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Defining Parent Engagement in 2019

Elise Twyford

Elise Twyford

Teacher

Elise Twyford is an early-years educator and lifelong learner. She is currently running the Sprig Learning Oral Language Learning Program in her classroom in Toronto, Ontario.

What does parent engagement look like in 2019?

Parents spend countless hours caring for their child — they are the experts on the little person that you meet in your classroom. They send their hopes and dreams into school with their child, and every parent wants to see their child succeed. As educators, we get the privilege to spend a few hours a day helping their little learners build the skills they need along their path toward academic success.

But while we know that relational trust between schools and parents is linked to higher levels of student achievement, how much time are we as educators dedicating to actively nurturing our relationships with parents and caregivers? How can we create a welcoming and responsive classroom culture, one where engagement is initiated and led by parents, caregivers and community members? And what does parent engagement look like in the culturally responsive classroom, particularly in communities where trust in the education system is lacking, oftentimes because of historical trauma?

What does it even mean to engage parents in early learning?

We tend to evaluate parent engagement by the number of parents who attend parent-teacher interviews, or how regularly we communicate directly with the home. These numbers, although important, are often more representative of a parents’ busy schedule than their meaningful engagement with their child’s education.

Because we lack the framework and tools we need to discuss and describe parental engagement, we as teachers often find ourselves unable to analyze and assess the true fruits of our efforts. We know that we are doing “something” to get parents engaged in our classrooms—but is it enough?

Ken Leithwood argues that we need to shift away from the current model of trying to get parents into the school, and towards a model where parents and caregivers can support learning in the home. After all, this is where half of the learning that we are responsible for as educators happens.

The Ladder of Participation

Roger Hart (1992) developed the Ladder of Youth Participation to describe levels of youth engagement. At the bottom of the ladder, you can see an engagement model that is providing information. At the top of the ladder, you see a model that has ideas initiated by youth and both adults and youth sharing in the decision making.

Could this same framework be used to think about how teachers engage parents in classrooms?

https://healthyschoolsbc.ca/healthy-schools-bc-resources/healthy-schools-network/

Typically, when we think of parent engagement, we think of the communication that happens through emails and calls to the home. We think of parent representatives on school committees, parent volunteers in school-wide activities, and parent-teacher night. The common thread here is that engagement happens on the school’s terms rather than the parent’s. From Hart’s ladder, this would look like the bottom 1-5 rungs (if we were being generous).

But what if we imagined a more engaging approach, one that supports parents to direct, define and lead the engagement?

This is especially true when looking at the culturally responsive classroom of 2019. For example, in speaking to culturally restorative practices at the First Nations School of Toronto (Parent Discussion Night, January 23, 2018), Estelle Simard described engaging Elders, parents, and community members in how culture should be taught in school, and the importance of creating meaningful engagement that enabled families to both initiate and define how they engage with their child’s school.

Estelle provided an example of a community where the Elders wanted regalia making, the creation of traditional and sometimes sacred clothing and accessories, to be a component of the school’s curriculum. The school then aligned curriculum and opened the door for the community to share their knowledge on the subject, creating a community of sharing and mutual respect.

Building Bridges between the Home and the School

We work hard to build relationships with our students. In order to increase parent engagement, we need to further that hard work by building relationships with parents, caregivers, and the community. So how can we honour this in our own classrooms and begin building bridges between home and school? 

  • – Attend community events – and don’t be shy about engaging with parents. Even a small wave or nod will start you on the path to building trust and a positive relationship with parents.
  • Create a classroom culture that encourages constant dialogue between yourself and your students’ caregivers, and work together to determine how to best support their child. Remember, the dialogue must be reciprocal. At the end of the day, parents are the true experts when it comes to their child.
  • – Most importantly — listen.

One of the benefits of working with the Sprig Learning Platform has been that it provides me with the opportunity to connect my classroom to every one of my students’ home lives, and to provide parents and caregivers with the tools they need to reinforce learning in their own homes.

 
 
   
 
 
 
We started out with a classroom birthday party for a haptic-enabled moose puppet named Antle, who is the star of Sprig’s Learning and MK Education’s Oral Language Learning Program. We invited parents, grandparents, and caregivers into our classroom, and encouraged them to learn more about the literacy learning that happens every day at school.
We interviewed each caregiver on the iOS-based caregiver survey, and parents and caregivers gave us more information about the literacy learning that happens at home and in the community. We all had such a great time at the party, and the small interactions that took place really built trust and strengthened our relationships with the families. Even better, we established a two-way dialogue between the home and school, both in-person and through the Sprig Learning online platform. Our students’ parents can now see activities that we recommend to further learning in the home, and trust that we are both working together to lead their little learner down a path to success.

