Learning from “Building Powerful Learning Environments From Schools to Communities”

from-earth-to-the-stars-by-jennifer-millerAll parties – schools, families, and community members – share the responsibility for building trust. But those who hold the official power within schools and classrooms have to set the tone and lead by example.

-Arina Bokas, Building Powerful Learning Environments From Schools to Communities

In both roles – as a parent and as an educator – it can be difficult to understand why there are not stronger partnerships between those three entities – families, schools and communities – who all impact the same children’s lives and care deeply about their learning. In theory, it sounds right. We should work together, communicate with one another and coordinate for a more powerful impact on the development of our children. But the reality of making that happen is quite different. “Feeling voiceless and powerless is likely to resonate with many parents who tried to advocate for their children in schools,” writes Arina Bokas. And for educators, we are often told what we have to do without consideration for our own professional expertise and wisdom. Teachers and administrators can shy away from parents because of accusations and attacks they’ve received in the past. And frequently, community members are unclear whether or not they are welcome in schools and if they are, what roles they can play.

The newly released book, Building Powerful Learning Environments From Schools to Communities by Arina Bokas builds a solid case for a focus on creating true 41xn2ebj5l-_sx331_bo1204203200_partnerships between schools, families and communities and gives specific ways we can move toward collaboration no matter where our starting point may be. Our children’s experience of learning has changed drastically from the time we were in school. They are not only trying to understand their sense of self in relation to their school and neighborhood but now, because of our digital environment, they must also understand themselves and their relationship to the greater global community. Learning must then be supported by all of the adults involved in every environment in which children play and engage including their virtual spaces. And if learning isn’t reason enough, our current workforce demands social and emotional skills in order to function and grow. Empathy, communication, collaboration and creative problem-solving are at the top of the list for skills most required by today’s employers.

Though we may hold a desire to collaborate, the author paints a clear picture of the underlying beliefs that have become embedded in our assumptions of how education operates. She also tells the bigger story of American education in a global context. Whereas we typically see one data set showing other countries with higher performing students without the greater context of what measures were used and more importantly, what the education system looked like at all levels so we truly understand the best practices involved in promoting student learning. She shows how one country, for example, had the highest testing scores internationally but upon further examination, was providing intensive daily after school tutoring for all students to perform well specifically on the test. Yet we know “skill and drill” is not the highest form of learning and a sole focus on testing sets educators up for teaching in ways they know is not in the student’s best interest. Arina offers examples of using testing for accountability while also ensuring that the learning environment is supporting the whole child’s physical, social, emotional and academic development.

This book also shows how any partner – whether its a parent, teacher, administrator or community member – might practically go about raising awareness and taking steps toward building trusting relationships between those who impact children’s lives. From opening classroom doors to parents to asking questions about potential roles in education, there are numerous big and small steps suggested for brokering partnerships.

It was an honor to contribute my example to this book to showcase one small partnership between a parent and a teacher that made a significant difference in my child’s education and indeed, our family connection to his school community. Check out the following example from the book. And then, check out this outstanding contribution to thinking that is sure to spur action on strengthening school-family-community partnerships!

Feedback That Matters:

Using Self-Assessments to Connect Parents to Children’s Learning In School

by Jennifer Miller excerpted from Powerful Learning Environments From Schools to Communities by Arina Bokas (2017). Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield.

“I feel with my whole body that I won’t learn to read,” muttered my almost first-grade son with a furrowed brow, a look of disappointment and a hint of expectancy. “Say it isn’t so.” was included in the subtext of complex emotions. This from a child who couldn’t enter a room in our home except for the coat closet without encountering a bookshelf filled with stories of dragons, buried treasure and fantastic adventures.

Perhaps precisely because E, my son comes from a family of readers, he assigned tremendous weight to the process of learning to read. “If it’s an essential part of our lives, what if he just couldn’t?” he worried. My first thought was “Not possible.” But then, a second thought crept in. “What if he has a learning challenge like dyslexia? What then?” My third thought wiped worry away. “We’ll deal with it. Whatever the challenge. None is so great that it would prevent him from reading eventually.”

