Teachers' pets. Volunteer parents put spin and spice on their children's classroom studies
ON the night of the Central Elementary School open house, the teacher's enthusiasm was contagious. The classroom was decorated with the children's drawings and notebooks. Each was a promise of achievements to come.Skip to next paragraph
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As Pat Cordery zestfully recounted her goals for the class, parents couldn't help getting caught up in the excitement.
Then she said it:
``Of course, much of what can be accomplished here depends on you. I can cover the basics, but with 28 children in the room, one person can only do so much. It's your support and your active participation that make a rich and varied school experience possible. Won't you please help by signing up to volunteer?''
The request came as a jolt.
To many parents already feeling stretched to the limit by responsibilities to work and family, it felt like one more burden. Besides, some asked themselves, what could I do that would really count?
A little bit can go a long way, maintain teachers and other proponents of parental involvement in the public schools.
According to educator Joyce Epstein, research over the last two decades shows that parent involvement is an important component of effective schools. Such involvement can take many forms, requires no special skills, and can be less time-consuming than one might think.
Ms. Epstein is director of the Baltimore-based Family and School Connections Project at the Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools (Johns Hopkins University).
``The evidence is clear that parental encouragement, activities, and interest at home and participation in schools and classrooms, affect children's achievements, attitudes, and aspirations, even after student ability and family socioeconomic status are taken into account,'' Epstein writes.
Helping in the classroom
In those schools, like Central, where parents are urged to volunteer in the classroom, teachers recognize that few can volunteer often. Yet coming into the room, even if it's only once or twice a year, is a significant contribution.
What's more, teachers maintain that it is not necessary for parents to have any experience with teaching methods to be really useful. Simply having another person in the room can be invaluable.
``When there is another adult I can get twice as much done!'' says first- and second-grade teacher Cindy Lambert.
``Drawing a picture - then dictating a story about it - is a very important process in learning to write. This can't happen as often as I'd like when I'm alone in the room.''
Taking dictation is something any literate parent can be shown how to do.
Parents can also do things such as:
Spell words for children's personal dictionaries.
Read to a small group of children or listen to them read individually.
Play math games.
Practice with word-recognition flash cards.
``In the typical school setting, you have one classroom teacher, and perhaps an aide or a support teacher. But essentially children are being educated by a small number of people with little range in background,'' says Christiann Dean, author of the Cornell Cooperative Extension pamphlet, ``Becoming Part of Your Child's School.''
She continues, ``Parents can bring a tremendous cultural and experiential diversity. Classroom studies spring to life when family members share travel, job, and other experiences.''
Take a unit on birds, for example.
With less than an hour's preparation, one father, who is a bird enthusiast, made a simple matching game using his collection of bird's wings and xeroxed pages from a field guide. He brought these to school and spent his lunch hour playing the game with the children.