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Voices from the Field: How Can Elementary Teachers Collaborate More Effectively with Parents to Support Literacy Learning?
Carol St. George, EdD
Voices From the Field
Carol St. George is the Title I Family Involvement Coordinator at the Greece Central School District in upstate New York, and a visiting assistant professor at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester.
As a veteran educator, I know that families can make a significant contribution to their children’s education; however, it is not always easy to orchestrate their participation within the already complex demands on classroom teachers. Having been a widowed, working mother of three school-aged children, I know both the desires and challenges associated with being involved in my own children's education.
When I was a teacher at Greece Central School District, a suburban district in upstate New York, I discovered a wide range of methods, efforts, and success levels for family involvement practices among the district’s thirteen elementary schools. This inconsistency both concerned and interested me. Using action research as the methodological approach, I focused my doctoral dissertation study on determining what were some of the perceived challenges for building effective partnerships between parents and teachers in our district and how these challenges could be overcome.
I designed a semester-long Collegial Circle, a professional development activity that engaged 10 teachers and 10 parents from my district who met once a month for a total of four two-hour sessions over the course of the semester. Participants were selected to reflect district demographics as a whole. Greece Central is comprised of approximately 1,200 educators and 13,000 students; 79% of students are white, 11% black, and the remaining 10% includes Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian students. In addition, 34% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. I mainly focused my efforts on the seven designated Title I elementary schools in the district, where a near-majority of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.
The following teacher journal entry illustrates an example of the thoughts of those in the Collegial Circle:It was great to sit with parents and teachers and gather different perspectives about home–school connections. It is important to understand the challenges that occur at home and school so we can all work as a team. The richer our conversations and communication, the stronger our collaboration.
Rather than teachers holding workshops for parents, the parents and teachers in the Collegial Circle engaged in readings and discussions together, thus creating a new paradigm for parent workshops. Together they explored relevant literature findings, such as the work by Heather Weiss and Joyce Epstein. One particular study by Dearing, McCartney, Weiss, Kreider, and Simpkins1 helped ground our discussions during the Collegial Circle sessions. We explored personal perceptions and biases and alternative viewpoints about literacy learning and home–school partnerships, with the ultimate goal of initiating more effective collaboration between teachers and parents.
Discussion topics in the Circle included:
Collegial Circle participants first explored their own concepts of literacy and beliefs about family involvement. This allowed them to develop a framework that embraced the idea that literacy learning has contributions from many sources and takes place in many venues, thus placing value on learning which occurs at home and appropriately placing parents as partners in their children’s literacy education. Similarly, both parents and teachers agreed that family involvement should occur in every facet of their children's education.
I collected data from a variety of sources including participants’ reflective journals, written work from group and individual activities conducted during the Collegial Circle sessions, audiotapes and artifacts from the Collegial Circle sessions, and my own researcher’s journal.
My study identified a number of challenges to building the desired partnerships, including limited time and resources, ineffective communication, and confusion about each role in parent–teacher partnerships. These challenges are all interrelated, and these interrelationships intensify with each contributing challenge. For example, lack of time creates difficulty in organizing schedules and also exacerbates difficulties with communication. Difficulties with communication, in turn, affect the ability to build relationships. Furthermore, not all educators are effective in communicating with families, especially when it comes to discussing student literacy progress.
Confusion and insecurity often exist regarding parents’ and teachers’ roles and responsibilities in their partnerships. Teachers are not always sure how to include parents and still maintain their authority in the classroom. Parents are not always certain about how to help their child at home, fearing that they do not have the necessary skills to help, or worrying that the teacher will think they are interfering.
Three themes arose in the Circle for overcoming these challenges: offering more professional development (especially in the Collegial Circle format), improving communication methods, and redesigning homework into interactive activities. Individually, each of these themes addresses a specific need; taken together, they resolve a set of interrelated challenges that keep many teachers and parents from effectively collaborating to support student literacy learning.
Participation in the Collegial Circle contributed to a new understanding of literacy and family involvement for both teacher and parent participants. This interactive gathering of stakeholders—focused on a topic of mutual interest within a professional setting—facilitated an open exchange of ideas between teachers and parents. Participation brought a new appreciation and stronger commitment to building parent–teacher partnerships to support literacy, self-insights about their own roles and responsibilities within the relationship, and changes in home and school literacy practices.
As a result of this study, important changes in the way teachers collaborate with families to support literacy have been implemented in Greece Central. A wider variety of professional development opportunities have been made available for both parent and teacher participants, including book clubs and literacy workshops. Changes in homework design have been initiated and communication has been improved through the use of newsletters and other means. The core group of Collegial Circle participants has also helped to organize a series of highly successful and well-attended evening events for families and staff focused on student learning. These events are designed so that veteran educators and parents can explicitly model family involvement strategies for new teachers and new families during the workshop portions of these events.
This resource is part of the March 2011 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the FINE Newsletter Archive, visit www.hfrp.org/FINENewsletter.
1. Dearing, E., McCartney, K., Weiss, H. B., Kreider, H., & Simpkins, S. (2004). The promotive effects of family educational involvement for low-income children’s literacy. Journal of School Psychology, 42(6), 445–460.