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Have you ever wondered how you can help children make links between what they learn at school and at home? What approaches can teachers, schools, families and carers take to improve the educational outcomes of students? Whose responsibility is it to initiate and carry through the task of involving parents, carers and the wider community in students' experiences in the school environment, and is there any real benefit to students overall education?
Classrooms are changing and teachers are no longer the only 'expert' for students to gain knowledge from. Feiler, Andrews, Greenhough, Hughes, Johnson, Scanlan and Wan (2008) emphasize that "both parents and teachers have knowledge that is relevant to enhancing children's learning, but this knowledge tends not to be successfully communicated and is often under-utilised" (p. 13).
Research (Sandberg, 2009; Feiler, et al., 2008; The Smith Family, n.d) shows that family involvement in school increases a student's educational outcomes. It further increases a student's social and emotional wellbeing (Australian Governtment Department of Health and Aging & Hunter Institute of mental health, 2010) and provides opportunities for a well rounded education (Dierking, 2007; Hall & Schaverien, 2001).
While schools develop their own guidelines as to how to increase family and community involvement, I am learning through my personal experience that it is primarily up to the teacher to become the agent of change. Teachers can utilise many approaches to enhance the linking of home learning with school learning. I believe it is important to let families and carers know how to become involved to enhance students' learnings; as Dierking (2007) points out many parents and carers are unsure "how to optimise the learning potential of the home and connect it to their children's school experience" (p. 9).
Students themselves can provide valuable information to the teacher. Undertaking activities such as filling a shoebox (Feiler, et al., 2008) with contents that are special to them can be used as a way of getting to know students. This activity provides an opportunity for the teacher to reveal similar personal information and build a bond with students. The contents of this box can be integrated into the key learning areas of English (e.g. through talking, listening and writing activities), Maths (e.g. through measurement activities such as ordering and weighing) and Human Studies and its Environment (HSIE) (e.g. through discovering new environments, looking at cultural celebrations and family history). This activity provides opportunities for children to become 'experts' in a field of their interest. It is a benefit of linking home with school learning.
Knowing your students' backgrounds and interests gives insight into how to best engage and meet their needs. This is of particular importance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, and was emphasised to me in a recent 'yarn' shared with Natalie Taylor, secretary of the Hornsby Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG) (personal communication, October 14, 2010).
From this yarn, I came to understand that when it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students' education, it is important to meet with Aboriginal families and community support groups to discuss school related issues. This is a way of showing respect towards, and developing a relationship with, your student's family, and the local Aboriginal community. Furthermore, it is a way of demonstrating that you have a belief in, and high expectations of, your students, and that you want them to succeed in life.
In addition, it may be appropriate to conduct any meetings with family or careers in a place they may feel more comfortable outside of a school setting. The 'Hornsby Local' is an example of where this can occur. It is a community group referred to by Taylor as "a place where Aboriginal culture and values can be shared and learnt, by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. It is also a place where educators can learn how to share relevant information with the rest of their class, and their Aboriginal students" (personal communication, October 14, 2010).
Another approach a teacher can take is to make time for regular communication. Sandberg (2009)observes "parents who receive frequent and positive messages from teachers tend to become more involved in their children's education than do other parents" (p. 38). I believe it is important to provide time for communication with families in and out of school hours to provide a greater support to students and their families.
Likewise, Sandberg (2009) suggests "it is important for schools to offer different forms of parental involvement [as] no one form is necessarily right for every family" (p. 21). Examples include the 'training of parents' to update their knowledge in areas such as maths; and 'information sessions' to provide regular explanations of the purpose of learning, and how it links to school and home learning. The Smith Family (n.d) suggests once "you engage the family, you engage the student" (p. 1). Both of these approaches help in setting student motivation and engagement. In addition, schools can offer correspondence and parental education in different languages and organise for the provision of an interpreter where necessary.
Equally important are events such as 'grandparent's day', where older generations share their knowledge and expertise with students, the inviting of community experts such as elders from the local Aboriginal community, and professionals such as doctors or local park rangers to share their knowledge with students and teachers. Utilising these funds of community knowledge support learning in HSIE and often make learning more engaging and relevant to students.
I believe homework is another way of increasing the link between school and home, though some teachers and families may not agree. The purpose of homework has been defined by Copper (1989) as "tasks that are assigned to students by school teachers that are intended to be carried out during non-school hours" (p. 7). As to what these tasks are consist of is primarily up to the teacher.
The use of a homework grid, as suggested by Lillico (2004), provides opportunities to include authentic activities and experiences in reading, shopping, physical activity, housework, art, teaching an adult, playing a game with an adult, project research, meditation/spiritual and relaxation activities and cultural experiences. This approach is supported by Hancock (2001, p. 2) who agrees that "leisure time/community activities are important for personal, spiritual, moral and social development" (p. 2). Providing homework primarily in the form of a 'grid' provides numerous opportunities to link school and home learning and opportunities to engage with family. I believe this due to my experiences as a student teacher and parent of three school aged children.
By providing students with homework choices and experiences to suit different learning styles there are opportunities to increase family bonding (e.g. through playing a board game, going for a walk around the neighbourhood or even hitting or kicking a ball with an adult); chances to learn life skills such as cooking (incorporating literacy skills in English and maths) and shopping (writing a shopping list, identifying the cost of an item, reading labels, learning about money); and importantly, opportunities to demonstrate to students they can learn from others and experiences around them to contribute to a meaningful and diverse education.
Conversely, when students are asked to complete home work for the sake of it or just as "'busy work'... they may reach a point of satiation indicated by signs of fatigue and loss of interest in the material." (Hancock, 2001, pp. 1-2). By making homework fun, creative and relevant students are provided with appealing opportunities to share their newly learnt understandings. Also I believe teachers should be cautious in planning homework activities and the time the activities may take to complete so it does not negatively impact upon students' lives.
Furthermore, I feel it is important for teachers to provide opportunities and resources to 'level the playing field' for student's home learning experiences. Hall and Schaverien (2001) and Hancock (2001) suggest to ask families and the local community for donations of class equipment and resources to assist with homework (e.g. board games, digital cameras, discount vouchers for museums/zoos, provide regular information about out of school local upcoming events, relevant websites, books/interesting magazines). These resources can be borrowed to help with homework activities or inspire independent learning, and further promote the link between school and home learning.
Also, I feel it is important to acknowledging all parental and community involvement, no matter how small. This assists in demonstrating how much you value their involvement in the education of students.
I have come to conclude that if I am able to help families become more interested and involved in practical and manageable approaches to enhancing school and home learning, then my students will have a greater chance to succeed, in and outside of the classroom and have a greater chance in becoming well educated individuals.