A Middleweb Blog by Kevin Hodgson
Like many educators, I find the first days of school are a time to get to know my students through community-building activities. I am always curious about family connections, yet never feel as if I do nearly enough to forge partnerships with families, beyond the Curriculum Night, Parent-Teacher Meetings, and regular newsletters.
As a parent of three boys, ironically, I also often feel that I don’t know what my role as a parent should be in our own children’s classrooms. I know every teacher is different, and being a teacher myself sometimes makes this involvement as a parent more complicated rather than less complicated.
I don’t want to be judgmental (or be seen that way) by my sons’ teachers, if I don’t have to be. My wife, also an educator, and I attend school functions, donate supplies to the classrooms, and try to attend field trips and events when we can.
On both sides of the coin, I feel inadequate. So I appreciated the message and the advice that writers Debbie Zacarian and Michael Silverstone inject in their 2015 book from Corwin Press, In It Together: How Student, Family and Community Partnerships Advance Engagement and Achievement in Diverse Classrooms.
Zacarian and Silverstone, whom I know through our Western Massachusetts Writing Project and through our musical circles, have dug deep into ways to expand the walls of the classroom by reaching out to family and community, all in the name of helping students become confident learners.
Zacarian has a long history of providing professional development to school districts on the themes of access and diversity, and Silverstone is an elementary teacher who also writes nonfiction books for young adults.
As I was reading their book this summer, the co-authors generously agreed to answer a few questions via email. Their answers and conversation threads give a sense of their compassionate approach to students and the idea of family/community partnerships.
Paradoxically, partnerships can boost our energy
Kevin Hodgson: The concept of “partnerships” is central to the themes developed throughout your book, In It Together. Could you explain a bit about why teachers should be actively seeking opportunities for engagement beyond the classroom setting? How do partnerships forged by teachers help students?
Michael Silverstone: For me, it’s a practical matter. In a challenging time, not having to deal with another thing seems like it would make things more manageable, But expending energy in the direction of collaboration leaves you with more energy than you started with. It’s kind of a paradox. I’ve come to know that isolation depletes my energy sooner or later. I’ve had supremely satisfying times in my own little classroom world, but after a while, going solo gets draining.
Letting go of any of our control and introducing the element of involvement with other people seems like the last thing a reasonable person would do when facing a challenging task like teaching a school year. However, reason is not omniscient, though it likes to insist to you that it is.
Our reasonable minds don’t see the nearly inevitable future benefits of people contributing things you couldn’t have come up with yourself. That’s what we do for each other in almost every education-related circumstance, particularly when we cultivate the partnerships.
For example, now that I said this, Debbie is going to add something invaluable to my answer that I didn’t see coming. I mean, I know it will be invaluable, I just don’t know what it is, because it’s from a perspective unique from mine and based in a lifetime of committed and thoughtful experience. Just watch. . .
Debbie Zacarian: Many years ago, my husband was invited to our daughter’s kindergarten class to talk about his entomology work. Not being an educator, he was pretty nervous about the prospect of speaking to a group of kindergarten students. With help from our daughter, her teacher, and me, he brought a high magnification microscope and slides of two common insects (an ant and a fly) and did a short talk and demonstration of how to use the microscope, followed by a class activity of viewing the slides.
When he came home and I asked him how it went, I remember him being so struck with how diverse our daughter’s class was…he commented on the number of students with physical disabilities, students learning English, students representing different races and so forth.
What he experienced in this one-day, one-shot short presentation experience is what we have seen happening over the course of decades. Our students and families are becoming more and more and more diverse.
Also, a lot of the diversity is not what we ‘see.’ Two examples: (1) students who do not possess the school language and literacy skills that they need to be successful in school; and (2) the epic numbers of students living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress.
With all of these sweeping differences among our students and families, it just is not possible for any one teacher alone to meet the needs of ALL of our students. When we consider that learning involves communicating and we think of the possibilities of building interactive relationships with and among students, families, the school community and community at large, we can find the real levers to making education work.
Tapping into the rich assets of families
Hodgson: You mention the idea of “connecting learning with families” (p. 39) as part of identifying and then utilizing the assets of a classroom culture for student learning and engagement. What might an ideal connection with families look like for a typical teacher?
Zacarian: Our students spend far more time outside of school than they do in it. Following this train of thought, education doesn’t begin or end at the classroom door, so to speak. It’s about building connections with what is happening in a student’s life to make the work of learning more successful.
