The Family Writing Project Builds a Learning Community in Connecticut
At Hamilton Avenue School in Greenwich, Connecticut, where I teach fifth-graders, many parents, like parents everywhere, want to be more involved with their children’s education but are unsure how to do so. They are lucky if they get many, or any, details when they ask their child about a day at school. When parents are invited to school, it is usually for a school-initiated meeting—such as an open house or a parent-teacher conference. Almost never is a parent invited to take part in a lesson as a participant and learner. Our family writing project has changed that. Now parents have become side-by-side learners with their children.
The idea and design for the family writing project came from Arthur Kelly, a teacher at John C. Fremont Middle School in Las Vegas, Nevada. (See Arthur Kelly’s accompanying article, “No More Fear and Loathing: The Family Writing Project in Las Vegas”.) Kelly started a family writing project at his school in 2001 and has been sharing his experiences with other teachers in the hopes that they will form family writing projects at their schools. Kate Frey, a colleague of mine, met Kelly at a Project Outreach conference sponsored by the National Writing Project. She was so inspired by his enthusiasm about the family writing project’s success that she wanted to try this idea out at our school. Fortunately for me, I was one of the teachers Kate invited to help her pioneer our program.
What Does Our Family Writing Project Look Like?
Our family writing project at Hamilton Avenue School was modeled very closely after Kelly’s first project. Though his lessons were designed for his middle school students, we found them equally appropriate for fifth-graders, their parents, and their siblings. Like in the Las Vegas model, the theme of each lesson focused on identity—personal, family, and community—enabling each participant, regardless of age, to be a contributor in the sessions.
As Kelly indicates, one of the first concerns of family writing project facilitators must be a thoughtful consideration of when to meet. We eventually settled on eight one-hour sessions, each held on a weeknight from 7 to 8 p.m. This timing had the advantage of not conflicting with other school events, like the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meetings. Additionally, the consecutive weekly sessions made it more likely that parents would stay with us for the duration.
Many of our activities were drawn directly from the Las Vegas model. At our first meeting, we, too, made use of “artifacts,” objects that participants found had special meaning in their lives. A father and daughter together shared a map of Vermont, symbolizing their annual summer vacation and how much they enjoy spending time with their family in our neighboring state. A couple sets of parents brought in photos of their children and talked about how important their children are to them; you can imagine their children’s beaming faces! Ten-year-old Paul brought in a beautiful patchwork bag that he had sewn himself. When a girl in Kate’s class shared with us an artifact she had sewn, I suggested that these students might want to share sewing tips or even plan to create something together. These are the kinds of windows that are opened in a family writing project.
After sharing artifacts, we wrote about the experience in our journals, and then shared our thoughts with the group, eventually creating a group poem. The first and last stanzas of the revised poem read:
Shared experiences and emotions
Bringing us together
Creating warm feelings in our hearts
Defining our essence
Giving a peek into our souls
Culture, freedom, difference, perspective
A bag sewn of many colors
Waves of peace
Another activity that was a big hit and allowed us to get to know each other even better was the thirty-second musical-chair interview, which toward the end stretched to a minute or more. Participants sat in two rows of chairs, facing each other, while a facilitator asked questions such as: What is your favorite food? How would your best friend describe you? What is your funniest memory? With each question, participants switched partners so that they received a variety of information abut different people in the project. Again, we wrote after this experience and shared our feelings about the activity.
Like participants in Kelly’s group, we wrote letters set ten years into the future. The students wrote to themselves, and parents wrote to their children. The children’s letters were amusing, talking about the luxury cars they would drive and how they would attend college in states with warm, sunny climates, such as Florida and Hawaii. (Apparently this was not a concern among the Nevada students.)
The parents’ letters, however, were more touching, as they expressed their hopes and dreams for their children’s happiness and success. Gilda Mena wrote about her daughter, Maureen, becoming a teacher after working hard throughout school and in college. The last lines of her letter were: “The courage, effort, time, and sacrifice you have put into achieving your goal have paid off. I am glad that the whole family, but especially you, can see that all this hard work has been worth it.”
Others wrote in the same vein, but perhaps the most revealing insights were found in the contrary perspective in the letters by Mary Stanley and her daughter, Sharon. As Mary’s only child, Sharon is the object of much love and admiration. Mary’s letter depicted Sharon attending a local university and living at home. Sharon wrote about attending the same university but envisioned herself living on campus. Her letter ended with: “P.S. I might come visit in July.”
Implementing the Family Writing Project
Implementing the family writing project at our school was an intentional endeavor. Greenwich is an affluent suburban town about thirty miles north of New York City. Although the average price of a house in Greenwich is $1.8 million, unbeknownst to many people, three low-income housing developments exist in this town—one of which is positioned in the district our school serves.