Parent-Teacher Partnerships Lead to Success

The lasting effect of parents and teachers working together is clear when we see these students grow into healthy, confident, and curious lifelong learners. It’s important to find the approaches and strategies that work best for your classroom, but always remember to listen, be open-minded, and to have fun.

 

This guest post on the Sprig Learning Blog was contributed by  Elise Twyford, a teacher and lifelong learner based out of Toronto, Ontario. You can follow Elise here.

For more information about a holistic approach to assessment or holistic education, book a demo today or send us an email at letstalk@spriglearning.com.

Digital Literacy is Important, Early Literacy is Important-er

Coding, digital literacy, tech etiquette – these competencies are being squeezed into curriculums faster than you can say ‘growth mindset’. There is a justified reasoning behind this digital push, but let’s not forget the importance of early literacy.

Without developing digital skills, students will have trouble entering the workforce. Without developing early literacy, students will have trouble mastering digital skills. Herein lies the problem: failure to promote early literacy ripples through student learning as reading, writing and speaking are the foundation for success.

Why are oral language and early literacy skills so important?

Oral language and literacy are key components of early student learning and the greatest initial predictors of a child’s success in school. It is the bedrock on which literacy can build. Babies begin to acquire language within months of being born and by age five, they can master basic sound system structures and grammar. Children who do not develop the necessary language, reading and writing skills in their early years of schooling are at risk of developing further challenges in other areas of learning.

“Human beings are born to speak; they have an innate gift for figuring out the rules of the language used in their environment.

In addition, early language skills are predictive of later reading comprehension development. A 2011 report found that poor ‘comprehenders’ in the fifth grade – those with poor reading comprehension despite adequate word-reading skills – showed weak language skills as early as 15 months of age (Justice, Mashburn, &Petscher, in press). Oral Language is a skill practiced all the time with teachers, educators, parents, peers and members of the community and if supported properly, encourages reading and writing.

Regardless of a student’s language, nationality, culture or socioeconomic status, oral language development is of fundamental importance during a child’s formative years. That being said, cultural relevance can make a huge difference in strengthening student learning. Culturally enabling content means the student can see themselves in what they are learning. With relatable content, connections are made easier and learning happens fluidly.

What should your early literacy program look like?

As mentioned earlier, digital literacy is nothing to be discounted – it is a necessary competency that should be included in the early literacy discussion. The ideal early literacy program leverages digital tools to engage students with interactive, fun and personalized activities. If the content is culturally enabling that’s even more effective, but make sure there is a heavy focus on oral language. Children’s oral language skills are the foundation of reading and language comprehension.

Since few children entering kindergarten can read words, early literacy programs should look at oral language skills that develop word recognition and/or decoding ability. Knowledge of the alphabet and phonological awareness are strong predictors of decoding and comprehension and teaching both in combination shows a positive impact on improving the latter skills.

“As students explore language in classroom experiences, they begin to understand how to use their knowledge about language to communicate effectively in different ways, for a variety of purposes, including how to read and write.

Early learners should be exposed to oral language activities holistically, in all aspects of life. This is why it is important your early literacy program engages caregivers too. Students that have caregivers actively engaged in their learning have shown an average of .5 – .6 of a standard deviation for overall educational outcomes, grades and academic achievement.

Additionally, assessments of these early literacy skills are important to identify children who are likely to need more intensive instruction to achieve success with literacy. By identifying and working with students across all literacy levels early, educators can be proactive in ensuring that students meet or exceed academic expectations.

If children’s oral language skills are assessed early and often, educators and caregivers alike are painted a clearer picture of student learning. The key is getting all of a child’s stakeholders involved in early learning. When a child is educated holistically, magic happens.

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For more information about Sprig’s Learning’s Oral Language Program, send us an email at
letstalk@spriglearning.com.

Justice, L.M., Mashburn, A., & Petscher, Y. (in press). “Very early language skills
of fifth-grade poor comprehenders.” Journal of Research in Reading.
Trehearne, Miriam P., “Kindergarten Teacher’s Resource Book.” Nelson Thompson Learning,
Chapters 3 pgs 183-232, 2000

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