Learning on the Run

from Masters to Marathons

Improvement Science Part 1- The PLAN: Parent Involvement and Peer Collaboration in the Writing Process

Middle school students are often notorious for  keeping their parents out of the loop. It is almost as if it is an adolescent rite of passage to be vague and annoyed when asked, “Hi honey, how was your day?” Even my own kids  would grace me with answers that usually were four words or less…”Good” was typical, but occasionally I’d get a one letter “K” in response to my inquiry. Thanks for letting me in there, kiddo. The same goes when asked, “Do you have homework.” I think if I had a nickel for every parent that tells me, “She said she never has homework,”or “He said he finished all of his work,”  I’d be a very rich lady. Parents typically feel like the middle school years  are a puzzle that they no longer fit in to. Friends and peer groups are essential in a students ever changing definition of self. But the truth is, both family and friends are an integral part of a young adolescents development and in the vein of Strahan, L’Esperance and Van Hoose in Promoting Harmony, when there is a harmonious blend of everything coming together, that is when students benefit most (2009).


Parental involvement is key. A lot of times, especially in the middle grades, parents want to be involved, but sometimes just don’t know how to open the door or understand where and how they fit in. Often times, parents feel that by backing off and giving their middle schooler space in completing assignments and navigating the waters of academic life, it will promote maturity and growth, and that “less parental involvement in later grades is a natural sign that the student is learning to be independent and managing school on their own, rather than a sign of trouble,” (Jackson & Davis, 2000, p. 198). Additionally, This We Believe states that, “Left on their own, few families continue as active partners in the middle grades,” (NMSA, 2001). Part of my change idea was to work to create a shift in this very thinking. To encourage students to invite their parents in, through the simple task of reading their work and providing encouraging, supportive feedback. Because these are personal narratives-a student’s recollection of a period of time in their own lives that are meaningful and powerful enough to put into words- the task is a great one, in my opinion, to bring parents in, as there is no intimidating background knowledge needed, other than a walk down memory lane with their child. According to Hill and Tyson, in the middle school years parents tend to help less with homework simply because they are less able to as the work becomes more difficult, and as a result “home-based involvement” tends to dwindle in the middle school years, as opposed to that of elementary school (2009). I tell my students, “We write to taste life twice,”(Anais Nin) and what better way to do so than to invite parents along for the journey!

According to my research thus far, one source on the Center for Public Education states, that after synthesizing research from over 51 studies over the course of a decade, positive outcomes were found, despite family income or background with regard to parent involvement in student learning. These benefits included increased test scores and better grades, promotion and increase in earning credits and passing classes, regular attendance, increased ability to well in school overall, including improvement in social skills, and even graduation rates (CFPE, 2011). Additionally, it is stated that, “Programs and interventions that engage families in supporting their children’s learning at home are linked to higher student achievement,”(CFPE, 2011). Clearly, students benefit when parents are able to get involved and become part of their children’s school lives and educational experiences.

Another key aspect to consider, based on my findings, is often times in middle school, academic performance tends to slip when, unfortunately when the “long-term implications” of academic performance become most critical (Hill & Tyson, 2009). This can be a challenge because middle school students don’t really see the long term effects of their education, but it is at this pivotal moment that they are paving the foundation for later experiences and thus it becomes even more critical to meet with success. According to a Duke University study, entitled Parental Involvement in Middle School: A Meta-Analytic Assessment of the Strategies That Promote Achievement, increased parent involvement and stronger family/school relationships are “identified as a way to close demographic gaps in achievement and maximize students’ potential,” (Hill &Tyson, 2009). The idea that by incorporating parents into a student’s academic life has the ability to close gaps in learning and even trumps socio-economic struggles is a powerful notion. It is a win-win situation when a student’s educational experience is increased by bringing parents, who are often waiting for a chance to belong without interfering, into the fold in a positive and motivating way. Additionally, the research states that parents, for a variety of reasons, tend to feel shut out of their middle schoolers educational experience. Whether it be moving from a smaller school, where one teacher becomes the point of contact to having to contact upwards of 6-7 teachers and unsure of which to inquire with, or even just the notion that now teachers are each responsible for potentially hundreds of students versus just 20-30, parents struggle to maintain involvement in effective ways (Hill&Tyson, 2009). I was interested to find that when broken down more specifically, types of parental involvement came into play with regard to benefitting students. What is called “academic socialization” or parents discussing with their child plans for the future, goals and aspirations, strategies for future success, proved to present a bigger positive outcome, where as parent involvement in homework by supervising or checking, did not lend itself to consistent achievement (Hill&Taylor, 2009). This was a little concerning for me in my change idea, though I can see why a middle schooler would back off on getting “help” for fear of that dreaded homework struggle occurring that we have either experienced with our own kids, or remember with horror from our own adolescent experiences. This is something important worth noting, as this will play a huge role in the way I frame my Action Research project when rolling it out to the students and presenting it to the parents.

