Saturday / June 22

How Teachers & Parents Activate Student Learning


Each fall students, teachers, and parents join together to support the academic curriculum of their classes. In a typical classroom, the first days of school are allocated to teachers and students getting to know each other and learning the classroom protocol for successful learning. During the first weeks of school, teachers spend time trying to assess their students’ skill sets. The teacher will review the overall content from the previous year with a focus on the curricular requirements for the current school year. At this point, teachers use a variety of teaching strategies to assess each student’s prior knowledge in relation to the course content for the upcoming school year. Teachers must consider:

  1. What needs to be taught?
  2. How will I teach this content?
  3. How do I communicate what the students need to learn without overwhelming them?
  4. How do I determine each student’s prior knowledge of the curriculum content?
  5. And, finally, how do I communicate to the parents so they understand how they can support their child throughout the school year?

These are daunting questions. They can overshadow a teacher’s self-efficacy and ability to be successful when considering the individual needs of students. Teachers can overcome this analysis paralysis by reflecting on the nature of their role in supporting students. Should they control all methods of learning or serve as activators of student learning?

Gayle Gregory’s book Teacher as Activator of Learning suggests that teachers can nurture a “growth mindset” in their students. Students can be encouraged to take risks and “fail forward” through dialogue, reflective study groups, respectful relationships, activating assessments, and student feedback.  A teacher is an “activator in learning” when engaging a student to describe how she may want to solve a problem that overwhelms her. First, the teacher can encourage the student to relax. Second, the teacher can ask the student to reflect on how she might approach a learning problem by applying prior learning successes. For example, if a student does not understand how to rhyme words, the teacher can demonstrate by singing a rhyming song or reciting a rhyming poem. Third, the student can then convey understanding by providing the teacher with another example of words that rhyme. Fourth, the student can reflect on the outcome of this learning experience. Finally, the student can consider how to use “growth mindset” in her next reading assignment through the teacher’s supportive guidance.

Teachers & Parents as Co-Activators

I recently observed a kindergarten teacher using the activator approach to student learning when meeting individually with each student to assess prior knowledge in relation to the overall content for the year. Although one student did not understand what a rhyming word was, the teacher provided rhyming examples. With this guidance, the student was able to sing rhyming songs, recite nursery rhymes, and describe rhyming stories that she had heard at home and nursery school. Her confidence in her ability to problem solve and complete the assigned task established a “growth mindset” for learning how to read through this respectful dialogue with the teacher. Although this was a time-consuming approach to assessment, the teacher was able to establish critical baseline information about the student’s abilities and learning needs for the coming year.

The parents of the child were later invited to sit in the back of the classroom, out of their child’s view, to learn how they could help their child at home. The parents felt respected as the teacher later conferenced with them about their daughter’s unique learning skills and needs. The parents easily understood the teacher’s goals because they had observed how the teacher related respectfully with their daughter. The teacher was able to model to the parents how she could ensure that their daughter adopted a “growth mindset” in her ability to learn to read. By demonstrating respectful teaching strategies, the parents had a visual model to use when reading to their daughter each night before bed. This timely conference also helped the parents build a healthy rapport with the teacher at the beginning of the school year. The parents could then feel more comfortable approaching the teacher with future learning needs for their daughter throughout the school year. Engaging parents as activators in their child’s learning can significantly enhance the activating assessment and feedback for the child throughout the school year.

Wishing you much success in activating your students and their families as part of the successful completion of another school year.

Written by

Mary Ann Burke has served as a credentialed parent educator and adjunct professor for over thirty years in California’s schools. Dr. Burke has presented effective parenting and school engagement strategies at numerous state and national parent engagement events. She recently authored a twin book series that includes Yikes! Brandon Has Twin Sisters, Yikes! Brandon and His Sisters Play at the Park, and Yikes Brandon and His Twin Sisters Go to School. Mary Ann is the co-author of Effective Parenting! Capable Kids! She is also the author of four Corwin Press books on parent and community engagement in schools. Mary Ann Burke previously led the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Parent Engagement Initiative that serves as a state model for best practices in parent engagement for culturally diverse families. She creates Common Core State Standards kits for parents to use at home and in their child’s classroom to support children’s literacy and academic readiness skills. Mary Ann is an active grandmother of five grandchildren. She shares this expertise with educators and school leaders as a trainer, author, and curriculum developer.

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