HOW ARE OUR LEARNERS DOING IN SCHOOL?
Betty S. Johnson Simons International Institute of Rhode Island June, 1997
(Summary of Inquiry Project)
Two primary goals of the family literacy program at the International Institute are 1) to help children learn basic English language skills in preparation for entering formal early education programs and 2) to encourage adults with limited English proficiency to become active in their children's education.
This inquiry project was an attempt to gauge success in achieving those goals and to use the information gathered in the process to reflect on current practice and future curriculum development.
The first step was to decide what questions I needed to ask parents and teachers and to think about how the information that they shared with me could be used to evaluate success in achieving program goals. After making questionnaires, I visited the homes of four families and interviewed parents and older siblings of the pre-school and kindergarten children in our program. After interviewing parents and obtaining written permission to talk with their children's teachers, I visited Head Start and kindergarten teachers and asked them how the children who have been in our program are doing in school.
Parents were willing to share with me their concerns about the family literacy program at the International Institute and about their children's experience in school. All believe that their pre-school children benefit greatly from our program, but are not convinced that children really learn through play. Parents consider learning English to be the most important goal for their children, and told me that they think the children would acquire more English in a program where they spend less time with parents (much of our class time is in a shared space). In discussing their children's school experience, parents expressed frustration because they believe it takes too long for children to learn English. Also, parents seem desperate for information about schools, advice on how to approach teachers, what to do about language barriers. They requested that I share with them what I learned from teachers. The parents expressed clear opinions about their children's education and indicated awareness of school situations and problems.
From Head Start and kindergarten teachers I learned that the children are very well prepared, have good social skills, excellent cognitive development and enough English proficiency to do well in school. All the parents have visited their children's schools. Head Start teachers would like more parental involvement. Language barriers are a problem for both parents and teachers. All the teachers would like to continue contact with our program in the fall, and welcome our input.
This inquiry has raised some new questions for me. How do we get parents to become more involved in Head Start programs if the Head Start planners do not do more to find bilingual Hmong/English speakers to facilitate parent participation? How can I learn more about the literacy practices in the homes of our students and use that information to support literacy development? This project has been valuable because it has provided useful information and feedback from parents and teachers, and has laid the groundwork for an ongoing follow-up of our families and their experience and participation in the educational process. I plan to continue this project during the next school year.
HOW ARE OUR LEARNERS DOING IN SCHOOL?
As a practitioner working in the family literacy program at the International Institute, I have often wondered how the children perform in school once they leave the program and to what extent the parents become involved in their education. For this inquiry, I have asked: "How are these children doing in school, and how have the parents been involved in their education? Have we achieved program goals? How can the information I gather be used to evaluate success in achieving those goals? What are the implications for curriculum development and current practice?" I hope that this inquiry project serves as the first step in an ongoing study.
There are many models for family literacy programs. In some programs parents are encouraged to use traditional instructional materials in the home (the "transmission of school practice" model), while others seek to use the literacy activities already in place in the home and build upon the socio-cultural traditions of the family. Some family literacy programs provide child care while adults attend class, others use a side-by-side model where children and adults participate in separate programs, occasionally sharing activities, while others use a holistic approach that builds on the family's ability to support literacy development.1
In the family literacy program at the International Institute the focus is on the entire family rather than the individual learner. We try to build upon the literacy practices already present in the home, and provide a program where children interact with their parents and other adults in an educational setting that is sensitive to their cultural perspective.2
For this inquiry project, I tried to evaluate our success in meeting two program goals: 1) to help children learn basic language skills and classroom practices in preparation for entering formal early education programs and 2) to encourage adults with limited English proficiency to become active in their children's education. My first activity was to formulate questions for both parents and teachers. Next, I visited four families in their homes and talked to parents and older children. I asked them to tell me about their concerns for their children's education, how they have participated in school programs, what they envision as important for their own and their children's progress in school. I believe that it is important to point out that all the families who participated in this inquiry are from the Hmong community, where there is extensive collaboration between generations to deal with literacy issues. 3 Even though the adults may have very limited literacy, older siblings can give effective support for literacy development in parents and younger children, and help provide a family based solution to literacy problems. 4
After talking to families, I visited the schools and interviewed classroom teachers. (I was able to talk to all the children's teachers except for one, who is still on sick leave. I plan to contact the teacher as soon as possible.)
What did I find out from talking to parents? How have parents become involved in their children's school-based education? What did they have to say about the family literacy program at the International Institute?
1. Parents were willing to share their concerns about the children's school experience, not only about the pre-school program in our class, but in the formal school system. It is encouraging to see that they do not subscribe to the idea that education is the exclusive domain of the schools (a notion often reinforced by culture or language barriers). Parents were candid about their concerns and were willing to express opinions as to how our program could be improved. (Hopefully, the family literacy class has become a source of reflection and critical thinking about their own and their children's educational experience.)
