Embracing & Celebrating Diverse Families

By Larry Ferlazzo on April 28, 2013, Education Week Teacher

Cheryl Suliteanu asked:

What are teachers doing to build communication, understanding, and empathy between teachers and families whose lives are dramatically different? Lifestyles, religion, poverty, and political views are just some of the differences we face daily – some teachers openly criticize families for the choices they’re making. It’s not only inappropriate, it’s counter-productive to student achievement. I’d like to know how others may be overcoming this challenge.

Cheryl (who, by the way, was just voted the winner of Goldman Sachs’ “Innovation in U.S. Education ” essay contest) asks a question critical to our success as educators.

I’ve previously posted a popular three-part series on parent engagement that might offer some ideas on this topic.

In addition, two author/educators, Cindi Rigsbee and Darcy J. Hutchins, have provided guest responses today, along with contributions from readers.
Response From Cindi Rigsbee

Cindi Rigsbee is a National Board Certified reading and language arts teacher currently on-loan to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The North Carolina Teacher of the Year in 2009, Cindi was a finalist for National Teacher of the Year. Her book, Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2010:

In my experience, the past few years have brought about an understanding of diversity unlike ever before. I can remember teaching twenty years ago when we all used to boast, “I’m colorblind. All my students look the same to me, and I treat them all equally.” Now I look back and am disappointed. I know we meant well, but we should never be blind to color and other attributes of our students’ cultures. Instead, we should EMBRACE them, CELEBRATE them. And I see this practice occurring more and more in our schools.

My school, as well as many others, holds “Cultural Explosion” nights. Families bring dishes that represent their culture, and students display projects based on countries from around the world. In addition, discussions inside the classroom are based on each student’s heritage and the understanding that we all bring our own unique histories with us.

I’m excited about the fact that, in my state, teaching every child, regardless of culture and background, is part of our teacher evaluation system. Standard 2 reads “Teachers establish a respectful environment for a diverse population of students.” Not only is the standard spelled out in an intricate rubric of teacher behaviors and dispositions, it is part of professional development opportunities for beginning teachers and mentors and is a component of a reflection activity – called a self-assessment – that every North Carolina teacher participates in at the beginning of every school year.

As far as communication, this digital age has allowed us to communicate with all families via email and voice mail which can be translated to the languages spoken at home. With the addition of bilingual, even trilingual, teachers on our staffs, we hopefully have eager translators. Forms sent home to parents are always printed in English as well as Spanish, the two dominant languages among our students.

There is, however, still work to be done. Discussions about religion and sexuality are particularly tricky, and this election year has caused some turmoil when political conversations threaten to disrupt the peaceful classroom. The role of the teacher is to lead discussions that are age-appropriate (a second grader doesn’t need to weigh in on same-sex marriage) and are within the policies of the school and district.

I’m reminded of a story that hits me close to home. In 1951, my brother started school as a child being raised by a divorcee, a single parent mother. Imagine the scandal. Divorce just wasn’t common in those days. I’m sure the potential was there for teachers to treat my brother differently, to judge him by his circumstances, to provide a school environment that was different from the ones the other children experienced. But that didn’t happen. Instead, they nurtured his need to have an outlet for his creativity, gave him the opportunity to express himself in writing, and laughed at his quick wit and charm. As a teacher I hope I’ve treated students with the same respect for individuality – I didn’t sneer at my student Michael who arrived every morning from the homeless shelter; instead, I embraced him and his family, communicating often and providing school supplies and other resources as needed. The same should be said for students from single parent families or students who have two parents who happen to be the same gender. Governor Jim Hunt, whom I call the “Education Governor” because he is such a cheerleader for teachers, and who chaired the first National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, said to me once, “We have to leave politics outside the schoolhouse doors.” As a teacher, I don’t have the right (or the time) to judge the family dynamics of my students. I can only teach the children sitting in my classroom every day, keeping who they are as individuals in mind in the event that they need resources or interventions. All the other stuff has to stay on the other side of that door.

What I can do is offer information, within the context of my own curriculum, on many different religions or on what a particular political group stands for…without expressing personal opinions. Teaching is no longer about disseminating information; it’s about allowing our students to discover on their own. It’s our job to facilitate this discovery so that students can make their own choices based on what they believe.

