Lessons from the Early Years: Pedagogical Documentation Invites Parental Engagement

Recently, conversations at the school and system leadership level have moved from a focus on parental involvement to one of parental engagement. This shift from desiring active parental volunteerism that supports programs and services to active family-school connections that positively impacts student achievement has seemingly corresponded with the shift toward a focus on student-centered learning, whereby the development and well-being of the whole child is considered and supported by the entire school community in an effort to improve the overall climate of the school.  In Ontario, the belief that “we can only make progress if we acknowledge that the development of children and youth happens through the collective interactions with adults and peers that take place at home, in school and in the community” (Zegarac, 2014) has provided a reference for implementing family-school engagement.  An understanding of the distinction between “involvement” and “engagement” is one of vital importance if leaders wish create and “nurture productive working relationships” (OLF, 2014) that lead to the kind of active family and community engagement culture that positively impacts student achievement.  Ferlazzo (2011) contrasts these terms, whereby “involve” means “to enfold or envelope” while “engage” is “to come together and interlock”.  “Thus, involvement implies doing to; in contrast, engagement implies doing with” (Ferlazzo, 2011).

What types of family engagement truly impact student achievement?  While there seems to be an understanding that family engagement positively impacts student success at school, the actual practices that comprise effective family engagement are not clear.  From my perspective, what is most important is the context in which the family is engaged.  I am thinking that the “one size fits all” model needs to be avoided; instead, it is about knowing our families, their needs and values, and building a relationship with families in such a way that honours who they are.  For too long we have (with all good intentions) approached engagement through our school lens – thinking that we need to educate parents in how to engage in math with their children, what questions to ask the children when they are reading bed time stories, etc.  Again, this was done with positive intentions (and I use the collective “we” as this was my approach), however the unintentional result was parents and caregivers coming into the school to be taught by us, which questioned their parenting skills.  If we truly believe that parents are “capable and competent” (2014) as How Does Learning Happen? reminds us,  then I suggest that we need to rethink this approach to parental engagement.

I have come to understand that true family engagement is when parents have high expectations for their children – they speak with their children about school and their accomplishments and struggles, they supervise homework (which they child should be able to complete independently if the homework is true practice), they speak with their child about the future and the choices that education provides for them, and they work collaboratively with the educator to support their child in achieving these expectations. I don’t believe that true parental engagement requires that parents are actively volunteering in the school; too often we hear that we don’t ever see some parents in the school, or we hear parents apologizing for not being able to volunteer. This is an area that we need to rethink. Absolutely, we value having parents in the schools; they are our partners and their presence contributes to the sense of family that we truly want to see in every one of our small schools.  Their presence and engagement in things such as Student Led Conferences and special events also serve to help families to feel increasingly comfortable with the school environment, the language of schooling, and with the expectations for learning; all of which help parents to engage and support their child’s growth. Our rethink comes from the fact that these traditional parental engagement activities have required the parents to “come to us” (reminds me of “doing to” rather than “doing with”) on our terms, in our environment and on our schedules.  This doesn’t honour the reality of our families.  Today, it is possible for us to bring the learning home to families and to make that learning available to them on their terms, terms that respects their schedules, lives and needs. This is done by making our pedagogical documentation visible to them on line.  The following is an excellent example of how we can do this.

http://missdunsiger.commons.hwdsb.on.ca/2015/02/19/daily-shoot-miss-dunsigers-class-day-107-2/

This link resulted from exploring Twitter yesterday on the topic of transitions to school for new Kindergarten students as through my Early Years lens. I have been thinking about the importance of a positive, seamless transition into Kindergarten, whereby the school is working with its partners in Child Care and Family Support Programs – with any service provider who supports children – to ensure that every child, family and caregiver feels a strong sense of belonging in their community schools.  Donna Fry posed a question to me:

Donna Parents Invited into the Learning

…Which resulted in me connecting (and now following) Aviva Dunsiger, a grade one teacher from Hamilton, who believe in the power of connecting the home to the school through pedagogical documentation.  Her site, aptly called, A Window into Learning, chronicles the journey of thinking that is occurring in her classroom, and included Twitter posts, reflections, photos, etc.  It made me feel as though I was engaged in the learning that was occurring.  Thinking was made visible!