These connections can be curricular, social (such as a potluck supper or dance that is strictly for the purpose of welcoming families and building a social connection), or celebratory (where students’ successes are honored). Connections also occur when we draw from the rich assets of our families.
Consider a high school US history class studying the Civil War. It’s likely that the course textbook has lots and lots of vocabulary and academic content on the historical time period. But how are we sure that it’s engaging and compelling for our students, and how can we best ensure that learning happens? This is where the professional craft of teaching comes into play – when we figure out ways to build connections with our students’ personal, world, cultural and prior learning experiences to help learning happen.
Tapping into the experiences of our families greatly helps us in building these connections, and the possibilities for doing this are wonderfully endless. For example, some students might have a parent or sibling who is deployed, and others might have a family member who fled their home country. Both groups have depth of knowledge on this topic of study and can greatly help our instruction to come alive.
Researchers and scholars Moll, Amanti, Neff and Gonzalez use the phrase “funds of knowledge” to describe the possibilities that emerge when we work closely with families. There are so many possibilities that can occur when we draw from our families versus impossibilities when we work in isolation.
Silverstone: I’m going to try to answer this question by describing a feeling every teacher knows. There’s a feeling that brings teachers to teaching and brings parents to parenting, and it is a kind of empathy with another so that you feel like you are on their side, you are on the same side, hearing about their struggles and satisfactions and problems.
In this kind of relationship, you can feel your worry and your agenda melt away like a sun warmed chocolate bar on a hot car dashboard. You feel a softness while listening, and a little celebration and a gratitude that that person is who they are – and you really want for them something lovely and satisfying that would ease their difficulty and give them contentment.
I love my students because they are these funny and sweet people just starting out in life, and bravely and innocently tackling the dilemmas of navigating the world. And I just want things to go well for them. I want it to be easy and/or interesting for them, and for them to be happy and find things to be delighted with, and learn to come into their own power to give to and take from the world. That’s why I chose being with them as my work.
I see parents as allies in this work. I enjoy being on the same side as parents, who love their children like this too, so I feel like I always have something to talk to them about with sincere enthusiasm, either the joys of the child’s success or the puzzle of how to tinker with things so that their child can get to that success.
I’m really more interested in that than in being an authority figure as a teacher. This attitude is like the Star Wars Jedi Mind thing: it seems to magically get teachers to a place by the end of a meeting so that even a formerly disgruntled parent is agreeing, “Those are not the droids you are looking for.” It’s not about controlling the situation; it’s about surrendering the idea of control to a common inspiration – the child’s welfare and happiness.
The transformational power of home visits
Hodgson: I was intrigued by your section on “home visits,” in which teachers make efforts to meet families outside of school. Michael’s reflective notes about his visits to homes were very helpful. What are some of the benefits that come from visiting a family at their home as opposed to inviting them into the classroom?
Silverstone: The way I figure it, every time you do something you didn’t have to do, it’s a demonstration that you are in this thing for something bigger than your job. This is a defiant transcendence of the unfortunate dynamic of administrators, paychecks, punitive evaluations, grievances and the like that taint what could be a very pure exchange.
Teachers, inspired by ideals, teach out of love and a sense that the educational experience can be an incubator of a new and better society, beginning in our classrooms. I’ve always believed this, and it’s a privilege to have any opportunity to serve this possibility. It gives me hope about the world, and hope is what you need to model around young people if you are going to empower them.
And I’ve always looked for ways to give more than anyone could have paid me to give. If you required teachers to visit homes, you’d have to pay them a significant additional amount of money. And even then, the element of freely offering of a gift would be lost.
If teachers voluntarily do it, it is an impressive expression by the teacher to the student and to the family that says: “You matter, unconditionally, and that’s why I’m coming to you in your world, outside of our school.” It’s a potentially life changing statement – or at least a year-changing one.
Beyond this, you get to let the air out of the fear balloon that kids and families (and teachers) have of the unknown. Students and families can be reassured to see their teacher is accessible and interested. And for the teacher, you instantly get insights into where the student has come from, how their home life influences them, and what they are interested in.
It might take six months or longer to get this kind of information by other means, if it ever emerged at all. It’s remarkable how much light is shed by details from even a brief visit throughout a teacher’s relationship with a student and a family.
