September is the New January: Resolutions for Family Engagement

We know that as soon as school supplies hit the store shelves, summer is over. Although January 1 is the official start of the New Year, many educators consider Back to School the unofficial New Year. That’s the best time to reflect on the achievements from the previous academic year, reassess school and student learning goals and recommit to current and future initiatives.

Then you can review areas of need, refocus energies and make a resolution or two to hold yourself accountable and stay committed.

One of area schools and districts continuously resolve to improve year after year is family engagement. Why family engagement? While most educators recognize the importance of family engagement on students’ academic achievement, few can articulate a comprehensive plan to assess and then implement family engagement effectively. The data from the Teacher and Principal School Report supports this: 74% of educators say they need help engaging the families of their students.

Here is the good news: in recent years, we have identified several proven practices to engage families effectively—things that you can start doing tomorrow. I've taken the liberty of narrowing the list down to my top three. I promise you, implementing any one of these practices will make a big difference. (All three? Family engagement trifecta!)

  1. Nurture Relationships. Strong, trusting relationships are the cornerstone of an effective home-school partnership. Effective relationships promote trust and respect between home and school. Make sure families feel welcome every time they walk into the school. (Read more about welcoming here.) Spend time getting to know families and provide them with multiple opportunities to get to know you. Parents don't need to know your full life history, but offering tiny nuggets about yourself help will help build genuine connections.

  2. Leverage Strengths. You get the best from people when you focus on their strengths, not their flaws. A strength-based approach increases confidence and empowers families to be active, knowledgeable and informed. We all have something to contribute. Once you’ve established that trusting relationship with your families, you can find out how you can best work together.

  3. Make it Relevant. What matters most to families? Their child. Families want to know how to best support their child's learning. When designing family engagement events or activities, make sure it relates directly to your students’ learning goals, offers the family an opportunity to learn a new skill, and incorporates time to practice the new skill. (Learn how to help families build competence and confidence here.) Giving families the time, space and support to practice and receive feedback will greatly increase the chances they will try what they learned at home with their child.

As you head back to school this year, I challenge you to implement all three practices. Cheers to a fabulous "New Year"!

Back to School: 4 Key Ways to Read Together for Growth

Children receive information at a furious pace. Whether it is current events on a global scale or the local library message board, each child will bring his or her personal world into the classroom this back-to-school season.

Knowing that, coupled with the understanding of how increasingly complex our world seems—especially in light of the civil unrest in Charlottesville and the ongoing destruction by Hurricane Harvey—many of us feel increased urgency around helping kids make sense of it all. Of course, this process is not without its own complexity; students need us–educators–to help them learn to take in information, contextualize, analyze and respond to it. And we need to partner with families in these efforts. It is, frankly, hard work. Those of us who spend our days helping kids navigate the world must establish a powerful community of readers and learners so that we all may be informed citizens.

This commitment to reading and learning can and should reach every member of the school community—district and school leaders, teachers, students and the parents who support them—each member of this community is linked. Imagine us reading together as parents, educators and children; reading to not just prepare for a test, but reading to prepare to know and grow.

Reading and learning are opportunities for growth, not just for students, but for all readers. In fact, I think there are many adults who would be surprised by how much they learn from revisiting a children’s book from their youth or talking with a child today about what they are reading. Personally and professionally, it is critical to make sure we’re always learning and growing in order to better support our students.

Below are four key ways to foster a community of readers who learn and navigate the world together.

Look at informational text

By diving in to informational text, readers can acquire background knowledge that will help them contextualize future reading. The more information they have, gained by reading widely about their own history and the world around them, the greater their power to make choices, form opinions and communicate their ideas.

But this reading practice happens best when we read, discuss and share together as members of a larger community. In particular, younger children are learning who they are, both as individuals and as citizens of the world, both at home and in the classroom. Children need to grow up learning that we are diverse as a society in our views, experiences and knowledge, which makes us stronger together. Reading and discussion can guide us all.

Read with curiosity

In Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst argue that while students are often taught to extract information from text, the act of reading ought to be transactional. In other words, reading is a multifaceted experience on the path to deeper understanding. They write:

“Additionally, we must teach students how to read with curiosity. And they need to be willing to raise questions. We want them to ask not only, ‘What does this text say?’ but also, ‘What does it say to me? How does it change who I am? How might it change what I do in the world?’” (Beers & Probst, 23.)

