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Jan 9, 2020 |
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Kristen Whitaker, 2015 Toyota Family Teacher of the Year, once said, “It is important that we are able to put ourselves in the shoes of our families. To try and help them, we need to understand them without judgment.” Many educators would agree that knowing students and their families is a stepping stone in affirming student differences.

To fulfill this need, educators must position themselves as learners, a suggestion made by many other Toyota Family Teachers of the Year in Stronger Families, Stronger Communities. This may require practitioners to step outside of their comfort zone. However, it’s when we step out of our comfort zones that we truly experience the growth needed to serve a diverse student population. 

How can practitioners truly get to know students? Start with a few of these ideas:

  • Engage students in one-on-one conversations. 2012 Toyota Family Teacher of the Year Shari Brown shared, “If you do not first make a personal connection with your students and allow time for a relationship, they will not trust you with their educational and personal pursuits.” To truly connect with students, look them in the eye and show an interest in them. Ask them what they’d like for you to know about them. Some educators even ask students to write letters about themselves in the first few weeks of school. However you do it, learn about your students. 
  • Make positive phone calls home. Practitioners sometimes fail to realize how powerful it is to make the first communication with families a positive one. When home culture constantly clashes with school culture, families get used to regular negative communication. Establishing positive communication shows families you care about the success of their children and recognize their positive contributions. Building a positive relationship with families early in the school year improves your ability to get to know your students and where they come from.
  • Attend extracurricular events. After a long day at school, many educators may find the idea of attending an after-school event exhausting. However, an hour or two supporting students at an extracurricular event is always time well spent. Attend a game, sponsor a club, or help out with another afterschool program. Experiencing your continued support will encourage your students to trust you and give you the chance to learn more about them outside of the classroom.
  • Invite your colleagues on Community Walks. When Ryann Miller led his colleagues through the streets of their students’ community, he found that “Our teachers didn’t become experts overnight, but the experience showed them that they needed to grow.” A community walk can be an eye-opening, energizing, and motivating experience for any school staff.
  • Make home visits. Like many teachers, Kristen Whitaker was apprehensive about entering her students’ homes. However, after a few visits, she discovered, “I enjoyed getting to know the families I teach, and that the collaboration between teacher and family always benefits the students, family, and community as a whole.” Home visits give educators and families a chance to know and empathize with each other. There’s no better way to learn about your students than to tap into the greatest source of knowledge about them--their families.  
  • Make families part of the school environment. Communicate regularly about what’s going on in your classroom, as well as school and community events. Break down the barriers preventing family engagement by finding ways to provide transportation and childcare services at school functions. Plan multicultural programming, and offer enticements (such as food and prizes) to incentivize family attendance. Not all families will be able to attend school events, but increasing accessibility for as many families as possible should be a top priority.

All educators understand the importance of knowing how their students learn--and apply that knowledge to their pedagogy. But truly powerful educators understand the importance of knowing their students on a deeper level. How will you learn who your students and their families truly are?


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NCFL Partners

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Toyota Family Learning Program

Toyota, one of the nation's most successful corporations, began a partnership with NCFL in 1991. In addition to a commitment of more than $50 million, Toyota has also contributed a wealth of in-kind support — including advertising, planning and management expertise — to form one of the most progressive corporate/nonprofit partnerships in the nation.

Three major programs have been developed through the Toyota partnership based on the family literacy model of parents and children learning together. These models have influenced federal and state legislation, leveraged local dollars to support family literacy and led to successful programs being replicated across the country.

Read more about Toyota's commitment to communities

William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust

NCFL received its very first donation in 1989 from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust to promote and implement family literacy programming, first in Kentucky and North Carolina and later nationwide. The Kenan Family Literacy Model in part laid the groundwork for 30 years of subsequent family literacy and family learning programming developed by NCFL.

Kenan has continued to support NCFL’s place-based family literacy programs since our inception. Most recently, they invested in the organization’s Innovation Fund, which will launch emerging ideas and programmatic evolutions in the multigenerational learning space.

Learn more about the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust

Dollar General Literacy Foundation

The Dollar General Literacy Foundation began partnering with NCFL in 2006. A signature effort of this partnership is the National Literacy Directory, a resource that launched in 2010 and strives to reach the 35.7 million adults ages 18-64 who do not have a high school diploma by guiding them to better-paying, more stable jobs.

The National Literacy Directory contains over 10,000 educational agencies located across the United States and has a dedicated toll-free number to help support those wanting to pursue educational opportunities in their communities.

Dollar General also provides support for development of NCFL’s innovative family learning resources centered on financial literacy and Parent and Child Together (PACT) Time®.

Learn more about the Dollar General Literacy Foundation

PNC Grow Up Great

PNC Grow Up Great believes deeply in the power of high-quality early childhood education and provides innovative opportunities that assist families, educators and community organizations to enhance children's learning and development.

PNC Grow Up Great has partnered with NCFL since 1994 to advance early literacy and learning resources for vulnerable families. Current efforts supported by PNC include a collaborative initiative in two at-risk Detroit communities that engages families to support vocabulary development for children under age 5.

NCFL's work is also featured on the PNC Grow Up Great Lesson Center website. The Lesson Center includes over 100 free, high-quality preschool lesson plans and research-based instructional techniques and strategies. All lesson plans contain Home/School Connections printouts, in English and Spanish, to help families extend and reinforce the learning at home.

Learn more about PNC Grow Up Great

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

NCFL was named a recipient of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s "Voices for Economic Opportunity Grand Challenge," which seeks to elevate diverse voices in order to broaden the conversation about the issues inhibiting economic mobility and generate deeper awareness along with actionable understanding. NCFL will develop and launch a podcast series that will highlight the remarkable stories of low-income, diverse families across the U.S. who have improved their communities through Family Service Learning.

Foundation Website

Goodling Institute

NCFL has partnered with the Goodling Institute for Research and Family Literacy at Penn State University since 2001, working collaboratively to further research, professional development, and policy efforts for family literacy and intergenerational learning.

The work of this partnership includes, but is not limited to, a strong research strand at NCFL's national annual convening, the Families Learning Summit; advocacy for family literacy and learning to further support for and inclusion of family-focused education in new and ongoing legislation; and dissemination of the latest research, resources, information, and professional development opportunities for literacy and learning practitioners and advocates, including the Certificate in Family Literacy provided by the Goodling Institute.

Learn more about the Goodling Institute for Research and Family Literacy at Penn State University