Parent-teacher conferences: is anyone listening?
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Increasing parental involvement in urban school settings is particularly challenging when parents are foreign born, face English language barriers, have limited formal school experiences, and are unfamiliar with United States school culture. The confluence of such factors often results in discouraging parents from fully participating in their children's school life. Nonetheless, one of the most important events in United States children's schooling are parent-teacher conferences. Yet the practitioner and research literature contains contrasting viewpoints. For example, a corpus of the professional literature depicts conferences as tense, conflict ridden, and unproductive, while other research-related literature suggests they are useful for developing collaborative home-school relationships for improving children's educational outcomes (Swap, 1983; McCaleb, 1994). Given the conflicting evidence and the pressing need to improve parental involvement in urban school settings, this investigation examined the information parents and teachers exchanged about English language learners' literacy progress during regularly scheduled conferences. The study sought to understand: (1) What types of information about children's literacy activities and English language acquisition do parents and teachers discuss during parent-teacher conferences? (2) What kinds of information do parents discuss about their children's home and community life? (3) When parents discuss information about their children's home and community literacy activities, as well as their English language acquisition, how do teachers respond? (4) When teachers discuss information about children's classroom literacy activities and English language acquisition, how do parents respond? The study included five parent-teacher dyads from a fourth grade classroom taught exclusively in English and two Spanish-speaking bilingual classrooms from the third and fourth grades. Data collection included audiotaped teacher and parent interviews, audiotaped parent-teacher conferences, copies of children's school literacy artifacts, self-memoranda, and parent-teacher contact records. Data analysis revealed that teachers and parents employed topics and discourse actions to create speakers' roles and assume various social identities. As a result, instances of cooperation, collaboration, or discord developed, affecting the conference interactions. Moreover, the assistance children received at home and/or at school for improving their literacy and English language development was affected by the parents and teachers conference interactions. The findings hold important implications for improving professional development on parent involvement. For example, if teachers can improve their understanding of the potential benefits and challenges speakers' roles and their resulting social identities pose during conference discussions, then opportunities can increase for improving parental involvement and home-school relationships in traditionally "hard to reach" parent populations.
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