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Learning and Building a Partnership Through Activities and Home Visits

By Anasthasie Liberiste-Osirus
 | Feb 19, 2019

honoring-diversityIn recent years, there has been a shift in diversity within our classrooms in the United States. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that the number of English learners (ELs) in public schools has increase between 3–10% since the fall of 2000, with the greatest influx in states such as California, Texas, Kansas, and Nevada.

This shift in population required a shift in my personal communication strategy with parents and caregivers.

Teaching high school reading and English skills to EL students came with its set of challenges. By the third month of the school year, I understood that I needed to think outside the box if I wanted family engagement and student success. With the growth of 6% in Georgia’s EL student population from 2000 to 2015—and most home languages consisting of Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Arabic—it was clear that certain efforts of communication with parents and caregivers were just not successful. Namely, sending long, complex documents home in English; emailing parents; making phone calls without an interpreter; and expecting parents and caregivers to show up to teacher conferences without language support.

The ineffectiveness of my past efforts to connect provided me with a unique opportunity to develop a plan of action that was feasible and sustainable.

The snapshot

Taking time to learn about my EL population was essential. Becoming familiar with a student’s culture, specific traditions, language, and religious holidays not only helped me get a better understanding of students overall, but it gave context to responses and some acquisition confusion.

Learning about your students’ culture also provides you, the teacher, with a foundation to build practical lessons that build on their background knowledge as well as improve communication between you and the student. Though most of my students spent over six months at refugee camps and had zero documentation of academic gaps or progress, they all came into my classroom with real-world experiences that enriched our daily activities.

I took it upon myself to validate the richness of their home language and culture with lessons that supported both our district’s language and literacy curriculum and their home language—for example, finding literature from home cultures that mirrored literature classics or providing opportunity for students to develop a class dictionary with essential words for each language spoken.

I started other activities to bolster home–school connections such as a yearly cultural showcase featuring native dances, music, and poetry where families and students were active in putting it together. Connecting with local organizations that supported many of my refugee and displaced students to assist with translations, provide tutoring, or other community resources was also vital. These interventions were done to understand and support students in the classroom.

But was this enough to connect with parents and caregivers and their students?

Developing deeper connections

Though there was an obvious language and cultural gap, the navigation of learning about my students’ background beyond their enrollment record gave me a better global sense of my students and their emotional load when they enter my classroom each morning. As I learned more about my students, I realized that relationship building could be emphasized through face to face interactions.

In Georgia, about 30% of EL students live in urban regions. One way that I made further efforts to build trust was to visit students’ homes, soliciting a native speaker to assist during visits when possible, and attending cultural events within their community.

It became my priority not just to visit the students who were clearly unsupported and falling through the cracks but also the students who were succeeding. Weekday evening and weekend morning visits became routine. It took a bit of planning to navigate routes, coordinate with a translating volunteer, and speak to students to work out a schedule. I also worked with other teachers who shared the same students and we collaborated to make our presence known among the EL population. An average student received at least one visit within the school year, but all families received some type of written or verbal communication several times throughout the year.

The takeaway

A few things I learned through taking the time to learn about my students and making an effort to build relationships through home visits were that

  • Many parents and caregivers are unable to interpret the academic plans and additional programs set up to bolster their child’s educational experience. Though interested in learning, many felt overwhelmed.
  • Due to external variables (e.g., parents and caregivers working multiple jobs, unable to find child care for meeting, or anxiety surrounding lack of communication), many parents are unable to attend parent teacher conferences.
  • Poverty was a common factor that affected a parent or caregiver’s lack of availability.
  • Students are weighted down by the pressure of navigating government assistance forms, job applications, and communicating for their families.

With classrooms averaging four different languages and cultures, connecting with families helped build a partnership that became reflective in my approach to teaching and communication between home and school.

Understanding each student’s culture and home life allows us to vary our teaching and build on their background knowledge. Taking the time to learn about each student affirms to the student that we respect and value the wealth of experiences and knowledge they bring to our classroom.

Anasthasie N. Liberiste-Osirus is the associate director of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education in Haiti program.

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