Engaging Parents as Learning Partners

One of the biggest challenges that I believe we face as educators is to make teaching and learning in the school environment relevant and connected to the home environment and indeed students’ social environment. As music educators, this is both a challenge and an opportunity. In my earlier blog post “5 Tips to Motivate Your Music Students”, I made the suggestion to have a conversation with your students and get to know their musical tastes.

In this post, I would like to explore the connectedness of the home and social environments and find ways that we can involve parents in the teaching & learning. In the past, one of the few connections between teacher and parent was the report sent home at half-year and end of year. So often, the teacher sees this as a necessary chore and dare I say it; parents have often viewed it as either a definitive document encapsulating the whole of their child’s teaching and learning or at the other extreme, an irrelevant document containing mystical figures and education double speak.

However, this blog post is not intended as a critique of assessment and reporting procedures.  I will leave that conversation to my colleagues that are more knowledgeable and better equipped than I to explore that field. What I will do is offer some insights of first hand experience and also strategies that have connected teaching & learning in music and performing arts to the home and social environments.

SAPS Orchestra Talent QuestBefore I offer some point-form tips and comments, let us ask the question; why do we need to connect teaching and learning to the home and social environments? A quick Google search on “Teaching & Learning, connecting with parents” immediately brought up some great resources and sites. The NSW Department of Education and Training website has a support document as a downloadable PDF: “Positively Engaging Parents”.  This document offers some insightful rationale and strategies to connecting parents with Teaching & Learning:

“Research on improving educational outcomes supports the cooperation of those who have the greatest influence on them, namely parents and teachers. There is unequivocal evidence that parental involvement makes a significant difference to educational achievement. When schools and parents are able to work together in constructive and meaningful ways, much can be achieved.”

So often, I have been in conversation with parents about their child’s music learning and the parents have revealed their own experiences of music education when they were at school. Sadly, many of their own stories were not positive ones. These parents had musical interests and ambitions but too often they were not recognised or encouraged. I believe that many schools and school systems 20 years ago had the aim in performing arts of identifying the “talented ones” and just offering courses and lessons for only those students. I do not necessarily apportion blame or criticism on any individual or school. I believe it was a reflection of how we viewed “Talent” in society – that you either: “Had it, or you didn’t”. I would hope that all of our schools and teachers have moved on from this elitist view of fostering musical performance and achievement in our schools and that we (parents and teachers) all have a more inclusive philosophy of Music Education with shared values and outcomes. In an earlier Blog Post, I explored the definition of success: “Defining Success in a Motivational Music Education Program”.

In the recent celebration of Catholic Schooling in Catholic Schools Week, the slogan for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta was: “Every Child Counts”. This is very much in alignment with what the String Things classroom program is about; that every child in year 3 or 4 or 5 in each of the 14 Catholic Primary Schools that has implemented the String Things Program, is offered the opportunity to learn a stringed instrument in a supportive and motivational classroom environment and then offered pathways to extended learning in co-curricular lessons and performance in school and combined ensembles.

We have often discovered students with great aptitude and motivation through this program that otherwise would never have realised their capacity for music making. Perhaps I might relate some of these wonderful and ongoing learning stories in another blog. In all of those cases, the amazing aptitude and capacity for music making was also a wonderful discovery and celebration for the parents as well which then opened the doorway for other learning conversations and collaboration with those parents across other learning areas; if their son/daughter has this newly found capacity for music making, then perhaps there are other learning areas to develop or augment. There is a new optimism and bright future for learning in these households.

So, what do we hope to achieve by connecting parents with the Teaching & Learning in our music and performing arts programs:

  • Increased intrinsic motivation in students through understanding and recognition of achievement by parents.
  • Improved academic and artistic achievement for each child. (Within our previously mentioned definition of success and emphasis that “Every Child Counts”)
  • Increased support for programs by parents and a sense of connectedness and community.

Strategies to achieve these aims:

  • Invite parents to lunchtime and after school concerts. This might sound like a lot of extra work for teachers and school leadership but I can name one Catholic Primary School where we have only had an orchestra for just on a year now. The students are highly motivated and stay back to rehearse for an hour one afternoon a week. At the end of the rehearsal, parents come to pick children up and I always make a point to have some chairs at the back of the room and we present a short performance of what we have worked on. It doesn’t matter if it is not fully prepared. We present a ‘work in progress’. The parents feel a sense of pride and ownership in the learning and it is also an opportunity to let parents know what needs to be practised at home. Informal lunchtime concerts can also be presented to the rest of the school community. Some parents might have flexible work timetables or be working from home and would love to come to a lunchtime concert.
  • Community social events: I visit a lot of schools each week – usually about 8 primary and secondary schools but one school I feel very involved with and connected with is St Joseph’s Primary School in Kingswood. A couple of times a year the school has a bush-dance, usually held on a Friday night. I always like to go and play fiddle. Other teachers and parents are involved by playing guitar or calling and teaching the dances. The P & F provide a BBQ sausage sizzle. The point is not to make money – often the school leadership will even subsidize the event. It is a great time where we enjoy each others company outside of the classroom. I usually have some great conversations with parents and this alone is worthwhile to get feedback on how the music program is working for their child and how we might improve – much better feedback than you would get from a school parent survey. I look to the day when we will involve students in playing in the band as well.
  • Use of technology to extend music learning into the home. As I type this, I am uploading detailed instructional video for each of the instrumental parts for our current Captivate String Orchestra repertoire. The links to the videos will be emailed to string orchestra parents along with download links for each of the parts – eg Winter 1st Movt violin 1, Winter 1st Movt violin 2 etc. Plus download links for the high quality MP3 backing and listening tracks. This way, parents are able to download and listen to the arrangement played by a string orchestra and view a tutorial video of how the part supposed to be played and practised. In addition, to improve online access, each part is printed with a QR code so that the instructional video for each part & instrument can be easily viewed on a smartphone or iPad. Parents are able to participate directly in the learning and they understand the process of effective practice techniques.

I hope this post has been useful to show how parents can be engaged in the learning process, especially in music learning. It is not too big a leap to transfer some of these ideas and strategies to work across other learning areas and also to building learning communities that includes parents and caregivers.

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About captivatestrings

Phil Rooke is a Teacher Educator, specializing in Music Education for the Catholic Education Office - Diocese of Parramatta, authoring & implementing teaching programs and leading music learning across a system of 78 schools in Western Sydney. "I am on a learning journey to find and invent better ways to motivate students and teachers in music making."
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