Joe Nathan: Teacher Trips Can Help Students Learn

by Joe Nathan

Local field trips for students are common, but not so much for teachers. A Minnesota school recently took its teachers around neighborhoods they serve to help them understand more about their students and families.

"We want to expose the staff to the community so they can understand where their students come from," explained ACC founder and Executive Director Ramona de Rosales.

Principal Hernan Moncada told me, "If the staff is going to work with the community, they have to know the community."Many of the students at Academia Cesar Chavez, or their parents, come from Mexico. So Academia Cesar Chavez, a St. Paul charter public school, took the school's faculty to visit Neighborhood House, CLUES (Cumunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio) and the Mexican consulate – all located within 10 minutes of the school.

There's a lot of research to support the value of faculty knowing about, and using community information as they work with, students and faculty.

For example, Gloria Ladson-Billings, a University of Wisconsin professor, studied outstanding teachers who appeared simultaneously on two lists: Principals created the first list, and parents developed the second. Billings observed faculty members who principals and parents agreed were excellent.

In her award-winning book, "The Dreamkeepers," Ladson-Billings described several things that most of the teachers did. One of the several strategies that most of these teachers used was to include references to local events, activities and community groups in their teaching. Then, as Ladson-Billings explains, these teachers "help students make connections between their community, national and global identities."

Other research by Joyce Epstein, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, examined characteristics of schools that had a lot of parent and family involvement. She learned, among other things, that the best predictor of family involvement was not the income, race or marital status of parents. The best predictor of family involvement was what the school did to promote it.

Understanding and respecting the community can help a school and classroom be more welcoming, encouraging and successful. So, for example, Academia Cesar Chavez educators learned about the close, ongoing relationships between families it served and their extended family members who still live in Mexico. Part of what ACC educators learned was that many of the families are simultaneously working to support their families and to attend classes so they can learn or improve their English. Thus, it's important to schedule conferences at times that will work for parents.

Educators won't always live in the community or communities that their school serves. But by touring, or by inviting in community leaders, educators can learn more about "where students are coming from." That allows them to help students make connections between their own lives, their families' experiences and school lessons.

Educators who know more about their students and families have additional tools they can use to help students succeed.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, and he can be reached at [email protected]

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