This approach to reading is inherently communal: the reader interacts with the text in a dynamic way, and there follows an opportunity for exploration and conversation. Reading with curiosity helps all of us both become better readers and better citizens.

Strengthen the home-to-school connection

Support for readers happens in the classroom, but we have to make sure that the home-to-school connection starts strong, and remains so throughout the school year (all year, really).

We know from the Teacher & Principal School Report that educators hold strong, positive views around the importance of family engagement and the need for partnerships between schools and parents.

A critical component of making this connection and forging an effective partnership is bringing families in to your community of readers. This means helping them learn strategies for both reading with their children (of all ages), and talking to their children about what they read. And it means being prepared to engage and support all families, as well as by making connections with community partners whose work can support and enhance your students’ achievement. To do so, principals and district leaders assume the role of lead learners, learning alongside teachers and staff. 

Keep reading, keep learning, keep growing

When we give our students the time, space and resources to read widely and deeply, to gather as much information as possible, they will be better equipped to make sense of their worlds and their places in it. When we think of literacy and learning as a dynamic process that incorporates growth, change, and the exchange of ideas, we are better prepared to help students grow. When we extend our school community beyond the four walls of the building, we will be more powerful. This expansive, fluid notion of reading will allow a true community of learners to flourish.

Scholastic Responds to Hurricane Harvey

The images and news stories coming out of Houston and its surrounding areas are horrific. Massive flooding—the result of Hurricane Harvey—has affected hundreds of thousands of people, and the water is wreaking havoc on families and children, and of course on homes, schools, and libraries.

Scholastic is coordinating a company-wide response to support both the short-term and long-term efforts:

  • Today, Scholastic is making a $25,000 contribution to the Red Cross to aid in the immediate relief efforts.

  • Over the long term, schools will need significant donations of books to rebuild their libraries; we will work directly with our customers to determine their needs once schools reopen, and we will be accepting requests from schools via the Possible Fund. Once the needs assessment is complete, Scholastic will make a sizable book donation.

  • Scholastic Book Clubs is offering 500 free bonus points to teachers in the affected region, which will help them restock their classroom libraries to help ensure children have the books they need to help them regain a sense of normalcy.

  • Scholastic News Online offers age-appropriate reporting for children, and will be covering the effects of Harvey for young readers.

  • In addition, Scholastic offers tips for teachers and parents on how to talk to children about natural disasters.

Scholastic Book Fairs has several distribution centers in Texas. All but the branch in Houston are operating normally to help serve our customers.

If you’re interested in supporting disaster relief efforts, consider the Red Cross or Save the Children, both of which have established specific Hurricane Harvey relief funds.

Ready, Set, Read: How Hillside Public Schools Got Reading Over the Summer

My mother was my first teacher. She taught me to read, and nurtured my love of reading, filling my world with the printed word. (As a child, I had a word wall in my bedroom in place of wall paper.) A talented teacher for 40 years, she was a mentor to me during my own first year teaching.

So I know first-hand that families are children’s first teachers. We teach our children every day through our actions and expectations. All families want their children to do well, and the truth is that many families need tools and strategies to help their children succeed academically. 

My district, Hillside Public Schools, is located in Union County, New Jersey, and we serve approximately 3,000 students in grades Pre-K–12. Fifty-two percent of the student population is eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. The families of Hillside are hard-working families who are interested in their children’s education. Similar to many school districts, we faced the challenge of summer learning loss and finding effective ways to encourage children to keep reading during the summer.

Hillside Public Schools and Summer Reading: Partnering with Families

When I started as the district’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction, I brought almost 20 years of experience as a teacher, vice-principal, principal, and college professor. These years of experience, as well as my mom’s legacy, taught me the importance of partnering with families and communities to support student achievement.

During my first meeting with the Language Arts Supervisor, I was informed that the returns for summer reading projects were limited. As I looked into why this could be, I thought about how I had just spent the summer assisting my own son with his summer reading project. We had to go to 3 stores to find all of the books he needed, and another store for supplies to complete the project. Perhaps the problem was access—families did not have the books their children needed for summer reading.

