Bridging Home and School

Learning about patterns is one of the first things we do in math in my primary classroom. We create patterns with our bodies, sing them, build them, clap them. But I never realized the possibilities in studying patterns until one student, David, gave me a small, beautiful weaving that he had made with his mom. I was honored to receive such a gift, and I was curious. The next time I talked with David’s mom, I discovered that weaving was a hobby of hers. She asked if I thought the class would enjoy weaving and volunteered to set up one of her small looms in the classroom.

This was the beginning of a long project on weaving that not only connected home and school, but also integrated several areas of learning. The children brought cloth from home and worked together to weave strips into a larger work. All their understanding about patterns came alive as they compared strips, studied colors, and figured out how they wanted their pattern to go. David’s mom helped us get started on the weaving and then served as our consultant, checking in every few days to see how we were doing.

The children were glad to have a project that satisfied their hands and interested their minds. They developed a keen eye for the patterns all around them. They saw patterns in the poetry we read, the animals we studied, and the large numbers they could now count to. For my part, I was grateful to have such an interesting way to address multiple areas of the curriculum and to have help in a project that I could not have done myself.

A different vision of school

When I was a child, there was an invisible line dividing home and school. When my sisters and I walked to school, it was like crossing that dividing line. School was for the serious business of learning academics. Family interests and concerns, which might interfere with our studies, stayed on the home side of the line. I can remember only a handful of times when my parents entered the school, always for special nighttime events: parent conferences, an occasional school fair, perhaps a concert or play. The clear feeling was that the families were there to celebrate school life, but not participate in it.

That approach to education reminds me of the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each man feels a different part of the elephant and then is certain that he knows what an elephant is just from the part he felt. As the men argue over who is right, they get further and further from the truth. Expecting our students to learn a subject in isolation from the context of home and community life is like expecting them to know what an elephant is from feeling one floppy ear. And it’s just as limiting for teachers to try to understand a student without learning about his/her family and community.

Today, I have a different vision of school. In this vision, teachers open the classroom door to families and invite them in from the very start of the year. Further, families don’t just help out with the curriculum that the teacher has set. Instead, their interests and expertise are an integral part of the curriculum, just as David’s family interest in weaving became part of our schoolwork and classroom culture.

Guidelines for family-inclusive projects

Here are some guidelines for teachers who want to integrate family interests into classroom work:

Get to know families from the beginning of the year.

I begin each year by inviting families to name goals for their child and share any information that would help me work better with the child. At the same time, I let them know something about my approach to education. My hope is that these beginnings will naturally lead to ongoing conversations about the families’ interests. Alternatively, teachers can send more formalized questionnaires asking families to describe their interests and expertise.

Stay alert to family interests throughout the year.

Informal conversations with families, objects that students bring to school, and things children say in sharings are all clues to families’ hobbies and skills. Once I see how a family’s interests can fit into school life, I invite the family to share them.

See families as a resource to help solve classroom problems.

One year I had a class that had great difficulty working together. Every activity we did seemed to disintegrate into arguments about who was best or whose turn it was.

In our small rural town, the agricultural fair is a major focal point of community life. I saw that students’ families, many of whom worked with each other to organize the event, would be good role models of cooperation for the children. So I decided to have the class build a model of the fair in our block area. The children would learn from their families not only about the fair itself, but also about how to work with others. I asked Joey’s grandmother to come talk about how a group of people have to cooperate to run the food booth. Laura’s uncle helped us understand what kind of teamwork is needed to create exhibits in the display hall. Todd’s close family friend came to tell us about how the members of the fire department have to work together to put on the chicken barbeque.

As the children listened and worked on their model fair, they began to share ideas and appreciate each other’s contributions. Of course there were arguments as well. The children were surprised to learn, however, that there were often disagreements in putting on the real fair, too, and that their families had to solve problems if they wanted the fair to be a success. Because the children were motivated to make a great model, they were willing to try to work things out the way their families did.

I can’t say it was the end of our arguing that year, but the fair experience gave us something to draw upon when things weren’t going well. We could say, “We had a disagreement like this when we worked on our model fair. How did we solve the problem then?” or “How do you suppose Joey’s grandmother would solve a problem like this?”

Plan just one or two projects a year.

Just one or two will go a long way. Even if only one family is involved at the outset of a project, other families often get drawn in along the way. I’ve also found that children feel and respond to the school-home connection even when it’s not their own family that’s in the classroom.

Be clear about the family’s role.

It’s important to be clear that the role of families in projects like these is to be the content specialist—the weaving consultant or the fair experts, for example—not to manage the class or even be in charge of structuring a lesson. Classroom management and lesson structuring must remain the teacher’s job if the class is to function smoothly.

Being clear about these roles can also help families feel more comfortable about taking part. When I say, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to manage the class. Just show us the weaving,” they’re more likely to say, “Oh, okay, I can do that.”

Don’t let state frameworks stop you.

Teachers feel enormous pressure to cover everything required by state frameworks. But rather than seeing frameworks as a burden, I’ve come to see them as a helpful guide in making sure children are learning all the skills they need to be learning while doing projects such as the weaving and the model fair.

The beauty of projects is that they can easily cover multiple content areas. The model fair project, for example, covered scale, mapping, measurement, story writing, research, money, community work, folklore—all of which are required by the Massachusetts state frameworks.

Reaching beyond our own imaginings

When I choose projects that consciously connect children’s home life and school life, our classroom work becomes broader and more interesting than anything I could offer myself. The families’ contributions are like the weaving that David brought, gifts that reach beyond our own imaginings. Whether it’s a parent who sends in a giant fungus for us to study, a parent who teaches us how newborn babies are cared for, or a family who takes us maple sugaring, the possibilities are endless, and they make our learning come alive.

Deborah Porter is a primary grades teacher at the Heath School in Heath, MA. She has nearly thirty years of experience teaching primary grades and preschool and has led Responsive Classroom workshops for the past seventeen years. She is a co-author of Rules In School, published by NEFC.

Tags: Family Connections, Working with Families