If I could do my family engagement all over again...

I've been out of the classroom for many years. But I think often about returning for an opportunity to do things differently. I would especially like a "do-over" on building relationships with families. What I knew then about strategies to effectively partner with families to support learning was minimal compared to what I know now. And I also know a lot more about how strongly research supports the positive impact of effective family engagement practices on student learning.

The research on family engagement is unequivocal. Building strong, positive, trusting relationships with families is essential to developing a productive home-school partnership.

The impact on families is significant when we take the time to nurture these relationships:

  • Families gain a clear understanding of their role

  • Families are empowered and gain confidence to support their child's learning

Their voice is significant. Families feel comfortable sharing their feedback and opinions and advocating on behalf of their child, school, and community.

The impact on students is equally resonant. When schools engage families well, students:

  • exhibit faster rates of literacy acquisition

  • earn higher grades and test scores

  • record higher attendance and lower behavioral discipline rates

  • graduate and go on higher education

Without any formal training on family engagement, my level of commitment to families consisted of the usual suspects: meet the teacher, open house, and parent-teacher conferences. And let's not forget about the phone calls or meetings scheduled to discuss behavioral issues and academic concerns. These strategies are important, but lack deeper-level connections (and calling home only with "bad" news will not enhance relationships with families). 

If I had the opportunity for a family engagement "do-over," here's what I would do differently:

  1. Engage in partnership strategies early. Waiting to connect with families until parent-teacher conferences is too late. Engaging with families before school starts or early in the year lets families know how important their partnership is to their child's learning. When there is a concern or issue that needs to be addressed, families are more open to discussing the issue when relational trust has been established.

  2. Be more proactive than reactive. Don't wait for an issue or event to engage with families. A positive phone call early in the year, welcome postcard or a relationship-building home visit demonstrates to families know that we value them, care about their family and their child and welcome their partnership.

  3. Focus on positive home-school communication. All families deserve positive outreach. While it may seem daunting to call all families or send all families a positive note, the impact of just one call or positive postcard speaks volumes and has a ripple effect that lasts throughout the year. The communication doesn't need to be elaborate, a simple text, picture or video shared with the family of the student engaging in learning sends a powerful message.

  4. Engage with families outside of school. Whether it is in the home, in the park, or local laundromat, engaging with families on their "turf," indicates that we care about, and value and respect them as equal partners.

Remember, family engagement is about relationships. They need to be built, nurtured and adapted, just like any relationships we have with colleagues, friends, and family.



Start with the why & inviting uncertainty

Last week, Nicole Bosworth, Director of Literacy at Scholastic Education, wrote about asking "why" questions to get kids thinking deeply about what they read. She wrote: 

Teachers have been using literature to convey moral anecdotes to students since the inception of schooling. However, research has shown that early learners often focus more on the details rather than the overarching theme, and miss the story’s moral. In a recent study, "Explaining the Moral of the Story," published in the Journal of Cognition (Walker, 2017), researchers found that by simply asking students why questions, teachers can help learners tease out broader meaning from a story, such as the moral.

Asking why questions allows students to move away from reading questions in which they are asked only to repeat back facts from the text. Why questions can yield creative and dyanamic thinking, and robust discussion. It supports comprehension. (Such an approach is, of course, at the heart of Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, as Bosworth notes.)

In the October issue of ASCD's Educational Leadership, Ronald Beghetto writes about the benefits of "inviting uncertainty into the classroom." 

He writes:

Put simply, uncertainty is what makes a problem a problem. If you already know how to move from A to Z, then you don't have a problem—yet our students will face problems in life. If we want to unleash student problem solving, we need to give them chances to respond well to uncertainty in the context of a supportive environment.

As Bosworth's why questions encourage students to engage in deeper, abstract thinking, Beghetto's uncertainty allows students to explore, experiment and problem-solve in a supportive environment. 



