National Writing Project

Book Review: Writing with Families

By: Susan Stuber
Date: December 18, 2009

Summary: Art Kelly's book offers a model for engaging families in learning together through family writing groups, benefiting each participant and creating a meaningful partnership between home and school.

 

As a Title I kindergarten and first grade teacher on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Polson, Montana, I have found that many of the children I teach don't know much about the lives of their families. While I believe that one way I can help these students write authentically is to partner with their families, I've wondered how these families—made up of Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Orielle tribal members—oppressed by schools of the past, could come to trust the schools of the present.

Yet I had to try. Over the course of working for fifteen years in several school districts, my best learning and teaching experiences have centered on children, families, and teachers learning together. Through these opportunities I have come to realize that I need to understand and respect the culture of home, garnering what I can from this culture, so that what I bring to the learning feast will fit the needs of students and the families within which they live.

I believe that families are the consistent teachers of their children, involved with this responsibility long before and after formal schooling has begun and ended. I know I am not the expert on a child's life, nor am I the only advocate for that child.

Creating Family Writing Groups

This was my thinking when I came on a book in the professional library of the Montana Writing Project that addressed my concerns: Writing with Families: Strengthening the Home/School Connection with Family Scribe Groups, by S. Arthur Kelly.

Kelly is a middle school teacher working in the urban core of Las Vegas, Nevada. With the insistence and encouragement of leaders of the Southern Nevada Writing Project, he founded the Fremont Family Writing Project , inviting families at the John C. Fremont Middle School to join a community of writers.

Writing with Families catalogues this adventure and, in a reader-friendly style, outlines how other teachers create their own family writing groups.

At the core of his program are a series of sessions in which the intergenerational members of families do something that is integral to the work in the classroom. Kelly focuses on the specifics of a single session, its theme, and its agenda. At each meeting family members revisit the previous session's work, are engaged in meaningful writing activities, share, and celebrate. And homework is assigned.

Many of the children I teach don't know much about the lives of their families. Families are the consistent teachers of their children.

Yes, homework. Kelly says close to one hundred percent of families do the homework and the same percentage share their work aloud before the standard five sessions come to a close. He also states that nationwide (family writing projects have become something of a national movement), facilitators report that families sign up to be involved multiple times as their children change schools and grade levels.

Kelly also discusses organizational considerations such as where to get money and where not to get it. (Avoid anyone who might want to further an agenda that is not in keeping with the basic tenets of family writing groups.) Other topics include how to get buy-in from administrators, how to make decisions about who to invite, securing publicity, and researching publishing options. Kelly even recommends a list of supplies facilitators may wish to obtain.

The icing on the cake is the extension projects, optional culminating activities, and many other themes and activities for the core sessions that Kelly discusses. He provides facilitators' resources, frequently asked questions, and facilitator testimonials. Templates for the ever-present paperwork that accompanies any project round out the book's content.

Principles of Family Writing Groups

Flexibility is a key to facilitation according to Kelly. This claim helped me realize that subtle shifts in design would make it possible to implement a family writing project in my community as long as I adhered to his thirteen principles of family writing groups. These principles include keeping family the focus of each session, giving a voice to young and old, honoring native language, and balancing mind and heart.

Kelly invites schools, churches, and community organizations to embrace his approach. The successful Las Vegas project has been duplicated in other states. A website of family work and suggestions , from planning through implementing to extending the community experience, is available as well.

Writing with Families: Strengthening the Home/School Connection with Family Scribe Groups is an inspiration for educators who are ready to take a risk. From Kelly's own experiences and from those who've taken up his model, the collective knowledge of whole families of learners is validated. Kelly's model brings a fresh perspective to school lounge grumbling about the lack of parent involvement.

Personally, I'm ready to take the plunge. I hope you'll join me, Art Kelly, and the network of family writing groups. Kelly's innovation deserves to prosper because he shows a way for a school population to become a community.

As one parent put it: "The same things are important to us, although we are all from very different backgrounds." Another added, "The real surprise here isn't the differences; it's that we are all so much alike."

About the Author Susan Stuber, Title I Reading Specialist, teaches kindergarten and first grade students at Cherry Valley Early Childhood Center on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Polson, MT.

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