We surveyed parents, and the data showed that many families were eager, not just for just the books, but also for workshops and materials around family literacy and the home-school connection. Once we identified a need, we collaborated so the district could provide resources: books and strategies for families. We formed a Summer Reading Committee—consisting of the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, a principal, teachers, content supervisors, the Hillside Public Library and a PTO member—and had a Summer Reading Kick-off Celebration. The Summer Reading Committee met monthly, and we revised the summer reading lists find high-interest reading material for the students.

An Important Step: Celebrating Books and Reading

We decided to make the summer reading kick-off event a fun celebration of reading, including a barbeque, music, dancing, face painting and of course summer reading packet giveaways for all students who attended. (Clifford the Big Red Dog was a hit, too!) We also offered workshop for parents to help them with strategies for reading with their children. The event was publicized in the community, on the district website and with the local media.

We’ve been able to see results from providing this access to books. In terms of data, our Language Arts scores on the PARCC assessment increased in almost all grade levels. We’ve seen small increases (1%, 4% or 5%), but we are certainly showing growth. And I also love hearing stories from students and families themselves: a grandmother, who is raising her special-needs grandson, told us that the books go everywhere with her grandson during the summer. He is never without a book, often refuses to let go of them, and truly cherishes his books. She also noted that the books and summer reading provides additional stability in her grandchild’s life.

The Second Annual Summer Reading Kick-off was an even greater success than the first: we were able to increase the participation rate thanks to positive feedback from the first annual kick-off. Families lined up before the doors opened! Moms, dads, grandparents and guardians were so excited to help their children with summer reading and the students were equally excited to receive the books. We had a blast and danced into the afternoon. It was great to see the students—and parents—rushing home to read!

Literacy Ambassadors: Building a Student-Centered Culture of Reading

Gauging the culture of reading

Consider the culture around reading in your school. It is not a question of if there is a culture of reading, because there is. However, the question is whether it is healthy, vibrant, and joyous, or tired and forced. In my district, there was a time when we had pockets of positive classroom cultures centered on literacy, but those were the exception not the rule. We worked hard to change our culture for the better this last year, but cultures don’t develop overnight and they certainly are not the work of a few. 

If you want to inculcate a love of reading, you have to provide a context for the goal, one that makes sense and is inspiring and relevant to your students. This context should include access to diverse genres, a large selection of texts for students to choose from, ample time to read, and interesting, well-curated displays. Students need a place to explore and learn how to find what excites them.

This space should be communal and this excitement should be communicable. However, educators also need to facilitate a student-driven positive culture of reading.  We, as adults, can build parameters. However, if this culture is to be authentic, then it must be built and maintained by students.

Student-driven culture 

This is where one’s personal limitations must be factored into building this context for students. As an adult who works in education (like many of you), there are a plethora of statistics that I can spout off about the importance of reading, how we can turn back the summer slide, and so forth. I can share with kids my own struggles with reading and how I overcame them. Yet, there is something that I have learned about my own personal limitations: I am not that cool.

This is a realization about my own effectiveness as the sole driver of change for students. I can share my excitement about a book, but I am not a middle schooler. My excitement might be nice, but at best I am an observer of the culture of reading that exists in my schools and in my classrooms. However, if I empower students to drive discussions, make recommendations, and serve as peer role models, an authentic vibrant culture around reading can flourish. Therefore, I don’t need to be cool, because this culture should have little to do with me and more to do with the students.

Literacy Ambassadors as our key driver

To facilitate the growth of a positive reading culture, we needed to do more than just put structures in place. So Southbridge Public Schools started a new program, the We Read Big Literacy Ambassadorship. Our student ambassadors are tasked with sharing their love of literacy within our schools and the larger community, which they do by serving as leaders in the cultivation of a culture of literacy at Southbridge. We support our Literacy Ambassadors by providing opportunities for them to share their love of reading in a variety of ways, among them reading to younger students in the elementary schools, and publishing book reviews online. They represent the idea that reading is powerful and that it is something that we can all do. They are promoting their love of books, showing other students that books can be transformative, momentary escapes, or can help them better understand themselves and others.