Start with the Why

In 2009, Simon Sinek made the bold assertion that everyone has a why, and great leaders know why they do what they do, not just how they do it. Sinek claims that knowing our why allows us to make choices that lead us to greater fulfillment in all that we do.

Interestingly, it turns out that the why is just as important in teaching and learning—specifically, helping students get more out of the stories they read.

Teachers have been using literature to convey moral anecdotes to students since the inception of schooling. However, research has shown that early learners often focus more on the details rather than the overarching theme, and miss the story’s moral. In a recent study, "Explaining the Moral of the Story," published in the Journal of Cognition (Walker, 2017), researchers found that by simply asking students why questions, teachers can help learners tease out broader meaning from a story, such as the moral.

Using two different experiments, the study’s findings demonstrated that prompts to explain aspects of a story enable children’s ability to move beyond surface features, and conceptualize the underlying moral. These findings can have a wide-ranging impact on comprehension and abstract reasoning in early childhood.

Caren Walker (the study’s author) notes that what we have learned and observed from developmental psychology over the years is that what children fail to do is not a failure of competence, but rather, a difference in where their attention is directed. In other words, when we redirect their attention to different types of information, children can do a surprising amount of things we didn’t think they could.

The idea of redirecting to different types of information with the ultimate goal of reading reminds me of Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s innovative work in Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters (2017). Through their Book, Head, Heart (BHH) Framework, Beers and Probst advocate for helping students understand the potential power of a text in their own lives—the power of connection. If we help students understand the why of a story, in turn, they are able to make connections to their own lives, and other stories, ultimately achieving the highest level of comprehension.

Walker found that children who had been prompted to explain a story performed significantly better on reading tasks than the group who had just been asked to report on events that happened. Explaining a story facilitates abstraction and generalization of moral lessons, while reporting concentrates attention to facts and details that might not support comprehension and understanding.

For so long, we have focused our teaching efforts on fluency, decoding, and extracting data like names, dates, and other key character details, that students have missed the opportunity to understand why the author told the story, and its relevance to their own lives and community.

If educators actively engage students in the process of reading by asking why questions to support connections beyond the text, students’ comprehension will be broader and deeper.

Many students enter school with the longing and passion to read, a passion which can dissipate as years go on. As Beers and Probst note in Disrupting Thinking, “too many students still seem to think of books as burdens placed upon them, rather than invitations to experience new thoughts." (p. 56) When we move beyond the surface details of a text, we can start to understand the why behind actions of the heroes and heroines of the stories we love, and wonder how reading will change us.

Isn’t that what the joy and power of reading is all about?


The impact of hunger on achievement, & addressing lunch-shaming

Below are a few education stories I've bookmarked recently.

Last week we published "When Hunger Is an Equity Issue," from Andy Kubas, Executive Director of Learning Supports in Bloomington, MN. As an elementary school principal some years earlier, Andy had discovered through talking with a student, that the student's behavioral problems were largely connected to hunger. He then created a food pantry in his school, working with families and community partners to address this major barrier to learning.

Related: NPR took a look at new research on the possible connection between food stamp administration schedule and academic performance. In short, researchers "find that children who come from families that are several weeks removed from receiving their food-stamp benefits perform worse on an important math exam."

New York City announced at the beginning of the school year that all NYC schoolchildren now have access to free lunch. This move was in response to the increased attention that the practice of "lunch shaming" is receiving nationwide. Kei-Sygh Thomas at The 74 looks at New York City and other states' responses.

A different approach: District Administration shared a local news story about a Columbia, MO school district that plans to "go after" parents who don't pay for their children's school lunch. (Possible solutions include small claims court.) The school board president: "When it first caught our attention, we started to think about ways to maybe punish the kids if you would, to try to get them to start paying or parents to start paying, and then some community members spoke up and said, 'We shouldn't be punishing the kids, you should be punishing the parents that are not paying.'"




