Family and Community Engagement

Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education
Family and Community Engagement

11. Culturally Sensitive Communication

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Strong communication between school staff and families is important in any school and has special relevance for schools committed to anti-bias education.

Communication built on misinformation, assumptions or stereotypes can create distance between schools, families and students. If handled with respect and cultural sensitivity, however, school-family communication provides an opportunity to live out the values of inclusiveness and equity, which are at the heart of anti-bias education. The following guidelines can help schools avoid communication pitfalls and support teacher-family relationships built on respect:

  • Assume good intentions, and approach all families as partners who want the best for their children.
  • Invite parents or guardians to share knowledge about their students’ lives, interests, hopes and struggles.
  • Invite parents or guardians to share information about family cultures and traditions.
  • Recognize and respect differences in family structures.
  • Recognize the role that identity and background may play in shaping relationships between teachers and families.
  • Bring a sense of self-reflectiveness and cultural humility to all conversations and interactions.
  • View linguistic, cultural and family diversity as strengths.

In addition to setting a tone of respect and inclusivity, strong communication with families also offers teachers an opportunity to invite family involvement and share curricular goals, materials and resources.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Attending to culturally sensitive communication supports two of the four anti-bias domains: Identity and Diversity. Culturally relevant family engagement strategies communicate to students that their family identities are understood and valued. It also demonstrates respect for families with a diverse range of backgrounds and structures.


Inclusive Terminology and Materials

Positive communication can be as simple as using inclusive language when writing and speaking to families. For example, instead of sending home a note that opens, “Dear Parents,” use a greeting such as “Dear Families.” All communication should be checked for assumptions about household resources, family traditions, cultural practices, political affiliations or other life circumstances. For instance, instead of asking for “mother’s name” and “father’s name” on a form, have a space for “names of parents/guardians.”

Recognition of Key Relationships

Teachers should make a point of learning the central figures in each student’s life—including those who may not be legal parents or guardians—and involving them as appropriate. This may include welcoming stepparents, parental partners (regardless of gender) or extended family members.

Use of Home Languages

Because language plays a crucial role in families’ lives, teachers should communicate with parents in their home languages as much as possible. Whenever possible, family materials should be provided in students’ home languages. When translation is needed, a school-provided translator should be employed, as asking students to translate can put them in an awkward position.

Beginning-of-the-Year Questionnaires or Conversations

Teachers can gather valuable information about students by connecting with parents and guardians early in the school year. Asking family members about students’ strengths, challenges and lives outside of school—as well as about their own hopes and fears— provides important background, sets a collaborative tone and allows classroom practice to reflect student identities.


12. Inclusion of Family and Community Wisdom

Incorporating family and community knowledge enhances student learning. Students possess tremendous experiential wisdom on issues related to identity, culture, history and justice. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, cousins, neighbors and community leaders frequently have stories to share about their lives and perspectives.

Family and community wisdom can put a personal face on historical or sociological material and help demystify unfamiliar topics, such as LGBT identity or living with a disability. Hearing from real people who have lived through eras of change or participated in social justice movements can provide inspiration as well as information.

Students also carry knowledge of their families and communities inside themselves. Making room to share this knowledge supports the development of student identities.

Family assignments must be envisioned and explained in a culturally sensitive manner. A seemingly harmless activity, such as creating a family tree, can marginalize students whose biological relations are distant or unknown. Such assignments can be modified to recognize the key relationships in students’ lives. Other ways to incorporate family and community wisdom into the curriculum include community surveys, student conversations with family members, interviews, guest speakers, video projects, art projects, memoir or other family-based writing, oral histories, learning from family members’ professional experiences, and incorporating family or cultural perspectives into the analysis of texts.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Drawing on students’ family and community wisdom supports two of the four anti-bias domains: Identity and Diversity. By listening to the stories of their own families and communities, students can deepen their sense of self and make personal connections with historical, literary and sociological material. Hearing about different classmates’ families and communities can also foster new perspectives on their own experiences and expand their understanding of other groups, cultures and communities.


Family Interviews

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Students can interview family members on a variety of issues such as historical events or eras, family experiences of justice or injustice, evolving cultural norms, social movements and identity. Interview format, questions and reporting practices should be customized based on grade level and educational goals.

Guest Speakers

Family and community members can visit the class to speak about a range of topics. Their connections to these issues may be personal, professional or both.

Community Research

Conducting community-based research can deepen students’ understanding of social justice issues. This research might include opinion surveys or needs assessments, community interviews, visits to local sites or Internet research about community history.


13. Increased Connections Among Families

As students learn and grow together over the course of weeks, months and years, parents and guardians can learn along with them. Strong connections give families the opportunity to support one another in nurturing their children’s identities and values, adding richness to the work of anti-bias and social justice education.

There are lots of ways to bring families together, including in-school or community-based events, group email lists and social media. Teachers, school administrators, students, or parents and guardians can coordinate appropriate family connections based on the students’ age and the composition of the community. Elementary school students, for example, may be more likely than high school students to enjoy attending events with their families. A given activity may resonate with some cultural communities more than others (though it might be good to offer “stretch” events as well). And some communities will have access to the technology and skills needed to support online interaction, while others will not.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Building connections among families supports two of the four anti-bias domains: Identity and Diversity. This practice deepens students’ awareness of the personal and cultural contexts that shape personal experience. It also provides a “learning lab” for introducing different family structures and traditions. Making the curriculum more visible to classroom families helps generate support for anti-bias education work and provides opportunities for families to work with their children on social justice issues. These connections can also foster diverse relationships that echo and strengthen key messages from the curriculum.


