• by Pam McCollum, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November- December 2003

Imagine a middle school or high school where parents are invited to speak to teachers about their feelings and experiences as their children’s first teachers. Imagine also that teachers listen to parents and are able to respond directly in a comfortable environment. Teachers have the opportunity to get a broader picture of students by learning about their interests and abilities from their parents and from the students themselves as they engage in enjoyable conversations. And teachers who do not speak the language of the family’s home can communicate with ease. Sound farfetched? Read on.

This is possible when educators are willing to approach parent involvement from a different perspective – one that values parents and reverses the roles of parents and teachers in traditional parent involvement efforts. Instead of “training” parents on parenting skills, educators assume the role of conversational partners who listen to parents and their children as they respond to focused questions about themselves, their children, and their concerns regarding schooling.

These conversations, or circles of engagement, with parents have great potential for promoting parental support for learning and strengthening the home-school connection

Circles of engagement is a technique for fostering communication between educators and families. It is being used in the ExCELS (Educators x Communities = English Language learners Success) project. ExCELS is an innovative professional development program that creates learning communities comprised of schools, families and communities for English language learners’ academic success.

This Intercultural Development Research Association project works with two secondary schools in San Antonio and is funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Circles of Engagement Activity

Recently, teachers in ExCELS planned a parent involvement event that differed from traditional “culture nights” with English as a second language (ESL) parents. They invited parents and their children to attend, Conversaciones con Padres, where they participated in circles of engagement with teachers and IDRA staff.

Sixty parents and children attended a dinner followed by the circles of engagement activity. Participants divided into small groups comprised of parents, students, teachers and IDRA staff. Each group was asked to name a person who would provide translation services, if needed, and another who would be the recorder of the conversations.

The groups were given a series of questions for parents, students, and teachers that were developed by the ExCELS project teachers. The questions (in both Spanish and English) were crafted to bring out positive aspects of each group (valuing perspective) that would be beneficial for student academic success. The questions were asked in rounds, for example, a parent question, student question, and teacher question in each round.

Round One questions dealt with interests and preferences; Round Two dealt with needs and concerns; and Round Three explored expectations (see box below). The strategy was to get participants comfortable interacting with each other before asking the difficult questions.

Small group conversations were shared with the whole group through a report from the recorder who could be either a parent or student and could be delivered in either Spanish or English. Translations were supplied for the group.

The response to the circles of engagement activity was extremely positive. The participant evaluations indicate their satisfaction with this approach and their eagerness to repeat the experience. Selected responses from the evaluations demonstrate the novelty of this parent involvement activity. Parents were flattered that teachers thought they could learn something from them and were eager to enjoy the experience. Examination of parents’, students’ and teachers’ responses to the question, “What did you like about tonight’s meeting?” illustrate the main characteristics and benefits of circles of engagement.

A Valuing Approach toward Parents and Students

IDRA’s approach to parent involvement is based on an approach that values families and their communities and views them from an assets-based perspective (Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993; Montemayor and Romero, June-July 2000).

Many schools’ parent involvement programs are unwittingly organized around a deficit perspective that views families as lacking in parenting knowledge and skills and, as a consequence, puts parents and families in a passive role as learners. Such programs set out to “fix” parents before engaging them as partners in their children’s learning.

The premise of activities such as circles of engagement is that parents and teachers are taken out of their normal roles and given the opportunity to communicate with each other as equals. In this context, parents and students speak to teachers who listen to them in a specially structured activity.

By virtue of listening to parents’ interests and concerns, teachers send the message that the school values them and their contributions. The following selected evaluation responses highlight the affirmative nature of circles of engagement.

One parent responded: “Lo que mas me gusto de esta reunión fue la atención que nos brindaron por nosotros y nos tomaron en cuenta. Estamos agradecidos. Una gran comunicación entre padres y maestros. [What I liked best about this meeting was the attention that was offered to us and that they paid attention to us. We are very grateful. Great communication between parents and teachers.]”

Another stated: “Me gustaría que hubieran mas reuniones como estas. Mas seguidas porque creo que los estudiantes lo necesitan y nosotros también. [I would like to have more meetings like these more often because the students need it, and we do too.]”

A student responded: “Que están dispuestos a escuchar lo que decimos. Me gustaría que hubieran mas reuniones como estas. Y que nos escucharon y nos quieren ayudar. [That they are willing to listen to what we said. I would like more meetings like these. And that they listened to us and want to help us.]”

A second student responded: “De que tuvimos tiempo de compartir con los padres y los maestros y aprender mucho sobre los demás. [That we had time to share with parents and teachers and learn a lot about everyone.]”

A Context and Resources that Facilitate Direct Communication with Teachers

Parents of children in secondary schools who wish to speak to their child’s teachers can be overwhelmed by the size and organization of a secondary campus. It is difficult to negotiate large unfamiliar buildings and complicated class schedules to find a time when teachers are at liberty to speak to parents. The seeming inaccessibility of teachers is magnified for parents who do not speak English or do not feel comfortable speaking it.