2. Parents expressed the following opinions about the International Institute class:
a. they would benefit from more class time independent from children (to minimize noise and distraction)
b. children would learn more English if parents were not present in the classroom, because they would have to communicate with teachers in English. (Parents believe that learning English is most important goal for their children);
c. the pre-school program is valuable and helps prepare the children for Head Start and school, however they do not understand the importance of learning through play.
3. Parents shared the following about their children's school experiences:
a. they experienced frustration because they believe the teachers don't "move fast enough" teaching the children English. Children are "left behind" and "get an inferior education."
b. they seemed desperate for information about schools, advice on how to approach teachers, what to say when you go see a teacher, what to do about language barriers, etc. Some parents gave me specific questions to ask teachers when I went to the schools. They also requested that I share the results of this project with them.
c. All the parents reported that the children enjoyed school, looked forward to going each day, liked their teachers, and talked a lot about school activities (trips, visits from firemen, zoomobile, parties, special days).
d. All parents had met children's teachers when they visited the school or when teachers made home visits (some parents have had contact with Head Start teachers before, when older children attended Head Start).
It is clear that parents have opinions that they are willing to express, even if they are negative. This is a big step for some of them, and it indicates that they are aware of school situations and problems.
What did I find out talking to teachers? Did the children have enough language skills and familiarity with classroom practices to do well in school? How have the parents participated this year?
Head Start teachers reported:
1. Children were very well prepared for the classroom setting, were comfortable with routine and knowledgeable about early education classroom activities. They reported that cognitive skills were well developed.
2. Language skills were excellent in some children, a problem in for others. There was no problem with receptive language, but expressive language has been difficult in two cases: one child may have speech problems, speaks only in two word sentences, and was identified by ChildFind as having potential learning problems, and another child tends to be so shy that he doesn't speak very often, except to his brother.
3. Social skills were well developed. Children were independent, self-starters. Even one very shy child made friends and adjusted well to the classroom setting.
4. All parents have visited the school. However, Head Start teachers would like for the parents to understand the value of volunteering and visiting the classroom. They welcome the liaison with our program as a way to communicate with parents, and to encourage them to participate more fully in the Head Start programs. Parents who have achieved a higher degree of literacy and English skills participated more often and contributed more to the program. Parents whose English and literacy skills are less developed had fewer contacts with the school, did not participate in special events (like graduation), and had difficulty understanding what teachers expected of them.
5. Head Start teachers welcome our participation, especially because they do not have very many Hmong children. In one classroom, there was only one Hmong child and the teacher felt that he was isolated, both linguistically and culturally. In most cases there were no more than two Hmong children in a classroom. Also, the teachers appreciate our insights into the Hmong community, and would like to broaden their understanding of Hmong culture.
The kindergarten teacher says:
1. The child is in an ESL classroom, is progressing well learning to read, speak and write English, excels in math, enjoys challenging tasks, has excellent social skills. The child came to kindergarten well prepared for school. The child has excellent attendance.
2. The teacher believes that an ongoing dialogue with the family literacy class would be beneficial because it would facilitate a better understanding of the family and communication with parents. It would be helpful to contact teacher early in school year.
3. Parents have come to the class, communicated with the teacher, discussed progress. Language is a problem.
1. The family literacy program has been successful in achieving stated goals: a. helping children learn basic language skills and classroom practices in preparation for entering school b. helping parents with limited English proficiency to become active in their childrenšs education.
2. Teachers in Head Start and elementary schools value the dialogue with the family literacy program and welcome our collaboration. All the teachers indicated that they would like for me to contact them early in the next school year.
3. This findings from this inquiry project will help in curriculum development. I believe that it would be beneficial to our students to include school visits as part of our program. The Head Start teachers endorse this idea.
4. I discovered that I do not know enough about literacy practices in the homes of our students. It would be most beneficial to document those practices in order to build upon them in planning curriculum and course content. 5
5. This inquiry is the beginning of an ongoing dialogue with parents and teachers. It has given me valuable insights but raised more questions than answers.
1. Various approaches to family literacy models are described by Concha Delgado-Gaitan, Literacy for Empowerment, and by Elsa Roberts Auerbach in "Toward a Social-Contextual Approach to Family Literacy," Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 59, No. 2, May, 1989, pp. 42-43.
2. Urie Bronfenbrenner in his article "The Origins of Alienation," Scientific American, Vol. 231-32, August, 1974, pp. 53-61, discussed the importance of having children see their parents and other adults in settings where they work or study.
3. Gail Weinstein-Shr and Elizabeth Quintero, Eds. Immigrant Learners and Their Families, Center for Applied Linguistics, 1995, p. 120 ff.
4. Nathan Caplan, Marcella H. Choy and John K. Whitmore, Indochinese Refugee Families and Academic Achievement," Scientific American, February, 1992, pp. 36-42 and Concha Delgado-Gaitan, Literacy for Empowerment, pp. 42-43.
5. Concha Delgado-Gaitan in, Literacy for Empowerment, describes how a study of home literacy practices was carried out and how important it is for practitioners to understand those practices.