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Connecting with ELL Families - Valentina Gonzalez

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This blog post was originally written by Valentina Gonzalez. Valentina is a Professional Development Specialist for English Language Learners in Texas, coaching teachers in ELL strategies and leading professional development at the state and national level. She has a natural love of language stemming from her experience as an immigrant from Serbia, Yugoslavia. Her years in education include roles as a classroom teacher, ESL Specialty Support Teacher, and ESL Facilitator. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from The University of Houston, and a master’s in Educational Administration from Lamar University. You can learn more about Valentina's work and access more resources on her website.

First Hand Experience

Reflecting back on my own years in elementary school, I bet it may have seemed like my parents were not very involved with my education. We were new immigrants, and they spoke very little English. But in fact, they cared deeply about our success in school and were deeply invested - at least at home.

One of my fondest homework memories was practicing spelling with my dad and brother. My dad made it into a game for the three of us and we were challenged to beat one another. The winner got a quarter. The best part of spelling homework for us as a family was that it brought us together, but it was also repetitive. We knew the schedule for each week and that helped us as the words changed. We learned together. The collaboration, repetition, and challenge were supportive of our learning.

But when it came to linguistically complicated assignments like reading comprehension, writing extensive responses, math word problems or projects, homework was a struggle.   

Challenges

My parents didn't come to parent teacher conferences. My dad worked every minute of overtime that he possibly could just to keep a roof over our heads. We had one vehicle so that meant my mom was at home without transportation. And even if she could come to the school, she had my baby sister to care for. Oh, and my mom's English speaking skills were the least developed. ​

But despite these challenges, my parents did support my education. They enforced homework, they told us bedtime stories, and they made sure that we understood that our teachers were the keepers of the knowledge. "Go to school. Listen and learn. Be good," they would tell us. Essentially this meant don't talk, and do what the teacher tells you to do. 

Sound familiar? Do you know kids in your classroom like this? Are you thinking about particular students who might be in the same situation? It happens all the time. 

Engaging Families

When I became a teacher myself, I began to see students like my former self and families like mine come to school. I realized that these families needed something different than the emails and newsletters we sent home. Those things simply weren't reaching them. I recognized that the traditional parent-teacher conferences and phone calls were not sufficient, much like they weren’t for my own family. 

Unanswered phone calls and unreturned notes home may seem to indicate that parents aren’t involved in education. We need to challenge ourselves to understand that people have risked their lives to come to the US in order to give their children a quality education as they struggle against barriers that most of us cannot imagine.

We have to connect with ELL families so they feel valued and included. Getting to know parents and their assets will help you do just that. Learn about your parents' skills and think creatively about how you can tap into them at school.

Here are five strategies to help increase family engagement in your school:

1. Create a Welcoming Environment

Environments that are welcoming to all families represent the student population. Posters and signs reflect the student demographics and languages spoken within the classroom and community. Book shelves are filled with characters that students can both connect with and learn from.

Take a moment to look around your classroom. Do the walls tell the story of your students and their families? How about your campus? Step into the shoes of each of your students. Would you feel valued and included by the environment? If not, make a change.

2. Enhance Communication 

Ask parents what language they prefer any paperwork to be sent home in. Some parents will want paperwork sent home in English, but others prefer their native language. Asking is key. We don't want to offend anyone by sending home paperwork in the wrong language. Avoid making an assumption and just ask. Use translation devices to support you.

One of my recent favorite communication tools is TalkingPoints. It is able to translate the teacher’s text messages into the parent's home language. It is an excellent way to introduce yourself as the teacher, let parents know about things happening at school, and invite them to come for a conference or event. When parents respond, they can type in their native language and the teacher receives the message back in English!

3. Encourage Face to Face Interaction

Phone calls, emails, and texts all serve a purpose, but if there is a language barrier, it is easier to communicate face to face using gestures and body language. This shows parents how much we care and are willing to support their child and family.

If you have noticed that a parent is having a difficult time making it up to the school, think about a home visit. Some districts allow this powerful practice while others don't (so check with district policy). From personal experience I can tell you that home visits leave the biggest impression. When I was a child, my brother's first grade teacher used to come regularly to visit with my mom. To this day, I haven't figured out how they actually communicated, but I can tell you that we knew she cared. And that meant a lot. When visiting families, try involving the child in the conference. Allow the student to share progress and goals.

4. Ask Families to Volunteer

Families of ELs have a lot to offer our classrooms. Many come with experiences and backgrounds from their home country that we can use to enrich our classroom environments. Involve parents by inviting them to guest speak, read to the class, share their expertise, etc. Get them plugged into the campus. For example, we once had a parent who was a professional photographer. He was able to help with the yearbook. Another parent was a doctor in her home country. She came to help when we learned about body systems. 

5. Inform and Include Families

Parents of ELs need to know about their child’s progress and goals. We also benefit from all being included in the progress of their goals. Informing parents of their child’s learning progress and how we can all work together to move their child forward only serves to support success.Share with parents all of the programs and extracurricular activities that are available to students. Some parents may be unaware of what the district has to offer. In my family, for example, I was the first to graduate from high school. At that point, I was in all honors classes and doing well in school, but my family had no idea about things like letterman jackets or how to apply for college and scholarships. It was totally up to me to apply and figure it out. Thank goodness I did. I applied to one school and luckily got in.

The Benefits

When we take the time to connect with ELL families, we send them a message that we care, we want to support them, and that they are valued. Research shows that when parents are involved in their child's education, their attendance is better, they do better in school, and they have a higher rate of success in post secondary. Just as importantly, effective family engagement strategies for our ELL families are also good for families of non-ELLs.

There are so many ways to connect with ELL families. Try one of the strategies above or share how you have connected with families!