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Working With Families in the Rural South: Findings From the REA-Funded Promising Readers Program
Devon Brenner, Teresa Jayroe, Angela Boutwell
About Family Involvement Research Digests
Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP. To learn more about the research summarized in this digest, please contact the authors at the addresses below. For help citing this article, click here.
When parents are actively involved with their children's education and feel like valued members of the school family, the children's performance improves. When teachers have opportunities to work with family members in an environment that is not threatening, teachers and family members become co-advocates for children and their learning. This summary describes a program that improves children's reading with the support of families and preservice teachers.
The Promising Readers Program, funded by the Reading Excellence Act, provides after-school tutoring and reading assistance to struggling K–3rd grade students at Thomas Elementary School. Thomas Elementary, a rural school drawing students from a 120-square-mile area, serves a population of students who are mostly African American with 97% receiving free lunch. The school has a history of low test scores, high retention rates, and limited family involvement.
Promising Readers is a literature-based program that engages children in frequent reading and writing, small group skill and strategy instruction, and one-on-one reading. During the first year of the program, we enrolled 50 children. Family members of these struggling readers, along with several preservice teacher candidates, were invited to assist Promising Readers in planning and operating the program.
Promising Readers staff members include family members, preservice teacher candidates, a classroom teacher, and two professors. All staff members participate in the day-to-day responsibilities, such as reading to and with children and leading centers and small group activities. In addition, staff members model literacy by participating in many of the same activities as students, such as keeping journals, writing letters and stories, and reading books.
Staff members engage in regular professional development to enhance and make the reading program stronger. They engage in reflection on the day's activities, discuss individual children, and plan lessons and themes. Professional development also provides time to ensure that all staff members understand the goals of the program, the state standards, and how to enact the various lessons and activities we have planned.
During the first year of the program, 12 family members were part of our staff, representing nearly half of our enrolled children. Some family members were part of the staff for three or four weeks or two or three months; others worked the entire year, and continue to work with us for the second year of the program. In addition, at least eight non-staff family members attended various functions, such as open houses and Family Fun nights.
Family members who are not a part of the Promising Readers staff receive regular newsletters and take-home activities and are invited to visit on a regular basis. Some of these family members join field trips, open house, and similar activities. In addition, we host monthly Family Fun nights and Family Reading nights in conjunction with the school. These events bring families back to the school in the evening to participate in literacy events and read with their children. Children in Promising Readers often give performances or presentations to demonstrate their learning.
Two teacher educators and two program staff members involved in this program documented its implementation. We kept extensive field notes describing and documenting interactions between teacher educators, children, family members, preservice teachers, and the school. Family members and other program staff kept daily journals describing and reacting to each day's events. In addition, we collected audiotapes and videotapes of many small and large group sessions and transcribed and analyzed portions of those tapes. Finally, we conducted interviews and written surveys with program staff, including both family members and preservice teachers.
We discovered many benefits of the program for family members. First, many family members were both willing and eager to work with the Promising Readers Program. The stipend family members received communicated the value of family involvement. Family members stated that the stipend offset the costs of participating in the program (e.g., childcare), but was not the primary reason they chose to work with the children. Family members explained that they wanted to contribute, to help their own and other children become better readers. We also learned that family members who were a regular part of the Promising Readers staff became more involved with both the Promising Readers Program and the life of the school than family members who were not a part of our staff.
Second, over time family members became very skillful at working with children. Early in our collaboration, family members often took a subordinate role, looking to the teacher candidates and professors before making decisions. As time passed, they began to take a more confident stance, suggesting program improvements and assuming more of the workload.
Third, family members continued to learn a variety of literacy practices to assist their children in becoming independent learners. As family members discussed how they spend their time at home with their children, they indicated that they were learning to incorporate more reading and writing activities, and were using different ways to talk about books, both at school and at home.
Finally, many of the family members working with the program became more involved at the school. Greater involvement in and access to Thomas Elementary led family members to reexamine their assumptions about the school's performance. Family members often knew that their own children were struggling, but did not realize that the school had a record of low achievement. Family members viewed their work with Promising Readers as one way to respond to the overall problem of low achievement at the school, and invited their friends and other family members to work with Promising Readers. In the second year, the number of family members working in the program doubled. In addition, family members began to monitor more carefully the teaching and learning in their children's classrooms. Other benefits included more involvement with PTA, increased interactions with their children's classroom teachers, and voiced concerns about the physical conditions of the school.
However, as a family involvement/family literacy program, we also experienced challenges. Some family members showed up inconsistently or abruptly stopped coming, sometimes because of work or transportation, sometimes without explanation. The logistics of families' lives may make this kind of work a challenge.
Cultural differences also presented interesting challenges for a program striving to create a particular kind of literature-based learning environment, and, at the same time, to honor, respect, and welcome families and their cultural practices. We found that we held different ideas of what it means to “do school”—whether children should do worksheets or write freely, or whether they should talk or be quiet. Differences also existed in management styles. The professors and teacher candidates wanted family members to use time-outs or redirect behavior and parents preferred to yell at or even spank the children.
Implications for Teacher Preparation and Professional Development
Cultural differences are the territory where the work in Promising Readers is most complex and where the most potential lies. We have learned that we need to engage in frequent, open conversations about our differences in goals and expectations, and about why we understand and behave the ways we do. All of us—family members and teachers—learn more about one another, and how to help the students, when we take time to do the hard work of acknowledging our differences and negotiating common ground.
