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February 1, 2010
Vol. 67
No. 5

Stepping into Students' Worlds

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The winding entrance to Fualosa and Vai's house is bordered by vibrantly colored dahlias and hydrangeas, evidence of their grandmother's interest in gardening. Their father, an evening shift cook at an expensive restaurant in Seattle, welcomes me into his home. He tells me that he talks to his children every day about the importance of education, and he asks me to pass on to other teachers at Cleveland High School that, although he can't attend evening events at school, he would still like to be involved.
Sarah's family meets me at a neighborhood coffee shop. Sarah's adoptive parents are busy with their careers, her father as a university professor and her mother as a religious leader. However, they hope to serve as field trip chaperones and panel members for our school's senior projects. I learn from our talk that the family lives in an area with few teenagers (Sarah calls it the "diapers and dentures" community) and that Sarah feels isolated as a biracial teen in a mostly white neighborhood. I also learn new things about Sarah's strengths; although she struggles in school, she loves science and reads a lot in her free time.
Sapphire lives with her father and half-brother. When I arrive, she immediately takes me upstairs to show me her spotless bedroom and the desk where she does her homework. Her father enjoys remodeling their home—his tools and a newly purchased shower board are in the hallway. He tells me he is proud of his daughter's academic success, especially after the death of her mother, and also that he would like to mentor young men at Sapphire's school.
These three portraits exemplify the richness and diversity of families at Cleveland High, a small school in southeast Seattle serving approximately 700 students. Such portraits cannot be found by reading the school's 2008–09 annual report, which states that 95 percent of our students come from minority backgrounds, 64 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, and 64 percent live with only one parent or a grandparent. The information teachers gained while talking with these families may never have been shared in a parent-teacher conference or PTA meeting.
These glimpses of students' lives, and many like them, unfolded during visits that our teachers made to students' homes during the last school year. Through listening to parents, grandparents, and others, we learned of these individuals' talents, experiences, and dreams—in ways that would later help us understand and motivate our students.

The Need to Cross the Threshold

Educators' lives are increasingly disconnected from the lives of their students. Many teachers commute to school from far-off suburbs or simply live in different neighborhoods from those they teach. Because the natural overlaps that once arose from living in close community, such as shopping at the same stores or sharing a place of worship, have largely disappeared, teachers have a harder time getting to know students and their families. As Thomas Barone (1989) puts it, educators "have lost the ability to reach out and honor the places (whether the barrio, the ghetto, the reservation, the Appalachian holler, or simply the peaks and pits of adolescence) where our students live" (p. 151). Home visits bridge that gap.
Bridging the gap is especially important when socioeconomic, racial, or linguistic divides exist between the cultural groups a school's families come from and those its educators come from. When teachers get to know families in their homes, they gain firsthand knowledge about each family, rather than accepting generalities about Latino, black, Asian, or American Indian cultures.
Education researchers have discussed the importance of visiting with immigrant families to discover these families' strengths and talents (Ginsberg, 2007; Lopez, 2001; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). When educators work hard to make the initial visit positive, home visits can shift power into the hands of families and overcome any negative school experiences from family members' pasts.