Response From Darcy J. Hutchins

Darcy J. Hutchins, Ph.D. in Education Policy Studies from the University of Maryland-College Park, is Post-Doctoral Fellow with the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University. She provides professional development to enable district, state, and organization leaders and school teams establish and maintain comprehensive partnership programs that positively impact student success. She is co-author of Multicultural Partnerships Involve All Families (Hutchins, et al., Eye on Education, 2012), Family Reading Night (Hutchins, et al., Eye on Education, 2008) and School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action, Third Edition (Epstein, et al., Corwin Press, 2009). She also is lead editor of annual books of Promising Partnership Practices published by NNPS.

Students’ success in school depends largely upon the relationship between teachers and parents. The growing diversity within United States schools necessitates that teachers and administrators reach out to parents in unique and varied ways. Hundreds of schools across the U.S. follow Epstein’s Six-Types of Involvement as a comprehensive framework of school, family, and community collaboration. The Six Types of Involvement are Parenting, Communicating, Volunteering, Learning at Home, Decision Making, and Collaborating with the Community (For definitions, go to National Network Of Partnership Schools). Schools should intentionally implement all Six Types of Involvement in order to have a comprehensive partnership program. Below are several examples of what schools are doing around the Six Types of Involvement to effectively involve all families, particularly those from diverse backgrounds.

Type 1-Parenting: Meet Your Neighbors

Although the boundaries of Howe Elementary School, Green Bay, Wisconsin, span only two miles, teachers found that many parents did not know their neighbors. At Get to Know Your Neighbor Night, families ate dinner with others from their neighborhoods and participated in activities led by some of the school’s different ethnic groups. Teachers circulated to keep conversations lively. The school displayed a large map of the area so that families could see where others lived. Teachers used the map in class to teach reading and geography skills.

Type 2-Communicating: School Programs and Children’s Progress

Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School, Saint Paul, Minnesota, serves many new immigrant families and is one of first schools focused on Hmong culture. As one activity, the school combined two established practices – Hmong New Year and Hmong Studies Showcase (focused on the school’s Core Knowledge curriculum). The team scheduled the event twice – day and evening – to accommodate busy parents. Each grade level presented a song, dance, poem, or skit that highlighted new knowledge about the Hmong culture to share what they were learning with over 700 attendees.

Type 3-Volunteering: School Helps Families

Staff, students, and families at Bollman Bridge Elementary School in Jessup, Maryland, worked together to help 25 families from Burma (now called Myanmar) acclimate to their new home and school. Volunteers helped with a drive for winter clothes, employment assistance, and information on the school system. Over six weeks, the ESOL program implemented Connecting Families to Communities. Burmese families learned the importance of helping children remain literate in their native language and to use their language to increase reading proficiency in English. By year’s end, many Burmese families were ready to volunteer for future activities.

Type 4-Learning at Home: Learning Math, Reading, and Cultures

Shelton Park Elementary School, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, added a cultural twist to its traditional math-literacy night by focusing the theme on China. Families began Multicultural Math-Literacy Night with an enjoyable lesson on the history of China and a snack of egg rolls, rice, and fortune cookies. They participated in Chinese math and puzzle games and read from the book Grandfather Tang’s Story. Every family who attended received a copy of the book to reread with their children at home.

Type 5-Decision Making: A Council for African American Families

To increase the involvement of all families, the Action Team for Partnerships (ATP) at Roosevelt Elementary School in Saint Paul, Minnesota developed Harambee, which means “all pull together” in Swahili. This is a collaborative council for African American families to discuss and resolve issues concerning children’s health, safety, and success in school. The forum promotes parents’ leadership in school events and monthly discussions on children’s needs and families’ concerns. With Harambee, more African American parents also attended other school events, such as Back to School Night and parent conferences.

Type 6-Collaborating with the Community: Local and International Connections

Roberts Elementary School in Wayne, Pennsylvania, partnered with Temple University and the University of Kuwait on the Global Media Literacy Project. The project aimed to increase students’ understanding of Middle Eastern countries and to dispel cultural stereotyping. For example, students in grades 2-4, corresponded with Kuwaiti college students via Wikispaces, shared digital videos of their daily lives, and teachers based lessons on some of these exchanges. Third graders completed a research project about their rights and responsibilities to promote peace as U.S. and world citizens. Students developed writing, video, geography and research skills


Tips For Turning Parents Into Partners

APRIL 26, 2013, Edutopia
Image credit: iStockphoto

“Jack tells me that lots of kids are doing way worse things, but you ignore them and pick on him.”