Preservice teacher candidates often have field experiences that allow them to work with children. However, they have limited experiences working with struggling readers and family members. The experiences with the Promising Readers Program provide teacher candidates with opportunities to understand issues of poverty, cultural differences, and reasons for lack of parental involvement. The experiences of working with family members, watching as professors work and interact with family members, and watching as parents work with children, enable teacher candidates to become more comfortable with family members.
Promising Readers points to the importance of acknowledging that cultural differences may exist among teachers, schools, and family members. Because not all of our teacher candidates are able to interact with families during their field experiences, we work to discuss openly both the benefits and the challenges of inviting family members into the classroom. Teacher educators can ask teacher candidates to respond to and role-play various scenarios that may arise when families are invited into the classroom. For example, they may discuss how they will reconcile differences in management styles or brainstorm a list of authentic work that family members can do in their future classrooms. It is also beneficial for preservice teacher candidates to imagine what it might feel like to come to school from the parent's point of view.
The Promising Readers Program continues to thrive three years later at Thomas Elementary, a low-income elementary school that serves approximately 240 African-American students in kindergarten through sixth grade. At Thomas Elementary the program took the form of an afterschool and summer literacy program. Family members were actively recruited to collaborate with university professors and teachers to design, implement, and teach students in the program. By the beginning of the third year, 16 family members, who were paid a small stipend to assist with transportation costs and childcare, assisted in program planning and operation.
Interviews with family members and school personnel, field notes and observations, family members' journals and audiotapes, and videotapes of selected class sessions revealed the following:
Reasons for Working in the Program
Family members explained they worked in the program because they believed they could help their own children and help other children at the school. They felt responsible for helping students learn, and therefore responsible for understanding “what they were supposed to do.” Janet, one of the family members, explained she worked with the program because her presence supported and enhanced her son's learning. She stated, “I became interested when I found out that my son was having problems with reading, and I heard about the program through the school, so I decided to come out here, just because being here shows him that I'm interested in the work he is doing, and it might help him improve his work.” Janet's reasons for working with the program belie the traditional assumptions that family members of poor, rural, and minority children often do not care.
Family Members Learn
Family members who worked with the professors and teachers in the afterschool and summer tutorial program for at least a year tended to improve their skills in working with children. Family members became better at (a) reading with expression, (b) asking comprehension questions, and (c) encouraging students to express their thoughts about reading and writing assignments. Family members talked about how they were learning and growing throughout the program. Many family members were very specific about strategies, skills, and content they learned and immediately applied in the program and at home. They explained that as they participated in the program, they began to spend more time at home on literacy activities with their own children. In addition, family members learned from each other as they talked with each other formally at weekly professional development sessions and informally as they collaborated to teach the children.
Assuming Leadership Roles
As family members participated in day-to-day activities, collaborated with teachers and professors to plan and implement lessons, and observed as teachers and professors modeled teaching strategies, they began to assume more responsibility in the program and at the school. Family members felt a sense of responsibility for students' achievements as they assumed specific meaningful roles. Marcy explained that participating in the program led to greater involvement at the school. She said, “It makes me come out to more meetings, PTA meetings, and little activities and stuff, because, I mean, I have a child out here and I am concerned. In order for it to get better we have to be a part of it.”
Partners in the School Community
Over time, teachers and administrators at Thomas Elementary did see the family members as active members and participants of the school community. As the family members continued to come to Thomas Elementary, the school community began to accept them. Classroom teachers noticed this increased involvement. A third grade teacher stated, “I have noticed the parents who are involved with the program are a lot more involved in my classroom. I'm very pleased with the carryover from the program and the additional parental involvement.” One family member was even hired as a paraprofessional at Thomas Elementary.
Implications for Practice
The structure and design of most family literacy programs have been founded on the belief that the way to improve children's achievement is to improve the literacy and parenting skills of the family members (Nueman, Caperelli, & Kee, 1998). Lopez, Scribner, and Mahitivanichcha (2001) have demonstrated that successful family literacy programs can be constructed when school personnel work to know, understand, and value the cultures, strengths, and characteristics of families.
The staff of the afterschool and summer literacy program at Thomas Elementary did not try to “fix” family members. Instead, the staff worked hard to listen and understand the culture, strengths, and characteristics of family members. The teachers and professors valued family members as teachers and colleagues, not just helpers, to facilitate the construction of knowledge about literacy teaching and learning.
Data from working with family members in this literacy program assisted professors and teachers in understanding the potential of collaborating with family members by sharing family members' comments, home literacy practices, and perspectives. Regular reflection, discussion, and professional development, along with the stipend, communicated the importance of family members' roles in the program. The voices of family members should be a critical component if programs are to be designed to accommodate the needs and goals of families.
Lopez, G. R., Scribner, J. D., & Mahitivanichcha, K. (2001). Redefining parental involvement: Lessons from high-performing migrant-impacted schools. American Educational Research Journal, 38(2), 253–288.
Neuman, S. B., & Caprelli, B. J., & Kee, C. (1998). Literacy learning: A family matter. Reading Teacher, 98(52), 244–252.
Teresa Jayroe, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Reading/Language Arts
Elementary Block Coordinator
Curriculum and Instruction
Mississippi State University
Mississippi State, MS 39762
Devon Brenner, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Reading/Language Arts
Curriculum and Instruction
Mississippi State University
Mississippi State, MS 39762
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