Hamilton Avenue School is, therefore, considered “a priority school within a nonpriority district,” because a significant number of our students—especially compared to those in the rest of Greenwich—are not white, speak a language other than English at home, and are on free or reduced lunch. Two of the school improvement team goals at our school are strengthening literacy and increasing parent involvement. The family writing project encompasses these goals in tandem.
We saw this writing project as a unique vehicle to reach out to those who may feel disenfranchised and not part of the dominant or school culture. Like James Vopat, we understood that there is likely to be “some initial mistrust between teachers and parents…[and] that…a school setting can increase…discomfort, especially for those who have had negative school experiences” (Vopat 1998, 32). Thus, in addition to the families who were the first to sign up and tend to join most school activities, we “recruited” particular families who might have been hesitant to come forward.
We selected families who we thought would benefit from the experience for a variety of reasons—such as the child enjoyed writing, the parent(s) didn’t normally attend school events, or the family was new to the school—and we sought families who would reflect the racial and cultural diversity in our school, including those who have, traditionally, been ignored or underrepresented. We hoped involvement by a diverse group of families would give participants a chance to learn about others and contribute to our goal of building community within our school.
We privately encouraged certain students to participate, knowing that if a child is interested in a school program, he or she is the best “salesperson” to get a parent to join. In addition, we phoned parents ourselves to let them know we really wanted them to be a part of the program. These phone calls may be one reason we attracted fathers to our family writing project. Unlike many school activities, the family writing project was not treated as solely the mother’s responsibility.
How We Honored Diversity
Part of the mission statement of the National Writing Project states that “our lives and practices are enriched when those with whom we interact represent diversities of race, gender, class, ethnicity, and language.” The family writing project honors this mission.
Over the first two years of the project, we have worked with families from Colombia, Korea, the Philippines, Italy, Ireland, Haiti, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil. Over half of the parents involved in the project were born in another country and do not speak English as their first language. This diversity led to some powerful revelations and conversations. For example, in one of our sessions, we shared maps we had drawn of our childhood homes. A mother described her home in Colombia; a father described his neighborhood in Korea while his son listened curiously; and a teacher detailed her experience about growing up in a town near Greenwich. The remarkable aspect of these discussions was that they moved away from just talking about the home itself to talking about personal identity and culture and led to learning about cultures beyond our own experience.
Family writing project participants came to us not only from diverse cultures but also, as stated earlier, with a variety of languages. We wanted people to understand what was being said and to feel comfortable writing and sharing, even if they didn’t communicate with ease in English. To address this issue, we used a Spanish-speaking facilitator to translate during some activities. Most prevalent, though, was the translation/clarification happening among family members—especially in the case of a child assisting a parent. We not only “allowed” but encouraged participants to express themselves in their native languages.
One Spanish-speaking mother, Luz Pabon, was reluctant to share in our group, and throughout the sessions, relied upon her husband and daughter to speak for her, thinking that her English wasn’t “good enough.” However, at one of our sessions in which parents wrote letters to their children, I asked her to read her letter in Spanish. She did, as her husband offered simultaneous translation. The opening and closing paragraphs of Luz’s translated letter follow:
To my precious daughter, Melody,
During these wonderful and great moments in your life, I have a great desire to hug you and to share these words with you. Thank you for fulfilling, in your reality, my dreams. You are in your second year of studying marine biology, and your success fills us with strength and pride. . . .
Your father and I go running and walking at the beach every evening. As you see, life is passing by very tranquilly for us. For now, I only want to remind you of what we wrote to you in your fifth grade yearbook. “Live with faith, without forgetting God in others.”
When Luz became emotional reading her letter, she passed it to her husband to finish reading while Emilia Rivera, one of our facilitators, aided him with the translation. I wondered if Luz’s tears—which soon spread to her daughter, Melody, and others in the group—were solely the result of the content of her letter, or if they were magnified by the experience of finally finding her voice within the group.
What was enlightening about the reading of the letter, however, was that it was followed by a “cultural lesson” by Emilia. She explained that in Latino culture, emotions are displayed outwardly, and it is not unusual to express them through tears. She also mentioned that some of the words in Luz’s letter were difficult to translate, due to the deep, emotional sentiment of particular words in the Spanish language for which there is no direct translation. In our anthology, which was published at the end of the project, I suggested that Luz publish her letter in Spanish and that an English translation (as close as possible) by Emilia accompany it.
Though English language learners may feel more comfortable writing such a letter in their native language, they were also learning how to communicate in English. For instance, Luz Pabon’s husband, Tony, wrote in his journal about how the family writing project is especially beneficial for nonnative speakers “who lack the ability to express themselves instantly,” because they are able to practice writing and speaking in English if they desire. Another parent, Sonia Galbier, said that she liked the family writing project because, as a native speaker of Portuguese, she preferred learning English along with her children, as opposed to taking an adult English class.
