The ancient African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” continues to hold true even today. Now more than ever, schools and families need to come together and develop a partnership to ensure the success of all students. As educators, we know all too well how important parent involvement is for our students. In fact, the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education states, “Parent involvement in education is crucial. No matter their income or background, students with involved parents are more likely to have higher grades and test scores, attend school regularly, have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school” (National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education, 2006). As a teacher, partnering with families is one of my top goals every year. This is easier said than done with those whom have just arrived to a new country. As previously mentioned, families immigrate to the United States for a myriad of reasons. Many families arrive here with immediate hurdles to overcome. Some of these issues can be attributed to trauma they encountered in their home country, low literacy capabilities in their primary languages, or an overall misunderstanding of how the educational system functions in the United States. In many Latin American countries, for example, parents view education as the school’s responsibility. Many times, parents are hand’s off when it comes to their child’s schooling. As well, Latino parents may feel self-conscious when it comes to discussing education in a system they are unfamiliar with themselves (Delgado-Gaitan, 2007). This cultural difference can become an obstacle for U.S. Teachers. The good news is there are ways we as educators can get our newly immigrated families assimilated to our schools.
Acclimating the entire family to how schools function in the United States is an essential first step in developing that school/home partnership. Parents need to understand our educational system in order for them to realize the vital role they play in their child’s education. Every year, I make it a priority to hold regular, on-going parent support meetings to educate and support the families of the students in my classroom. During these hour long meetings, I discuss an array of topics, such as my grading practices, when to expect report cards, homework expectations, how to access their child’s grades online, the daily ins and outs of school in general, and the importance of their role at home. I have translators in the top few languages of my students (Spanish and Vietnamese at my school) to ensure the understanding of the families present. I also answer any questions they may have and emphasize that they contact me throughout the school year if questions arise. I usually hold these meetings once every two months, in the evening when parents are most likely able to attend. Yes, this is after my contractual hours. Yes, this can be seen as extra work. However, the benefit to my students and their families who choose to attend outweighs the slight burden this puts on me an average of 6 nights a year. This is a great first step in getting parents onboard with their child’s education and breaking down the cultural barrier that may exist between you and your families.
Along with families, students need to understand their role in education. It is essential that we spend time setting a “school foundation” for our students. This means walking them through their schedule, showing them how lunch time operates, giving them a safe space to go when they are feeling overwhelmed, and giving them basic tools (including vocabulary) for surviving the first few weeks of school. Every year, I spend the first couple of weeks not only teaching basic, survival language to my ELLs, but I also make sure to walk them through the lunch line (I set up a convenient time with the cafeteria to do this). I take them to their PE class (during my class time) and discuss what happens in the locker room. I walk around and introduce them to the front office staff, our Principal and Vice Principals, Counselors, Librarian, and anyone else they may encounter outside of my classroom walls. I also open my room at lunchtime for the first few weeks of school so students can come and eat lunch in a safe place if they choose. I find that I only need to do this for the first few weeks of schools, as middle school students do not want to eat with their teacher once they start feeling comfortable with their surroundings. Doing these things for students at the beginning of the year can have lasting effects on how they view school for the rest of the year.
Another way we can connect to our families is by becoming familiar with Funds of Knowledge. Funds of Knowledge are collections of knowledge based in cultural practices that are a part of families’ inner culture, work experience, or their daily routine (No Time for Flash Cards, 2018). This concept was developed in 1992 by educational researchers Luis Moll, Cathy Amanti, Deborah Neff, and Norma Gonzalez. It is an extremely powerful resource for teachers to tap into when teaching ELLs. In my Newcomer classroom, I use Funds of Knowledge as the basis for my first academic unit. For this unit, I focus on the cultural traditions of students in my classroom. We learn about one another’s home country, daily life, and favorite customs that play an essential role in my student’s lives. At the end of the unit, I invite students to share a traditional dish and recipe from their family. If able, students cook and bring in a family dish to share. We invite students’ families and some of our selected school staff members to attend our potluck. At the gathering, each student presents (in English) about their dish. As we know, food is a great barrier breaker and our students, staff and family members really enjoy sampling and sharing their traditional dishes with one another.
Research from the National PTA tell us “The most accurate predictors of student achievement in school are not family income or social status, but the extent to which the family creates a home environment that encourages learning, communicates high yet reasonable expectations for the child’s achievement, and becomes involved in the child’s education at school (National PTA 2000). It is absolutely necessary that we bridge the gap between home and school and developing a strong, working relationship with the families of the students in our classrooms. Flexibility is key; we know our students can be transient and our classrooms are dynamic and ever changing throughout the entire school year. Striving to include families into your classroom on a daily basis can have lasting effects on the educational success of your students, especially those who are not native to the United States.