A partnership for literacy.
A university and school collaborated to engage parents in their children's literacy development by offering workshops at the University's computing center and after school. Student teachers tutored parents in computer skills and literacy approaches, improving English proficiency and employability using children's compositions for practice in word processing and English instruction. Over five years, parents published the annual literary magazine. Techniques and outcomes of the workshop program, and derived benefits from collaboration are described.
Family literacy is one important aspect of education, deserving of attention by schools, universities and researchers. Morrow (2004), as President of the International Reading Association recently stated, "Schools need to view families as partners in the development of literacy." Morrow's statement and institution of a "parent coordinator" for every New York City school as one of the first acts by New York City's school chancellor are indications of the importance and attention paid to parent influences on children's school success. Chen and Dym (2003), describe a school and community project in which desire to learn computer technology was the motivating force for parent participation and ultimate school improvement. Recent calls for schools and teachers to collaborate in literacy efforts are not the first of their kind. For example, ten years ago, Handel (1994) called attention to family literacy and school-parent partnerships. Initiatives in which parents become involved in school improvement take many forms. Chen and Dym (2003) report on a program in which they addressed parents' desire to learn English and to develop word processing skills, based on parents' experiences in the job market. Chen and Dym found that as parents learned about computer technology, they were stimulated to get more involved in school governance and voice their opinions and concerns (p.234).
Collaborations between educational institutions designed to be effective in meeting challenges of global competition include literature describing the benefits of professional development schools (PDS) for school improvement and teacher development (Goodlad, 1990; Holmes Group, 1990; Darling-Hammond, 1994; NCATE, 2001). School-university partnerships have "many faces," (Ravid & Handler, 2001). While the faces may change, Ravid and Handler classify school-university partnerships into models, including professional development schools, consultancies, one-to-one collaborations for research, and umbrella models that facilitate multiple projects and maintain multiple strands of connection. Wilburg and Lozano (2001) wove Darling-Hammond's (1998) principles of restructured schools into a model in which they indicate community outreach as an aspect of successful efforts at collaboration (p.168). Family literacy projects and school-university collaboration have taken many forms, including school, parent, and university collaborations such as the one described herein.
The school that took part in this collaboration is a typical urban public school with typical urban problems, located on the same block as a large urban renewal public housing project, in the shadow of a bridge, the dominant architectural structure of the neighborhood. The children who attend the school mostly come from the surrounding community. Families in the neighborhood are lower middle class, working poor, and receive public assistance. Of the school's current population of approximately 650 students over the past three years, the percentage of children eligible for free lunch has hovered around 90%. The ethnic breakdown of students reflects the composition of the neighborhood. The school's enrollment is 4% White, 19.2% Black, 33.7% Hispanic, and 43.1% Asian and others (NYCDOE, 2005, p.2). Sixty-four students, approximately 10% of the school population, are classified as English Language Learners. The school receives Title I funding, and implemented district literacy initiatives such as Reading Recovery, among other academic improvement efforts, with corresponding increases in test scores. Current school data indicate that between 2002 and 2004 the percentage of children in grades 3-8 who took the English Language Arts testing met or exceeded the standards was 62% (138/222 in 2002) and 64% (100/169 in 2004) (NYCDOE, 2005, p.3).
A long history of student teaching placements created a sense of mutual respect and trust between this school and the geographically nearest university, which is a necessary feature of high quality school-university relationships (Borthwick, 2001). Beyond student teaching, these relationships included participation field experiences in which the University used state funding to provide stipends for cooperating teachers and other research initiatives and grant funded projects. Proximity, the historically multiple strands of connection, and familiarity with administrators and teachers made it desirable for professors and education student teachers to think of the school as a convenient and desirable placement venue.
The project was developed when a funding opportunity was presented to the university. By involving the school's administration, staff and parents, it was determined that the University would offer its computing resources as a draw to parents, who might then become more active in the school's literacy goals. The proposal provided for separate but coordinated series of workshops for parents--one to introduce computer skills and word processing at the University's Computer Center, and the other at the school to familiarize parents with concepts and techniques being used for literacy development. Parents who wanted to learn about computers and technology were invited to attend free Saturday morning computer workshops hosted by the University's teacher education program. The second workshop series was designed to support classroom volunteers with training in classroom literacy methods at the school. After-school workshops met from 5-6 PM, when the parents picked up children from the after-school center. Student teachers were selected as tutors based on their demonstrated abilities in English Language Arts, and Business Education, Spanish or Chinese translation abilities, availability, and desire to teach.
