Most families and teachers would agree a home-school connection is a crucial part of every child’s learning. When a school has a high percentage of diverse learners, it’s easy to think, “They don’t speak English so I can’t communicate with the family”, “I can’t build a relationship with that student because I know nothing about their culture”, or “It’s too much work to call the interpreter so I just don’t connect with that family”. Unfortunately, this happens far too often. ELLs are some of our most vulnerable learners who need genuine home-school connections THE MOST.
It can also be hard as an ELL teacher to build relationships with families when you are not the classroom teacher. Maybe you attend conferences or make phone calls here and there, but it can be tricky when you are not the “main teacher” or don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. One way to create those desired relationships is to host an ELL or Multilingual Family Night.
Maybe you’re thinking, “How on earth am I supposed to host a Multilingual Family Night when I only speak English and they speak everything but English?!” or “How can I make this event worth everyone’s time and MY time?”.
The task may seem daunting, but with the right partners and planning it can open the door these families (and probably you) have been secretly searching for! Here are 10 ways you can make your ELL Family Night worthwhile.
- If you have food, they will come! (Or is it “If you build it, they will come?” Brownie points to whoever can name that movie!)
Food motivates people. It’s a fact, Jack! If you have a diverse student population, chances are you probably also have some diverse food options in your community. Work with local businesses to order ethnically appropriate foods for your families. They will not only be happy about the food, but they will feel valued by your effort to provide food from their culture. In the past my team teachers and I have ordered Vietnamese noodles, rice, curry, or pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread). Take advantage of the seasons and provide Champurrado (Mexican hot chocolate) during a Posadas (Christmas) celebration or boba tea (popular Thai drink) at a Spring or kickoff to summer gathering. If you have a high ELL population, chances are there is a budget for family engagement you could use to purchase food.
- Create Accessible Invitations
The success of an event starts with the invitation. Invitations should be printed in the languages of the attendees. You may need to contact a translator; Google Translate is not reliable and your attendees may judge! Add visuals to your invitations. For example, add a picture of a calendar and circle the date, add a picture of a clock and circle the time, and add photos to represent what foods will be there and the activities you’ve planned. If you are having food or are ordering special resources, you may want to add an RSVP section.
- Invite Interpreters or Success Coaches
In our school, we have a SUCCESS coach. She is our Spanish interpreter, but also works to ensure all our Spanish speaking students are successful through tutoring and other services. She builds meaningful relationships with families better than any teacher I’ve ever seen, and we would be lost without her!
Invite interpreters for all the languages your families speak. If you have several different languages, it may be easier to hold separate meetings, but it is possible to do one large multilingual family night. To do this, I suggest having a large group welcome where all interpreters, teachers, and success coaches can introduce themselves. Then split off into different groups based on language. The groups can rotate through different stations throughout the event. Some cultures may prefer this style as they may feel uncomfortable asking questions or participating in a large, mixed group.
- Provide Child-Care
If you’re going to put the effort into hosting a family night, you want to have a good turnout of attendees. Some families may have a hard time coming if they have young children at home. Invite families to bring their young children to the school with them. Call up your local High School National Honor Society leader and see if you can find some responsible high schoolers who may need volunteer hours. Set up a classroom or a gym in the building with crayons, paper, games, and toys for the little ones. Once the “informational meeting” is done, invite the little cherubs in to participate in the games and food.
- Offer a Virtual Option
Another hurdle is transportation. Many ELL families do not have their drivers’ licenses. Some school districts will offer bus or taxi tickets for these circumstances, but setting up a TEAMs, Zoom, or Skype meeting may help get more families involved.
Work schedules can also be tricky to plan around. My small town is home to a large meat packing plant. Most of the workers at the plant are refugees and migrant workers. It’s not very often you see a quaint town of 27,000 people with close to 60 different languages spoken in the schools! Many parents of our ELL students work different shifts at the plant. By providing a virtual option you can record the event and parents can view it later.
- Invite Community Guest Speakers
Some ELL families struggle to get involved and connected in their community. We want the best for our kids both inside and outside of school by providing them with equal access to community events and education. Invite guest speakers to your event. In years past, my team and I have invited guests from the YMCA, Park & Recreation, and the public library. If you have a diverse community, chances are these organizations may already have a Spanish, or other language, speaking representative. Have them discuss different options for kids outside of school such as sports, community events, programs, or ways to keep kids involved during the summer months.
- Play or Teach an Educational Game
One thing parents of ELLs usually wonder is “How can I help my child at home when I don’t know any English?”. A family night is a great opportunity to introduce parents to some of the learning games or activities you do in school. Choose math games, as math is a universal language, or broad/abstract reading activities, which can be used even without English proficiency.
If you have an EL budget, chances are there are funds specifically for Family Engagement. Use the funds to purchase a deck of cards and some dice for each family. Teach math games like “add it up”. For reading, try making a bookmark with different reading questions (with visuals of course) to ask during any story. Print one side in English and the other in different languages. While a child is reading or listening to a story at home, parents can use the bookmark to remember questions they can ask. Remind parents it IS effective to ask those questions in the native language. Skills are more easily transferred when first practiced in the native language.
- Communicate Important Dates & Information
Whether it be a lack of visuals or long, wordy phrases, sometimes district calendars can be difficult for ELL families to understand. A multilingual family night is a great chance to review important dates and upcoming events. Include activities like field trips, dress up days, fundraisers, testing days, no school days, and holidays. If you are a WIDA state, this would be a great opportunity to explain the ACCESS test and inform families how they can prepare their children the nights before the test.
- Have a Question & Answer Session or Survey
Most ELL families are incredibly grateful for schools and the services they provide. They understand hardships and how privileged we are to have educational opportunities. That’s what makes them some of the BEST families to work with, in my opinion!
Some ELL families do not feel comfortable asking questions or may not feel like they know enough to ask questions. Many Asian cultures fear speaking up to those who they may see as “superior”. From my experience, families feel more comfortable asking questions when they are together in a large group with culturally similar peers. It may also be helpful to provide a survey in the families’ native languages to see what other topics or events they would like to discuss on following family nights.
- Have a Take-Home Activity or Resource
The main point of a family night is to foster a school-family connection. We want to learn more about our families while simultaneously giving them information to apply at home. Give your families a resource they can take home and use! Check with your district EL coordinator to see if you have family engagement funds to purchase books in different languages to send home. Show them the apps you use in your classroom. If you have time, have them bring their iPads and phones so you can show and help them download the apps at the meeting. Give them username/password cards. The next day you’ll have your students excitedly telling you how many stars they earned last night!
The best part about family nights is seeing the same families come back again and again. It’s easy to stereotype and think “Those families don’t care about their kids because they never show up or call.” Contrarily, ELL families are usually dedicated to education and want to do whatever they can to support their child and YOU! It’s up to us to open the doors for them in whatever ways are accessible and comprehensible.
It may seem like a lot of work. It may not always seem worth it. It may take time to figure out what’s best for your situation to make it all worthwhile. When you come out on the other side, these new, often eye-opening, connections are sure to be ones you’ll treasure for a lifetime!