“Are you saying Mandy is a liar?”

“As far as I know, three kids did the same thing, yet Ben was the only one punished! Is that fair!”

“Really? We have no problems with her at home.”

In my seminars with educators on Handling Difficult Parents (the title of my book on this topic), I often begin by asking participants to call out words that come to mind which best describe parents who are difficult. There is no shortage, and none are positive: annoying, complaining, enabling, angry, unreasonable, disagreeable, offensive, aggressive, time-consuming and exhausting are among the most popular. I next ask them to consider how these very same characteristics can be viewed as positive and beneficial. After a few perplexing moments of reflection, these same parents are identified as assertive, strong-willed, resolute, spirited, persistent and determined. We then proceed to talk about how changing your thinking can turn some of your most difficult parents into your strongest allies. Here’s how.

View Difficult Parents as Misguided Advocates

Keep in mind that even an angry parent is better than an absent parent! While they can be very unpleasant, their anger often conveys advocacy. Virtually all parents, including most whose actions border on irrational, will cooperate if they really believe you care about their child, have their child’s interests at heart and respect them. One way to convey this is to say:

Ms. Parent, you sound very upset about what I did, and I would like an opportunity to explain. But before I do, I must tell you how lucky your child is to have a parent who cares as deeply as you do about her to be as angry at me as you are today. It tells me that you will accept and expect nothing less than the best from me, and if you have similarly high expectations of your child, I feel certain that we can find the best solution for her.

View Difficult Parents as Having Something to Teach You

I remember Mrs. Skinner, whose presence and complaints made teachers of her developmentally disabled and learning impaired son roll their eyes upon seeing her. She was ornery, sarcastic and caustic. She always found the cloud in every silver lining, yet once I got past her abrasive manner, I was able to learn a lot about how to help Davey. Among other things, she explained how he was much better able to remember things when she sang rather than told him directions. Her input was instrumental in getting me to realize how powerful music could be in teaching content. Perhaps even more important was coming to realize how demanding and stressful life was for her in trying to provide for her very needy child.

Keep the Focus on Their Child

If parents complain about unfair treatment towards their child and offer examples to support their conclusion, acknowledge that you often do different things with different students because you want to help each become moresuccessful or learn more about responsibility. Then turn the focus back where it belongs. For example:

My belief is that this was the best solution for your child. Did I or did I not miss the boat with your child? Can you suggest better ways to help your child improve?

Share Honey Before Vinegar

It is a lot easier to get parents to become part of the solution when you express how their child is an asset in class. For example:

Trevor can be a delight in class especially when he participates in class discussions. He often has important things to say, and my challenge is trying to figure out how to best work with him when he doesn’t get his way. I am hoping that you can help me with this.

Genuinely Acknowledge Concern — Listen!

If a parent puts the blame on you, hear it as an expression of their concern and agree that there may a basis for it. For example:

Parent: I think he’s bored! He says he hates school and you pick on him a lot.
Teacher: I’m sorry to hear that, and I’d like to fix that if I can. It is always my goal to have every one of my students feel good about being here, and if either you or he has any ideas about how I can make things work better for him, I’d like to know.

Appreciate Suggestions and Re-establish Limits

If suggestions are offered that you consider viable, let the parent know you plan to try them. If not, let them know why not:

As much as I wish I could, here’s why I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be able to do that in the classroom.

Conclude by re-establishing limits. For example:

Whether Trever is bored or not, I am sure you agree that we need to help him find better ways to express himself so that he will be more successful in school, and will be seen by others as the really good person we both know he can be.

A Presidential Pat for Young Scientists

Sacred Heart Greenwich Middle School Parent Blog

The New York Times

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

The president helped Payton Karr, left, and Kiona Elliot of Oakland Park, Fla., with their bicycle-powered water filtration system.

