When Parents Teach Children (and Vice Versa)
I was in the third grade the first time I taught math to my father. We were sitting at the kitchen table and he was helping me with a homework problem that involved fractions. I figured it out before him and showed him how I did it. His reaction made me feel proud. After that, we never returned to the old one-way homework help. Sometimes he taught me, and sometimes I taught him. It changed how I saw myself.
That memory came back recently while I was visiting South Bronx Preparatory, a New York City district middle school that is one of 20 sites using Family Playlists, a program developed by the educational nonprofit PowerMyLearning.
Family Playlists are interactive homework assignments through which students practice a set of learning activities and then teach them to a family member, usually a parent, who then provides feedback to the teacher about the experience — like how well the child understood or explained the lesson, and how much the two enjoyed the mutual learning.
Over the last seven years, PowerMyLearning has worked with more than 70 schools in New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta and the San Francisco Bay Area, providing tools and professional development services to strengthen the triangle of learning relationships that connects students, teachers and families. Among other results, its partner schools have experienced annual gains in math proficiency that outpace comparable schools by seven percentage points.
As I have previously reported here, PowerMyLearning has built an extensive digital learning platform. Teachers in more than 30,000 schools have registered for its free basic edition. In 2016, the organization piloted the Family Playlists feature to further reinforce the relationships in the triangle, particularly the connection between teachers and families. To make communication as frictionless as possible, all the interaction between teachers and families can be handled easily on a computer or smartphone, with notifications by text messages or email.
“If you ask an adult, ‘What’s the educational system?’,” said Elisabeth Stock, the chief executive and a co-founder of PowerMyLearning, “they’ll usually say, ‘Well, there’s the superintendent, there’s the district, there’s the teachers union.’ But if you ask a student, they’ll say, ‘I have my teachers and my family.’”
Family engagement is essential. Research indicates that learning happens best when what’s happening in school is reinforced by what’s happening in a student’s home. But teachers say they and the parents both need help in making the interplay effective. That can be challenging in high poverty communities, where parents often lack the knowledge, English language skills, or confidence to help their children with their schoolwork.
Unless the process starts with schools insisting that parents are a part of the triangle, teachers tend to reach out to parents mainly when there’s a problem with behavior, homework completion or grades, all of which can make the interactions unpleasant or intimidating.
Until recently, South Bronx Prep was no exception. “We’d gotten to be status quo about family engagement,” said the school’s principal, Ellen Flanagan. “I had settled into accepting that the engagement we had was good enough.”
Last school year, however, the school began using Family Playlists in the sixth grade, and teachers and school administrators were amazed that 91 percent of families participated in the activities — more than triple the engagement rate that they usually see.
“Many parents in our community haven’t had the educational background and struggle with the math and they’ve been honest about that,” said Flanagan. “But this is changing the conversation about what homework is for. It’s not just the parent saying, ‘Is it done?’ It’s about students trying to figure out the best way to explain something. It’s more about conversation than about completion, and they’re having fun together.”
The fundamental premise behind Family Playlists, which teachers assign as homework intermittently — typically at the end of a unit — is that when students are asked to teach something, they learn it at a deeper level and strengthen their sense of self-reliance.That was my experience as a child, and it appeared to be shared by the eight sixth graders from South Bronx Prep I recently interviewed.
Jesmari Cruz, 11, was surprised to discover that her father, Luis, was good at math. However, she found that he had forgotten some things, like how to calculate perimeter. “So I had to teach him,” she said. “First I explained it and gave him his own shape and let him do whatever work he understood, but then I had to explain it more to him, and help him break it down.”
Madison Toro, 12, had a similar experience teaching her father, Eugene. “When we did polygons and shapes, I made mistakes and he corrected me,” she said. “But I taught him about dividing fractions and how to make an improper fraction and a mixed number.”
The students found that after having led parents and other relatives through a number of lessons, their parents started reminding them less often to do their homework — reflecting, perhaps, increased trust and confidence. Their biggest difficulty was having to translate math concepts for parents who weren’t fluent in English. And their most common complaint was about parents being too busy with work and caring for younger siblings — and too distracted by cellphones — to give them their full attention. (Some children confiscated their parents’ phones until the homework was done!)
