Interactions Matter:  impact learning through student, classroom, family and community partnerships

by Debbie Zacarian and Michael Silverstone

talking-heads-1Whether you are an administrator, teacher or a parent–a fan of standardized testing-indexed sanctions, or an advocate for student-directed learning experiences, there is one point of agreement that we all share. We want all students to feel and be successful.  For well over a decade, success has been measured by federal and state accountability standards.  For some groups of students, the testing outcomes and graduation rates reflect progress–for others, they indicate a continuing and deepening state of crisis.  A particular group that appears to be struggling is English learners, the fastest growing demographic group of all.  The graphs below show the 2013-2014 graduation rates of various groups of students.  The first is based on national rates and the second is based on Massachusetts’ graduation rates.

Figure 1:  2013-2014 US Graduation Rates (Source: US DOE).

US grad rate

Figure 2  2013-2014 MA Graduation Rates (Source: US DOE)

MA grad rates

These figures indicate an urgent need to better address the growing population of English learners.  A first step is acknowledging a possible cause. We suggest that the national shift to high stakes testing may have undermined the ability of educators and students to allow for much needed cooperative, interactive, and meaningful learning experiences in favor of individual achievement.  This has resulted in a shift away from what we know about learning-students learn best when classrooms and schools are oriented toward fostering social and linguistic interactions, both personal and academic, in a nurturing way.

Interactions are Key to Learning

John Hattie completed the largest meta-analysis of educational research of the key factors that effect student achievement (2008).  Of the 138 influences and effects that he studied, teacher-student relationships as well as feedback ranked among the top 8%.  Looking more closely at his findings reveals that trusting relationships are key for this to occur successfully.  Because so many of us do not represent the racial, cultural, economic, and language backgrounds of our students, particularly English learners, we have to think more proactively about what we can do to ensure that the partnerships that we forge with students are meaningful and empowering for them.  Also, students are not empty vessels that need to be filled with the all-knowing curriculum standards.  Rather, we have to consider what seminal psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978) posited about learning- that it occurs through two systems:

  1. Cognition (helping students to draw from what they already know in terms of the concepts being studied and their personal, world, cultural, and linguistic knowledge)


2.  Social Interactions (supporting lots and lots of active and continuous interactions between and among students, peers, teachers, families, the school community and community at large).

Students learn best when their classrooms are conceptualized around caring trusted interconnected interactions that are depicted in the figure below.

Figure 3:  Type of Interactions

Sphere of INfluence

Teacher-Student Partnerships

Student learning and membership in our classrooms are reliant on our interactions and partnerships with them.  These require our taking time to continuously use approaches and strategies that help us to understand –with empathy–our students’ personal, cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, and world experiences so that we can build a learning community that is grounded on these understandings.

Student-Student Partnerships

Hattie’s (2008) meta-analyses also reveals that collaborative learning (paired and small group) ranks among one of the top influences that effect student learning.  While we know that this is critical to consider, so is our need to better understand the diverse identities, beliefs, and practices of our students and their families.

One of the urgent reasons for paying much more attention to student-student relationships and interactions goes beyond the research that shows it to be an important teaching method.  Student-student interactions are also a cultural match for the vast majority of students from underrepresented populations as they represent a collectivist way of being in which relationships are critical.

Family Involvement

While we want families to be partners with us, most teacher education programs are not providing us with training in this critical area.  We tend to learn about working with families on our own, from our peers, and on the job.  As our schools are becoming more diverse, we must consider the various communities that our majority and minority students participate to create the type of partnerships that foster the social interactions and interconnections that are possible to make our schools work for the very groups that it is not.   Classroom based family events are tremendous resources for partnering with families.  These include

  • Community-building events for social purposes,
  • Showcasing the curriculum to make learning transparent,
  • Drawing on the rich resources of our families; and
  • Building a home school shared culture of learning. 

Teacher-School Community

As with family-school partnerships, the importance of a teacher’s partnership with his/her school community is also a central component.  For teachers of English learners, this cannot be minimized as our students spend so much of their learning time with general classroom, subject matter, specialist (e.g., art, music, technology) teachers and others.  When we work in partnership with each other, the possibilities for creating a seamless day for our students become more and more possible.

School Community-Community at Large

Few motivators may be more powerful to students than the opportunity to offer useful service to others.  It offers direct and practical real-world encounters with the concepts and ideas that they are studying, dimensions of understanding that are not possible in our classrooms alone, and an authentic real-world context for social interactions with students, teachers, and the larger community.  When we provide our students with opportunities to collaboratively interact to do the following, we have a much better chance to support student success:

  1. Investigate real world challenges,
  2. Plan and prepare ways to help address them,
  3. Implement these ideas,
  4. Reflect on their service to others
  5. Celebrate efforts

When we take the time to support students’ interactions in these ways, we can impact their learning and engagement in powerful ways.  There is no better or more urgent time to do this than right now.

This article was drawn from Zacarian & Silverstone (2015) In It Together How Student, Family, and Community Partnerships Advance Engagement and Achievement in Diverse Classrooms.  It was originally posted in a MATSOL Blog.

In it Together Cover





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