Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Homework 2

In my last posting I wrote about homework. I wrote that there is little research supporting the efficacy of homework in the elementary grades. I also cited evidence from my own research that homework can seriously disrupt the lives of many families, depriving parents of the pleasures of parenthood. But I want to address a particular kind of homework practice, what I’ll call “school-to-home” literacy practices.

School-to-home literacy includes various efforts to encourage parents to read with their children at home, to set aside time for children to read independently, or for parents to model reading for their children. These school-to-home literacy practices are motivated by the sense that children do better in school when their parents provide rich reading experiences in the home. There is also the worry that some parents, particularly poor urban parents whose children experience higher levels of academic failure, need lots of guidance to help them provide appropriate literacy experiences in their homes.

Because I was curious about the degree to which various home-to-school literacy practices were considerate of the values, beliefs, and time demands of urban parents, I undertook a study of how parents perceived these initiatives. Toward this end, we interviewed African American and immigrant, ESL parents in two large, underperforming urban districts not far from Boston College.

What we found was that school-to-home literacy practices, as experienced by the parents we interviewed, did not always fit well with family routines, cultural values, or expectations. We also found that the interaction between parents and schools was marked by a one-way model of school-home communication that provided few opportunities for school-to-home literacy initiatives to respond to the needs of individual families.

One of conclusions I drew from this study is that, although we may believe that practices like shared and independent reading in the home are crucial literacy experiences, there is no reason to believe that parents will automatically share this belief. Moreover, merely asking parents to embrace school literacy practices common in middle-class homes does not mean that non-middle-class parents can or will embrace these practices.

So what is a teacher to do? Here are a few suggestions I have come up with.

Teachers should be clear with parents that there are kinds of school literacy practices that are quite different from out-of-school literacies. Encouraging/modeling independent reading, for example, is more than something fun to do after the homework has been completed. But we can’t just tell parents what to do. We must also persuade them that it is important.

Teachers/schools should be clear about the kinds of support they can offer parents to encourage family literacy practices particularly supportive of schooling, how to read with their children, for example. But we need to leave it to parents to determine what they are able to do. In other words, teachers must be prepared to accept the possibility that some school-to-literacy practices don’t fit well with cultural patterns in the home. Other parents may just not have the time to do one more thing.

If teachers feel that there are crucial literacy experiences (shared and independent reading, storybook reading) all children need to have then they should make space for these experience IN SCHOOL.

Teachers must recognize the various literacy practices students have experienced in their homes and find ways to build on students’ knowledge of literacy. ALL children come to school knowing something about literacy. We need to discover what children know and build on that.

Finally, recognizing that the home literacy practices of some students (i.e., middle-class students) more closely match school literacy practices than the home literacy experiences of other students, teachers MUST be much more explicit about how school literacy practices work.

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