Our 20-plus literacy ambassadors applied by writing essays and open responses. Each child explained what their favorite book was (and why), discussed the importance of reading in their lives, and argued why they would be the ideal literacy ambassador. The results, quite frankly, were inspiring! Our students believe that this experience will give them confidence in fluency and public speaking. They talked about being teased because they were, at one time, poor readers. Now they want to share with others that if they can become readers, then anyone can. I believe their stories will shape our community in profound ways. 

Ambassadors shape the culture of reading in our schools and in the community 

These students will be working in a variety of ways during this upcoming academic year. Ambassadors will be deployed throughout the school year to visit our three elementary schools to read to those students, provide book recommendations, and have dialogue around books. In addition, I built a website where we will publish their forthcoming book reviews (WeReadBig.com) in order to extend their reach into the broader community. They also have a few exciting surprises for the community that they will debut later this year.

My desire is to have these students at the forefront as they push and create new initiatives. Our ambassadors will be able to say things to other students that, if uttered by an adult, could sound insincere and artificial. Their passion becomes infectious in a way that adults can’t typically achieve. They are the ideal ambassadors of literacy in our schools.

Read Adam Couturier's previous post: We Read Big: Reading as a Way of Life

Family Engagement Participation: Helping Families Build Competence and Confidence

Over the past few months, my colleague Jenni Brasington and I have been writing about the four areas schools need to focus on in order to create a pathway to effective family-school partnerships.

We first explained how critical it is to welcome families as partners in learning, and offered suggestions on how to tell whether your school is doing it well (hint: start in the parking lot).

Next, we explored different methods of communication with families (start by asking yourself: “What is the best method for someone to contact me so that I will likely respond?”).

Most recently Jenni described the information families need to support their child’s learning. For example, when considering how to use the hallway wall space, do you know the difference between displaying student work and showing evidence of student learning?

The final piece of the pathway to effective family-school partnerships is participation.

What do we mean by participation?

Participation means families take action at home to support their child’s learning. It’s not enough just to tell families what they should do to help their children learn. Schools need to provide the knowledge families need, support them in their learning, and create a learning community in which they are actually engaged—not just in theory, but in practice.

Confidence and competence: how to empower all families to support learning at home

Have you ever tripped while walking down the street? The first thing most people do is look around to see if anyone saw it happen—all of us want to appear competent. As we help families participate in their child’s learning, it’s important to keep the idea of competency in mind. If we minimize the risk for families to learn by creating safe environments, they can practice without feeling embarrassed. Family engagement events should provide diverse families with a safe place to acquire and then practice new skills, so they develop the confidence and competence to apply the skills at home.

For example

Family literacy nights are often structured such that families learn alongside their children. And yet when families are with their children at an event, it can be difficult for them to focus. With children in a different space, family members can concentrate on learning and practicing new skills. Once they practice a few times, they are more likely use the skill with their child at home. A good way to end the family night is to bring the adults and the students back together, and provide an opportunity for families to try the activity they just learned with their child.

Learn, practice, collaborate, assess

Make sure to provide multiple opportunities for families to practice and get timely feedback during every event, and don’t forget to use positive reinforcement as they demonstrate their new knowledge.

During the practice time, allow families to direct their own learning through inquiry and small group discussion. When families share their experiences and challenges with their peers, they can learn from and support each other. By empowering families to share ideas and strategies, they expand their social networks and increase their outside-of-school support. 

Remember: it’s emotional

Just as not all children come to school ready to learn, families may also be apprehensive, nervous, or skeptical at first. They may carry the memories of discouraging experiences with their own schooling. In order to support families so that they develop confidence and competence, schools should employ a nuanced approach to learning that is personalized, responsive, and collaborative. With this support, families will gain the knowledge, skills, and ability to be full and equal partners in learning.

Read previous posts: welcoming, communication, and information. Curious about how family engagement assessment works in real life? Read this principal's story.

Social Media, Independent Reading and Reading Aloud: The Stories You Loved

It's the middle of the summer, that time when the last school year (and even Independence Day) is a distant memory. Most of us are looking ahead to the coming school year, which approaches with varying degrees of imminence depending on where you are. 