Let’s do some rethinking about parental engagement.  Let’s remember that parents are capable and competent, and let’s think about giving them an ongoing lens into the classroom learning environment. As a mom I have appreciated the newsletters that come home capturing the learning that has occurred during the month, and think that I am fortunate that my daughter does give me some insights into her thinking as well as the daily goings on in the classroom. However I believe that if I knew more, our conversations at the dinner table would sound differently.  I also wonder if we would be able to increasingly take that learning into the real world in a timely,  responsive and reinforcing manner…at the grocery story, while driving, baking. I would love to engage in her learning more deeply and more regularly.  For me, this is true parental engagement.

Until next week…thanks for posting, tweeting, risk taking, and making your thinking visible!

Ferlazzo, L., (2011).  Involvement or Engagement?  ASCD Journal 68(8), 10-14.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). In conversation:  healthy relationships:  the foundation of a positive school climate . 4(3).

8 responses

  1. I too had a read of this teachers blog and thought that it was pretty amazing about what she had documented about the learning that was happening in the classroom and how the parents would have this ability to observe first hand what was happening in the classroom. It is interesting that we are talking about this, as we continue to have challenges with getting the parents to come to us. Most recently I was thinking about social media and how we could perhaps use this to communicate happens and learning that is happening in our schools. I was thinking about a cyber coffee house. Set up a time when parents can grab a coffee/tea and sit and chat on a forum….just at the thinking stages at this point.

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  2. Love that thinking and all of the possibilities Heidi. Our schools truly are important in our communities so to have parents “see” into the daily events and learning is powerful. I just spent a few minutes on the facebook page of Marjorie Mills Public School https://www.facebook.com/MMPS.sgdsb and truly loved the celebrations, the insights into learning (wow!), the announcements and the invitation to enter into the school. The number of views and likes was impressive. Very encouraging!

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    1. This is a great post, Nicki, and I wonder too about the “how” – took a look at that Facebook page for MMPS and it’s very welcoming. In the past few years, teachers at our school have been emailing parents regular updates through Markbook and I hear really positive feedback from parents about this. They love having timely updates on academic progress. Some teachers, when emailing these updates to parents, include a few sentences about what the class is learning and this leads to rich parent-child conversations. I’m curious about other ways to engage parents in their children’s learning at school.

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  3. Hi Jenn, I remember our conversations about that way of communicating with parents during our visit – especially how much the teachers appreciated that method – and had heard directly from a parent in the community about how much she valued that form of communication. Another encouraging example from a secondary school! Thanks for sharing. N

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  4. Nicki, this is a very timely post as we continue to develop our supports for schools around parental engagement. I wanted to remind administrators that we (SEF team) have been collecting examples and ideas on the board’s LLT site around parental engagement. If you wanted to share your ideas with everyone, we would love to hear from you. If you’re not there yet, but are looking for a place to start, the LLT site has example newsletters and ideas for bringing everyone together. It can’t be over stated how important it is to have all the supports for the students working together.

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    1. I’m sorry – I just realized that I made a mistake. The parental engagement information is on the Numeracy site of the VLE not the LLT site. All administrators still have access to it as well.

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  5. Thanks for the thinking. We have struggled with the same question of how to engage parents and have many of the same thoughts. How do we educate parents, how to we get them to come to the building? I am intrigued by the new possibilities of bringing the classroom to our parents. I have had several conversations with parents in our school and often their experience with school was a much different and perhaps not as positive as we would have liked so for many coming into the school raises some perhaps unconscious anxieties. In addition, today’s daily life in society seems very jam packed and we are all looking to divide our time proportionally into areas of need or interest. Love the concept of rethinking traditional parental engagement activities have required the parents to “come to us” . We have just begun to play with facebook for our school and I am inspired by the new ideas.

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  6. I agree with Jenn that communicating updates to parents is a great way to keep parents engaged. Lots of good feedback from parents and staff members on th email updates. It is great and easy for the secondary schools who track their evaluations on Markbook. Collecting email addresses was a lot easier than you would think as well! Shelley, I agree that the “come to us” part is the biggest challenge. With transportation and/or work schedules being some of the biggest barriers that I can identify, I really believe that we need to utilize the home-school and school-home communication pieces that we have in place. Agendas, newsletters, learning stories, phone calls and social media are all great ways to do this.
    I would also recommend that people take advantage of the PRO grant and the PIC grant. Although I realize that these one shot events aren’t exactly what we mean by parental engagement, but as NIck mentions it certainly is a starting point and a big help.
    As a parent I love the “ask your child about…” notes in the agendas. They give me a starting point for conversations. Well, actually I make Dan do it because I have the privilege of seeing it first hand.

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