the specialists, counselors, and subject-matter teachers serving her students, as well as families of former students and the district's family-liaison translator. She also connected with religious and community leaders. Together, this group designed an event that would attract the most families. Janette allowed time for joint planning and group consensus. Although this inclusion may have felt cumbersome to those who were used to acting and making decisions alone, it created broader and more enthusiastic support for the event.

  3. The group planned a social event that they thought would bring the most participants—a potluck supper. Knowing that some family members worked evening shifts, they held the event at 4 p.m. in hopes of a robust turnout.

  4. They reached out to families in multiple ways, not assuming that one announcement in a newsletter or one printed notice sent home would be enough to cut through the clutter of families' busy lives. They made the extra effort anticipating that it might take three or more messages (for example, by email, by paper notice, and by phone call) for a school event to come to an adult's awareness.

  5. They encouraged students to be the event ambassadors to their families. In addition to creating colorful signs for the school hallways, the class collectively wrote a personal invitation to the event, which was translated into the languages spoken by students' parents and guardians to ensure that all were included.

  6. They involved families of former and current students, as well as staff members with specific cultural or language familiarity, who helped in translating the invitation into different languages and personally inviting families who might not have access to email or phone. They also asked volunteer families to offer transportation if necessary.

  7. On the day of the event, greeters were stationed at the school door to escort families to the classroom. These greeters—alumni family members, students, and staff members—welcomed families and engaged them in conversation to ensure that attendees felt included throughout the event.

  8. During the event, Janette and her colleagues created a warm, comfortable atmosphere and set the expectation for future social interactions. They welcomed families and told them what a pleasure it was to work with their children. They asked families to introduce themselves by saying, "Hello, I am (name of child)'s family or friend." Educators circulated among the families and joined them at various tables to enjoy the potluck supper.

  9. At the close of the event, Janette addressed the whole group. She acknowledged those who collaboratively planned and helped with the potluck supper, and welcomed families' and students' ideas for future events. She showed them a suggestion box that the students had created for this purpose.

About 70 percent of the students and their families attended that first event—almost double the number that had attended previous events. The planning group met afterward to review the responses they received during the event and in the suggestion box. The most common response was that attendees felt welcomed and looked forward to attending a future event. As a result, the group began holding a potluck supper at the beginning of each semester and a family picnic at a local park at the close of the school year. Attendance surpassed their expectations during these events—some 90 percent of the families participated. During subsequent years, the types of events expanded to include a community dance that honored the cultural songs and dances of the school's families.

Showcasing the Curriculum

Curriculum showcase events are great opportunities for students to share with their families and others what they have learned. These events publicly acknowledge and validate student achievement and reinforce learning by giving students an opportunity to review and share material. Perhaps even more important, these events demystify what goes on in school and help families understand what their children are studying, which enables them to offer academic support more confidently at home.

Showcase events can take the form of recognition ceremonies, debates, poetry slams, plays, poster presentations—whatever creative ideas students and teachers can come up with. One class we know of created a "wax museum" in which each student dressed as a historical figure and presented information to illustrate the role his or her character played in history. All of these events provide opportunities for students to develop confidence and fluency in real-life communication skills they'll use throughout their lives.

Here's an example from the class of Mark Zimmerman, a 2nd grade teacher in a small city in the state of Washington. Notice how Mark followed the same guidelines that made Janette Parks's community-building event a success (such as involving colleagues, students, parents, and guardians in the planning; assessing the factors that would make the event accessible to families; reaching out in multiple ways; and creating a welcoming atmosphere) and added some steps that are particularly helpful for curriculum events.

During their weekly class meetings, Mark and his students brainstormed ideas for a family curriculum event. They came up with three options: (1) a series of readers theater productions of Native American folktales from their history unit; (2) a coffeehouse to celebrate the classroom anthology of poems students wrote during their poetry unit; and (3) a film festival of short videos presenting students' scientific study of pollution, which they would create with support from the school's technology instructor and parent and guardian volunteers.

Mark brought the three ideas to colleagues who also worked with his students, including the ESL and special education teachers and occupational and speech specialists. They suggested starting with the Native American folktale presentations, and they offered to help students prepare. In small groups, students developed and practiced their short readers theater pieces for the curriculum showcase.

