Diana Burroughs

Diana Burroughs, Co-founder and Executive Director of TeachersCount
Co-founder of PENCIL, a non-profit that encourages private-sector involvement in public education, Diana more recently served as the Manhattan Borough Deputy to the New York City Schools Chancellor. Diana received her Ph.D. from Princeton University.

Parent Engagement

Answers by Larry Ferlazzo

1. It is often said that a strong home can benefit a student’s classroom success. How do you encourage parents to become involved in their child’s schooling? What kind of parent involvement do you encourage?

I think that question can be answered on several levels.

One way is -- through a personal phone conversation or home visit -- affirm their best beliefs in their child's potential, and propose a partnership to help their child reach that potential. This can include informing them about class and homework expectations, as well as asking them to participate in holding their child accountable. It can also include my asking for advice on how I can best work with their child -- they have years of experience in knowing what has worked well, what kind of teachers have been most effective, what are the best motivators, etc.

In those same conversations, I can encourage monolingual parents to help their child with his/her English homework (and in other subjects) by asking questions and by helping them with the vast knowledge they carry within them -- even if it isn't in English. Good questions can be asked in languages other than English; math and science are universals.

In some situations where behavior is an issue, it's a matter of explaining the problem and then asking parents for their suggestions on how we can move forward, and what roles each of us can take.

The idea of their child going to college is a very new idea for many of our parents. I try to have a year-long effort with students and parents exploring questions and answers about their child's future. Homework includes students asking their parents what hopes they have for their child's future, what questions they have about college, etc. Students then research to find the answers to those questions, as well as to their own, and report back to their parents. We try to then visit a local university with parents and students.

In addition, I periodically have other homework assignments involving parents, including asking them to share their school experiences with their child, and what they feel they gained from it and what they would do differently.

On a school-wide level, our schools have an exceptionally successful Parent University with a curriculum developed through parents deciding what they wanted to learn.

Another way to help parents help their children is by asking parents what they worry about -- what concerns they have about their own lives. By connecting parents to other parents who have similar concerns, and by helping them develop effective strategies to solve those problems, parents can develop greater self-confidence themselves, and studies have shown that this greater sense of self-efficacy can result in higher levels of academic achievement by their children. Our school developed a family literacy project that provides computers and home internet access to immigrant families out of this process.

2.What is the relationship between a parent and teacher like? Are there any boundaries? If so how do you navigate these boundaries in order to obtain a parent’s trust?

I always try to have the first conversation an almost entirely positive one about their child. For many parents, the only time they ever hear from a school is when their child is in trouble. By leading with the positive, and honoring their experience by asking for advice, I'm able to often connect with them on a different level than they have had with prior teachers. I'm always respectful and appreciative of their advice and, even if I may have questions about it working sometime, I generally will give it a try. Even if it doesn't work, the fact that I have tried it generates an incredible amount of trust.

3. You have currently published two books English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies that Work and Building Parent Engagement in Schools . How do you engage parents of ELL students in their child’s school experience and what kind of affect does strong parent engagement have on an ELL student?

I use many of the same strategies as I've mentioned earlier -- home visits and phone calls (I can communicate in English and Spanish, but need school-provided interpreted for other languages); student homework assignments that require their asking parents questions, inviting parents to accompany us on field trips, etc. I've also had parents come in and give short lessons to students -- even if they need an interpreter. For example, in the course of one home visit I discovered that a father's profession was to create and repair intricate Hmong flutes. He agreed to speak to our Intermediate English class, explain how the flute worked, and give students a chance to play it. Not only can a lesson like this create numerous language-learning opportunities (students were able to speak, write, read and listen in English for days afterward in lessons I designed to take advantage of the experience), but it enhances the parents sense of self-efficacy -- self-confidence. Numerous studies show that the more parents feel a sense of self-efficacy, the better their children perform academically.

4.In your blog post A Missed Opportunity By Secretary Duncan… , you argue that Arne Duncan overlooked a chance to clarify the difference between parent involvement and parent engagement in his speech for the National PTA Convention in Memphis earlier this month. For the purposes of this edition of TeachersTopic could you please clarify the difference between the two? Given the opportunity how would your promote parent engagement differently?

The dictionary defines "involvement" as "to envelop or enfold — take over." The definition of "engagement" is "to interlock with — mesh." If you look at whose energy drives things, I'd say in involvement, ideas and energy come from the school's "mouth," while in engagement, the energy comes from schools using their "ears" to listen to parent ideas and concerns and to build genuine reciprocal relationships.

In involvement, schools do a lot of one way "communicating" — flyers, computerized phone calls, newsletters. In engagement, there's more of an emphasis on two-way "conversation."

“The purpose of parent involvement tends to focus on improving the school. The purpose of parent engagement is to improve the entire community.

Community partnerships that schools develop through parent involvement tend to be "narrow and shallow" — let's have a police officer assigned to the school, let's get the local business partnership to sponsor a scholarship. In parent engagement, they tend to be more "broad and deep" — let's look at neighborhood safety, let's work with businesses and government to provide support so all high school graduates can attend college if they want to.

5. On your two blogs ( Engaging Parents in Schools and Larry Ferlazzo’s Website of the Day ), you often write about using technology in the classroom. Do you use technology as part of your parent engagement strategies as well?

We have a program that we developed with parents that provides computers and home Internet access to immigrant families so they can use the Internet for English language development. The project won the International Reading Association Presidential Award for Reading and Technology, and has been recently expanded to provide added computer literacy -- as well as reading literacy -- training.

6. How does parent engagement enhance the overall learning experience for your students?

Being supported, questioned, helped and pushed by anybody whom we respect enhances learning experiences for all of us, including our students. The more teachers and parents can work as a coordinated team, not only are students helped, but parents and teachers can grow and learn, as well.

About Larry Ferlazzo

Larry Ferlazzo has taught English Language Learners and mainstream students at Sacramento's largest inner-city high school for six years. Prior to teaching, he was a community organizer for nineteen years, and has worked to adapt many of those organizing strategies for the classroom. He is a recipient of several awards, including the Ford Foundation Leadership For A Changing World Award and the International Reading Association Presidential Award for Reading and Technology. He is the author of "English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work" and the co-author of 'Building Parent Engagement in Schools." Larry writes a popular blog for teachers ( http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/) and a website for students ( http://larryferlazzo.com/ ). He also writes a blog for educators and parents particularly interested in parent involvement/engagement issues ( http://engagingparentsinschool.edublogs.org/). Larry is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network (TLN).