The two fathers I interviewed were unabashedly enthusiastic. Luis Cruz, 36, who works as a housing certification agent, said of his daughter, Jesmari, “I love that she’s bringing me back to my childhood because I don’t remember that many things from school.” He added: “Since she was little she’s been smart, but she’s shy and she used to hold herself back. I’ve seen a big change. She’s opened up a lot. She’s grown and she’s got a big smile on her face. I like that.”
Eugene Toro, 45, who works on immigration affairs in the mayor’s office, said of his daughter Madison: “I think she’s more confident in what she’s learning because of this. She really understands the material and she has no problem explaining it to me, which is great when you want to become a leader. She’s taking charge of her academic learning.”
Arelys Arenas, a veteran sixth grade math teacher at South Bronx Prep, who began using the Family Playlists in 2016, recalled, “When I first started with this, my students used to say, ‘I can’t imagine teaching my father.” But, she added: “When a kid has a chance to go home and explain something to their parent, they really learn it. They actually learn better with the freedom of being who they are — not being controlled by me.”
Meghan Wells, director of family engagement for PowerMyLearning, modeled Family Playlists on a paper-based family engagement program developed at Johns Hopkins University named Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork or T.I.P.S. In a two-year study, T.I.P.S. had been found to have significantly improved family involvement and attitudes about math homework and boosted math scores on standardized tests.
“Students who have family or community members who are engaged and supportive of their learning are much more likely to do better in their classes, take harder classes and graduate from school,” said Steven Sheldon, an associate professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins and a researcher in the school’s Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships. He advised PowerMyLearning about how to adapt T.I.P.S. to a digital environment.
When the playlists were introduced at South Bronx Prep, they were met with some resistance. “Often teachers come into this thinking, ‘O.K., fine. I’ll do it. But this feels like I’m having to learn a new thing and I haven’t seen family engagement mean anything for me before,’” said Wells. “And then they do it and it becomes an ‘aha’ moment, especially when they read the parents’ comments.”
Mallory Marra, a blended learning specialist and teacher coach for PowerMyLearning, recalled Arenas reading the parents’ comments after assigning her first playlist assignment. “She was moved,” said Marra. “They were filled with emotion and pride. The students were really taking their roles seriously and the parents appreciated it.”
Arenas and other South Bronx Prep teachers have begun encouraging peer-to-peer teaching in class to prepare for family activities. “I call my classroom a ‘good mess’ now,” Arenas said, “because my students are always talking loud explaining things to each other. I think it’s amazing.”
Toward the end of the year, Arenas decided to have her students design their own lesson plans to teach family members about polygons. She had the students pair up to practice on each other and walked around the class to check on them, Wells recalled. “She asked one student who was playing the role of the teacher, ‘Is the other student learning it?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and she asked, ‘How do you know?’ and he said, ‘I asked him this question and he got it right.’ So she asked to see the question, then said, ‘That looks like an easy question — how do you know he really knows it?’ And the student said, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right.’”
Wells added: “Suddenly they’re realizing: ‘Oh, the reason why Ms. Arenas is asking us questions and why the questions get progressively harder is she wants to know whether we know it. It’s not to just make us struggle. So by having them do what she does to them, there’s this nice loop where they understand better what it is to be a student because they understand better what it is to be a teacher.”
PowerMyLearning is instituting this program in 20 schools to learn how to support it in a variety of school environments. The organization plans to make it available next year in 10 languages to at least 100 schools, including its full partnership network.
“This kind of family engagement is on the front lines of where things should go, but it’s still very much the exception,” Sheldon said. “Right now the conversation about homework is whether we should have it, or is it effective. We’re not asking a more important question: Is there a different kind of homework that can give us better results? And I think interactive homework is much more effective. It’s actually engaging all the resources at home to support learning, and it’s much more enjoyable.”