Published Online: March 5, 1997

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The Recipes of Dorothy Rich

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Rich believes that teachers' most important job is to 'make a synergy happen between the schoolroom and the home and the community.'

The home-learning activities were designed to take up little time, be easy to do, and cost nothing. But the payoffs can be great, Rich asserts.

Take Mystery Word Box for ages 5 to 9. With a recipe-card box, index cards, and alphabet dividers, families can help their children learn new words. The youngsters pick five words that appeal to them, and the parent writes them on the cards. Then families discuss the words and save them to use another day. Rich herself did the exercises with her daughters.

"During the day, I would sometimes find my child on her bed, the contents of the mystery word box set out before her," Rich writes. "These were her very own words, and she would be playing with them, saying them aloud, caressing them with her voice."

Older children, ages 7 to 9, can do The Long Receipt, checking grocery purchases against the supermarket receipt to make sure that the items match up correctly.

A favorite of hers is A Special Place for ages 4 to 9. Children decorate large cardboard boxes any way they like and park them by the front door to hold their belongings.

"The box is the first stop for school items, hat, toys, glasses," Rich writes. "It is the last stop on the way out the door in the morning. Finished homework and supplies needed for school are put in the box at night, ready for the next day."

The exercise teaches children responsibility, but also helps families get their act together. "We spend a lot of time in our program on how to organize your house so that things are there and there's a sense of scheduling," Rich says.

Although she would have been content to write the book and let it just "waft through the airwaves," Rich realized that she would have to create a companion training program if she were going to reach many people.

The Home and School Institute's MegaSkills Education Center has 15 field associates located across the country who provide one- and two-day workshops for groups of 20 to 25 teachers, social workers, administrators, guidance counselors, and others. The training is expensive: $250 per person for one day, $335 for two days. If the participants conduct five successful workshops for parents, they can become certified as MegaSkills leaders and continue their outreach to parents. There are now some 1,500 such leaders.

The institute also offers a MegaSkills program for classroom teachers and provides training for schools and parent-leaders in building effective partnerships.

Rich believes that teachers' most important job is to "make a synergy happen between the schoolroom and the home and the community."

"There may still be some lack of vision about what teachers really have to be able to do," she says. "Not even the best school can do the job alone. Everybody nods, yes, yes, but we continue to teach teachers as if that's what really happens."

Rich's biggest customers are Title I administrators, but the MegaSkills training has been purchased with Head Start, dropout-prevention, drug-prevention, and special education funds, to name a few. It also has spread beyond schools. Private companies offer training for their employees, as do some shelters for battered women and the homeless.

Independent evaluations of the programs' impact have found fewer discipline problems, higher attendance rates, increased homework and parent-child time, and reduced television watching.

While the focus of MegaSkills is on the child, Rich says that the people who appear to benefit the most are parents--particularly those who lack confidence or have little education. She's now studying Spanish to work more closely with Hispanic parents, many of whom haven't traditionally seen themselves as their children's first teachers.

Independent evaluations of the programs' impact have found fewer discipline problems, higher attendance rates, increased homework and parent-child time, and reduced television watching after parents and teachers had been trained.

Rich concedes that she's "a real fusspot about program integrity." But she knows that she's going to have to adapt if she wants to reach more people. Under the partnership with the Council of the Great City Schools, she will use a trainer-of-trainer model in three cities to prepare more teachers and others to work with families.

The transition could be hard. Harris of Phi Delta Kappan recalls that Rich was hesitant about linking up five years ago. Now, the Home and School Institute trains teachers each year at PDK's summer institute in Bloomington, Ind.

"I had to convince her that I would nurture and protect MegaSkills, that we weren't going to be abusive in some way," Harris says.

Over the years, Rich has worked with the District of Columbia public schools. She fondly recalls the "home-learning rooms" that she set up in the city's schools in the 1970s to help teach special education parents to work with their children. Decorated to look like the kitchen, bedroom, and living room of a house, the rooms were used to demonstrate appropriate home-learning recipes. "That's still a great design," she says. "I wish we could go back and do some of that again."

Rich's influence is still felt through MegaSkills, which is used by trainers in the schools' parent-involvement office.

Janice Melvin, an associate with the district's parent-involvement team, has been offering MegaSkills workshops at Birney Elementary School in the Anacostia neighborhood for two years. Last year, only six parents showed up. But last month, she found 25 parents--including two fathers--in the school library for a session on Initiative and Perseverance.

"Not many schools have this many parents," Melvin says. "This is a good group. It's very responsive," she notes.

For an hour, the group hunts through newspapers in search of examples of people showing initiative, talks about how to get children to follow through on tasks, and learns about activities that can replace wasted television-viewing time.

Melvin recommends My Special Garden, a recipe for growing seeds that enables youngsters to see a finished product sprout on their kitchen-window sill. One mother offers that her child was taking care of a plant that has since dried up.

Rogina Holt pays close attention as she holds her sleeping 1-month-old daughter, LaCora. "I like stuff like this," says Holt, who also has 3-year-old twin boys. "I do all that stuff at home. I go over their colors with them, and their words with them, and their 1-2-3s."

Carol Blassingame, the mother of a 5-year-old Head Start child, says the tips are helpful. "We've been doing exercises in the book--making little cookies and playing little games."

Melvin is thrilled to reach parents of preschool children to instill good habits early. She calls Rich "a down-to-earth person anybody can talk to."

It is small victories like these that keep Rich on track.

"Every once in a while, somebody says, 'What made you keep on doing this?'" she says. "I hate to sound self-righteous--that's a very dangerous thing--or virtuous, but I always believed it was important. Always."

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