Alejandro Gibes de Gac, the Founder and CEO of Springboard Collaborative, shares that the power of parents to positively impact student learning success is often overlooked. He shares how goal setting and supporting parents in coaching learners can gain rather quick learning success and set the stage for longer term educational outcomes.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:16 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:44 Parents as a natural resource for our schools. Today on our podcast, I am joined by Alejandro Gibes de Gac. He is the founder and the chief executive officer of Springboard Collaborative. I discovered his work when I was writing about the role of parents as a learning coach and he was featured in a Forbes article on parent involvement in student learning. And when I had a chance to to read his thinking and to visit his website, I dropped him a message and asked him if he’d join us and and he agreed to so welcome Alejandro.
Alejandro: 01:33 Thanks for having me.
Steve: 01:35 I want to read a piece that I pulled from your bio to kind of set the stage here for us. You wrote, “when I was seven, my family immigrated to the US escaping political persecution and seeking educational opportunities. In my upbringing, I learned firsthand that parents’ love for their children is the single greatest and most underutilized natural resource in education. After graduating from Harvard in 2009, I joined Teach for America and spent two years as a first grade teacher. There, I became frustrated that our school system treats low income parents as liabilities, rather than as assets.” I’m wondering if you could start the conversation for us with that first line where you said that parents’ love for their children as the single greatest and most underutilized natural resource in education.
Alejandro: 02:38 Yeah, I mean, that is springboards founding insight. With my own family and my parents, my dad had written a play in protest of the dictator, Pinochet in 1973. It didn’t go over especially well. So he was a political prisoner, was lucky to make it out alive. Met my mom while living in exile, she was the of 13 siblings, first one in her family to go to college. Eventually, they decided to immigrate to the US so that my sister and I ended up better educational opportunities and growing up in a home with little money but lots of love, that’s where I learned that ultimately parents’ love is the single greatest natural resource in education. And by that, I mean, whereas teachers change every year, parents accumulate a wealth of knowledge about their children as learners. Nobody loves them more deeply than than parents and they’re the only folks that, that have access to kids in a one-on-one setting.
Alejandro: 03:35 There’s no smaller classroom than a family’s living room, and there’s no better way to personalize instruction than through a parent. What can be more personal than a parent and child sharing a book at bedtime? In my family, the only reason that my sister and I were able to set expectations for ourselves and ultimately, she went to Columbia, I went to Harvard and we each started our organizations within the education sector. That was only because my parents knew how to set goals with us and how to help us to achieve those goals. And often in the face of roadblocks that were put in our path by the education system.
Alejandro: 04:33 I still remember meeting with my guidance counselor in high school. and my parents had fought hard to rent the tiniest small home in a wealthy community so that we could go to a high-performing public high school. Mostly white kids, mostly affluent community. And even in that context, my high school guidance counselor tried to talk me out of applying to Harvard saying why set myself up for disappointment. There’s this great program for Latinos at a different university. It was really only because my parents believed in me and they had enough knowledge within the system to consistently set goals and help my sister and I moved from one goal to the next, to the next to the next. That’s what put us on a path. And even though my parents may sound interesting and erudite the way that I tell their story, to my teachers growing up, my teachers wrote them off as pushy immigrants with bad English that shouldn’t necessarily play a role in the school system.
Steve: 05:37 So I guess that’s where you lead into this this line that you wrote that said, “school systems frequently see the parents as liabilities rather than assets.”
Alejandro: 05:54 Yeah. That was certainly my experience growing up. And again, I saw it as a teacher within a school in Philadelphia. I was teaching in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. I easily saw myself in my students. I saw my parents and their parents and pretty soon, I realized the connection was deeper than just our shared language and culture and experience of childhood poverty. It was a look. My students’ parents looked at their kids the same way that my parents look at me. With the same eyes that my sister looks at my nieces. Eyes full of all the love, commitment, and potential that any parent sees in their kid and yet, my school and our system wasn’t welcoming parents into the into the classroom or the instructional process and it felt like a big missed opportunity.
Alejandro: 06:45 Kids typically spend 75% of their waking hours outside of the classroom. In the COVID era, lots of kids spending all of their time outside of the classroom and if we don’t have a mechanism to bring parents into the teaching process and capture instructional value from that time kids are spending at home, then how are we ever going to close the achievement gap, let alone the opportunity gap? In the classroom, I began to picture my students’ time as an orange, and it dawned on me that I only have them for a wedge, for that 25% of time that they’re in my classroom and try as I might to squeeze more and more juice from that wedge, I had to find a way to juice the rest of the orange and then we weren’t going to move the needle and it’s no coincidence that the last 25 years, however many billions of dollars we’ve spent on classroom intervention, we don’t have a lot to show for it in terms of closing the literacy gap.
