Incorporating family and community knowledge enhances student learning. Students possess tremendous experiential wisdom on issues related to identity, culture, history and justice. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, cousins, neighbors and community leaders all have stories to tell.
Family can help demystify unfamiliar topics, such as living with a disability. Hearing from real people can provide inspiration as well as valuable information.
Students also carry knowledge of their families and communities inside themselves. Making room to share this knowledge supports the development of student identities.
Family assignments must be envisioned and explained in a culturally sensitive manner. A seemingly harmless activity, such as creating a family tree, can marginalize students whose biological relations are distant or unknown. Such assignments can be modified to recognize the key relationships in students’ lives. Other ways to incorporate family and the community into the curriculum include surveys, student conversations with family members, interviews, guest speakers, video projects, art projects, oral histories, learning from family members’ professional experiences, and incorporating family or cultural perspectives into classroom lessons content. It informs us, and thus enables us to make informed, culturally relevant and responsive instructional, behavioral and disciplinary decisions.
By listening to the stories of their own families and communities, students can deepen their sense of self and make personal connections with historical, literary and sociological material. Hearing about different classmates’ families and communities can also foster new perspectives on their own experiences and expand their understanding of other groups, cultures and communities.
Students can interview family members on a variety of issues such as historical events or eras, family experiences of justice or injustice, evolving cultural norms, social movements and identity. Interview format, questions and reporting practices should be customized based on grade level and educational goals.
Family and community members can visit the class to speak about a range of topics. Their connections to these issues may be personal, professional or both.
Conducting community-based research can deepen students’ understanding of social justice issues. This research might include opinion surveys or needs assessments, community interviews, visits to local sites or Internet research about community history.
As students learn and grow in their knowledge, parents and guardians can learn along with them. Strong connections give families the opportunity to support one another in nurturing their children’s identities and values, adding richness to their 21st Century educational experiences.
There are lots of ways to bring families together, including in-school or community-based events, group email lists and social media. Teachers, school administrators, students, or parents and guardians can coordinate appropriate family connections based on the students’ age and the composition of the community. Elementary school students, for example, may be more likely than high school students to enjoy attending events with their families.
A given activity may resonate with some cultural communities more than others (though it might be good to offer “stretch” events as well). For online activities, note that some communities will have access to technology while others will not. Within this construct, we must recognize digital disparities and access gaps. Then, we must take care to equalize tech access and facilitate equitable opportunity as best we can.
Building connections among families supports and deepens students’ awareness of the personal and cultural contexts that shape personal experience. It also provides a “learning lab” for introducing different family structures and traditions. Making the curriculum more visible to classroom families helps generate and provide opportunities for families to work with their children on social justice issues, as well. These connections can also foster diverse relationships that echo and strengthen key messages from the curriculum.
Events that bring students and families together can include family potlucks or picnics; family affinity events (e.g., for families from a certain cultural or ethnic group, LGBTQ families, families of color, adoptive families); showcases of student work; student or community performances; movie nights; game nights; and cultural or multicultural events.
It’s the activities and events that celebrate, welcome, accept, and appreciate families at school, that will encourage partnerships, foster meaningful relationships, create allies, supports volunteerism, cultivate leadership, and build capacity. Families at school, as vital partners in education, strengthen and enhance community connections while positively influencing student performance.