Larry’s “first career” as a community organizer in the labor arena has made him not only a passionate but an authoritative advocate for school programs that work to ENGAGE rather than simply INVOLVE families. His long-time interest led to the publication of his first book, Building Parent Engagement In Schools, co-authored by Lorie Hammond, a former middle school ESL teacher with a special interest in school-community gardens, who is now a professor at California State University-Sacramento.
In support of their book, Larry has developed a new blogging site focused specifically on engaging parents in schools. He teaches Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced English Language Learners (as well as native English speakers) at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. In this interview, we talk about his parent engagement ideas and also learn about his upcoming books — one on teaching strategies that work with English language learners, and another (smiling) on everything else.
— John Norton, TLN co-founder and moderator
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Larry, it's fairly rare in my experience to find a teacher writing a book about working closely with parents. More often I've seen this kind of advocacy coming from reformers in the outside community who believe schools haven't been responsive enough to parents and families. Why did you feel compelled to write it?
Part of the reason I wrote it is because during my 19-year community organizing career prior to becoming a teacher my primary work with schools was through parents — parents who were working to improve their neighborhoods and their local schools. That experience grounded me in believing that "no school is an island" — that in order for schools to be successful they need to be connected to local residents, and for a neighborhood to be successful, it needs to be connected to the local schools.
As a teacher in a challenging inner-city high school, I can understand how many teachers and administrators feel that engaging with parents in a substantial way is just one more thing that they might not have time to do. I wrote the book to illustrate that, in fact, it can be done with less time that they think and get a bigger "pay-off" — for the parents, teachers, and students — than they could imagine.
How did your background shape your own parent interactions as a teacher?
My current perspectives come out of my direct experience as a teacher participating in the initiatives discussed in the book. After doing thousands of home visits as a community organizer, when I changed careers I naturally gravitated to making home visits to parents of my students. While I was doing them, I was able to use my organizing experience to connect to parents and help them use their energy to initiate projects that benefited everybody. For example, in one of my visits with a recent Hmong immigrant family, the father explained how impressed he was with our use of computers to help teach his daughter, and how he wished they could have a computer and the Internet at their home so he could use it to learn English, too. He shared that he couldn't get a drivers license because he needed to read English in order to pass the test, and the local bus system was not very good so it was difficult to attend adult school.
I asked him if he thought other parents would share the same concern and, if so, would he be willing to organize a meeting. He agreed, and out of that we were able to develop a family literacy project that provides computers and home internet access to immigrant families so the entire household can improve their English. Students in the program have averaged improvements in English assessments that are four times greater than those in a control group, and the project was named by the International Reading Association two years ago as the best example of using technology to teach reading — in the entire world.This whole effort came out of the organizing process of listening to stories; helping people connect to others with the same story; helping them to develop a different interpretation of it and developing a plan to respond to it; and then putting it into action.
Who do you imagine to be good audiences for the book?
I think parents, administrators, teachers, and teachers-in-training might find this book useful. It's designed as a book very busy people can read quickly. I also think the framework of parent involvement versus parent engagement can easily be adapted to other aspects of community, school, and organization work.
You make a clear distinction in the book between what schools (and many PTO members) have traditionally called "parent involvement" and the more powerful descriptor "parent engagement." School leaders often complain about the difficulty in achieving "involvement." Might they have more success with "engagement" in your opinion?
Prior to becoming a community organizer, I ran soup kitchens and emergency shelters on Skid Rows. One day, as I was sweeping our front porch, a police officer pulled up and started yelling at me because we weren't controlling things too well — there were lot of complaints from neighbors. One man who had passed out in front of our soup kitchen got up and told the policeman, "Officer, Larry tries. He tries hard. We just don't listen to him!"
We can continue to say what people should be doing (as I was doing back then) and feel frustrated about them not responding (as I often felt back then). In other words, we can continue to be "right." Or, we can look at different ways of doing things and try them out. In other words, we could try to be "effective."