Saturday computer workshops provided valued information about computers and technology that parents would not otherwise access. Workshop goals were for knowledge of computer concepts to support their children's computer use, and use of computers for the parents' personal and career development. Experiential learning theory (Kolb, 1984; Encyclopaedia of informal education, 2005) and adult learning principles, including Mezirow's (1978) conception of transformative learning, (cited by Imel, 1998), were considered in the planning process.
To gather initial information about the interests and needs of the parents, a questionnaire needs analysis, was administered during each year's first computer workshop session. This self-report survey provided information about the parents' educational attainment and current work status, their native language and facility in English, and their familiarity with computer applications, and their reasons for participating. The University liaison and the school's parent coordinator collaborated on an observation and interviewing strategy to keep informed of the parents' interests and issues that needed intervention with the computer lab staff. Parents responded anonymously in weekly evaluations which asked what they had learned, whether the workshops provided computer skills, and what they felt was the best and worst aspect of their experience in the workshops. Informal contacts and interviews with the parent participants, the tutors, and the school personnel also contributed information about the effectiveness and results of the program.
Based on the needs assessment and questionnaire results, the content of the series of ten to twelve computer workshops each year included a basic introduction to computers, file management, word processing skills, and access to the Internet. The request for children's compositions as practice material prompted the principal and parent coordinator to suggest that the parents who were participating in the computer workshops produce the school's literary magazine using the desktop publishing equipment available through the University. Class sets of compositions were submitted by teachers and served as typing and editing practice materials for parents. Topics about the school's approach to teaching writing and the iterative writing process were purposefully integrated with file management, typing, and editing tools. Informal education in computer skills and English literacy ensued from adults and tutors discussing how to improve children's writing.
The computer workshops showed the parents how to edit documents using spelling and grammar checking tools, and how to highlight errors or enter comments and offer suggestions without changing the child's written work. The parents typed suggestions for editorial changes and elaborations on the content of compositions at the bottom of the page. As parents became comfortable with word processing, they experimented with other desktop publishing tools, like the scanner. The number and quality of the illustrations increased, and scanned artwork allowed the early childhood classes to contribute drawings and stories written in invented spelling.
As parents gained greater expertise in the word processing production arena, they also felt increasingly empowered to make content and theme decisions. Each issue contained messages from the Principal, the parent coordinator, and the University liaison. After the first year's issue, when the parents began to control the contents, each issue had a theme such as, "everyone is a writer," "memoirs," and "our community." Some of the workshops focused on the processes for making choices about the compositions to be included in the magazine, such as making sure that the selections were representative of each class in the school and that the selections supported the school's inclusive goals. Contributions were purposefully drawn from each class, from a representative ethnic mix of authors, and from parents and supportive staff. Since the literary magazine offered the school an opportunity to recognize its graduating students, the magazine devoted a special section for the eighth grade class' personal remembrances and messages of appreciation.
During computer skills and family literacy workshops each year, the individual pages were formatted as two columns, each column representing a separate page when printed in landscape. The pages were placed in order, a cover page was designed, and a mock-up created. Then the pages were duplicated and stapled at the center seam to create a booklet. At the end of the school year, the workshop's publication was distributed to students and parents. Copies were distributed by the school's parent's association. For each of the tire years of its publication it served as the school's yearbook, placed on each seat at the June graduation ceremony.
The parents' literacy levels covered a broad spectrum from non-completers of high school and GED students to those who had Associate Degrees. Most parents were originally Chinese and Spanish native speakers, who varied in English facility. The Chinese parents were not fluent in spoken English, often needing translation services. A few parents could touch type, but others had never used a keyboard and were literally afraid of the computers. It was apparent through the recruitment effort and through the questionnaire responses that curiosity about technology and recognition that word processing was an important economic skill were prime motivators for the parents' participation. At the beginning there was high interest, resulting in over-subscription by parents. The initially full classroom was reduced by attrition to the classroom's workstation capacity as the demands of jobs, other commitments, and the need to find babysitting services became onerous for some parents. As the three hour schedule on Saturdays became more regular, only parents who felt they were gaining valuable skills and knowledge and had a role in the project continued to participate regularly, until there were twelve persistent attendees. One indication of success was that of parents who persisted and came to multiple workshops, even the least able were successful in typing and printing short poems or stories. Over five years of production, a small core group of approximately six to twelve parents continued their involvement. These parents gradually assumed greater control over the form and content of the magazine. They determined the annual theme, selected and collated the documents to be published, and brought together the pages to organize the magazine.