And so it goes with our children’s learning challenges. As parents, we often don’t fully understand what they are going through and what supports they are getting at school to help them reach their learning goals. So we do the best we can to reinforce those goals from home. For this particular challenge, I knew I could help. But how? We’ve read together every day since he was born. So what else could I do to encourage his desire to read?

First, his emotions were key to his success. How he felt about his ability to learn, his self-efficacy, was impacting his motivation to put in the practice time, the hard work required to learn anything worthwhile. And the twice a year parent-teacher conference that lasted all of ten minutes did not seem adequate feedback for me to understand and support his progress. I couldn’t count on his verbal reports since he offered little to no details of his school day when asked, “What’d ya do today?” There had to be another way of regularly connecting to his reading progress and supports in school without overburdening the teacher.

During our first parent-teacher conference in October, I communicated these concerns and his teacher shared with me a simple self-assessment entitled, “How Do You
how-do-you-feel-first-grade-self-reflection-by-jennifer-millerFeel? Self-Evaluation”. On this worksheet, there were illustrations of fish to be colored labeled, “Making Friends,” “Math,” “Reading,” “Listening,” “Writing” and “Science.” The directions read: “Color green for ‘I am good at this.’, yellow for ‘I am pretty good at this.’ and red for ‘This is hard for me.’ As I suspected at that time, he had colored his “Reading” fish red.

When I brought the self-evaluation home, sharing it with my son gave me an opening to begin a conversation about his worries. I offered my predictions of what they might be and he let me know if I was right or wrong. Yes, he was concerned that his friends were reading faster than he was. No, he didn’t worry about knowing basic words. He knew them. Yes, he was worried about getting through the text quickly and tended to skip words because of it. No, he didn’t need help sounding out most words. This offered such rich insight into how we might practice together at home. I quickly contacted the teacher via email complimenting her for her helpful assessment and asked for more frequent access to my son’s evaluation of his own progress. It was a simple step for her to give out self-assessments each Friday, have students complete them in a matter of seconds and send them home in their folders. But for me, it meant regular access to specifics regarding my son’s thoughts and feelings. With little effort, it achieved three levels of connection:

  • It connected the child to his own feelings and thoughts reflecting on his learning
  • It connected the parent, me, to the classroom curriculum, the teacher and my
    child’s relationship to both.
  • It connected the parent to her own child’s feelings and thoughts about his learning goals.

Teachers have been improving their classroom practices through self-efficacy evaluations based on research for decades. “Personal goal setting is influenced by self-appraisal of capacities. The stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the higher the goal challenges people set for themselves and the firmer the commitment to them.” (Bandura,1993)

For students, research has demonstrated that explicit instruction in meta-cognition—the ability to monitor our own thinking and learning—can lead to learning success across subjects from primary school through college (Wilson & Conyers, 2014). Though students are assessed by schools on learning standards, it is a rare opportunity for them to reflect regularly on their own thoughts and feelings related to their learning goals though it can have a positive impact on their motivation and progress.

As for my son and me, the weekly feedback allowed for more detailed conversations about how he was learning. That insight assisted me in becoming more sensitive to problems and at times, avoid areas that might make him defensive. And I would focus on the small interventions I could provide at home that supported his goals. For example, I refrained from quickly providing the word when he was struggling with sounding it out. Instead, I would wait until he asked for help.

Often he would struggle through and figure it out himself. If he asked, I would only sound out a syllable to get him started. I found our time reading together became less of a power struggle and more of an opportunity for real connection. I watched as his “red-colored fish” (“This is hard for me.”) turned to “yellow” (“I am pretty good at this.”) at mid-year. And by the third quarter, it was a definitive “green.” “I am good at this.”


You can find Building Powerful Learning Environments From Schools to Communities at this link.


Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Psychologist. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 28(2), 117-148.

Wilson, D. & Conyers, M. (2014). The boss of my brain. Educational Leadership, Association of Supervision, Curriculum and Development. 72, 2. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct14/vol72/num02/£The-Boss-of-My-Brain£.aspx

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