I explain in my response to your next question how I view involvement as different from engagement. I think using the engagement criteria can have far greater results than involvement, and it sure can't be any worse!
You devote several chapters to stories about specific initiatives that model the kind of school-home interaction you favor: The Home Visit Project, the Technology and Family Literacy Project, the Community Gardens effort, and community organizing efforts that connect schools with other local institutions that are working for neighborhood improvement. What key characteristics of these projects make them engagements, rather than involvements?
The dictionary defines "involvement" as "to envelop or enfold — take over." The definition of "engagement" is "to interlock with — mesh." If you look at whose energy drives things, I'd say in involvement, ideas and energy come from the school's "mouth," while in engagement, the energy comes from schools using their "ears" to listen to parent ideas and concerns and to build genuine reciprocal relationships.
In organizing, we talk about the difference between irritation and agitation. In involvement, we tend to irritate more — telling parents that they should do things that the school considers important. In engagement, we agitate by challenging parents to act on the concerns they've voiced in the context of conversations.
In involvement, schools do a lot of one way "communicating" — flyers, computerized phone calls, newsletters. In engagement, there's more of an emphasis on two-way "conversation."
The purpose of parent involvement tends to focus on improving the school. The purpose of parent engagement is to improve the entire community.
Community partnerships that schools develop through parent involvement tend to be "narrow and shallow" — let's have a police officer assigned to the school, let's get the local business partnership to sponsor a scholarship. In parent engagement, they tend to be more "broad and deep" — let's look at neighborhood safety, let's work with businesses and government to provide support so all high school graduates can attend college if they want to.
Schools that emphasize involvement tend to believe that power is a finite pie -- if parents get some, then schools will have less. Parent engagement takes the approach that the more people who participate, the bigger the whole pie gets and the more possibilities for positive change are created.
I'd sum up the difference as saying involvement is more a "doing to" and engagement is a more a "doing with."
I want to emphasize, though, that schools, communities, and the real world is not all this or that. There's a lot of ambiguity out there. Parent involvement is good. I just think parent engagement is better.
In our Teacher Leaders Network conversations, our teacher-members often imagine "hybrid" teacher roles that allow teacher leaders to both teach students and do other important work on behalf of the school and community. Can you imagine a role for teacher leaders that would have them leading parent engagement efforts as part of their job descriptions? And if so, why would that be worth the investment of "teacher units" that might be required?
I mentioned earlier the pay-off our home computer project has had for families. Though I'm an advocate of being "data-informed" and not "data-driven," there is plenty of data that also shows how home visits, school-community gardens, and community organizing have had a direct affect on student academic achievement. In fact, school districts in Texas that were very involved in community organizing in the 1990's and then got away from it in the face of standardized testing pressure are now approaching community organizing groups to request that they work with them again. They see it in their self-interest not only for direct student achievement progress, but as a way to rebuild support for more local school funding after recent bond measures have failed.
It is difficult to fit this kind of work into an already overworked teacher schedule. Officially creating time in a workday schedule, I think, could be a great move for schools.
I understand you have other books in the works. Could you tell us about those?
Linworth Publishing, who has published the parent engagement book, is coming out with my second book next month. It's called "English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work" and shares how I've adapted what I learned in community organizing to teaching ELL's. It focuses on looking at students through a lens of their "assets" and not their "deficits." It's very practical (and research-based) and I think teachers will find it very helpful. Writing it was helpful to me, at least!
My third book will be published by Eye On Education in the spring of 2011, and will share various instructional and classroom management strategies (also research-based) that teachers can effectively use to respond to common challenges in the classroom. Assuming that I can survive writing three books in two years, I might take a break from book-writing after that.
You'll definitely deserve one! Any final thoughts?
I'd like to end this interview, John, as I end most discussions
of parent engagement and parent involvement that I lead. I suggest
that people ask themselves this question:
Do you want to see yourself as a person who can get parents to help a little bit in schools; or a person who can help them transform how they see themselves, and how others seem them, as acting on the world instead of being a bit player in it?