03 Genuine learning partnerships with parents to help both children and the teachers

ERO's 2015 report Educationally powerful connections with parents and whānau identified that some schools had limited expectations that all parents could contribute to learning-centred relationships. In schools with low quality learning-centred relationships with parents of children at risk of underachievement, teachers and leaders believed they could only reach a certain proportion of parents, and that the lack of involvement of hard-to-reach parents was justified.

Leaders and teachers at PAPATOETOE NORTH SCHOOL were able to successfully reach and fully involve a high proportion of parents of their children. Because leaders and teachers valued parents as children's first teachers and as partners, parents were strongly committed to supporting their children's learning.

This narrative shares how genuine learning partnerships benefited children and teachers in a school where the majority of children enrolled were Pacific, Māori or Indian. Parents supported children's learning before and during children's new termly topic studies that they called inquiry topics.

An outstanding feature of the school was the deliberate and successful focus on teachers and parents working together to improve children's learning.

Leaders and teachers used many approaches to build and maintain such a successful partnership with parents:

> Listening to parents, to confirm for everyone involved in teaching the children, that parents hold high aspirations for their education and future.

>    Providing home learning during the holidays that leveraged children's strengths, interests and rich culture. This built children's academic vocabulary to increase their knowledge before beginning each term.

>    Providing parents with information and resources and teaching them strategies so they could help their children with their home learning.

>    Making sure parents knew how their efforts were benefiting their children, as well as benefiting the children who hadn't done the holiday work, through the increased richness of each class's oral language environment at the start of each term.

Leaders stressed the importance of building on children's existing content knowledge by using the rich cultural contexts children were already familiar with (as shown in the school's diagram below that leaders shared with families).

Seeking and using parents' views and knowledge

Parents played a key role working with the ‘knowing the learner team', which represented the major cultural groups at the school. The team led hui, fono and other meetings, where they discussed the focus with the parents. The knowing the learner team was then responsible for making sure the children's cultural perspectives were included in each term's inquiry plan. Consequently, each plan leveraged children's prior knowledge and they began learning about each topic with what they already knew.

Parents of Pacific children worked in groups to discuss questions such as:

>    how can you as Pacific parents raise the attainment levels of your children?

>    what aspirations do you have as Pacific parents for your children?

>    what values and perspectives about ‘environment' have been taught to your children?

Usually about 40 to 50 parents came to each fono. Sometimes they discussed their views with people from the same culture and sometimes they chose to work with parents of children from similar year groups.

At the end of this fono:

>    parents told leaders they felt they had been heard, and were confident in their ability to help children with home learning

>    the teachers' relationships with parents were enhanced, and teachers' appreciation of parents' high expectations for their children were confirmed

>    a deep partnership to accelerate the start of each term's inquiry learning, through holiday home learning, was established with the majority of the parents

>    parents understood that if their children were one of the more than two-thirds of the class that undertook home learning, they were promoting the learning of the children who had not participated, through increasing the richness of the oral language in each class at the start of each term

>    parents felt more confident to come back to classroom teachers to clarify their knowledge or strategies.

The knowing the learner leaders shared parents' ideas with staff to use for planning the children's inquiry topics. They also led staff meetings to make sure teachers understood cultural perspectives, and were empowered to include these in learning experiences. On one occasion, teachers completely changed their planned science experiments to take account of parents' suggestions. They had initially intended to investigate the different states or properties of water (ice, water and steam) with Years 5 and 6 children. However, parents suggested they should use cocoa instead as it was something every family used. Subsequently, the children enjoyed making Koko rice as part of their investigation.

In another example, when the knowing the learner team planned a topic on sustainability, Tongan families shared with them their experiences of cyclones and Samoan families shared their experiences with cyclones and tsunamis. They also looked at the rising sea levels in Levuka.

We capture parents' perspectives and play them to the staff to keep the perspectives and background of the children to the forefront. We want teachers to use what children know already, let them teach you and don't be afraid of their culture.

Knowing the learner team leader

Some of the information parents shared with teachers before the sustainability topic is shown here.

Sustainability unit

Cultural competencies - Tangawhenuatanga, Ako, Wananga

Māori perspectives

Shared information about the following:

>     Hauora - a holistic approach to wellbeing - seeing sustainability in the same way where it is difficult to separate the land, sea, waterways, air. Everything is linked.

>     Kumara history from migration and uses for food and medicine. Harakeke versatility, sustainability and medicinal.

>     Department of Conservation internet sites.

>     History of Papatoetoe internet sites.