The circles of engagement activity provides a comfortable context with the express purpose of having teachers listen to parents and students. Communication is facilitated by how questions are framed and by having bilingual students and teachers translate.

Having a context that facilitated communication was a key ingredient in the success of this activity. Parent and student responses demonstrate the type of direct communication that occurred in the circles of engagement was novel and productive.

A parent responded: “Me gusto tener la comunicación directa con los maestros, y con los compañeros del grupo en especial el interés que tienen porque los niños aprovechen lo mejor de los estudios. [I liked having direct communication with the teachers and with colleagues in the group especially the interest they have because the children need to take advantage of their studies.]”

A student responded: “I think that our parents should talk to our teachers like they did tonight so that they know each other and talk about how the students are.”

A teacher said: “Parents were able to express themselves without hesitation. It was a very comfortable environment.”

Another said: “[I liked] the chance to get together in a relaxed environment with parents and students.”

A Structure that Equalizes Power Relationships and Promotes Open Conversation

Questions such as “As your child’s first teacher, what did you enjoy teaching them to do?” allow parents to draw on personal experience rather than school learning or experience with a culture they are in the process of learning. This take-away from the normal course shows that parents’ opinions are valued and serves to equalize power relationships between parents and teachers.

In this situation, opinions and information are openly exchanged and provide a mechanism for getting to know persons as individuals. This focus also takes parents out of a passive role as listeners and gives them an opportunity to become active participants in a dialogue about their child’s learning.

A similar type of question to students, “What activity do you participate in that would surprise people at school?” puts them in a different situation, where unlike in school, there are no right or wrong answers.

In response to the previous question, a father prompted his daughter to tell about herself. After initially being reluctant to answer, she expounded at length on her love of fishing which in turn prompted a teacher in the group to volunteer (through an interpreter) that she too had a life-long passion for fishing. Eventually, everyone in the group exchanged fishing stories, recommendations on the best baits and lakes for catching certain kinds of fish.

In this series of exchanges, more was offered than valuable information on fishing. At the human level, all parties involved demonstrated they were capable of relating to the others in the group as individuals and were interested in what they did and how they felt.

Once this level of interaction and trust was established around personal topics, participants (parents, students, and teachers) spoke more readily about children’s learning and their expectations for school. The evaluation comments below regarding what participants liked about the circle of engagement activity show a shift in attitude occurred as a result of their interactions with others in the group.

A parent responded: “Que pudimos conocer a algunos de los maestros que tienen que ver con la educación de nuestros hijos y darme cuenta que al igual que yo tambien tienen las mismas metas de educar bien y correctamente a mi hija. [“We were able to meet some of the teachers that are involved with the education of our children and realize that they have the same goals of educating my daughter well and correctly.]”

A student stated: “Que los maestros después de todo no son tan estrictos como yo pensaba. Saber que puedo tener un amigo maestro. [That the teachers all are not as strict as I had thought. To know that I can have a teacher as a friend.]”

A teacher responded: “Tonight opened hearts and minds.”

Another responded: “We need to make this a regular part of all we do. Coming together like this helps everyone.”

The unimaginable ideal of family involvement described in the opening vignette was created through the use of circles of engagement in Project ExCELS Conversaciones con Padres event last spring. ExCELS teachers analyzed and reflected upon the evaluation data at two meetings after the event. They feel this approach of engaging families and communities has the potential to strengthen the home-school connection in their schools to improve the academic success of English language learners.

They are excited to explore avenues for repeating and sustaining the initial success of this effort in this academic year. Two more Conversaciones con Padres are scheduled for this academic year. This is a work in progress.

ExCELS Circles of Engagement Questions

Three rounds of conversations take place in small groups, each comprised of parents, students and teachers.

Round One (Interests and Preferences)

Parents: As your child’s first teacher, what did you enjoy teaching them to do?”

Students: What activity do you participate in that would surprise people at school?”

Teachers: What part of teaching do you like the best?

Round Two (Needs and Concerns)

Parents: Do you have concerns about your child’s education?

Students: What do you need to make your school experience successful?

Teachers: What are you main concerns regarding teaching?

Round Three (Expectations for School)

Parents: What do you expect from you child’s teachers?

Students: Are your needs being met at school?

Teachers: What would you like your connections to parents to be?

For more information on the IDRA ExCELS project, contact IDRA at 210-444-1710, feedback@idra.org, or visit the IDRA web site at www.idra.org.


Kretzmann, J.P., and J.L. McKnight. Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Towards Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets (Evanston, Ill.: Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993).

Montemayor, A.M., and A.A. Romero. “Valued Parent Partnership,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 2000).

Pam McCollum, Ph.D., is a senior associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2003, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 2003 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]