Professional Development Opinion

Response: Parents Can Teach Educators ‘Lessons About Learning and Life’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 15, 2014 8 min read
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(This is the third in a four-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here and Part Two here)

Cheryl Suliteanu asked:

How do we educate families about the ways in which they can support their children, without insulting their trust in us to do what’s best, and while not placing blame?

Katy Ridnouer, Janice Fialka, and Joe Mazza provided their guest responses in Part One of this series. Jane Baskwill, Julia Thompson and Bryon V. Garrett shared their thoughts in Part Two.

Today’s post features contributions from Catherine Compton-Lilly, Dr. Sherrel Bergmann, Dr. Judith Brough and Maurice J. Elias.

I hope readers will continue to contribute their ideas, and I’ll be highlighting those comments this series’ final post on Sunday.

And, by the way, I’ve just begun recording a weekly ten-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here.

Response From Catherine Compton-Lilly

Catherine Compton-Lilly is an Associate Professor in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Dr. Compton-Lilly teaches courses in literacy studies and works with professional development schools in Madison. Dr. Compton-Lilly is the author/editor of several books and has published widely in educational journals.

Education is always a two-way street. Whenever we teach we learn. I taught for eighteen years, mostly in low-income inner-city schools. Contrary to stereotypes about the parents of low-income children, the parents of my students taught me many impressive lessons about school learning and about life:

"[When it comes to computers, children should] know how to put them together, know how to take them apart and know how to do everything . . . [if] I had my way they’d know everything there was to know about a computer.”

“A lot of teachers in a lot of schools, they figure you live in a low [income community], and they say this is the ghetto, right? And they say a lot of people [on welfare] is in the ghetto, so they assume everybody is on welfare.”

These comments reveal the depth of understanding and critique that parents bring to education; these parents can “read” their worlds. Parents also described engaging their children with literacy activities; they played word games with their children as they rode in the car, asked children comprehension questions about the storybooks they read aloud to their children, collected boxes of used books for their children to read, and repeatedly reinforced the importance of teachers respecting and caring about their children. These lessons are not insignificant.

If we want to teach parents, we must first listen to what they have to teach us. What are the literacy practices that regularly occur in their homes? What are their goals for their children as students and as literacy learners? What strategies do they use to support their children? The answers we get to these questions might be unexpected. Perhaps oral story telling is a common practice. Children might spend time memorizing bible passages or sections of the Qur’an. While they might not be familiar with traditional Western folktales, they may know narrative story structures from watching cartoons, listening to folktales from other parts of the world, or viewing Disney videos. Children who never learned Mother Goose, may have developed phonemic awareness through reciting jump-rope and clapping rhymes or through exposure to rap and spoken word performances.

Once we have listened to families and recognize the strengths they bring, then we can collaborate with parents to extend the strengths they bring and to collaborate to create new possibilities for learning for all children.

Response From Dr. Sherrel Bergmann and Dr. Judith Brough

Dr. Sherrel Bergmann, retired professor, National Louis University and Dr. Judith Brough, Professor Emerita, Gettysburg College are award-winning educators and authors. Their research and practical approaches to working with reluctant learners, motivation, parent-school relationships, and building life-essential skills are widely used in classrooms. They are the authors of Teach My Kid, I Dare You:

We wrote our book, Teach My Kid, I Dare You (2008), in response to this question and the dilemmas faced often by classroom teachers when it comes to communication with parents. Every successful school we have visited and every administrator that we have talked with has said that a purposeful, organized, continuing goal for positive parent involvement has been the key to maintaining family support for the students and the school. It cannot be happenstance.

Every classroom can offer a variety of ways for parents to support their children in school. First, the faculty must understand where their students come from and the types of families that they live in. Some administrators have the teachers ride the bus routes before school starts so they can learn about the neighborhoods of their students. Other schools provide a unique back to school night where parents and kids learn something about the school together, while most have on-going communication via newsletter, email, homework hotlines, and classroom brochures about the curriculum.

Our goal is to create a community of caring, where students perceive their families and teachers to be “in on it together.” One middle school we observed planned a Masters of Parenting series of events, bringing in various speakers and answering parents’ individual questions and concerns. The school provided child care for the young ones, and ping pong and other activities were established to keep the older kids occupied during these session. Videos of the sessions were made and a lending library of parenting resources was established to loan families.

Educators must also realize that family structures have changed. Parents often work different shifts and are not able to make it to parent-school activities. In most cases, we cannot assume that the parents don’t care simply because they can’t come to the school or are intimidated by it. Other means of communicating are essential.

Response From Maurice J. Elias

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University where he also directs the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab. He is the author of the new e-book, Emotionally Intelligent Parenting and a book for young children, Talking Treasure: Stories to Help Build Emotional Intelligence and Resilience in Young Children. You can read his blog on social-emotional and character development at Edutopia:

One thing we assume about parents is that they have sound developmental knowledge about their children. But often, regardless of the parents’ education level, this is not true. Without an understanding of their children’s ages and stages, and what they need to be secure in a given stage and get ready to move on to the next one, parents may well not realize the kinds of support they need to provide.

So this leads to two forms of intervention.

First, schools should routinely publish and share with parents a guide to how to support their child’s education, for each grade. This can be part of the Handbook that parents receive every year and it should be made available to all, in multiple languages as needed. It should also contain very clear directions about where to go with questions: whom to call (necessary) as well as whom to email. Making it normative removes the insult. And truth be told, some of the advice to parents may be counterintuitive, depending on particular curricular requirements. I remember a language arts curriculum that required my daughter to bring in uncorrected homework--it would have helped my wife and I (and my poor daughter!) to know that this was a requirement and not my daughter being careless or lazy. And it also allow educators to validate for parents that the most important things they can do to support their children revolve around establishing routines and parenting well, moreso than doing their kids’ science projects.

Second, schools need to recognize that the most important way families can help schools is by being the best parents they can be. That means providing support for parents around routine and expected issues such as discipline, maintaining routines and schedules, and having clear go-to individuals when there are crises of health, mental health, money, housing, employment, or traumatic life events (including military deployments and returns). The easier it is for parents to know who to contact and where to go for supports, whether in school or in the community, the less disruption will occur to their children’s education. And, as implied earlier, by making it reasonable, uncomplicated, and not developmentally unexpected to need support, parents will be more likely to reach out for the supports they need.

Thanks to Catherine, Sherrel, Judith and Maurice for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including readers’ comments in a post on Sunday.

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Look for Part Four in a few days...

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