Pasifika perspectives

There are many stories of communities and small villages that are experiencing economic growth as the people are recognising the ’treasures of the land' and being supported by international groups to create sustainable businesses that enable them to earn wages and be able to live, work and create traditionally organic products in their homeland. They listed internet links about:

>     Pacific products

>     business launches

>     vanilla beans

>     Nonu Plant

>     building climate resilient and food-secure communities.

Indian perspectives

>     The hand-loom industry of India has a legacy of craftsmanship that gives self-employment to thousands of villages in India.

>     Ayurvedic medicine is sustainable in India as it is plant-based and mostly herbal. It has historic roots from more than 5000 years ago. 

>     Provided internet links to these for teachers.

A mathematics workshop for parents was one of the requests leaders responded to that came from the hui, fono and other meetings. Leaders and teachers subsequently set up different mathematics activity stations in the hall and in classrooms where parents could try some of the activities with their children. Teachers were available to support those parents who needed to clarify their ideas. Other staff looked after younger children so parents were free to focus on the mathematics.

The fono, hui and other meetings gave teachers some general information about children's cultures and interests at home. However leaders recognised that they needed to extend the partnership to learn more about individual learners and their families. Leaders and teachers wanted more information to accurately build on individual children's content knowledge and to increase their achievement and progress.

Providing information and resources for home learning

Home learning was completed in the holidays (including the summer holidays). Children were encouraged to "have fun during the holidays but don't stop learning.”

Three teaching teams created meaningful home learning activities. In Years 3 to 6, for example, the focus was on the children exploring with parents what they already knew (including necessary vocabulary), and what they wanted to discover more about. As far as academic vocabulary was concerned, the emphasis was on hearing and valuing the family's perspectives, not on looking up the dictionary or searching the internet for word meanings. The information given to parents in the home learning books also included advice about how they were helping their child's teacher as well as their child.

For Years 5 and 6 children, some of the holiday home learning activities completed before the sustainability homework included:

>   a brainstorming activity to show what the children knew about sustainability and what they would like to know

>   finding and sorting man-made and natural resources

>   drawing things in your environment that you see or wonder about whether they are sustainable - I observe, I think, I wonder

>   vocabulary activity for eight new words

>   a graphing and statistics activity.

Each term, leaders and teachers invited parents to the school to collect the home learning pack. Parents wanting extra support could participate in workshops about motivating strategies, or meet with teachers to go through the activities while their children would be supervised in the school hall. Parents were welcome to take home any resources they required. When teachers talked to parents, they shared what they would do at school for the child and then heard or discussed what the parent would do at home.

ERO met with a small group of parents to get their perspectives of the home learning and looked at many children's home learning books. Although the parents we spoke with all told us they hadn't done well at school, they confidently shared highly effective teaching practices they had used with their children. In most cases, they had worked individually with their children, using different approaches for their different age levels. The work in children's books showed many parents had helped their children extend well beyond the original tasks. Some parents took photographs of their children participating in activities in the community, church or home that clearly shared their interests and strengths. The high quality work seen in the home learning books reflected the high expectations parents had for their children.

Part of one child’s home learning activity is shown here.

Children also showed a high level of commitment to completing the home learning with their parents.

In one Year 3 class, we asked a child to show us her home learning book. Other children scrambled to show their books and some of the work around the room they had completed at home. One boy proudly showed that he had done two terms' holiday home learning in the previous holidays. When asked why, he said he had gone home to Fiji in the previous holiday and couldn't do it then so he did it to catch up.

Another Year 3 child told us "Mum writes the words down and talks about them and I have to write a sentence about words like communities, enrich, inspire. Mum also gets me to learn how to spell the words but we don't have to do that. This term our topic is creativity. At school, the teacher asks us what the meanings are.

I made a new game with Mum this holidays to show my creativity."

We asked a Year 6 child if he preferred to do the home learning independently now, but he said that he didn't as his parents still had some good ideas.

Another Year 6 child said, "the holiday homework not only helps us but gives us a heads-up of what we will be learning the next term and helps us understand the topic or concept."

One child talked about how his older sibling at intermediate helped him. He proudly showed us the page in his book where his brother had helped him solve a problem.

A lot of the children's home learning relating to the inquiry topics was displayed in classrooms. Teachers were able to learn about the child's interests and culture and included these where relevant, in lesson plans and everyday conversations.

Reinforcing the benefits of the parents' role

At the end of each term, parents came to an assembly where children from each of the teaching teams shared learning from that term. Leaders and teachers saw presentations as ways for children to share their learning, celebrate what they have learnt at school and home, and to use much of their new vocabulary.

ERO attended an assembly where children shared highlights from the previous term. Children confidently used the academic language introduced as part of the previous home learning. They also acknowledged the help they had received from their parents. Years 1 and 2 children talked about innovations they'd worked on at home to solve a problem they'd identified.