Guest blog post by Anne Lowry
As teachers, we know how important family engagement is for student success. How can we improve upon last year’s family engagement and how do we do so while maintaining respect for each family’s unique culture, configuration, workload, finances, and other out of school factors?
One part of the answer is offering multiple ways for families to be involved and being flexible within those ways, remembering that we don’t always see the engagement, but we do hear about it!
Starting with welcoming each family is a given, either in person or remotely, especially with materials in the home language if possible. Taking that extra time early in the year for those phone calls and emails often builds a strong relationship that grows through the year, leading to more family engagement. Creating a family board for your school and/or classroom, with information about local events or other useful information for your families. If you have a linguistically diverse school, this is a great place to post which staff and/or families speak which language and are willing to help with translation if needed.
Documentation is another tool. While we often use it in the classroom for one purpose, the pictures and text give the parents a window into the school day. Daily notes, weekly reflections, and pictures and stories of classroom explorations can be posted in the hallway where families will see them, or you can send them electronically to your students’ families. This can be a particularly powerful tool if your students have family members working or deployed out of the area.
Asking family members to be in class or virtual “experts” with either their work or leisure activities or cultural practices is a powerful way to make families welcome. Posting information about one family usually gets the other families interested as well. A family member reading a story as “librarian for the day” in the classroom sends a powerful message to the student that his/her school is a valued place.
Homework can be a contentious element in family engagement, so change it up. Create interview questions for family members, send “thinking questions” home, and have the students discuss it with family members. We did that last week in my class as we were creating a class definition of a beach. Have them gather data at home, such as measuring snow depth in several spots, to create class graphs. A class favorite is taking a familiar story and coming up with a new version, from a different character’s perspective. Activity packs, with a book and a do at home activity, are always a hit also
Don’t overlook help as part of family engagement. These behind the scenes activities can be a wonderful way for families to become involved. I’ve had families translate materials and documentation into other languages, and create word lists for us to use in the classroom. One year, a parent who worked a tricky schedule became our procurement specialist. One example out of many: We needed newspaper for paper mache; she found it for us. She took pictures of the projects and shared them with those who had helped her collect the materials.
Out of school activities are fun as well. Though these can be tricky to arrange, they create such a positive atmosphere. My class holds a reunion twice a year at a local park, with all previous classes invited. My school hosts several playdates a year at local parks as well. Family Science Nights are extremely popular. NSTA Press released an excellent book on the subject earlier this year: Staging Family Science Nights by Donna Governor and Denise Webb.
Other alternatives include partnering with local non-profit organizations, or the local PBS station. Changing the location can make an event more accessible: libraries, museums, hardware stores, or local restaurants would be good places to start, depending upon your specific demographic.
And don’t forget about using Citizen Science Projects! Many can be done both at home and at school, which provides built-in engagement opportunities. SciStarter.org is a great place to look for such projects No matter what you are doing in your class to improve family engagement, just beginning with the attitude that families want to be engaged and you want to have them engaged will have your school year off to a great start!
Committee on Preschool-Elementary Science Teaching