This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In my school I have seen:
- My students’ family members in the hallways and schoolyard.
- Moms and dads getting on buses for field trips.
- Parent volunteers taking quarters and wrapping pretzels in paper towels for our weekly Wednesday pretzel sale.
- Parents lining the halls during report card conferences seeking information on how their children are performing.
- The auditorium filled with the families of the performers for the annual talent show.
- A standing room only crowd of proud families for our 8th grade graduation.
All of this participation seems natural and encouraging. But what happens when the school bell rings and students sit at their desks? The families disappear. If I were to walk into a classroom during instruction and find a parent in the room, I would wonder why. Honestly, my first thought would be what’s wrong?
But after reading Lynne Strieb’s Inviting Families Into the Classroom I have a very different perspective on the role of family members in the classroom.
I don’t want to shortchange St. Joseph’s University and say I never learned the importance of making strong connections to my students’ families. Every Monday during student teaching seminar my classmates and I would share our struggles and learn what those who practice teaching do. My student teaching experience at C.W. Henry Elementary was a fantastic entry into Philadelphia’s public schools. Many parents would come in to help with collecting homework or prepare the students to dismiss at the end of the day.
When it came time for me to enter the professional ranks of teaching, I thought I would have family volunteers in my room all the time. Then the first day came and I had moms, dads, grandmothers, and uncles wondering what they were getting their kids into with this guy kindergarten teacher. I was absolutely petrified of being judged as an inadequate teacher. I don’t think I ever really got used to having students’ parents in the room while I was teaching. It seemed like I was on trial whenever a parent was in the room.
Turning the fear of judgment into humility for the practice of teaching became a personal goal recently. I have realized that not only could I use an extra set of eyes and hands while teaching, but that the families of my students want me to succeed just as much as I do. Reading Strieb’s account of a career’s worth of family involvement was an inspiration for how I hope to teach this year.
In the current climate of scripted, test-aligned curriculum and "Broad knows best" management, Inviting Families Into the Classroom truly is a practitioner’s guide on reclaiming the space in which your students learn. Creating the environment where families feel comfortable joining their children in the classroom is the step toward community schools we hear about much more than we see.
Strieb begins her story as a mother advocating for equitable education at the now defunct Keyser School in Germantown. The campaign she was involved in ruffled the feathers of the teachers and administrators alike, but did lead to a change and sustained improvement in the way students and parents were treated and educated at the John B. Kelly School.
Strieb lays out in the next six chapters how she informed, recruited, and gained the trust of the families of her students. Each chapter is filled with the documentation Strieb accrued over a 30-year teaching career. You can find the letters of correspondence between Strieb and parents. There are samples of class newsletters she wrote as well as detailed accounts of the interactions students had with their families both in the classroom and out in the community. Triumphs as well as failures are documented in Strieb’s account of how she interacted with school families.
What I found most interesting about this book is that it’s not merely a collection of stories. The rationale for what was done and the context for the story are provided for each case. Through her work with the Philadelphia Teachers Learning Cooperative, Strieb gathered and analyzed anecdotal notes and letters home. It is a great insight not only to see the homework explanations Strieb sent home to her students’ parents, but also really get into Strieb’s philosophy on why to give homework at all.
The great value of Inviting Families Into the Classroom is that it contains a successful playbook on why and how to bring students’ home cultures into the classroom. Families were not asked simply to collect homework folders and pass out glue sticks. Families shared what they celebrated, what they did for a living, and what they enjoyed in their free time. All of the students in Strieb’s classrooms were the richer for experiencing a fuller picture of the lives of their classmates. Imagine the immense value of going to a parent’s garden to study plants or having a parent teach another language to the class.
Especially of value to many Philadelphia educators are the honest and thoughtful depictions of crossing cultural barriers. Tensions arise and misunderstandings occur when different kinds of people meet. These are natural outcomes of such interactions. Strieb documents well the wonderful knowledge gained when parents shared their culture with the class. She also shows us what can go wrong and how to overcome misunderstandings between teachers and families.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and hope many other educators and families will do the same.