Every family is not engaged. For the disengaged, there is an old adage that sums up how to reattach and reinvigorate relationships between families and schools:
“Before they will come to you, you must go to them.”
Outreach to families is an essential concept if a true desire exists to engage every family. Teacher outreach is an excellent way to build the relationships necessary to foster family engagement and to help those families that are disengaged become less fearful and more optimistic about the worth and value of their ability to engage.
But, and there is a big but here, it is impossible to ignore the fear and apprehension of teachers who are suddenly asked to reach out to families whom they may perceive as disengaged, unsupportive, disenfranchised or difficult. Valuing teacher time is essential for outreach mechanisms to work. For many years we have suggested that family engagement is not about doing more; it’s about doing what we already do…just differently.
One of the biggest challenges to teacher outreach is time. Our teachers are incredibly busy and overburdened as it is. When the subject of outreach comes up, teachers are quick to ask “when?” It is important to remember that not all outreach involves time for teachers to work with families face to face and family engagement is not about doing more, it’s about doing what we already do, just doing it differently.
Here is one example of a change that takes no more time or effort, but results in a very different outcome.
The Weekly Folder
For as long as anyone can remember, elementary students carry home a weekly folder. One day of the week is designated as ‘folder day.” The students are given their folders and instructed to bring them home to share with their families. Students are told that the folder must come back to school the following day and a signature from a parent must be included.
Presumably the parent signature is needed to ensure safe delivery of the information. Students clearly understand that they will only get one folder for the year and dire consequences could exist if the folder doesn’t come back the next day!
Folders usually contain examples of work that has been done in school by the student as well as information for parents. The purpose of the weekly folder is noble: to communicate what is happening in school to parents and to give them examples of progress in learning as well as keep them informed of school happenings.
Teachers spend a great deal of time preparing information for the weekly folder and rely on this method of communication to keep home-school information flowing. But does the folder meet the expected objectives? (We can debate using youngsters as conduits of communication at a later time!)
Let’s look more closely at the folder and more importantly, look at ways in which the folder could be improved with no additional monies, effort or time. Remember, family engagement is not about doing more…its about doing things differently. One of the first salient questions is about engagement. How do we expect families to engage with things that have already happened? A folder full of information of what has already occurred leaves little or no opportunity for families to engage in learning.
The required signature is largely to assist the teacher in knowing that the information she wished the family to know, arrived and was viewed by an adult caregiver. In many cases, required signatures become a method of establishing proof of communication when families raise questions. Again, we need to ask a simple question: Does a signature mean that a parent has received the information or received and understood the information presented? Big difference.
In most cases, the signature cannot afford any teacher the opportunity to know if the information was clearly communicated and understood. Is there a way then to change the weekly folder without adding any extra time or work for a teacher but to significantly increase its use and understanding by parents? The answer is simple: yes.
Changing the Focus
Instead of using the folder to communicate what has occurred, change the focus to what will occur. What is happening in school tomorrow or next week and how can parents support the teacher and their child’s learning? Fill the folder with examples of what will be learned and how parents can extend the learning into the home. If a teacher feels strongly that examples of completed work are essential, then divide the folder in half. On the left side put a few examples of completed work and on the right side place items that will be covered in the coming week.
Lastly, instead of a signature, why not pose a question instead. Let’s say for example, that students are studying dinosaurs as part of a science unit. Instead of a required signature, pose this question: “This week, we studied dinosaurs and covered a lot of information. Ask your child what they have learned about dinosaurs and write down what they say here. Thank you.”
Let’s take an inventory of what we can accomplish with the same folder, the same resources, the same amount of time, but with a different focus:
- Family support for home learning.
- Family understanding of concepts covered in school.
- Classroom learning extended into the home.
- Family efficacy for learning
- The teacher’s ability to check for conceptual understanding.
No additional time. No additional resources. Just a change in what we do and how we do it. This simple change is but one of a number of examples of school practice and procedure that when slightly altered, produce very different results.
It’s important to note that in some schools, the weekly folder has been replaced by a modern day e-version. Whether information is shared on paper or on a web page or e mail, the goals are the same: to help families engage in the upcoming learning and to provide evidence of understanding of what has been shared.