Entering as Learners

When we train Cleveland High's educators to do home visits, we encourage them to focus on discovering the strengths of families, what González, Andrade, Civil, and Moll (2001) call families' "reservoirs of accumulated knowledge and strategies for survival" (pp. 116–117). We urge teachers to consider how they might transfer these "funds of knowledge" (Moll et al., 1992) to the classroom by creating lessons that directly relate to a family's knowledge or having family members volunteer in ways that tap their skills.
For example, when Cleveland High teacher Lydia Stone visited Sarah, she realized that Sarah's father had an insider's knowledge of standards for college-level work. She drew on this professor's expertise by inviting him to serve on the panel that judges students' senior projects. A father who wants to mentor male students is a great find, and when we discovered that Sapphire's father wanted to make this commitment, we connected him with teachers in a career center who could line him up to mentor district students. He now volunteers on our senior project boards as well. When teachers design or extend opportunities for including parents with the talents of specific families in mind, they can count on increased parental involvement.
Family strengths have been a focus of our home visits since we piloted the program. In summer 2007, several Cleveland High teachers attended a training on engaging families conducted by GEAR-UP, a program that works to prepare low-income students for college. These teachers learned of Margery Ginsberg's work about home visits and heard presentations from other educators who did visits. This pilot team made a plan to initiate visits at Cleveland High, met with teachers at another school who were veteran visitors, and arranged for a trainer from the district's family engagement department to do a workshop on conducting family visits for all interested Cleveland teachers that spring. They used the process Ginsberg described in a 2007Educational Leadership article—outlining how to prepare the groundwork for a home visit and collect data on funds of knowledge—to guide their initial work.
Our teachers don't deliver information during a visit; instead, they try to listen. This stance is a significant departure from the traditional home visit— and a challenge to maintain. Teachers do provide school forms, staff and resource directories, and other information as part of the visit, but only give them to families just before they leave. The primary focus is to build relationships, create a more tightly knit school community, and eventually design classrooms that better reflect our students.
We find it highly rewarding when we incorporate information gleaned from a home visit into a lesson, warm-up question, project, or assignment; and we are trying to do this more in our second year of visits. One teacher drew on what he'd learned in talking with a student's father to develop a lesson with that student in mind. The father mentioned that his daughter, who was disengaged in school, was highly interested in crime scene investigation techniques and forensics. This teacher then related a chemistry lesson to forensic methods.
Cleveland High requires all certified teachers to conduct home visits. Administrators, our bilingual instructional aides, and such resource personnel as the school nurse sometimes accompany teachers. A partnership with the University of Washington provides extra professional development for our staff. Teachers receive appropriate training led by our professional development coordinator and Cleveland High's home visits coordinator. The arrangement includes a yearly stipend for teachers—$2,500 per teacher this year—for conducting visits and attending professional development in the summer.
Last year, each of our 40 teachers visited five 9th grade students' homes; this year, each teacher will visit the homes of at least five students from his or her advisory class, choosing a mix that represents the academic, racial, and linguistic diversity of our school. Although some may choose to visit a few students who are struggling, the focus remains on getting to know the family, not addressing problems. We hope to eventually visit all students in the school. We follow up by tracking the academic progress of the visited students in our professional development time. Teachers plan together how to incorporate what they have learned from visits into lessons, and they later examine student work created during these lessons.
Some educators perceive home visits as auxiliary to what occurs in the classroom and unrelated to student achievement. However, when we visit a student's home, students become aware that lines of communication have opened between their family and their teacher, and a feeling of trust and inclusion develops. We are often pleasantly surprised at how much student interest in school increases after we begin to make such connections.

How to Make It Work

  • Do research. Read articles about home visits, seek professional development regarding family engagement, and talk to staff at other schools that have implemented home visits.
  • Ponder your rationale. Carefully consider why your school should do home visits.
  • Think about your model. What costs (such as for mailings or extra staff time) may be associated with home visits? Will you need translators? How will you make this project sustainable?
  • Get the commitment of all staff—or a pilot group—before you plan logistics. You might present the idea to a building leadership team first or have a pilot team share positive data from a fledging visits program at a staff meeting. At Cleveland, all staff had to sign a compact agreeing to conduct homevisits.
  • Designate a responsible person or team to coordinate visits, ideally someone who already works with families (such as a school social worker). You might give a classroom teacher release time to devote to planning and evaluating home visits. Small teams work better than one person.
  • Train teachers to conduct effective visits. Introduce the basics of home visits and the concept of funds of knowledge. Consider role-playing a home visit and help teachers develop questions that will be conducive to learning from families.
  • Agree on a method for selecting which families to visit. Our first year, I assigned five 9th graders to each teacher, matching teachers with students they had in class when possible. This year, teachers chose five kids from their advisory group.
  • Decide how to contact families and set parameters for visits. During our first year, we sent letters to families and then phoned to schedule visits ranging from 30 minutes to one hour. Be flexible in arranging meeting times to accommodate parents' schedules. We set a two-month window for teachers to complete visits, which gives teachers flexibility but creates a sense of urgency about conducting visits early in the year.
  • Follow up with parents. The program coordinator or a teacher should contact parents or grandparents after a meeting to answer questions and tell them about opportunities for involvement in school.
  • Create opportunities for teachers to use what they learn. You might design a form or process that teachers can use to describe key information they gained at each visit and reflect on how to use that rich knowledge. It's crucial to set up a way for each home visitor to share information with the students' other teachers; this may require further professional development on how to tap funds of knowledge. Teachers may also need shared planning time to revise lessons.

The Stories We Must Hear

Stories like those of Sarah, Fualosa, Vai, Sapphire, and their families need to be told—and it's essential that their teachers hear these stories. Each year, on the first day of school, I stand in front of a sea of faces, with names swirling in my head. Some students remain a mystery to me until I visit their homes and they unfold into real people. Teachers need to know students in this way; every day we make instructional decisions that hinge on what we know about our kids. We can learn so much if we just enter students' homes and listen.

Barone, T. (1989). Ways of being at risk: The case of Billy Charles Barnett. Phi Delta Kappan, 71(2), 147–151.

Ginsberg, M. (2007). Lessons at the kitchen table.Educational Leadership, 64(6), 56–61.

González, N., Andrade, R., Civil, M., & Moll, L. (2001). Bridging funds of distributed knowledge: Creating zones of practices in mathematics. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 6(1&2), 115–132.

Lopez, G., (2001). The value of hard work: Lessons on parent involvement from an (im)migrant household. Harvard Educational Review, 71(3), 416–437.

Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & González, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: A qualitative approach to developing strategic connections between homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 31(1), 132–141.

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