Three Steps Toward a Strong Home-School Connection

Posted September 2004: Tobey Cho Bassoff shares three keys to involving ESL students' families in school activities. See Tammy Gregersen's Out of the Box article, "Adversity to Diversity in the Mainstream," Essential Teacher, Autumn 2004 (pp. 54-56).

How do teachers ensure positive communication between ESL students' homes and their school? The simple answer has three parts:

  1. access: Give parents opportunities to participate.
  2. approachability: Make sure that all school and classroom program environments are welcoming to parents.
  3. follow-through: Show appreciation to students and parents for their time and involvement in events.

Parents want to be involved in their children's education. These three principles open doors to that involvement, and I believe that they help overcome some of the barriers faced by bilingual children and their families.

Access

Make sure opportunities to participate fit parents' schedules. Many ESL parents find day-to-day work schedules and survival in an English-speaking world overwhelming. Adding another commitment, albeit important, at a time when they are supposed to be working is often next to impossible. After all, their work earns the money to pay for food and shelter.

Survey parents about their work schedules and interests; then plan events that take their time constraints into consideration. Either develop the survey and have it translated and sent home, or have your students tell you their parents' schedules through an activity. Even young students are often aware of when their parents are available.

I have found that asking parents when they are available to visit the classroom for a special project works better than asking parents when they're unavailable. For various important reasons, parents do not want to disclose times when they are otherwise occupied.

Approachability

Once you've found a time that works for the majority of parents, plan some programs that highlight your ESL students' work, and invite the parents to attend. Two successful programs that my fifth-grade ESL classes have hosted are a before-school nonfiction publishing party and an interactive math night.

Company for Breakfast

For the nonfiction publishing party (based on Harvey, 1998) the students created invitations for their parents and school staff, including pictures of inexpensive breakfast treats and juice, which I provided. I believe that receiving the invitations from their children encouraged parents to attend. In addition, because the party took place at a time when parents had said they were available, they sensed that I cared enough about their input to make sure that the party fit their schedules.

The availability of food also played a part in the success of the party. Many of the students in the attendance area for my school are highly mobile or homeless. Any time food is provided at school events, attendance increases.

The event was highly successful. Parents and many extended family members came, as did neighbors and youth organization leaders with whom the students were involved. At various places around the room, reports were visible with yellow comment sheets. Visitors could sit at a desk or table, read, and comment on what they had read.

Language was not a barrier: Many parents encouraged their children to read to them in English and translate the stories into the native language. They were proud of the English that their child had learned and proud that the child remembered the native language well enough to translate. Many students encouraged their parents to try saying the name of the objects in the pictures that accompanied many of the reports in English. Everywhere I looked, I saw proud children beaming as they showed their work off to the people they cared about and who cared about them.

Math for Everyone

On Interactive Math Night, children and their families come to the classroom to play math games that focus on concepts the students are learning in class (for ideas on games and instructions in Spanish and English, see Stanmark, Thompson, & Cossey, 1986; Thompson & Stanmark, 1987).

Before Math Night, I reviewed the games with the children, then set the games up at stations around the room. I encouraged the students to talk about the format of the event with their parents. Many students said that their parents were excited to learn about math through activities rather than through lengthy explanations that they might not understand. In this way, the format of the event was accessible to them. They didn't need to know how to read or understand theory; they simply played games with their children. To make the event even more accessible, I posted a "Welcome" sign on my door with greetings in all of my students' native languages and set out store-bought snacks and drinks for the program.

Math Night was an open house-type activity: Students brought their families into the classroom to explore and learn together by doing, not by listening. I was available for help, but many families went to the stations and played the games without speaking to me directly. (They did greet me and thank me upon arriving and leaving).

Follow-Through

The third element of positive home-school communication is follow-through, a show of appreciation for families' involvement in a school program. For example, you might send home a simple note sporting clip-art images and the word Thanks in English, the family's native language, or both. Using the native language shows that you appreciate the diversity of cultures in your classroom and your school.

Consider the Families

Whatever program you choose, consider the parents of your students. You will be amazed by the participation in your programs if they are accessible, approachable, and include some follow-through.

References

Harvey, S. (1998). Nonfiction matters: Reading, writing, and research in grades 3-8. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Stanmark, J. K., Thompson, V., & Cossey, R. (1986). Family math. Berkeley: University of California Regents/Lawrence Hall of Science.

Thompson, V., & Stanmark, J. K. (1987). Matemática para la familia [Family math]. Berkeley: University of California Regents/Lawrence Hall of Science.

Tobey Cho Bassoff (Bassoff_Tobey@stvrain.k12.co.us) is a fifth-grade teacher at Columbine Elementary School, Longmont, Colorado, in the United States, and the ESL Web mentor for Teachers Network (http://www.teachersnetwork.org/).