Zacarian: I once worked in a high school where some students were chronically absent and the district’s truancy officer was charged with bringing them back to school. While you might have a picture in your mind of a tall stern person, she was an older woman who stood less than five feet tall (in heels!) and who did her work with wit, humor, and empathy.
I went with her to many students’ homes and saw first-hand the power that these visits had. Later, I worked with English learners. Some had fled their home countries due to civil strife, a natural disaster, or other traumatic, violent, and stressful experiences. And, they had little familiarity with American school practices. Meeting them in their homes greatly helped as home visits have a relational side to them that is powerful and empowering.
Service learning infuses purpose and engagement
Hodgson: I really enjoyed how you framed service learning as something that “infuses purpose and engagement into the lives of young people (p. 119).” In this age of standardized testing and Common Core alignment, how can we make the case for connecting our students to the larger world through community projects?
Zacarian: According to the Education Commission of the States, engaging students in the service of others has been found to significantly strengthen their academic engagement, educational aspirations, acquisition of 21st century skills, community engagement, and more. It became widely practiced with the signing of the National Community and Service Act by President Bush in 1990 and the National Community and Service Trust Act by President Clinton in 1993. By 2011 almost every state had legislation or policies that actively promoted service learning and provided guidance on standards for implementing it broadly.
Sadly, when our country took an economic downturn, service learning did as well. Since 2011 it’s been reduced significantly because of the curtailment of federal funding. While some states continue to support it with state financial support, it’s generally occurring in districts located in middle and high-income areas. Districts in low income areas have been especially affected.
Many, understandably, view this as an equity issue. The issue of equity is especially powerful as it’s been found to be a significant connector to one of the primary purposes of education: to help students gain knowledge and make a contribution to the world they live on a local, state, national and even global level.
Silverstone: I agree with Debbie – the shift away from federal support for service learning has limited opportunity for many students who could have benefited from it the most, in terms of connecting school to real life experiences and to the world beyond the classroom. The idea of making these connections is finding other expressions these days. For example, in Oklahoma there has been an emphasis on school as meaningful preparation for a life in something in addition to academia or college.
The ultimate method of education involves apprenticeship in real life situations solving actual problems. Academic work as a preparation for anything other than more academic work is rarely directly useful. People that enter professions generally learn from other people mentoring them in real life situations as interns or trainees.
Community projects are a way to make these kinds of experiences available to everyone, regardless of opportunities their families may have or lack. The projects also have the added benefit of making the things learned in schools relevant to something that makes a difference in people’s lives beyond the test taker.
We’re social animals and live to be useful to our group. When we allow students to do useful projects, we tap into profoundly powerful motivations that are hardwired into us from 100,000 years or more of evolutionary history from a time before the first multiple choice bubble was filled by a #2 pencil sometime after the Great Ice Age.
Imagining the best professional development
Hodgson: You end your book with a chapter of professional development, putting it in context of students and families. What would an ideal professional development session look like, if it included the components that you address in your book?
Silverstone: Debbie is quite a maven (Yiddish for guru) of professional development. There’s only a little I can add that isn’t already covered extensively in our book because of what I contributed to it. What I will say as a person who gives in-service workshops is that feedback after workshops usually indicates that:
► Teachers are nourished and refreshed by having enough time to talk or share ideas face to face and think aloud about their responses to teaching challenges. It often feels like a luxurious novelty to do this because of the sheer amount of time we spend with students versus the rare occasions we have to reflect with other adults.
► Creative responses during the workshop (that is, designing a model unit or a product) with the encouragement and support of peers and the occasion are invaluable.
► Regular and consistent meetings and revisiting of a topic throughout a year or intensively for a week or more during a summer is vastly preferable to drive-by PowerPoint lectures.
► Opportunities to speak and be heard in partners or small groups give voice and empowerment to every participant and are an essential part of the experience.
- Having a voice in decision making,
- Getting precise feedback and celebrating our successes, and
- Knowing that we are part of something that is meaningful.
Any professional development effort should be determined with input from participants. In other words, it can be made more successful when it is a collaborative effort. We also know that educators lead very busy lives. In this spirit, we wrote a research-based chapter that includes a range of real-world observation, interview, survey, and reflection tasks and activities for putting the principles into practice.
Our hope is that readers will be inspired to try these creatively, using their own special professional craft, and that the feedback that they receive celebrates our collective successes to be part of the very meaningful work that we do to advance students’ engagement and achievement.