While these preparations were underway, Mark surveyed families about the dates and times when they would be available. On the basis of the responses, the class decided to offer two performances that would make it possible for parents, grandparents, siblings, and other family members to attend—one just after morning drop-off and the other at 7:00 p.m. The students wrote invitations; teachers sent flyers and emails; and parent volunteers called each family to offer carpooling and child-care support. Mark and his colleagues also ensured the success of their curriculum showcase event through the following actions:

  1. They gave students ample time to practice their presentations so that they were well-versed in enacting the actual event. One useful strategy was videotaping students to help them rehearse and identify areas for improvement. The more students were able to reflect on what they were doing, the easier it was for them to take responsibility for the excellence of their presentation and feel a sense of pride on its completion.

  2. They provided opportunities during the event for families to acknowledge and recognize what students had accomplished and showcased. There was a multilingual poster that read, "Comments, questions, and compliments for presenters." Mark and his co-teachers distributed blank sticky notes and encouraged viewers to write messages on them and then paste them to the poster.

Most of the parents of students in Mark's class had never attended a school event before. But thanks to the careful planning by Mark, his colleagues, and students, the majority of families turned out. Also, before and after the presentation, Mark spoke personally with as many family members as he could about the students' hard work and successes. From the comments that families made and their obvious pride, he could tell that the event had established a way to celebrate students' efforts and set a constructive tone for home-school collaboration and future interactions.

Drawing on Families' Rich Resources

Families have a wide array of resources, talents, and assets to share with their children's classroom and school. For example, a parent working in a hospital might talk to the class about how he uses math on the job; an entrepreneur might tell the story of how she developed her business; a Spanish-speaking family member might come to a Spanish class to share the holiday traditions of Mexico; and a family recently arrived from Somalia might tell a history class about their immigration experience.

Each time a family member offers a presentation to students, it's a powerful statement of caring. It says, "The work you do in school is important enough for me to give my time." It also says, "What I do in my life and career is possible for you to do too, because I am from your community." Such visits also acknowledge the value of students' cultures and families. When family members are invited to share something of value, the status of all families is transformed into an asset and source of strength.

For instance, 8th grade middle school social studies teacher John Ellis and English language arts teacher Katherine Leighton tapped into family resources to enrich an interdisciplinary unit on contemporary issues in a global society. In social studies, students were studying contemporary conflicts between Israel and Palestine, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Pakistan. In their English language arts classes, small groups of students selected one of three books to read: Thura's Diary: A Young Girl's Life in War-Torn Baghdad (Viking, 2004); We Just Want to Live Here (St. Martin's Griffin, 2003), about the friendship between a Palestinian and Israeli; and I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (Back Bay Books, 2013).

John wanted to bring this unit to life by inviting family members to discuss their experiences growing up or serving in the Middle East. Working with Katherine and the school's guidance counselor, he invited a mother who served in the U.S. Army in Iraq and an Israeli mother and father who worked with Palestinians to come to his social studies class. To make this a positive experience for the families, John and his colleagues took the following steps:

  1. They talked with family presenters ahead of time about what to expect—for example, the start and end time, the number of students and adults in the class, and general information about special needs in the classroom. Preparation is important because adult guests may be surprised by how schools have changed since their own childhoods or are otherwise different from their expectations. For example, presenters may expect the teacher's voice to be the primary authority, and they may need reassurance about the importance of their contributions, especially if they are unused to speaking to groups.

  2. They explained the overarching goal of the class and unit of study (to expand students' academic, social, and emotional knowledge about global conflict and resolution) and what they hoped students would understand by the end of the family member's visit (new perspectives into this unit of study).

  3. They gave suggestions and guidelines to make the visit more successful, such as using visuals or real-life objects and talking about their personal connection to the subject.

  4. They shared potential questions that the students might ask the presenters.

  5. They offered to be a sounding board and talk through plans as the visiting family member formulated his or her ideas for participation.

  6. They shared information with the class in the days leading up to the visit to provide students with background and to build anticipation.

  7. After the visit, they worked with students to create a group thank-you message.

The guest speakers enriched students' global awareness and perspectives about the issues they were exploring in class. When John asked students what they learned, many said that the presenters helped them to understand that Israelis and Palestinians are not always enemies—that they live and work together.

In It Together

Whether students are being raised by two parents, a single parent, grandparents, foster parents, or unrelated people living cooperatively with extra-familial supports, they look to their families as a place of emotional connection, security, support, and growth. Because students spend more time at home than in school, teachers need to build home-school partnerships that empower students, families, and local communities. The classroom events we've described here can lay the groundwork for such partnerships by making the classroom a welcoming and affirming place in which all families feel that they're "in it together."

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