The road to self-expression that characterizes the project is well-illustrated in this testimonial from Yolanda, a sixteen-year-old who joined the family writing project with her ten-year-old sister, her twelve-year-old sister, and their father. “This is the first time I’ve heard my little sister speak English,” Yolanda said, “because at home we speak Italian.” What’s even more amazing about this statement is that the “little” sister, Stephanie, had been a selective mute up until two years ago. Now, she’s conversing fluently in English and Italian and sharing her writing voice.
Benefits of the Family Writing Project
In a family writing project, parents become equal stakeholders in their children’s education, taking ownership for their children’s learning and not just putting the sole responsibility on the school system or teacher. While some parents will not attend PTA meetings, they will join the family writing project with their children because, as one mother put it, “As parents, we get the opportunity to invest, directly, in our children’s education.” Another mother remarked that this was the first time she’d ever written with her son. “I help him with his homework, but this is different.” A father responded, “I realize how important it is to take time out for the family and have the opportunity to come together with other families in a warm, supportive environment.”
Children, who constantly seek positive reinforcement from their parents, are uplifted when parents read aloud their children’s writing or hear their children share insightful comments with the group. Parents’ laudatory comments provide a supportive dose of self-esteem.
Much of the writing done in the family writing project is self-reflective, which further promotes self-esteem and encourages thinking on a deeper level. One student said that as a result of the family writing project, “I have gotten to think more deeply about myself, what I want, and my surroundings.” Not only do students develop an enhanced sense of self and community awareness but they reap educational benefits, improving their writing and language skills and developing a love for writing. In turn, students bring this love of writing into the classroom where they are natural recruiters for the next round of family writing project participants. Because other students hear them share the work they’re doing that originated in the writing project, the outsiders also want to be involved.
At times, students may even take on a leadership role with their parents. In one of our sessions, after an activity, Sean was overheard saying to his father, “Shh, Dad. We’re supposed to be writing in our journals now.” During another session, Marcelina Ortiz, a native Peruvian, asked her sons, Steve and Edwin, to help her spell a word as she made the effort to write in English in her journal. Children love seeing their parents in the role of student.
A special treat for students is having teachers participate in family writing project activities. Often in the classroom, teachers are overwhelmed with curriculum and teaching, classroom management, and with redirecting and assisting students who need help. These factors make it difficult for teachers to participate in their own lessons. In the family writing project, the teacher-facilitators are given license to participate, fully, as part of the group, and students like that their teachers are in, not outside of, the group.
One of my favorite aspects of the family writing project is that I have the opportunity to compose and share my writing along with my students during each lesson, which both they and I appreciate. At the final meeting of our first FWP, when it was my turn to share my piece of writing—a humorous poem about Greenwich—I received great applause. I felt like an overjoyed student! I love to write but rarely have the time to do so. The family writing project provides this time for me.
I also got to know parents better as a result of the family writing project, and, of course, this knowledge inevitably contributed to getting to know my students better. Likewise, parents feel that getting to know teachers better is a plus. Michelle Dirat, a parent participant, expressed how wonderful it was to get to know her son’s teachers, since he spends six hours a day with them and talks about them so much at home. She shared how important it was to “get to see the teachers as people.” “They are sincere,” she went on to say, “they have integrity. When you send your kid to school, you know the teachers are professional, but you don’t know if they really care about your child. These teachers are caring. They’re fun. I could hang out with them.”
The family writing project has also influenced my teaching practices. In the past, before a writing lesson in my classroom, I would initiate a discussion or read a piece of literature to introduce the lesson. However, using the lessons Arthur Kelly has developed, I now often use an activity as a generating device for writing, an approach that makes the writing fun and more engaging.
Perhaps most significantly, the family writing project has kept my teaching fresh and exciting for me. It is empowering to be a part of a new phenomenon, which hopefully will continue to expand. I have recently started a family writing project at a school in my hometown, training three teachers on how to run a successful family writing project. It is an exciting privilege to spread this good news and be a conduit and resource to those who wish to start a family writing project at their schools, as Arthur Kelly did for Kate Frey, and as Kate did for me.
Why You Should Sponsor a Family Writing Project
Schools are not factories that simply take in and then churn out students. The teachings and experiences that occur in a school cultivate the next generation of learners, thinkers, and leaders who can affect positive change while being able to respect, understand, and work with others who may be different from themselves in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and age. A family writing project provides a unique vehicle with which to operate and propel these ideals. Here, families and teachers are united for the benefit of the child.
“Strong parent involvement [in schools] is not a question of ‘Should we?’ but rather a question of ‘How should we?'” (Routman 1994, 485). The family writing project answers how. After all, how often within the school environment do children, parents, and teachers view one another in a totally different light: the child becomes the teacher; the parent becomes the learner; the teacher becomes the friend? This is evidence of the power and magic of the family writing project.