What Students Gain When They See Parents Struggle

Student Voice

What Students Gain When They See Parents Struggle

By Elisabeth Stock     Oct 1, 2018

What Students Gain When They See Parents Struggle

The first weeks of school sparkle with promise: Fresh classes, different teachers, new students. Reviews of materials from the previous year aim to give students a sturdy path. It’s almost as if teachers are whispering in students’ ears: You can do this. Really you can.

But in the weeks that follow, challenges kick in. Every student will confront that agonizing wall, the material they don’t know and may not understand. And at that point, some will dig in and figure it out, and others will flounder.

What makes the difference? And more importantly, can do we do anything to help?

Fostering persistence is a hot topic among educators—and has been a topic for decades. An emerging trend is to embed social-emotional learning (SEL) skills like persistence into curriculum rather than teaching SEL separately. For example, Valor Collegiate Academy aims to integrate habits from its Compass SEL tool into curriculum. Likewise, EL Education’s curriculum is designed to provide students opportunities to practice persevering, such as completing multiple drafts of a performance task. Further evidence of this trend includes the hundreds of teachers supported by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching who are trying out classroom strategies to help students persist through difficult in-class assignments.

And then there’s the approach we’ve taken at PowerMyLearning, the nonprofit I run in New York City.

Flashback a moment to last May. It was early May—and in New York, that’s the dreaded season of testing. There are plenty of tests—but follow me, for a moment, to P.S. 279 Captain Manuel Rivera, Jr., a district middle school located in the Bronx. Neither students nor teachers at P.S. 279 love standardized tests. Students have struggled in the past. In an effort to reduce stress, New York State in 2016 removed the time constraints for state reading and math evaluation tests. Even so, few students want to spend hours and hours on these tests.

At least that’s what Jean Dalton Encke, the principal of the school thought.

Last May, the math test for sixth graders started at 8:45 am. Students were expected to finish the exam in about two hours. When school was dismissed at 2:45 pm, Dalton set off to check on students, confident that they were headed home.

But as Dalton walked into the testing room, she was shocked: A large number of students were still working on the test. Never before had she seen sixth graders working on the state test past dismissal. She urged them to pack up and was taken aback to hear them say: “No, we can do this.”

At P.S. 279, 96 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. That is where the similarities among the students ends: More than 33 percent of students live in temporary housing; 31 percent are English Language Learners, and 20 percent have special needs. Yet even with their differences, what they shared in common was a persistent determination to work through the test.

So why the persistence around these tests?

Eight months earlier, Rivera students were part of a program that PowerMyLearning developed called Family Playlists. Family Playlists are interactive assignments that make use of the wide prevalence of mobile phones (even in low-income communities) to connect school work to family: Students complete a set of digital activities in school and then act as the teacher and do a hands-on activity with a family partner, usually a parent, at home. The family member then provides a photo of the work they did with their child and feedback to the teacher via their phone to complete what we call “the triangle of learning relationships” between students, teachers and families.

Family Playlists are based on a body of research from Johns Hopkins University called TIPS (Teachers Involving Parents in Schoolwork). Researchers there have studied TIPS extensively and found the program to result in positive emotional outcomes for students and increased student achievement. In fact, it is one of the only family engagement programs with results around academic achievement.

But to my surprise, the strongest lesson that Dalton felt her students learned was persistence.

“One thing I’ve seen that is different is the stamina in our kids,” Dalton told me when we spoke. “We had kids skipping lunch and staying late to finish the test. I was almost in tears because I had never seen this before. I was thinking in my head, ‘You should be stopping.’ Prior to this year, kids would give up. Now, we have a bunch of kids who feel like they can push through it.”

But why were Family Playlists having this impact? Over the 20 months that my team has been working with schools using them, we’ve seen just how hard it is for many students to teach lessons to their family members. Most family members do not remember sixth grade math and are afraid of the struggle. Some students even say they take away their parents’ phones to keep them on task.

What we also learned, however, was that students lean into the struggle because they feel confident with the content and enjoy teaching their family members something they don’t know. Family partners tell us that Family Playlists are enjoyable but also challenging. Parents say, “Oh, now I understand why he gets so frustrated,” or, “Now I understand why he struggled because this was hard for me, too.” Dalton calls this “productive struggle.”

Parent-student communications are especially powerful in the sixth grade, a time when students typically push away from their parents. Dalton told me that parents are actually learning more about their kids—how great they are, how smart they are—because they are sitting down and getting to know each other better.

One parent from P.S. 279 said, “It was a long time ago that she needed my help in homework. But now, I feel like the olden days have returned every time we do a Family Playlist. And I am not her teacher anymore, but she is mine. It feels fantastic!”

Even so, questions still linger. We worry that not all students are getting an opportunity to experience the power of a thoughtful connection between students, families, and teachers. What about those students who do not have a family member who can participate? How can we make sure we are not widening the gap between those students with engaged families and those without? My team is working hard to remove obstacles for students and families, in no small part by making Family Playlists available in 11 languages to ease communication between families and teachers. For students who have not had any family participation, we have also developed teacher-student conferencing materials to help those students identify an adult who cares about their learning to serve as their “family partner.” But still we worry about how equitable the experience is.

There is still a lot more we need to learn, such as how we can more intentionally encourage the building of persistence in students and whether there are any other unplanned effects to the intervention. Part of our learning can be informed by the trend in the SEL field of embedding skills like persistence into curriculum, rather than teaching these skills separately.

When kids learn how to persevere through academic challenges, they not only have better outcomes—they also carry that skill with them for the rest of their lives.

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