Resources for talking to students about tragedy

With the Las Vegas tragedy on our minds, we know that there may be impossible conversations happening in classrooms nationwide in days and weeks to come.

No matter where you reside, it's likely that students will see the news headlines on television and online. For age-appropriate news articles about the event, there's Junior Scholastic (for middle schoolers) and the New York Times Upfront (for high schoolers).

Scholastic.com also has Resources for Responding to Tragedy and Violence, for educators in grades preK-12

You may also want to support the families in your school community as they have similar difficult conversations at home. We suggest Three Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Scary News

Our hearts go out to the victims of this terrible tragedy.

When Hunger Is an Equity Issue

"I'm Hungry"

I first made the connection between hunger and academic achievement when I was principal at Valley View Elementary School in Bloomington, MN. I got a call from one of my third-grade teachers about a student who was acting up and disrupting class. The boy sat in my office, and I asked him what was going on. After some time, he said, “I’m hungry. All we had was bread this morning, and my mom saves the ends for my baby sister.” I realized that what I was dealing with was not a discipline issue, but an equity issue

This was not my first experience with hunger. I myself had grown up in an unsettled home where access to food was often an issue. I moved a lot, and went to many different schools as a child. Ultimately, I became a teacher, and later principal, in high-poverty schools because those were the communities I felt I needed to serve. That Monday morning conversation was a pivotal moment for me: I realized not only that there was a direct connection between hunger and a child’s ability to be present and ready to learn, but that I was in a position to provide resources to help.

Barriers to learning

Eighty-eight percent of the student population at Valley View was eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, so I knew that while I had one child sitting in front of me who was experiencing significant barriers to learning, I also had a school full of children who were possibly struggling with similar issues. This particular third-grade boy was sent to me by his teacher, but I knew that for the larger community, I had to be proactive about addressing these barriers, not wait for signs of disengagement.

Obviously, as educators, it is not our job to solve world hunger, but when it comes to a barrier to learning, it is our job to help students arrive in school each day ready to learn. And this is a nationwide issue: research has shown that 85% of principals have students who are coming to school hungry; this percentage becomes 90% in high-poverty schools.

Meeting the need

At Valley View, we formed a partnership with a local church that ran a food shelf. The church had relationships with suppliers, and agreed to send a portion of their food to Valley View. We knew it was important to try to provide food that was appropriate for our school population, so we made sure we had the hominy, corn and beans that our students would eat. We asked our Muslim and Hispanic families what they want. After doing our due diligence, we worked with the church to come up with meals that a kid could put together without much prep or cooking.

Next, we set up a repository by the school kitchen, where kids could go and pick up food that was packed in backpacks, ready to go. We had the Bloomington health department inspect the pantry so that we knew this service was up to code and approved at every level.

We shared this with the school community by talking to families at our Family Academy. It was important to us to make sure that making the choice to use the food closet was one that a family would make among themselves. As a school, we provided the opportunity, but also wanted to be discreet and respectful of our families’ needs.

In terms of assessing the success of the program, our best method was to take inventory of how much food was going out each week. There were times when it was gangbusters, and times when it was slow. We analyzed patterns to identify peak times, and found that the need was greatest on Fridays and just before holidays, when kids would be out of school for extended periods of time.

A scalable model

After Valley View’s program had been in place for some time, other schools that were experiencing similar issues set up their own programs. We saw that hunger was an issue across Bloomington, regardless of neighborhood. At that point I had just begun to move to the district office for Bloomington Public Schools, and we knew we needed to make sure that all sites were following the appropriate steps to follow insurance and health code approvals. 

So we brought all ten of our elementary schools together in order to ensure each site was adhering to the same parameters, and that everyone was protected. We also wanted to streamline procedures, and centralize our relationships with community partners we were working with. As a group, we brought in faith-based organizations that were able to supply food and backpacks, and help with menus. We’ve worked closely with The Sheridan Story and Volunteers Enlisted to Help People (VEAP) to accomplish our goals.

