Love of LearningEducators often lament that too many parents aren’t involved in their children’s schooling. Yet what we should really hope for is that parents be involved in their children’s learning.

The programs of the Rutgers’ Center for Family Involvement in Schools create a partnership for learning between families and schools that promotes and enhances the academic success of children. They also create a powerful school climate that demonstrates respect, trust and belonging.

The center’s current programs, Family Math 1 and 2, Middle School Family Math, and Rutgers Family Science have been conducted in New Jersey schools for 20 years to rave reviews from teachers, principals, and parents. The programs have been hailed at state and national math and science conferences, and by Working Mother magazine, the U.S Department of Education, and Teachers College, Columbia University.

To date, over 1,000 schools, 2,200 teachers, and 60,000 families have participated in New Jersey as well as New York, Delaware, Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Given this level of success for Family Math and Science, eventually Family Tools and Technology and Family Arts and Creativity was born.

In addition to a series of teacher-training programs, the center periodically conducts summer leadership institutes to train classroom teachers to become certified teacher/trainers and provides resources for educators and parents in family involvement and equity in math, science, technology, and the arts.

In the past, the center’s work has been supported by the generosity of The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, N.J. Department of Education, Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, Public Service Electric & Gas Co., Union Carbide Foundation, the American Chemical Society, and LEGO Dacta.

Since its beginning in 1988 as a unit of the Rutgers’ Consortium for Educational Equity, the center’s goals are to create and disseminate innovative, interdisciplinary equity-focused programs that will increase opportunities for all children to learn together with parents at school and at home; to stimulate parents to partner with teachers in their children’s learning; and to strengthen family-school-community partnerships.

Regardless of the point of origin, Schools that have offered Family Math and Family Science have found parents, teachers, and students asking for additional programs.

What’s next?

Love of LearningIn response to these requests, the center has developed a new family involvement program, Family Literacy in ConTEXT (FLIC) that will be piloted this spring in eight schools with fourth graders and their families. The goal of the new program is to create stronger communication skills in students and parents through a series of language arts activities that promote collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation.

For two years, center staff together with Milltown School District teachers Geralyn Gerhart and Marissa Boylston, and Branchburg educators Erica Patente, Renee Sakas, and Ed Porowski, collaborated in the development of activities for Family Literacy in ConTEXT. After field testing last year in both districts, revisions were made. Currently a second field test of the revised activities is underway in Milltown.

Like Family Math and Family Science, the new program focuses on process and discovery instead of finding one right answer. Students and their parents communicate with one another as they learn to think critically, write clearly, evaluate, interpret, and appreciate the power of imagination and the impact of language, both print and digital, through a series of fun, family-oriented activities.

These activities, aligned with the language arts and literacy 2.0 skills identified in  both New Jersey and national standards, focus on creative writing, song lyrics, advertising, debating, propaganda and consumer awareness, as well as experimenting with and demystifying the world of online social communication and information.

“Our families soon realized that literacy is more than simply learning to read a book,” reported Gerhart, who teaches seventh grade in Milltown. “Families were so excited as they read, evaluated, and critically responded to advertisements, and they were totally enrolled in learning various oral presentation skills.”

“I am looking forward to facilitating the program for a second time to a new group of fourth graders and their families,” added Boylston. “I have seen how families learned new ways of interacting and communicating with each other each week during the FLIC sessions last spring. But even more exciting was how I learned to communicate with parents informally in a whole new way. We all learned so much!”

The Rutgers family involvement model             

The center has developed a training model where teachers and community educators learn to become facilitators of both adult learning and family involvement in mathematics, science, technology, art and literacy, and how to encourage continuing interest and achievement in both girls and boys.

These components must be in place for programs to be successful:

1)      Time and space in schools for families to learn mathematics, science, art, technology or engage in literacy activities together in an informal, cooperative, non-threatening atmosphere.

2)      The use of inexpensive and readily available manipulative materials, as well as technology and tools that can be found at home to encourage parents to continue working with their children after the session is over.

