Inviting parents -- and sometimes students -- to participate in a book discussion group with teachers has led to better relationships between teachers and parents and a deeper understanding of current education and child-rearing issues. Included: Information on how to start a book discussion group.
Bringing parents and teachers -- and sometimes students -- together in a book discussion group has enhanced communication, understanding, and cooperation among parents and staff members at one Illinois elementary school.
Called Book Banter, administrators at Central Elementary School in Wilmette Public Schools District 39 started the program four years ago and have seen improvement in the amount and quality of teacher-parent dialogue, staff members at the K-4 school told an audience at the 2007 Association for School Curriculum Development (ASCD) conference.
"It led to better communication between parents and teachers," Jamie Evans, a second grade teacher at Central, said. "Some parents didnt realize how passionate some of the teachers are."
Book Banter meets about five times a year in the evenings, and fourth-grade students are invited to participate in one of those meetings. Central principal Melanie Horowitz said she proposed the idea to the superintendent who told her to pursue it.
Word-of-mouth has been the best marketing tool for the program so far, added Horowitz. "We also use e-mail a lot. Sometimes we ask parents which book on a topic to use."
Besides helping to build trust and respect between teachers and parents, the discussions can break down the stereotypical roles of parents and teachers, encourage problem-solving, and help adults stay current with education and child-rearing themes, Central staff said.
As part of the ASCD presentation, the Central team showed video clips of parents and teachers talking about Book Banter. One parent commented: "I began to think of teachers and administrators as people -- not just obstacles to our childrens learning."
Organizers found that Book Banter worked better when they selected books related to a theme. This years theme is character development; past themes have included bullying/tolerance and gender issues.
A teacher commented in a video clip that Book Banter discussions about gender changed some of his teaching approaches and how he selects books for reading assignments.
"It helped me to think about different ways to teach after looking at gender issues," he said. "There are girl books and boy books."
Sometimes parents recommend books, and staff members aim to pick books published within the past five years. "We select fiction and non-fiction and use recommendations from known authors," said Barbara Ungar, the schools library information specialist.
Teachers who attend Book Banter can receive continuing education credit for reading some material in advance of the meetings and preparing discussion questions.
In selecting a book for the meeting in which students participate, organizers consider books teachers are using in class or are part of the librarys literature program. Students who take part in that meeting can receive some class credit if they write a report about the book.
Parents get insight into current childrens literature by reading books along with their kids, Ungar noted. "It was a great example for kids to see parents and teachers discussing a book and hearing ideas."
Horowitz and Ungar as well as other teachers participate in the evening meetings. "Kids get a kick out of being at school at night," Ungar said. "Evenings worked best for us." Parents often volunteer to bring coffee and snacks.
School staff members let parents know they can come or cancel at the last minute if they need to. "Its an open invitation," Horowitz said. "We know life can interfere. We encourage parents to come even if they didnt read the book."
One staff member usually is a discussion facilitator, and comes prepared with discussion questions and some icebreakers to get the conversation started. The facilitator also helps to focus the discussion, prevent a few people from monopolizing the conversation, encourage the quiet ones to contribute, and get the group through long pauses. The goal is to keep the discussions to 90 minutes, but they usually run longer, Horowitz said.
"One parent said, It was like taking a really good college class 20 years later," Evans noted.
Among the ways facilitators have encouraged discussion are writing a statement or question about the book on a large piece of paper and having people write responses as they arrive, said differentiation support teacher Suzanne Goff. Another strategy is to toss out a provocative statement -- then ask for a thumbs up or thumbs down to see who agrees or disagrees -- and have discussions between persons who agreed and disagreed.
Teachers also have been able to find online literary guides and materials from book clubs that helped generate discussion questions, Goff said. (See sidebar.)
Some sensitive topics have come up during the discussions, Horowitz noted, and sometimes the schools psychologist and social worker attend the meetings. Parents and teachers have cried at meetings, she added, and organizers tell participants Book Banter shares something with Las Vegas: What happens in Book Banter stays in Book Banter. At the same time, some parents have been referred to outside resources for help with personal or family issues, according to Horowitz.
Some educators at the presentation said they liked the idea of a book group, but find it difficult getting their parent population involved in school activities. For schools that traditionally have low parent turnout for events, Ungar suggested that the staff start a discussion group on a smaller scale. School leaders might start by targeting specific groups of parents and students, Horowitz suggested.
And if parents dont have time to read and discuss a whole book, invite them to discuss a chapter from a book or a newspaper or magazine article, added Ungar. Staff members also could put together some video clips from books to spark conversation, leading to better communication between home and school, changes Central has experienced.
"It sets up such a different rapport between parents and teachers," noted Evans.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2010 Education World®
Originally published 04/27/2007
Last updated 07/14/2010