What’s next

We are working within the state’s new wellness policy. We have refined our beliefs and improved our health practices in Bloomington schools. The scope of the policy extends beyond the food closet to impact our practices on many different levels—for example, we’re considering alternatives to the practice of bringing in cupcakes to celebrate birthdays. In this coming year, we will implement our new thinking, which will have an impact on how we deliver food in the upcoming school year.

If you’re wondering about the third grader I mentioned earlier, it is a hard truth of this work that we don’t always have a neat ending to every story. That particular student moved out of our district—a migratory existence is the reality for much of our student population. As an educator, my mission is to look within my school community and identify the barriers to learning that are particular to the students I serve. Then I can work with community partners to address their needs. As I said before, I can’t solve world hunger, but I can help our students arrive each day, ready to learn.

How We Train, Retain and Set Expectations for Teachers

Below are a few education stories I've bookmarked recently.

“It’s very difficult to change student learning if we are not changing adult learning,” says Paul Fleming, of the Tennessee education department, in a recent article in District Administration about new approaches to teachers' professional learning.

Tennessee and other states are using a personalized approach to PD that is collaborative, and measures success based on the acquisition of new skills and ways of thinking rather than hours spent in lectures.

Districts nationwide continue to grapple with not only how to prepare teachers and provide effective professional development, but also how to measure success, and to do so in a way that is equitable for both students and teachers.

In Chalkbeat, Matt Barnum explores the case of one teacher in Baltimore who earned the highest-possible rating on her evaluation, but stands to lose her certification due to low scores on the math portion of her certification. The article calls into question the current certification process and its impact on recruiting and retaining oustanding teachers. Especially in underserved communities.

Finally, the video below (from Vox in 2014) turned up in my Facebook newsfeed earlier this week, and it's certainly a conversation starter. Dana Goldstein (The Teacher Wars) says, "We need to address making the job an attractive job more than we need to focus on things like telling teachers they can trump poverty."

In a world where teachers are often asked to be all things to all people (and, given the above Chalkbeat reporting, are themselves often part of questions around inequity), what do you think of Goldstein's argument?



Cultivating a Culturally Responsive Classroom Community

Launching a magnificent school year begins with cultivating a strong sense of community with the students at your school. Establishing a culturally responsive culture is not just the responsibility of the teachers in the classroom, school leaders should also communicate that this is a priority and support each teachers’ efforts. Classroom community ultimately reflects beliefs about how students should experience learning—and it is an immense feat to get a group of wonderfully diverse students with unique cultures, identities, passions, talents, and needs to learn and thrive together. 

Productive, culturally responsive classroom learning communities produce collective agreements about the values, relationships and behaviors that best serve the learning goals of all students and are cultivated throughout the year. Below are suggestions for how teachers can approach establishing an effective culturally responsive culture in the classroom—efforts school leaders should support and encourage, as well as mirror in their own interactions with staff. 

Start with Relationships, Trust and Rapport

Building trust and rapport with each student individually is one of the first things to consider when building a culturally responsive classroom community. As humans, we are all dependent on the quality and depth of our relationships. This is especially true for students, since most must navigate multiple relationships in and outside of school with varying levels of depth. Building trust and rapport, then, should serve as a teacher’s top priority at the beginning of the school year. 

Getting to know who your students are as individuals is one of the hallmarks of a culturally responsive classroom community. Understanding the cultural, academic, linguistic and social identities of your students comes through deep, authentic connections and relationships. This type of relationship building can feel risky at times since building a deep level of trust and rapport with students can push us personally to places of vulnerability. 

But it’s critical to remember that students have to believe their teacher cares about them. Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain (2015), shares that “We have to not only care about students in a general sense, but also actively care for them in a physical and emotional sense.” When teachers authentically and consistently demonstrate caring behaviors toward their students, the critical trust that builds relationships grows, as does the culturally responsive classroom community. 

