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Notes from Family Involvment in OST Programs--Part 2, the March 21st Networking Meeting

Aug 08, 2012  Anne Lawrence

Anne Lawrence, program officer for the Foundation, and Suzanne Marten, facilitator from Center for Educational Options, welcomed participants and reminded all of the purpose of the networking meetings: to offer a forum for participants from across the city and a range of out-of-school-time programs to come together to share their work and to dialogue on important issues in the field. They are structured as an opportunity to network with colleagues, hear ideas, discuss and share with others, and develop some new ideas for your program.

The structure of the Networking meeting was broken up into several sections with time for networking in between. The first section involved a brief hands-on presentation by Melissa Wilhoit, then time to debrief on the content and facilitation. Next, Laura Paris shared a handout on "Tips for Facilitating." (See attached handout, "Tips for Facilitating") Then, Tamara Williams and Jodi Connelly led another brief presentation to walk us through the Arts and Literacy Homework workshop for families with time for participants to ask their questions. Finally, participants worked in small groups to discuss and develop more of their own plans for family involvement at their OST programs.

Framing the Discussion

Like the previous session on Family Involvement, the Networking meeting began from the premise that building relationships with families is a vital part of OST programs and those relationships are not static, but dynamic and require us to engage in a process that evolves over time. This Networking meeting focused on how to build those relationships especially once you have families at a workshop or a meeting. Meaningful Content and Engaging Facilitation of Family Meetings

Melissa Wilhoit, Arts and Literacy afterschool program, led participants in a hands-on activity that they do with their families, harnessing the power of arts - poetry, music and movement - to connect to the kinds of learning that children are expected to do in many contexts.

Participants were divided into three groups of about 5 people each. Each participant was given a copy of Shel Silverstein's poem, Peanut Butter Sandwich, (see attached poem) and assigned a stanza to memorize in 2 minutes. Each group got to work right away, anxiously reading and rehearsing their stanza in a variety of ways. At the end of 2 minutes Melissa called the participants back together and called on the groups in order to recite their stanzas, without the aide of the text. Most groups had the beginning of the stanza and parts of the whole, but it was rough going in the middle and toward the end.

Next, Melissa instructed each group to use movement as they memorized new stanzas. She modeled a stanza, with gestures for each action and idea in the stanza. Again, each group got to work, this time with much laughter as they came up with movements to match the particular text in their section of the poem. In a short time each group again recited their stanza back to the whole group with the movements they had choreographed. Now the groups were excited and each one performed their stanza with gusto, getting the lines well.

Then, Melissa asked each group to take another stanza and use music or rhythm to support them as they memorized it and modeled how she might do it with a typical tune like "Row, Row, Row your Boat." Again, different groups had slightly different strategies, but when performing their stanza they each did well in holding onto all the words with a tune or beat to accompany them.

Melissa asked which way groups liked best to memorize the poem. Overwhelmingly participants selected movement and music; both made it easier to memorize something new and unfamiliar and long. This led to a discussion about how this sort of activity works with families. Because it is a very hands-on activity, people were immediately engaged. Sometimes English is not the first language of family members, and participants noted that adding rhythm and movement was supportive of learning the words. While some found it uncomfortable not knowing others in their group, many found that they were able to connect with each other through the activity. Participants remarked on how they were able to "play to their own strengths" and support each other in the group, making it a community building experience in addition to driving home the idea that the arts support learning and can be directly connected to kids' school tasks or competencies. Another point was made about the difficulty of sorting out your own groups' sounds from the other groups' sounds. Melissa noted that this too happens with families and it can lead to a good discussion about distractions and how to create quiet work spaces or times.

In terms of analyzing the facilitation of the activity, participants noted that in addition to just getting everyone engaged, the hands-on activity builds a deeper understanding of learning. In the case of the poem and memorization, in the act of trying three different ways to memorize the stanzas it became really clear that the arts in the form of music and movement were essential to making it go more smoothly. Participants also commented that Melissa's modeling, demonstrating how she added movement to her stanza or how she added music, gave a very tangible example of what they groups were to do. This seemed particularly important with any audience that you want to put at ease and make them feel like they can do this. At the same time, participants stated that they could see how it was necessary to feel challenged, that the task or activity had to be a little bit hard to support learning. If it was too easy or comfortable no one would really learn anything. But laughing at the difficulties and messing up made it real, yet fun and satisfying when each group succeeded. This is an important element to build into workshops with families.

Building on what the activity and discussion had surfaced about engaging families, Laura Paris, Arts and Literacy afterschool program, led participants through some additional ideas about facilitating workshops with families. Laura highlighted the following:

  • Be organized and enthusiastic.
  • Be relaxed; families can be shy or unsure of themselves, so your job it to put them at ease. * Engage families right away; the LESS you talk the more they will do and talk.
  • Make families feel included so that they can comment and share their opinions.
  • Cajole family members to get engaged, call on them; this can be challenging if the facilitator is younger than the parents.
  • Use small groups to encourage participation and to make family members more accountable. * Vary the activities you do both from workshop to workshop and within one workshop.
  • Use role play; you can first model with staff how to act out typical issues with one person playing the child and the other the adult, and then have groups of family members use it to solve problems that arise between kids and their parents/families; you can pause the action to discuss options and choices.
  • Repeat your key ideas and purpose.
  • Bear in mind that you will most likely have dual purposes: to address families' concerns about the topic and to show how your program works to support learning and growth.