Now is the perfect time for a mid-year check-in to see which stories resonated with readers most since last summer. It turns out that social media, independent reading and reading aloud with older students are the topics that you most wanted to read about!

In descending order, the top five most-read stories from July 2016 to July 2017.

5. Two years into Twitter: transformed by the community of educators by Steve Wyborney

Steve wrote one of our most popular posts of all time: Twitter education chats: An astonishing source of professional development, from 2014. Two years later, he returned with a follow-up on using social media for professional development.

4. Independent Reading: A Reading Achievement Game-Changer by Laura Robb

We know from the Teacher & Principal Report: Focus on Literacy, that the vast majority of educators (94%) agree that students should have time during the school day to read a book of their choice independently. But they identify demands of curriculum as the primary barrier to increased time spent on independent reading. Robb addresses the importance of independent reading and some of the ways that teachers can get it done in their classrooms.

3. Riveting Read-Alouds (How and Why to Read Aloud with Older Students) by Janet Allen

Many educators see the value in reading aloud with younger students. Here, Janet Allen lays out the compelling case for doing so with kids who are older, independent readers.

2. Creating a School Culture that Values Independent Reading by Evan Robb

Principal Evan Robb explains how school leaders can create a culture of reading in their schools, and offers simple, actionable strategies.

And finally...

1. Three Reasons School Librarians Should Use Twitter by Todd Burleson

School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year Todd Burleson explains why, and how, school librarians can use Twitter for professional learning.

 

#DisruptingThinking: "I want to hug this book. Then high five it."

In Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Mattersaward-winning authors Kylene Beers and Bob Probst present reading as a transformational process, rather than simply an act of decoding, recalling, and responding to questions. Beers and Probst introduce their Book, Head, Heart (BHH) Framework, which encourages readers to ask themselves questions like, what does this author want me to know? What surprised me? How could this change how I feel? 

Beers & Probst describe the framework: "It's simple. Direct. And it keeps the kids focused on where they must begin—with what's in the book—and with where they must end—with how it's changing them." (Disrupting Thinking, 63) 

Disrupting Thinking is proving that it's not just students who are changed—the book is inspiring fervor among educators, who gather on Twitter at #DisruptingThinking to discuss their reactions.

Indeed, it is the BHH Framework in action!

Below is a sampling of reactions—from an administrator, school principals, literacy specialists and coaches, librarians and many teachers—from the book, from the head, and from the heart.

And if you'd like to read a sample from Disrupting Thinking, click over to MiddleWeb.

The Learning Supports Pathway: An Integrated Model of School Improvement

As the last bell rings on the school year, principals and district leaders are in the midst of collecting summative data and celebrating academic achievement and growth. However, it is likely that some students who come from environments of dysfunction and trauma will lag behind their more affluent and supported peers. In fact, the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report found that of the educators surveyed, 87% said that they have students who face barriers to learning that come from outside the school environment, and these barriers to learning are even more prevalent in high-poverty schools.

As school leaders approach improvement planning for the upcoming year, what strategies can be employed to address the pervasive barriers that many students face?

A new approach to School Improvement Planning has emerged that addresses the challenges that some students have toward accessing instruction and demonstrating achievement. Based on the foundational work of Dr. Howard Adelman and Dr. Linda Taylor of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), the Learning Supports Pathway approaches how one looks at school improvement in a wholly different way.

Learning Supports Pathway

Drs. Adelman and Taylor explain that students who are “motivated, engaged, and able to learn” respond to good instruction in a well-managed school by demonstrating growth and achievement. However, some students experience minor or major challenges in their lives that prevent them from benefiting from instruction. These barriers to learning take many forms, such as social-emotional or behavioral challenges, as well as factors related to poverty, lack of family support, school climate, safety, substance abuse, mental health, community issues and attendance.  Adelman and Taylor found that good instruction alone is not enough to address these challenges. They assert that traditional school improvement models focus on two components of improvement: instruction and management. Therefore, what is missing from our current models is planning for learning supports along with instruction and management. By including learning supports as a third component in planning and implementation, school leaders can address the factors that keep children from learning.

