"The most memorable moment from our testing kickoff and math game night event was the evening's icebreaker activity -- a round of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? that pitted a team of volunteer parents against a group of students," recalls Mary Sellers. "The silly, playful nature of this activity was a perfect set-up for an evening that by necessity included some serious discussion."
[content block] As a staff member of the family involvement program at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies and Core Knowledge Magnet, Sellers helps to orchestrate the annual event for parents and students of the St. Paul (Minnesota) school. Her team coordinates the work of the committees, prepares the agenda, gathers materials for math kits to be given to families, locates test preparation videos, translates presentations, writes up the activity for Title I funding, orders food, designs the layout for the evening, arranges taxi rides for families that need transportation, and recruits families and staff to participate.
In its first year, only families with students in grades three through six were invited to the event because those grade levels encounter testing, but students in all grades and their families have been included in subsequent years. A video presentation about test-taking strategies, card games that teach math skills, and a book give-away are among the activities that have been offered. Attendance is consistently high for the academic evening that focuses on test preparations and boosting math aptitude.
"Considering the number of parents who have shared their frustration with the challenges of helping their children with assignments that they don't understand -- many confess to struggling with basic math themselves -- it is remarkable to see how many of them show up for this event," Sellers told Education World. "Despite their reservations, attendance reflects a broad cross-section of our school families. They are actively engaged and enjoy the activities provided."
An important change to the program has been moving it from spring to fall to maximize the impact of its home-learning component through take-home math games and activity kits. This way, the staff introduces parents early in the school year to the "Everyday Math" philosophy and strategies such as "lattice math." Sellers has found it beneficial to have teachers from both the primary and intermediate grades give brief presentations about their expectations for the students and the skills they want parents to reinforce at home. For this year's event, a teacher from each grade level will staff a table with a math game and provide this information in a more informal way.
"Because math can be intimidating to some parents, it helps to provide food and to make it fun. Pizza is a good choice because it is divided into fractions," explained Sellers. "For the past two years, we have had a Spooky Math Night at the end of October and encouraged everyone to dress up in costumes. We give out treats at stations with different activities. More than 280 people attended our most recent event."
Sellers' school takes advantage of its bilingual Hmong- and Spanish-speaking staff members as interpreters who assist families during the evening and foster a welcoming environment. For Sellers, developing an awareness of the barriers faced by families and eliminating them is essential to the program's success. Some of the barriers she has identified are a lack of lack of transportation, the event coinciding with dinner hour, and language and cultural challenges. Simply having children in a broad range of ages can be an obstacle to participation in school events like the math night.
"When organizing an event like ours, think of ways to make it non-threatening and as interactive as possible, and avoid lecturing parents," Sellers advises. "Build on the relationships you have with families, and remember that the best events are community-building."
In the future, the family involvement team would like to locate videos in Hmong, Spanish, and English to eliminate the need for lengthy translations. Following every math night, the group meets to review each activity and adapt and improve the experience to better serve the needs of the families and students.
"Surveys are provided to parents after each event to evaluate whether they learned new ways to help their children," added Sellers. "The surveys also tell us how we can improve."