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Welcoming ELL Parents into the Classroom

Having trouble engaging your ELL parents? Just follow along for our teacher-tested strategies. 


By Mary Ellen Flannery

When it comes to teachers and parents—“We are a team,” says Massachusetts teacher Gloria Salazar. But it’s not always easy to get parents involved, especially those with language issues.

It doesn’t mean these parents don’t want to be involved—or that they don’t have high aspirations for their children. Two-thirds of Latino teens say their parents play an active role in their education, and eight of 10 say they urge them to go to college, according to new research from the Pew Latino Center. But it may mean they haven’t gotten the right invitation.

So, follow along for ways to open the door to those parents.


Do your ELL parents return your phone calls?

Dear Parent... Mail letters home during the summer to say hello, preferably in each family’s home language. “I tell my parents I’m eager to meet them when the kids come the first day,” says Salazar. “Then, the first week, I contact every single family again to offer open-door access to the classroom.”

Ring, ring! Good news calling! Every day, Maricela Rincon (top) calls a different parent from her Las Cruces, New Mexico, classroom to tell them something specific and good about their child—“Anna did so well on the multiplication quiz!” These phone calls, required by her principal, help her reflect on each child’s progress and also make sure every one has the opportunity to get a positive call. It also makes a big difference in a parent’s attitude. “A few times when I call, it’s like, ‘Oh no, what did he do now?’ Some say, ‘This is the first time I’ve had a positive phone call about my child,’” Rincon says. It completely changes their attitude: “We have parents who haven’t been so supportive, and now they are.”

Knock knock! If you can’t get them on the phone, go to them. Ricardo Rincon, another Las Cruces teacher, calls home first: “I’d like to work out a plan to make your child successful.” (Who could refuse that?) Once he’s there, at the kitchen table, “I empower them. I ask, ‘What might be the best practice to make sure your child’s learning style is addressed?’”

Do your parents attend parent-teacher conferences?

Click here for strategies for better attendance.

First, consider the basics. Yes, you should have translators. Yes, you should provide childcare. Consider scheduling meetings at different times to accommodate parents who work multiple jobs, including nightshifts, and invite extended families. In many cultures, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents will want to be part of the conversation.

Make an offer they can’t refuse. Actually, get your students to make that offer. In Las Cruces, with the support of his administration, Ricardo Rincon (top) has transformed parent conferences into student-led demonstrations. Using a SMART Board and a hand-held camcorder, Rincon and his fifth-graders create videos and other multimedia records of classroom activities. Four times a year, Rincon’s students present the videos to parents. “It’s changed the image of the parent conference. Now it’s ‘I’m going to go and my child is going to show me what they’ve learned’”—and it has boosted parent attendance to 95 percent. “I can attest to the many smiles and watery eyes,” he says. Each parent takes home a DVD to share with relatives, and Rincon also buys jump drives for his students so that they can routinely bring their work home during the school year.

Do your parents contribute in other meaningful ways to the classroom?

Click here for ways to involve them.

Bring culture into the classroom. We’re not talking about Cinco de Mayo parties. We’re talking about genuine integration of culture into curriculum—and some of your colleagues do it very well. In Minneapolis, Charmaine Owens asked her Somali students to go home and ask parents for stories about camels, which are typically owned by all Somali families. They returned with dozens, which Owens turned into classroom activities, including discussions, plays, and plot and word-sequencing activities.

In Somerville, Gloria Salazar (top) invited parents to cook for her kindergarten class: rice puddings, pupusas, and Portuguese sweets. Then, using grant money, she published the recipes in a cookbook and sold copies as a PTA fundraiser.

Do you think your parents just don’t know how to help?

Click here for ideas from your colleagues.

First figure out what they can do. Ricardo Rincon might not have parents who can help with pre-algebra. But he can ask them to make sure each child spends at least 30 minutes with a book. “I cannot ask the parents for more than what they’re capable of,” he says, “but I can ask them to supervise.”

Teach them, too! Across the country, from Crete, Nebraska, to Oakland, California, to New Brunswick, New Jersey, adults can enroll in literacy programs. In New Brunswick, the Academy Project sets the gold standard for parent education and involvement. Co-sponsored by the local and state Associations, it offers math and literacy nights (pajamas encouraged!), homework help sessions for parents and kids, and language classes as well. Parents can even do their laundry in the school’s washer and dryer while they volunteer in classrooms.

Advocate, advocate. It’s a great thing to teach parents how to help with homework, but it’s even better to teach them how to advocate for their kids. In Pennsylvania, the Reading Education Association recently co-hosted a community forum for parents of special education students. “These parents have no idea what to do with an Individualized Education Plan,” said PSEA’s Lorenzo Canizares. At the meeting, which relied heavily on skits and other friendly, inviting presentations, the parents, mostly Latino, learned how to participate effectively.

Do you still need help?
Of course!

Everybody always is looking for good ideas. You can share yours and read others at NEA's English Language Learners' page.


To print out a full version of this article, click here.


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