3)      A focus on critical thinking and problem-solving skills and strategies that will reduce frustrations and increase the willingness to accept new challenges or create new ways to look at old challenges.

4)      The encouragement of all children, especially females and minorities, to see themselves, and their gender, race and culture, as contributors to the future worlds of language, mathematics, science, art and technology.

5)      A commitment to dialogue and collaboration among parents, teachers, and schools.

6)      Information, resources, and role models for parents and their children to learn about how to think and to prepare for future careers.              

This family involvement model trains teachers to become facilitators who challenge and guide parents and children as they work together to answer questions through creative, hands-on problem solving activities-- games, puzzles, exercises, and experiments-- that reinforce state and national standards and expand the classroom curricula. The model requires that parents are not lectured or talked down to, but encouraged and guided in specific, respectful, and appropriate ways to instill a lifelong love of learning.

Teacher training programs

Love of LearningAll of the Rutgers’ Center for Family Involvement certified teacher- trainers are elementary or middle school teachers who currently conduct family involvement programs in their own schools. Teachers who completed Leadership Training are highly creative educators who are intimately involved in day-to-day classroom teaching and who became trained in adult learning and presentation skills in order to be both effective and sensitive in training other teachers.

These trainers lead all the Family Math and Family Science two-, three-, or four-day workshops at Rutgers, during which they introduce and facilitate the activities and challenges and share their own experiences of conducting the program in their schools. This first-hand expertise is important when explaining:

  • How to recruit and reach out to parents, including effective techniques that encourage enrollment.
  • How to create a welcoming atmosphere for parents that fosters trust, communication and collaboration.
  • How to listen and respond to parents’ questions and concerns.

But does it work?

When the Rutgers Family Science and Family Tools and Technology programs were evaluated in New Jersey schools by Campbell-Kibler Associates in Groton, Massachusetts, the developers discovered some surprising and not so surprising facts:

  • All parents want what is best for their children!
  • The social, economic or educational status of parents does not affect their children’s learning as much as what they do after school hours with their children.
  • When family involvement is focused on how to work with their children in ways that will help them succeed in school and in future careers, parents are motivated to participate.

In particular, Campbell-Kibler noted that parents become involved because the teachers and principals invite and encourage them to come back to school with children where they are welcomed to join other families in a comfortable atmosphere filled with respect, group work, and cooperation.

Feedback from teachers, principals, and superintendents consistently reveals that the attitudes of both children and their parents toward school and towards science and technology became more positive as a result of their participation.

In addition, both new and experienced teachers reported that they became energized and gained renewed enthusiasm for teaching. Some re-discovered why they became teachers; others began to look at the process of learning differently. All teachers admitted that they viewed parents and children in a whole new way.              

Hors d’oeuvres and other delicacies

In describing the structure of the sessions, we often use the metaphor of a dinner party. Typically, our school family party begins with “hors d’oeuvres,” or finger foods, (learning stations or openers set up around the room), followed by the “main course” where families sit down to do the main activity of the night, and finally, the “dessert” (closure, journal writing, feedback, and treats to eat).

The metaphor is intended to create a social informality in the sessions so that families are encouraged to work together as they feast in the discovery of how the world of math, science, language, art, and technology works. Often, delicious “side dishes” are served as a means of analyzing and applying what is learned.

The center’s aim is to transform the elementary teacher into a family involvement specialist who feels comfortable reaching out to diverse groups of parents and inviting them to participate in the series of evening or weekend sessions. During these sessions, families work and learn together in open-ended group activities that weave interdisciplinary, multi-cultural themes into core subjects.

“The ‘school family,’” says Larry Petras, who teaches seventh grade in Union Township (Union County), “often grows to include mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, as well as teachers, principals, school board members, and superintendents. One night a father will attend with his daughter; another night, the mother may come; many times a grandparent or an aunt is the partner. For many parents, this may be a big deal if their first language is not English or if they feel intimated by going back to school where they may not have happy memories. We welcome them into the school as we welcome guests into our home. The rule is that no child can participate without an adult partner.”