As an example of collaboration between the school and a University in which all parties benefited, each segment of the school community was impacted by the project. Parents who participated in this project gained English language knowledge, computer skills, and empowerment through making a material contribution to the school's academic life. Engaging in this effort provided enhanced attention to their own and their children's literacy by participating parents and whole school community. The project helped return parents to the workforce or further education. Parents said that they felt their participation helped the school, and helped children gain in reading and writing ability. Of the twenty plus parents who participated, about half continued throughout the five years. There were parents who used the word processing, resume writing and Internet sessions to implement job search plans. Two parents successfully returned to work while participating in the workshops. There were parent participants who reported that they planned to return to college, and one parent reported taking and passing the test for a general education diploma (GED). Of the group of persistent parents, at least four became active in the school's Parents Association, taking on leadership roles. One of the most active parents over the five years of the project became a school aide. This project embodied the concepts of parent participation in that it gave the parents opportunities to make substantive contributions to the school. Their activities offer evidence of success in promoting parental empowerment.
While external funding supported the first year's program, during the following four years the University supported the tutors and hosted the program, and the university and parent liaison voluntarily ran twelve to fourteen workshop sessions each Spring at the University's Academic Computing facility, and a similar number of workshops in the after-school center. For the University, this project represented a way to contribute substantively to a K-12 school, advocating for its teacher education program by taking advantage of its facilities. The Dean became aware of the historical relationship with the school, and was inclined to support the continuation of the project, highlighting it as part of presentations to trustees. Student teacher placements grew over the tire year period in which the parent project continued.
The student teachers placed at the school were aware of the project's existence, with many acting as tutors in the after school and Saturday sessions. The student tutors gained experience in teaching parents and in developing family literacy through computer skills training. The project provided reasons for increased visits to the school, a more substantial presence of student teachers and pre-service field experiences, and greater communication between all members of the school community with the University's faculty and administration. As education faculty, I organized and administered the project, and secured continuation funding from the University when the initial foundation funding ended. I developed personal and professional relationships with school personnel. The project was instrumental in my involvement in the School-University Collaborative Research Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association (2001, 1998). In multiple ways, the outreach from the university to the school provided means for improved relationships.
This account is meant to offer ideas for developing greater parental participation in literacy education within a school community and provide insight for those who are involved in collaborative projects involving schools, parents and universities. In all, this project provides an example of how a school and university collaboration creatively met the needs of its constituents. The content of our educational effort was to include parents in support of their school's process writing approach by publishing the school literary magazine. We ultimately produced five issues, in which the children, teachers, administrators and parents had the opportunity to publish their stories, poems, memoirs, and artwork. The project also produced lasting relationships between teachers and faculty, school and university administrators, and strengthened relationships with participating parents. For parents and educators who participated in various workshops over the five years, it enhanced their job-related skills, their proficiency in English, their understanding of the school's approach to literacy instruction, and their familiarity with the school's network of parent support mechanisms.
What is unique about this program is that it represents an instrumental attempt by a university, as part of an ongoing partnership, to provide support for a school's family literacy effort. It strengthened bonds between the school and the teacher education program by providing a reason for communication and cooperation between the University faculty and the school's staff. Student teachers and faculty had additional reasons to interact with parents, providing them experiences they would not have otherwise had. This project enhanced the University's reputation with the local community through its service. For some in the school community, production of the magazine represented a parent empowerment project, which involved parents in their children's education. It also represented entry to educational resources the parents would not have otherwise been able to access. For the whole school community, it provided tangible evidence of literacy growth and successes to be celebrated.
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Adrienne Andi Sosin, Adelphi University, Garden City, NY
Sosin, Ed.D., is Associate Professor of Literacy in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction, School of Education.
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|Author:||Sosin, Adrienne Andi|
|Publication:||Academic Exchange Quarterly|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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