Family Events

Events that bring students and families together include family potlucks or picnics; family affinity events (e.g., for families from a certain cultural or ethnic group, for LGBT families, for families of color, for adoptive families); showcases of student work; student or community performances; film nights; game nights; and cultural or multicultural events.

Parent/Guardian Education Programs

Educational programming supports community building and engages family members. Possible programs include films, speakers or discussions for parents and guardians on topics such as bullying prevention, identity development, racial experiences, gender expression, sexuality, learning differences and family diversity. Events may stand alone or be part of an ongoing series.

Family Service/Engagement Projects

Service projects can include family action days at the local food bank, working together on neighborhood political and social issues, attending community events such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations or LGBT Pride events, and fundraising projects for community causes.

Pooling Resources and Sharing Support

In addition to organizing or publicizing formal events, teachers can encourage families to connect informally to share information and resources and to support one another in times of need (e.g., the birth of a new baby or a death in the family). The school can foster this type of support by naming it as an explicit priority and creating a user-friendly contact list or online directory.


14. Use of Local Resources

All local communities have valuable resources that can enhance teaching and learning on social justice topics, even if these resources are not always explicit or obvious. They include events, people, places and organizations.

  • Events. Cultural and community celebrations, commemorations, political actions, artistic events, performances, student conferences and community education events.
  • People. Elders, artists, musicians, researchers, community leaders, policymakers, journalists, advocates, local historians, cultural workers and everyday people who have experienced and worked on social justice issues.
  • Places. Museums, cultural centers, libraries, neighborhood landmarks, and sites of historical interest or struggle.
  • Organizations. Formal or informal groups engaged in relevant cultural, artistic, social or political projects.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Drawing on local resources supports all four anti-bias domains: Identity, Diversity, Justice and Action. Witnessing marginalization, power dynamics and activism in their own communities strengthens personal connections with these curricular concepts. At a broader level, schools benefit from community connections and partnerships, and communities benefit when citizens are educated in matters of equity and justice.


Classroom or School Presentations

Individuals or organizational representatives can be invited to speak about how their life or work experiences relate to social justice themes.

Neighborhood Explorations

Social-movement-based history and cultural knowledge often connect to specific cities and neighborhoods. For example, certain New York City neighborhoods offer windows into the lives of different immigrant groups during the 19th and 20th centuries. Montgomery, Ala., houses landmarks and monuments from the civil rights era. Visiting sites like these can add richness to students’ curricular experiences. Neighborhood explorations can also be paired with classroom or school presentations.

Connecting with Community Organizations

Most cities and towns have local organizations that engage in cultural activities, community service efforts or social justice advocacy. Many of these organizations are happy to partner with schools, provide students with information and offer opportunities for students to participate in their projects.


15. Engagement with Community Issues and Problems

A core component of anti-bias education is learning to take action against exclusion, prejudice and discrimination; it can be especially powerful for students to do this in their own schools and local communities.

Consider the following tips for ensuring that community engagement efforts reflect anti-bias values:

  • Create a community action project that addresses real needs. Community organizations can help articulate these needs and suggest ways to maximize students’ time and talents.
  • Draw on students’ knowledge of and personal connection to the issues involved. The more specific the project, the better.
  • Include a strong research component that ensures students’ efforts to increase their knowledge and understanding are not simply based on what they already know.
  • Incorporate reflection about student attitudes to ensure the project doesn’t reinforce assumptions or stereotypes about specific people or communities.
  • Provide writing prompts to help students consider personal changes they can make to challenge bias, exclusion and injustice.
  • Study the broader social context surrounding the community problem. Intervene if students “blame the victim” for challenges beyond individual control.
  • Use texts to spark student reflection about community challenges and issues.
  • Work “with,” not “for,” individuals or groups the class wants to support.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Expecting students to engage directly with community issues and problems supports two of the four anti-bias domains: Justice and Action.


Personal Action Plan

After reading about prejudice or discrimination, the Personal Action Plan assignment asks students to reflect on these issues in their own surroundings and explore how they might help make their school and community more welcoming, inclusive and equitable. The Personal Action Plan can focus on one particular topic (e.g., name-calling and bullying, peer culture, diversity of gender expression or LGBT issues), or it can be more general. Plans should focus on acts of personal change, and students should share their plans with classmates to build accountability for implementation.

“Fighting for Fairness” Letters

The Fairness Letter Project (Live Oak School, San Francisco, Calif.) asks students to identify an instance of unfairness in their school or community, research the issue and write an advocacy letter to a person or organization with power to change the situation. In addition to developing issue-based analysis and critical writing skills, this project requires students to evaluate how change happens and where they can best channel their efforts for maximum impact.

Student-Designed Community Projects

Any social justice issue could inspire an individual or group project designed to support local people. Possible projects include designing a public service announcement, conducting a survey or opinion poll, providing direct service through a community agency, creating a workshop or event or hosting a justice-themed art show.

Ongoing Partnerships with Community Organizations

Semester- or year-long community partnerships offer students a chance to establish continuity and deeper connections with particular issues, populations or projects. A partnership spanning multiple years gives each class a chance to build on previous classes’ work, multiplying the impact.