The classroom is filled with parents, siblings, and grandparents eager to learn from kindergarten super readers. All around the room, students dressed as their favorite reading superpower are sitting alongside their their families, immersed in stacks of books, teaching their families how to use superpowers as they read.
When they get to challenging “kryptonite” words, students demonstrate how they use picture power to study the picture and think about what word might make sense. This is how we celebrate reading. It’s an opportunity for students to demonstrate their growth and for families to learn about how they can continue to support their child’s reading at home. It’s a bridge from school to home. This is one of the many ways that we engage families at our school.
Engaging in meaningful school-family partnerships is foundational to improving student outcomes. Families are an essential resource as we strive to work together to best support our students. Over the past few years, our school has grappled with this question: How do we build meaningful school-family partnerships? While our practices are always evolving, I’ll share some of the ones that have successfully enriched our school-family partnerships that you might try in your own school:
Strong school-family partnerships are built upon mutual trust. To build trust with families, we must first start by listening.
Listening Conferences: Listening conferences are 15 minute, one-on-one conferences with each family conducted at the start of the school year. The teacher asks a series of open-ended questions and listens to the family share about their child. This is an opportunity to begin building a relationship between the teacher and the child’s family. Engaging in listening conferences demonstrates that we value parent voice, see parents as experts on their child, and recognize that we as teachers can learn a lot by listening to parents. We try to provide flexibility (location and timing) to make it possible for every family to participate in a listening conference.
Open Door Policy: Families know that our doors are always open to them. They’re welcome to come to our classrooms to talk to us before or after school. If they’re unable to come to school, families can reach out by calling or texting their child’s teacher. This open line of communication is central to building and maintaining trust. As one parent shared:
“Siempre puedo venir al salón para hablar con la maestra sobre cualquier preocupación o pregunta que tengo sobre mi hijo y la maestro está allí para escucharme. Esta comunicación es lo más importante para mí.” “I know that I can always come talk to my child’s teacher to raise any concern or question and the teacher will be there to listen. This communication is the most important for me.”
Shared experiences create opportunities to build community among school staff and families.
Breaking Bread Together: Sharing a meal together is a powerful way to begin building community. We have done a potluck dinner series with teachers and families, in which we ate meals together once a week for 3 consecutive weeks at the start of the year. This gave us an opportunity to listen to one another’s stories, experiences, and hopes and dreams. This allowed us to get to know one another more deeply. Not only can this deepen connections between the school staff and families, but it also deepens connections between families, which has proven to be a highly supportive network. For example, a group of parents who got to know each another through this dinner series says they often call one another to ask for advice when their child is struggling with something in school.
Community Field Trips: Another way to build community is to participate in shared experiences.
Some examples of family field trips that we’ve organized include going hiking, visiting a local university, or taking a trip to a local museum.
Once we’ve built a strong community, families and teachers can collaborate together to set shared goals and work together to best support our students.
Student-Led Conferences: In student-led conferences, our students share a portfolio of their work with their teacher and their family. The student showcases areas in which they’ve made significant growth as well as the next steps in their plan for learning. Then the “team” — student, teacher, and parent — make a plan for how the student will meet these goals. We discuss ways to support the child at home and at school, and share resources to meet the student’s needs.
Collaboration Nights: The goal of a collaboration night is to share a challenge students are working on, and work together as a community of parents and teachers to improve in this area. For example, with our kindergarten families we might look at our whole class data on students’ recognition of letter sounds. We discuss why this skill is foundational to reading. Then, families share ideas as to how we can support students’ growth in this area at home and at school. Parents share strategies they’ve tried and found successful with their own child. We set a communal goal around growth in letter sound recognition for all students in the class. Families leave with a plan they’ll try at home and we meet back together the following month to evaluate and celebrate our students’ progress, share new ideas, and set a new communal goal. In this way, we’re together taking ownership over the learning of all students in our class community.
Celebrations of Student Learning: Celebrating student learning together is a great way to deepen community as well as to create a shared understanding of the goals we hold for our students. We invite families into our school to celebrate publishing of student writing, exhibitions of engineering projects, art shows, our reading super powers, and much more. Families take great pride in watching their children celebrate and share their learning.
Focusing on listening, building community, collaborating, and celebrating has enriched our school-family partnership. How does your school engage families in meaningful ways? How do you deepen school-family partnerships? Please share your ideas with our learning community below!
Chana Stewart is a kindergarten and first grade looping teacher in East Palo Alto, California. She is a lead teacher, an America Achieves fellow, and a mentor for teaching candidates from the Stanford Teacher Education Program, of which she is an alum. Chana has been teaching at the East Palo Alto Charter School, an Aspire Public School, for six years. She is passionate about building a community of curious and engaged learners. Connect with her on Twitter: @chana_stewart.