Bilingual Family Night for ELL Families
Establishing a strong partnership between parents and schools early in the school year is crucial to a student's success throughout the year. However, this may prove to be a challenge when working with English Language Learners (ELLs) if their parents do not speak English. One way to connect with parents of ELLs is to host a bilingual family night at the beginning of the school year. Here are some suggestions for planning a bilingual family event, as well as creative ways to bridge the language gap and a list of links to useful websites.
"All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother."
— Abraham Lincoln
Grade Levels: K-12
Each of the Latino parents wrote their child's name on a post-it note and stuck it on the board in the front of the classroom. The teacher had invited the families together to discuss ways they could help their child succeed, and they began with this simple activity. When the 33 post-its were on the board, the teacher stated, "50% of Latino students drop out of school by 9th grade." Then she removed half of the post-it notes at random. "Another 20% drop out of high school before 12th grade." She removed another handful of post-its. "Another 10% are not able to pass state required tests and do not receive a diploma." She took off a few more post-its. The room was quiet as everyone looked at the five little post-its left on the board. The teacher continued, "The graduation rate in our district for Latino students is about 22%. National statistics show the Latino college graduation rate at about 14%. This means that of the five Latino students who get high school diplomas, one will receive a college degree."
This was a very stark and depressing picture to contemplate, but the teacher's message was clear – the only way the students were going to be able to make it was with strong support from school and home. The teacher gave her pledge to the families that she would do all she could to provide a quality education for their children, but she also told them that she wanted to partner with the families so they could provide support at home that would ensure their child would be a high school graduate.
Although it may seem like children spend most of their time at school, it's estimated that 70% of their waking hours (including weekends and holidays) are spent outside of school (Michigan Department of Education, 2001). This means that even if a teacher is competent, creative, and able to reach every student during the school day, there are many more hours of the day that are spent mainly in the student's home. Therefore, a strong home-school connection is crucial to the success of the student.
- Earn higher grades and test scores and enroll in higher-level programs.
- Be promoted, pass their classes, and earn credits.
- Attend school regularly.
- Have better social skills, show improved behaviors, and adapt well to school.
- Graduate and go on to post-secondary education.
Additional research shows that more and more families from a wider range of income and educational levels, as well as from diverse ethnic and cultural groups, are engaged in supporting their children's learning at home. Encouraging greater involvement at school from all students' families may be an important strategy for addressing the achievement gap between high-literacy and low-literacy families. When schools support parent involvement at home and school, students make greater gains. When schools build partnerships with families by responding to their concerns and honoring their contributions, they succeed in sustaining connections that are aimed at improving student achievement. (For help setting up parent outreach workshops that focus on literacy development go to the Colorín Colorado - AFT Toolkit for Teachers: Reaching Out to Hispanic Parents of English Language Learners.)
- establish shared expectations with the parents about the upcoming school year
- offer suggestions and support to assist families in helping their child.
How to host a successful family night for bilingual families
- First things first – get the parents to the meeting. Be sure to create invitations that the families will be able to understand. This may mean sending translated invitations and/or making a phone call to the family to personally invite them to the meeting. It will help them understand how valuable their participation is. Some schools also advertise book fairs or raffles that add a little more interest to the outing. Encouraging parent involvement may also mean considering the option of having the meeting at a location more convenient for the families – such as a community center or church. Many of my ELL families only had one vehicle, and public transportation in Minnesota is still a developing concept, so sometimes it made sense to have the meeting at a place that was within walking distance of where many of the families lived.
- If at all possible, provide food and childcare. Providing light snacks and beverages really help to put people at ease and set a friendly, non-threatening tone for the meeting. Many parents may feel intimidated by the formal school setting, and food is a universal way to welcome new friends. Childcare is very important if you want to have the parents' undivided attention. It will allow them an opportunity to participate effectively and ask questions. Some administrators are able to help pay for these items through Title I funding or other special family involvement funds, so be sure to discuss it at a staff meeting prior to the first family night.
- Make sure there are staff members available who will be able to speak to the families in their home language. If you are hosting a family meeting with English speakers and Spanish speakers, you may want to stop to allow time for interpretation. If your school has many Spanish-speaking families and very few bilingual staff members, teachers may want to run two meetings simultaneously – one for Spanish speakers and one for English speakers – to cover the same educational support topics, and then bring families together in classrooms for social interaction with their child's teacher.
- Have a clear agenda, and begin and end on time. Your time, as well as the families', is very valuable and it's important to use the time wisely. Following an agenda and organizing needed information in a "Parent Folder" will help parents understand the expectations for the year and how they can help their child succeed. As usual, offer translated materials whenever possible.
- Offer an "ELL Summary Newsletter" where families can receive weekly school information. I created an "ELL Newsletter" for my students when I realized that many families were overwhelmed with the amount of paper that was coming home each week and found it difficult to figure out which items they really needed to attend to. My "ELL Newsletter" was printed on bright yellow paper in Spanish and simple English and offered a summary of the events and issues parents needed to be aware of. At the beginning of the year I showed the "ELL Newsletter" to the families and said, "If you only read one thing in your child's backpack – read this. And always call if you have questions or aren't sure what you need to do."
- "Show" rather than "tell" about the curriculum. When you tell the families what the children will be working on during the year, show examples of past student work so families can see what you mean. It will also help them recall the information when they are helping their child at home.
- Emphasize the importance of attending conferences and communicating regularly. Make sure the parents know the date of the first conferences and that they have your phone number and e-mail information. Describe the kinds of things you need to communicate about frequently – absences, school work, behavior concerns, accomplishments, upcoming events, etc. Families from a different country probably have different expectations about communicating with their children's school, so covering the basic expectations is a good idea. For example, one of my ELL students went on vacation with his family for a month, and the parents had not called to inform the school. When they returned, they were very surprised to find out that their son had been withdrawn from school due to the long, unexplained absence.
- If there is time, do a fun learning activity with the families. If families are able to interact with their children during an educational activity in the classroom, they are more likely to participate in a similar activity when it is sent home again. The activity should be simple and something that the families can take with them, such as cards for matching games, dice for math activities, or word cards for making sentences.
- Last, but not least, find opportunities for families to volunteer in ways that will work for them. Some of my students' mothers did not have a lot of prior formal education and felt uncomfortable coming to the classroom to do reading or math support. However, they were excellent cooks, and because they worked in the evening, they were able to bring treats to the children and help organize celebrations when we finished our units. Many parents also don't realize how valuable their input can be when they talk about the importance of school, go to the library with their children, encourage reading and do school success, and regularly ask their children what they learn in school every day.
With creativity, teachers can think of many ways families can volunteer — whether it is helping to cut out flashcards or reading in the students' native language. I believe that providing parents with an opportunity to visit the school regularly and contribute their time and talents helps build trust and a stronger home-school connection. As the African proverb says, "It takes a whole village to raise a child." The American community is quite different from an African village, but through parent meetings, a teacher can play a strong role in bringing the community together to raise children who will graduate from high school, and one day, college.