Tips for Practice

  • Be a storyteller. Incorporate your story and the stories of students into the life of the classroom. Create ways for you and your students to express individual identities and share personal experiences.

  • Model active, authentic listening. Listening conveys a sense of respect that is essential to building trust and expresses to students your deep interest in who they are and what they have to share.

  • Demonstrate acts of caring. Collectively decide as a class community what it looks like and sounds like to care for and about each other—then do it.

  • Be transparent about your desire to get to know students individually. Tell them your aim is to build trust and rapport as a classroom community.

Build Shared Agreements

Clear agreements or expectations coupled with supporting routines, processes and structures will help students make sense of a culturally responsive learning community and navigate it with confidence and ownership. Because shared agreements build community, the process for developing them should rely heavily on student voice and input. The process should be facilitated in a way that ensures all students can contribute.  

In preparing for the process, teachers should give attention to the specific social, emotional, and cognitive growth and development goals for all students in the classroom. For example, what essential thinking routines will students need in order to engage in deep learning? How will students work together in different grouping structures (whole group, small group, individually)? How should whole group dialogue look and sound?

Tips for Practice

  • Utilize free resources about developing classroom agreements, such as this blog post from Wendy Ward Hoffer, PEBC Education Senior Director, which provides sample agreements: Build Community with Shared Agreements.

  • After co-creating the shared agreements, visually display them throughout the classroom.

  • Engage in periodic classroom rituals such as connection circles, morning meetings or afternoon huddles focused on how well the class is demonstrating the agreements.

  • Co-create a metaphor for a culturally responsive classroom community with your students. Metaphors cause us to think differently and deeper about a concept. They also create greater clarity and can serve as a powerful reminder and barometer for your classroom community throughout the school year.

Building relationships, trust and rapport with students one-on-one can remove educators from their comfort zone, and they should be supported in establishing authentic connections. Likewise, shared agreements built for individual classrooms should mirror efforts to build collective agreements between school leadership and staff. Both actions are important first steps in creating a culturally responsive environment in your school. Doing so takes effort, and every member of your team—from teachers, leadership, instructional coaches and more—has a role to play. 

Two Ways to Support a Learning Community

As a new school year begins, of course we wish that all children could walk into the classroom each day ready to learn. In an ideal world, our classrooms are populated by children who are well-rested, well-fed and have everything they need to reach their full academic potential.

The reality, as we know, is quite different. Data from Scholastic’s Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education reveals that principals and teachers nationwide believe that equity in education should be a national priority. But the majority of educators say that many of their students face barriers to learning from outside the school environment. These barriers are prevalent across poverty levels, including 66% of educators in low-poverty schools. This means that every morning, our teachers work with children who might be facing family or personal crisis, need mental health services, are living in poverty, or are homeless or hungry. Providing equitable educational opportunities for our students is a complex challenge.

This striking data highlights the need for schools to support students beyond providing instruction.

One thing we can do right away is to actively foster a community of readers that learns about the world and each other through books. Carefully selected read-alouds can support social-emotional learning in every grade. When teachers read aloud, they can introduce new concepts with support, engage in conversation and dialogue, and provide students with prompts for response writing.

Below are selections that teachers can read with students to support social-emotional learning:

Kindergarten: Llama Llama, Mad at Mama; My Brother Charlie; Clifford’s Good Deeds: Be Responsible

1st Grade: Clifford the Firehouse Dog; I Read Signs; Officer Buckle and Gloria

2nd Grade: The Bully from the Black Lagoon; A Bad Case of Stripes; Giraffes Can’t Dance

3rd Grade: Common Ground, The Water, Earth, and Air We Share; Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot; Double Team

4th Grade: The Hero Two Doors Down; Thank You, Mr. Falker; Flora & Ulysses

5th Grade: The Survival Guide to Bullying; Drita, My Homegirl; Climate Change

We, as educators, are important members of the learning community. And as we support students, we must also continue to learn ourselves so that we can meet our challenges head-on. The Teacher & Principal School Report revealed that 97% of teachers and 100% of principals want effective, ongoing, relevant professional development. Among the areas in which both principals and teachers want PD are to gain strategies for working with families, provide support for students in crisis and strategies for develop a positive school culture and climate.