Students must also be given opportunities to rely on peers for guidance as well. The benefits of peer feedback have been shown in studies to provide many educational benefits, including increased students engagement and participation in the process, less reliance on the teacher as the dominant classroom voice, and more confidence and less struggle when writing (Bijami, Kashef &Nejad, 2013). However, according to Peer Feedback in Learning English Writing: Advantages and Disadvantages, there are some potential issues to keep in mind when allowing students to peer edit one another’s work. This includes the type of feedback that is provided from peer to peer as being more shallow and simply looking for grammatical and “surface” level errors.  Students often see the teacher as the main authority and thus stay away from larger content and ideas and stick with the safety of positive comments such as”Good Job!”  that tend not to aid in revision that produces a more quality piece of writing  (Bijami, Kashef &Nejad, 2013). Despite these disadvantages, it is clear that students benefit from peer feedback in their writing and it is considered an integral part of the writing experience in the classroom (Bijami, Kashef &Nejad, 2013). Additionally, when reading  To give is better than to receive: The benefits of peer review to the reviewer’s own writing it is interesting to note that when students take part in the peer editing process, they are able to take what they learn by reading other peers’ text and apply that to their own writing. This allows students to read their own writing with a more critical eye and therefore are better able to self assess and evaluate their own work when revising  (Lundstrom &Baker, 2009).  According to their study, peer editing is “a viable and important activity to improving one’s own writing, findings which can benefit students on several levels,” (Lundstrom &Baker, 2009). By putting the ownership on students and allowing them to empower one another in their writing, we see many added benefits.

This brings me to my change idea. In my Springboard curriculum right now, students are working on the beginning stages of drafting their personal narratives. I always have my students peer edit one another’s work, but up until this year, that always occurred on paper and within the four walls of my classroom. Students were inadvertently forced to edit papers from someone they essentially sat next to or across from, and there was little choice in the matter. My change idea is twofold. I am going to, though the use of Google Docs, allow students to choose friends outside of our classroom to help edit their papers. This will change the old school paper chase to a technological realm much more consistent with the real world.  Additionally, students will be asked to involve their parents or guardians (or an adult in their family based on unique family dynamics) as well. We will start with the classroom setting to establish norms and etiquette expectations, where students will form peer writer’s conference groups with classmates, but the task will go beyond that when students invite outsiders in. This will require them also being able to summarize their learning, as in order to ask outsiders to read and comment on their work, they will need to explain what the parameters of our task are so that they can ask for specific feedback. We are not just editing for conventions: spelling, grammar and punctuation, but rather the task requires going much deeper. Someone from our class would obviously know what “Incident” “Response” and “Reflection” are, and in addition key elements like  the use of imagery, figurative language and show versus tell. In order to shine a light on those areas and request getting feedback on those specific expectations from someone outside of our English class, students will need to draft a short message when sharing their work, explaining the concepts and then asking for specific feedback on those criteria. This brings forth the idea that “to teach is to learn twice “(Joseph Joubert). By asking for help on ___ concept, they are explaining it and thus, learning it even more deeply.

Based on what I’ve learned through research, however, I do want to be careful when asking parents to “help” students with homework, as it might lead to some contention in the household and work against what I’m trying to do. I want to make sure that parents, when providing feedback to their kids while reading their work, really stress the positive aspect of sharing memories and being let in to their child’s world, not to act as an “editor” who is looking for what is wrong, but rather, celebrating what is right and good. Therefore, I will, in addition to my students, write up a description of the process to include in the Google Doc invite, so as to preface the expectation and frame our experience in a positive way.

Ultimately, we know that when we have an audience we tend to produce work that is more polished as we strive to present ourselves in our best light. In the Innovator’s Mindset, being a “connected” and tapping into the “wisdom in the room”  is considered key when looking toward change and betterment (Couros, 2015). I’m hoping my students will produce  their best work in their drafts and share those best efforts when putting themselves out there. No longer is this “just an assignment” for Ms. Var, but rather I want them to have the mindset that I am creating a piece of writing, a piece of myself,  that I will share with the world.

I’m excited to see the benefits of student voice and choice, the benefits of parental involvement, and the extended ability for students to “teach” others key concepts required in their writing in order to solicit feedback on those criteria. This is more representative of what real world writers do when they craft.Writers typically have editors to give them feedback and even invite people that they know and trust to provide them positive and constructive feedback so that they are able to dig deep and really put forth their best work.  I’m hoping that the students will get the chance to write like an author and through the editing process, also help others along the way in this collective improvement journey where we are all learning and growing together.


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