Backgrounds key in aiding learning
Arizona Republic
Jan. 10, 2008

Mark Ryan

Some children have a great advantage in terms of language and culture when it comes to getting homework done. What can teachers and parents do for students who come from diverse backgrounds so they can be just as successful in completing their homework?

First, it is a big mistake for a teacher not to know or to disregard the students', or for that matter the parents', backgrounds.

Everyone knows that people's backgrounds have a lot to do not only on how they perceive reality, but with their core values.

Today in the United States we are facing a demographic shift. In fact, 45 percent of children under the age of 5 years in this country are racial or ethnic minorities, many of whom speak a language other than English at home.

These children are coming to the classroom door in the morning and leaving school each afternoon with homework assignments in their binders.

Will their homework be done? Will learning take place or will frustration and hopelessness fill not only these children, but eventually their parents?

What to do? Without a doubt, teachers and parents need to communicate so teachers learn about both the children's and parents' language and culture.

This might be done through parent-interest questionnaires, clear homework instructions and short explanations of key vocabulary terms for different homework assignments (in a language the parent understands).

Such culturally aware preplanning can lead to homework assignments that focus on parent and child interest and interaction.

Interaction between the parent and child is more likely to occur when the teacher designs homework where students need to reason through the instructions and see the relationship between homework and home experiences.

It is this connection between the homework and what happens at home where the parents can interact with their children. Analogy is a powerful teaching tool.

When that link is made, students are more likely to dialogue with their folks making valuable connections. These connections help the family focus on what needs to be done.

From there it is a direct path to fill in the homework sheet, write the paper or solve the math problem.

This allows the child to begin to reason through problems as a self-directed learner as the homework gets done.

But, we are not finished yet.

Mere completion of the homework is necessary but not sufficient. The teacher needs to create an ongoing process that continues to stimulate a child-parent dialogue about schoolwork in general and homework in particular.

This can be accomplished by the teacher evaluating the homework assignments the child turns in, collecting these assignments into a portfolio, and sending them back home again.

These graded portfolio assignments that arrive home provide the child the opportunity to have a conversation with the parent on what was learned, how it was learned and finally why this learning is of value.

Parents are then to write a short note responding to their child's accomplishment and return it with the portfolio of assignments.

The idea is to build a bridge from school to home - a connection that is an indication to the child that learning is valued, that learning does not just take place in the classroom.

There is one more lesson to be learned by this collaboration of student, family and teacher that would make a nice poster in any school room. It might read, "No one is expected to learn alone."

Surprise resident Mark Ryan has taught at all levels from elementary classes to university seminars. Contact him at his blog: www.wvblogs. with your questions. Visit www.dr for Ryan's book Ask the Teacher.