This school year, we must remember that our students come to us carrying more than just their books and backpacks. It is up to us engage in active learning as well, so that together we can work to help all children achieve academic success. 

Meriden Public Schools: Here, Students Succeed

Several years ago, Meriden Public Schools faced troubling academic results, low graduation rates, and high suspensions, expulsions, and arrests. Most students come from minority backgrounds and more than 70% qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The district needed a new philosophy—a new approach. We had to make sure that students were at the center of all our decisions.

Transformation to student-centered learning environments required a shift in culture, curriculum and instruction. The district knew that achieving equity for all students required additional support, as well as rigorous content. The goal was to better prepare all graduates to be college, career, and civic ready. The district implemented student-centered learning, opened access to Advanced Placement and all higher level courses, implemented a one-to-one program, expanded learning time schools, and offered numerous enrichment and credit earning opportunities.

Our Student-Centered Learning Approach

Leveraging our collaborative relationship with our teachers union and partnering with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation provided the Meriden Public Schools with the impetus to begin our change process. Professional learning for our staff, coupled with research on the importance of challenging all students, were essential components in our student-centered approach. By utilizing grant funding to add support staff from our current teacher ranks, teachers would not only hear about student-centered learning, they would see it in action, and receive support as they began to create flexible learning environments.

Creating student-centered learning environments started for us by increasing academic rigor for all students and developing a growth mindset with students and staff. We gave students greater choice and voice in their learning and supported staff as they personalized and blended their instruction. Collapsing levels, eliminating course prerequisites, adopting no zero grading policies, and assuring that curriculum was implemented with fidelity were our first steps on the student-centered learning journey. In addition, learning environments were no longer simply rows of desks, but flexible learning spaces that support personalization of learning.

Our Digital Transformation

With no district-issued device, and facing restrictive technology use policies, we knew that we had to garner buy-in from all stakeholders if we were going to successfully launch a digital transformation. Bring Your Own Device guidelines and one-to-one district-issued devices were essential in our digital transformation. Devices alone are useless if there is not digital content in place to personalize and differentiate the learning for students, so we partnered with digital content providers to support our students. These partnerships provide greater opportunities for equity for all students and professional learning for our teachers. Through the use of digital content, our students are now being challenged at their own academic level and they are accessing learning opportunities anytime, anywhere.

Our Expanded Learning Opportunities

Today's students need to learn more and teachers and educators often feel there is not enough time in the day to meet these growing demands. To address this challenge, Meriden Public Schools offers: three expanded-day elementary schools, where all students attend 100 minutes more per day—equaling over 40 additional schools days; STEM academies and enrichment courses on Saturday mornings at our local community college; summer online learning credit opportunities; personalized learning experiences that are designed by students themselves, and teacher-facilitated summer experiences to ensure that all elementary students are reading on grade level.

The summer program is celebrated with a Scholastic read-aloud where students receive a book bag filled with Scholastic books that they will see in their classrooms in the fall. In the Meriden Public Schools, learning is encouraged outside the walls of our classrooms. Our Family School Liaison Team supports our parent engagement efforts by sponsoring our Celebration of Readers each spring. Family literacy nights and One School, One Book foster the love of reading, and encourage parent/guardian involvement.

Our Results

Along with growing academic success and greater student and staff satisfaction, suspensions have decreased by 78%, expulsions by 91% and arrests by 92% since 2011. The Meriden Public Schools is creating schools where students succeed. The district has achieved some of its highest scores in history on the Smarter Balance Assessments and PSATs. These positive trends validate our efforts and we are excited about tomorrow's possibilities.




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