A paradigm shift: learning as an adventure

By focusing on the excitement of the process and the discovery instead of looking for the right answer, a shift in the learning paradigm occurs. This shift, we believe, helps to improve a child’s self-image as a learner and builds problem-solving skills and strategies for academic success.

Families with different cultural backgrounds and educational experiences come to these family sessions to learn, play and share in a specially created environment that establishes trust and reinforces learning as an exciting adventure. Since all the materials are inexpensive and regularly found in homes, families can easily repeat or continue the activities at home.

Much has been written about how the changing dynamics of the American family pose a challenge for educators. The center’s work demonstrates how current demographics make many past mechanisms for involving parents obsolete.

For example, more and more New Jersey families arrive from places around the globe where there is simply no tradition of an active, engaged citizenry that participates in public schools. Many single or working parents often cannot attend afternoon conferences or meetings. Many families have difficulty with child care. And finally, the language differences of many immigrant parents may contribute to their feelings of isolation or intimidation.

The center’s equity commitment provided a blueprint to address these challenges. Teachers can conduct these programs in a variety of settings and at various times in the evening or during weekends to accommodate family travel concerns and schedules. Furthermore, the activities have been translated into a variety of different languages for parents. Equally important, each program’s curriculum is designed to respect and reflect our multicultural and multiethnic world.

We found that this flexibility works for teachers as well. Each program is structured so that a teacher can choose activities and approaches that reflect his/her personality and talents. No two programs are exactly alike, yet each encourages the curiosity, inventiveness, and persistence of children at that grade level.

Teacher-trainer Kathy Kalena has conducted all the Family Math programs in North Dover School since 1989. Activities and instructions are given in English and Spanish to accommodate the diversity in the community. Parents in Dover felt that these programs helped their children become more positive about mathematics and enjoyed the special time learning together. In addition, Kalena has customized a Family Math series for neighboring schools in North Jersey as well.

The mirror and the window

No one acquires knowledge in the abstract--learning is always personal. Learning never takes place in a vacuum--it is always contextual. The center works on the supposition that what we teach needs to reflect and include the world of the parents and children who participate. What’s common to all programs, whether in urban, rural or suburban schools, is a friendly, non-threatening atmosphere where parents feel welcome and respected as their child’s first teacher. All parents are encouraged to explore, create, build, question, try out, and learn together with their children. The program asks students to talk, to tinker, and to take risks with parents and teachers acting as a powerful support system.

This summer and beyond

In summer 2011, the center will conduct Family Math and Family Science training. For more information contact Michelle Rosen at 732-564-9100, ext. 23, or michelle.rosen@gse.rutgers.edu. You can also learn more at cesp.rutgers.edu/family.

Last fall the center and its programs were relocated to Rutgers’ Center for Effective School Practices whose director, Claudia Burzichelli, has a historic commitment to these school/family/community partnerships. This commitment will be key as we face the challenges of our dynamic and complex world.

With this in mind, the center has plans to train teachers to conduct an Early Childhood Family Math/Science program for preschool and kindergarten children and their parents; to develop a Family Money/Financial Literacy program to focus on credit, interest, money management and family budgets; and to create a Family Civics program based on the mission of former Chief Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who laments our students’ lack of understanding of how our government works.

Given this ambitious agenda, the center is looking for teachers and educators who have an interest in working with us in the development of these programs; as well as for funders to support their development and evaluation. If you are interested, contact Michelle Rosen at the Center for Family Involvement in Schools, at 732-564-9100, ext. 23, or michelle.rosen@gse.rutgers.edu.

As the founding director of the Rutgers’ Center for Family Involvement, Arlene S. Chasek was responsible for the development and implementation of Family Science, Family Tools & Technology, and Family Arts & Creativity, and currently works as a consultant in the development of Family Literacy in ConTEXT.

Michelle Rosen is the current director of the Center for Family Involvement in Schools as well as assistant director of the Academy for Learning and Teaching at the Center for Effective School Practices. She can be reached at michelle.rosen@gse.rutgers.edu .