Participants commented that another major barrier to engaging families is language. When the community served has more than one language it can be challenging to make everyone feel comfortable and included. Having a translator means that families who don't speak the language of the workshop facilitator can get the message, but it can also make the workshop twice as long. Nonetheless, all agreed that it was important to experiment with different ways to engage families from all language backgrounds. Some programs have successfully used other family members or older children to help translate; some programs have written materials translated; some programs have multi-lingual staff who can assist.

A Case Study: Arts and Literacy Afterschool Program's Family Workshop on Homework Help

Tamara Williams and Jodi Connelly, Arts and Literacy afterschool program, presented their organization's workshop for families on homework. This workshop focused on how to provide help with homework and facilitate discussion.

Many families have an issue with homework and these become issues for out-of-school-time programs. Participants stated that many of their families want homework to be done in the afterschool program. Families experience the crush of time; work or there is dinner to be cooked, or baths to be taken and other family responsibilities that do not always allow much time for homework to be completed at home. Often the children are also expected to help out at home with chores that also take time. The families want their kids to be successful so the children really need to understand what they are being asked to do. However, many times families feel that they cannot help their children because they are not comfortable in English or they are not familiar with the content or method used to teach the children at school. Additionally, having a quiet space to do homework is an issue for many families both due to space constraints or not understanding the necessity of a productive workspace. (This discussion also brought up the issue of teachers assigning inappropriate homework. It was noted that supporting families in being advocates for their children at school is a rich topic for a future meeting.)

Tamara and Jodi then guided participants through an overview of the Arts and Literacy Program's Family Homework Help Workshop and some examples of the stations or mini-presentations on specific subjects that they provide (see attached Arts and Literacy Program's Homework Help Workshop Overview). In terms of the general architecture of the workshop, they have found that a large space such as a cafeteria lends itself to both the whole group of families being together briefly and then splitting up into age or subject area groups or stations. At Arts and Literacy they use older kids to be greeters and help parents enter and find the appropriate group to join. The program provides childcare so that families can focus on the workshop and not worry about their children. In preparing for a homework workshop, they deploy their "Homework Warriors," college students who work as line staff facilitating homework help time, to survey teachers in the children's schools to determine from the school's point of view the areas of concern about homework. They use this to guide their work with families. For the workshop Arts and Literacy breaks up their families into age groups, K-1st grade, 2-3rd grade, 4-5th grade. Within each group they have a Homework Warrior facilitate a mini-workshop with a translator for families.

Tamara presented the math homework workshop, demonstrating how the facilitator focuses on one tool or support that families can use at home. The tool that was focused on was flash cards that can help the children in math. First families are engaged in a brief conversation about struggles and strategies for learning math and then they participated in a hands on activity using the flash cards. The interactions make the tool and learning come to life. There is a brief re-cap at the end to reinforce the tool and idea that was presented and how families can use it at home.

Jodi then presented the reading homework workshop, demonstrating a parallel process and structure to the math workshop. Again, the facilitator focuses on one aspect of supporting literacy or reading. The goal is to empower families to read with their children even if they are not comfortable in English. By modeling how to read with a child, and then having the families try it, the facilitator helps families learn how support their children as learners. One approach that has been particularly effective has been for families to read with their children the books that the children have made themselves in program. Children are excited to read the work of their peers and their own, and families can share in that excitement. Strategic Planning and Small Group Discussions

Next participants engaged in some strategic planning drawing on some of the ideas and strategies presented and discussed so far. At the end of the discussion and planning time, ideas were shared out to the whole group. Here are some of the highlights of what participants were walking away with:

  • How to address concerns about quiet workspaces at home by modeling and creating a handout on what staff of an OST program does to create quieter, more productive working areas.
  • How to make workshops "mini"--the idea that you can accomplish a lot by being focused on one specific thing and do it in a short amount of time.
  • How to check homework, without giving answers, in the OST program so that children can have a sense of completion and families can feel reassured that the work is being reviewed. This could also create a way to have a dialogue with teachers/school.
  • How to reinforce the idea of "education is a family's responsibility" in positive ways since many families, either for cultural reasons or because they feel powerless, abdicate that role.
  • How to build reflective conversations with families on the activities of the OST program by inviting them to do what the kids do.
  • How to draw on the many ways that families "teach" their children in everyday life - like shopping or home repair or caring for babies or elders.
  • How to use the Arts and Literacy models is helpful to planning and implementing ideas in our own programs.
  • How to increase family "voice" and ownership of workshops content and style.
  • How to engage families in what goes on for children in the OST program; this can be part of an on-going dialogue with families.
  • How we must continue to support families in talking with their schools. We can never forget the challenges and responsibilities of families.

We look forward to hearing back from participants on what they have tried and how it is going. Many wonderful ideas arose for the collaborative discussions and planning.


Contact Laura Paris for more information about Family Art Night and the Arts and Literacy afterschool program:
Laura Paris Coalition for Hispanic Family Services
315 Wyckoff Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11237

Anne H. Lawrence Program Officer
The Robert Bowne Foundation
6 East 39th Street, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10016
Phone number: 212-792-6250