Quick Tip Tuesday: Introduction to the Parent Project

March 29th, 2011

In this week’s Quick Tip Jim Vopat, author of The Parent Project, introduces us to the origins of the project and how it helps parents become more involved in their children’s learning.

Welcome to the Parent Project. The Project is a workshop approach to increasing parent involvement in their children’s education. The Parent Project began in three of Milwaukee’s inner-city elementary schools in response to a specific practical need. As Director of the Milwaukee Writing Project, I was at the time working with Milwaukee teachers in an effort to revitalize classroom instruction through the use of journals, portfolios, and workshop structures.

Concerns regarding parent understanding and support for the kinds of instructional changes teachers were making arose with such regularity that I began to search for a means for involving parents in the process. Fortuitously, The Joyce Foundation of Chicago was, during thissame period, determined to support a variety of efforts to increaseparent involvement in their children’s education. Since there didn’t seem to be any available model for the kind of parent involvement I envisioned, The Joyce Foundation encouraged me to work with Milwaukee teachers and parents in order to develop such a program.

What emerged was a workshop approach that focused on what children were learning in the classroom, and how this learning could be supported at home. What emerged was a means to strengthen the relationship between home and school—teacher, parent, and child.

School has changed dramatically since many parents were there and, if the goal of parent involvement is to strengthen the link between home and school, parents need to be introduced to the revitalized school classroom. Many classroom learning strategies experienced by children every day—keeping journals, interviewing, booksharing, cooperative learning, response groups, publishing—are unfamiliar to these same children’s parents. We can’t really expect parents to nurture and support such learning strategies if they don’t understand what those strategies are or how they can be supported.

For example, in one of our initial parent workshops, I invited everyone to write or draw for five minutes in their journals. After we were finished, I asked for comments. Wayne said he knew he had misspelled many words and that he never could spell and it bothered him. We talked about how journal writing didn’t need to be correct and that the freedom simply to express one’s self was one of the advantages of keeping a journal. Wayne’s two daughters (in grades one and three) were keeping journals in school, and Wayne said that when they brought their journals home, the first thing on his mind when he read them was how they were doing on their spelling.

When Wayne was in elementary school, there was no journal writing and good writing meant spelling correctly and nothing more. For Wayne’s two daughters, writing in school had come to be defined so differently that, for them, the messages of school and home were contradictory. As I listened to Wayne joke about his spelling and admit his relief at not having to worry about it when using his journal, I thought about how absurd it is to reform education but then to keep it a secret from parents.

The counterargument often heard is not that school reform is a kept secret but that parents just won’t show up to hear about it. I havea few observations about this. First of all, I am curious as to what happens when the parent does show up and what kind of support structureis in place for follow-up. In Milwaukee, for instance, it has been popular to bring busloads of parents into large auditoriums for infomotivational seminars where they are blamed, tantalized, and talked at. At the end of the day, these parents are bussed home where they have to deal with the everyday problems that have accumulated. And that’s it. There is no follow-up support, only a slightly bitter tomorrow. Instead of this lack of support, what would happen if we called upon the most powerful aspects of school reform to accomplish the goal of increased parent involvement: workshops, journals, cooperativegroups, shared reading, agenda building, interviewing, goal setting, and critical thinking? What would happen?

Through our workshops, we have spent years exploring the answers to this question, working with thousands of parents and teachers in a wide range of settings, including inner-city schools, community centers, affluent and not-so affluent suburban schools, as well as Chapter 1 programs. So what did happen? When I meet with parents and teachers in order to discuss parent involvement and define the advantages of a workshop approach, I usually begin by conducting a workshop itself as a means of coming to understand by doing rather than talking about doing. After a brief introduction of all participants and an explanation of why we are together, I distribute journals. I explain that the journals should be used in ways participants find comfortable—writing, drawing, doodling—whatever will help them remember what they feel is important.

I then ask everyone to pause a moment, relax, and think back to when they were growing up. What influence did their parents or guardians have on their attitudes and feelings about school and learning? Did your parents or caregiver actively encourage you to learn, were they neutral, or did they discourage learning? Does one particular incident from the past come to mind? Can you place yourself back in this memory? Can you close your eyes for a few minutes and try to reexperience this memory, this time and place? Can you close your eyes and go back, into this time and place? [long pause] Journey back into this memory, Where are you? How old are you? Who’s with you? How do you feel? What’s happening? Have your feelings about this memory changed over time? Why do you think this memory has stayed with you? What are the dimensions of its meaning? [long pause]Now, if you will open your eyes and take a few minutes to jot down some reactions to this visualization of your memory. Any words or pictures or part of  images that come to mind. Anything that will help you remember it.What does your memory have to say about the connection between parents, schools, and learning? What can we do to increase parents’ involvement in their children’s education?

After there has been sufficient time for reflection, I divide participants into small groups of four or five people and ask them to share their individual memory with the other members of their group by reading from their journal or verbally recounting what they have been thinking about. When everyone has had an opportunity to share, I ask each group to formulate some observations about what constitutes a positive home environment for learning and to arrive at these observations based on the memories of their group. When the small groups report back to the reformed large group, they usually do so with a combination of moving family history and reasonable, clear educational philosophy.

As we hear these family stories and the resulting observations about how learning can be fostered and nurtured, the significance of parent involvement becomes all the more real. As we listen to the family stories of sacrifice foreducation; of persistence in school in spite of daunting obstacles; ofparents reading to their children, writing with their children, encouraging learning as a sign of self-worth, it becomes obvious that the issue is not whether parent involvement is necessary, but rather how we can all work together to make it more intentional.

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