The Learning Support Pathway offers a way to organize and deliver the supports—resources, strategies, practices, and policy—in an aligned and systemic manner. This includes family and community engagement and partnerships that are leveraged with the school to boost engagement and academic improvement.

Taking Stock

As a district school superintendent who led the use of the Learning Supports Pathway in school improvement, I found the approach to be the first opportunity for us to collectively and collaboratively address the challenges our students faced outside of school that resulted in low achievement. Dr. Rhonda Waltman, our Learning Supports Coach, first led us in a resource-mapping activity to “take stock” of the programs and initiatives offered by our schools and the district office. We were surprised to find redundancies as well as gaps in our services. Furthermore, we found that the people who worked in support areas, like counselors and social workers, rarely met together to discuss how to prevent problems that children and families face.

Through the guidance of our coach, we re-structured our meetings and work groups to include three working teams: Instruction, Learning Supports, and Management. The leader from each team served on the Superintendent’s Cabinet. From there, we applied a systemic approach: we first examined our data, then clarified our areas of need, and finally identified the root cause of the underperformance. Then, the Instructional Team worked with the Learning Supports team to collaboratively identify strategies to address the barriers to learning. The Management Team then made decisions to set up structures to ensure that the strategies were carried out effectively. 

The Impact

This change in our organizational process unified our work, shifted our response to prevention and intervention, and resulted in improved engagement as well as achievement. We began to see the impact as attendance improved, discipline referrals declined, and families connected with our schools in a way that supported their children’s learning.

For all students to have the opportunity to succeed, the Learning Supports Pathway approach to school improvement offers a way.  It has the power to turn hopelessness into possibility and positively impact the lives of children who need us the most.

This post is the first in a series on integrated learning supports exploring how districts and schools can support students who face barriers to learning.

Why Literacy and Families Go Together

Dr. Steve Constantino will be speaking at the Literacy Leaders' Institute (Chicago, IL, August 6-8, 2017), presented by Scholastic and ASCD.

Consider the following truths about family engagement and academic achievement, each of which is robustly supported by research:

  1. Families, defined differently in different cultures, are the first and most influential teachers of their children. We know that their influence is profound.

  2. All families desire that their children exceed them in their quality of life. 

  3. When families are truly engaged, student performance and academic performance behaviors improve.

  4. Many decades of research, which continues today, clearly supports family engagement as an effective conduit to improved school outcomes, in particular the academic, behavioral and social-emotional lives of students.

I think when you consider that the efficacy of family engagement is supported by research and quantifiable results, a compelling case is made for every school to embrace family engagement as a core component of school culture.

Let’s be clear though: there are many definitions of family engagement, from making sure homework is completed and turned in, to supporting the latest fundraiser. I view effective family engagement as the degree to which families are engaged in the learning lives of their children and the degree to which schools support families’ ability to do so. 

Interestingly, even though the research and the stories of practical application in schools all over the world are compelling, many schools, dare I say the majority, do not place among their priorities effective family engagement practice. Or, if they do, it is in a rather obligatory manner.  

The question, then, becomes why? Why, when we know this to be effective, do many school and district leaders not prioritize family engagement practice among the major goals driving school district improvement? As the saying goes, “ah, therein lies the rub."

The answer is that many administrators don’t know how. There is a fundamental understanding that family engagement is a good thing, and in most cases there is a desire to implement effective practice, but the results, in many cases, are either lackluster or disappointing. Teachers may see it as yet another initiative with which they must comply, and school leaders may not think beyond meetings and conferences. Of late, social media and its ability to communicate are often substituted for engagement. (To be meaningful and effective, family engagement must go beyond tweeting homework reminders.) 

Can an effective approach to engaging families in the learning lives of their children improve outcomes, specifically those important literacy outcomes? Absolutely. The first step is to understand that family engagement is a learned practice for most school staff, and time and energy need to be devoted to building the capacity of schools to truly engage every family. The second step is to understand that with this investment, there will follow improved student achievement.

Family engagement is a defined process of knowledge, skills and dispositions that lead to trusting relationships between schools and homes and ultimately, the empowerment of families to have a hand in the education of their children, regardless of who they are. The results are always tangible and measurable.

Engaging every family is a contextual process that can be implemented in any school or district, anywhere.

Let us show you how. 

 

 

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