Published: April 22, 2013

Praising the work of young scientists and inventors at the third White House Science FairPresident Obama on Monday announced a broad plan to create and expand federal and private-sector initiatives designed to encourage children to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

After browsing the 30 or so projects on display in the White House’s public rooms and the East Garden, Mr. Obama said he was committed to giving students the resources they need to pursue education in the disciplines, collectively known as STEM. Earlier, the White House announced efforts aimed at increasing participation in those fields, particularly among female and minority students, as well as those from low-income and military families.

“This is…

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Talking to Kids About the Boston Marathon Bombing

Sacred Heart Greenwich Middle School Parent Blog

From The Today Show

The Boston Marathon bombing will represent a tragic and terrifying childhood milestone for a generation of kids born after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, or too young to remember them. How can parents help kids cope — even as we’re struggling with our own fears? Psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz, as well as child psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, offered these tips on TODAY:

  • First, tell your children what happened. Even if they’ve heard the news or seen video — and in this day and age they probably have seen it all on someone’s iPhone by now — they still need to hear it from you. “They are not necessarily getting the correct facts,” Saltz said. “Kids tend to be kind of hysterical and dramatic about things and that leaves your kid afraid. Give them the basics in a calm and reassuring manner. They’re going to take their…

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Near-Total Brain Replacement, Evernote

The Digital Principal, Part 3

April 14, 2013


In November, I gave a presentation (resources to be found here) to a packed room row at Vermont Fest,

<snip> (For the rest of the introduction and a summary of the first two parts of the presentation, please read part ONE and part TWO.)

So, here is part THREE of my three-part summary.


Evernote has eaten my brain. That must be why they chose an elephant for a mascot – elephants love brains. Wait, no. Elephants never forget; that’s why they chose the long-nosed pachyderm.

Anyway, Evernote has become my brain, not eaten my brain. I’ve written about Evernote twice before: “Evernote is Becoming My Brain” and “Evernote for Notes Everywhere.” As you can see, this brain replacement has been a long time coming (and a longer time needed, I am told).

It all started back when I started teaching. It must have been the 3000 significant decisions a day or something because my memory starters to go. Then, I had children and became an administrator – kaboom – my memory was shot (at least I think that is when it all started).

Anyway, most of my readers will understand that there is far too much for most of to remember without help. Over the years, I have tried pads of paper, three-ring binders, spiral notebooks, composition books, Palm’s notes, Mac stickie notes, and finally Evernote.

To make a long story short, I now use Evernote for nearly everything. I keep a notebook for each staff member, each class, many students, each major area of my job (curriculum, data, assessment, facilities, special education, PBIS, and technology just to name a few). All told, I have about 83 school-related notebooks. Within each notebook there are from one to 79 notes. I have a lot to keep track of.

The thing that I like best about Evernote is the fact that my notes are synchronized among every device I use. Evernote works on iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, the web, Linux, and probably more. Evernote does not yet work on my toaster – if only Steve Jobs were still around.

One last feature of Evernote that is so useful: integration. Notability, I mentioned it in the last blog post, can send notes right to Evernote. Google Drive can as well. I really cool new tool for Evernote is the Powerbot extension for Chrome. Powerbot connects Evernote to gmail and gcal. I love the meeting minutes template that Powerbot creates in Evernote for each appointment in my calendar. I am still figuring out how to really use Powerbot, but I am very impressed so far.

So, with a device in my hands at all times, Evernote has become my brain. Thank goodness that I have finally have a brain that never forgets.



Gen Y, Social Media, & How We’re Making A Difference

An interesting article on harnessing the power of social media for good. Perhaps this has relevance to our work in classrooms.

Gen Y Girl

I’m sitting in class and I feel really bad for my professor. No one’s paying attention to him.

I look around and everyone’s either got a phone in their hand or a laptop open. And I promise you, no one’s taking notes.

Statuses are being updated, pictures are being posted, and I’m sure that at least five people are on Twitter.

Okay, fine. Maybe we should be paying a little more attention.

I hear it all the time, when I talk about Gen Y, that we’re addicted to social media.

Gen Y… addicted to social media…can’t put their phones down.

How awful.

But is it really?

I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m addicted to social media. I know that one of these days I’m going to leave my phone on my bed and I’m going to head into work and that day is going to be terrible…

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