Steve: 07:47 So what do you see schools needing to do to reach out and tap that parent as a resource?
Alejandro: 07:57 Yeah. I mean, the good news is parents and teachers have a common goal. They both want kids to be successful learners and they need each other in order to make that happen. Teachers are the experts on instruction. They know what their students need and in order to make progress, but the classroom setting makes it difficult to individually support every child. I remember having 31 first graders in my classroom and wishing that I could multiply myself and sit down for 45 minutes a day with every single one of them and I just imagined how much progress we could make. Parents as we talked about, are the experts on their own kids. They understand their children more deeply than anyone else and they’re the only folks that have access to consistent one-on-one time. And in that way, you can build a sustainable partnership where teachers share instructional strategies and resources with families, families use those one-on-one with their kids for at least 15, 20, 25 minutes a day as learning coaches, to use your phrase, and they come back to teachers with observations and that way, they’re supporting one another in reaching that goal that they have in common.
Steve: 09:14 When I first read the interview that Forbes had done with you, it caught my attention when you described that the work you were doing through Springboard, that you could have a parent who was not able to read the book that their child was reading, support and encourage and improve the child’s reading. Can you fill us in a little bit more about that?
Alejandro: 09:51 Yeah. About a third of the families we work with can’t, themselves, read the book their child is holding either because of a literacy or a language barrier. And our guidance to them is that their role is to be the coach not the player. Their child is the one who’s reading the book and they’re asking questions before, during and after reading. Even if they can’t answer the questions that they’re asking, that the fact that they’ve engaged their child in thoughtful dialogue consistently around a book, it puts them in a position to still be an effective teacher and coach at home.
Steve: 10:30 So is that motivation? In other words, the child’s motivated to keep reading to do the work of the process because of the parent’s interest?
Alejandro: 10:43 I think it’s related to motivation, but I think the motivation actually comes primarily from the goal. If there’s an active ingredient in our secret sauce, it’s goal setting. We’ve done a lot of learning over the last decade now of doing this work and helping teachers and parents to team up and we’ve distilled it into a method that we open sourced, coincidentally, just a couple of weeks before school started closing. We call it family educator learning accelerators or FILA for short. They’re 5 to 10 week cycles during which teachers and parents share a game plan in order to help kids reach learning goals. We’ve learned that any shorter than five weeks, and it’s not quite long enough to produce a habit. Any longer than 10 weeks, and the finish line is too far away to motivate behavior change.
Alejandro: 11:40 Teachers and parents, they need to see the light at the end of the tunnel in order to willingly march through it together. We’ve learned that you need to begin with relationship building between the teacher and the families that they’re working with. Typically, we’ve done that through an in-person home visit. Of course, as you can imagine, that’s currently happening through a virtual team building huddle is what we call it. But some moment to form a team and build some relational trust. And right at the outset, you set a goal. As I mentioned, the goal is the fuel that the engine runs on and it’s gotta be winnable within that 5 to 10 week period. And then over the course of the cycle, practice, practice, practice. Kids are practicing with their teachers, whether that’s in person instruction or virtual, kids are practicing with their families at home.
Alejandro: 12:28 We built an app to help guide that daily interaction so that even if a parent only has 15 minutes to sit down with their kid any given day, they can feel confident that they’re doing it right. And then finally, teachers and families need to practice altogether as a team at least four times over the course of that 5 to 10 week window, whether that’s an in-person workshop or virtual, that’s what creates the skill sharing and mutual accountability. And at the end of all that practice, you measure progress and see how you did relative to your goal, and you celebrate. Experiencing that quick win with your team, your teacher, or your parents, or the student, that’s what crystallizes the longer lasting habits that that we see even six months after one of these relatively short cycles is over.
Steve: 13:14 The word team was in my mind before you got there. That, really what you’re doing is, the goal creates a team. So the child, the parent, and the teacher have that goal which now puts them as a team working to achieve that goal and each person has their part to play.
Alejandro: 13:37 That’s exactly right. When we do focus groups with families and we ask them, of everything you had access to as part of
springboard programming, what most helped you to support your child’s learning at home? When we first started asking that question, we wondered, is it the strategies? Is it the app? Is it the relationship with the teacher? Is it the relationship with other families doing this with you? What is it? And it’s none of those things. Families consistently say it’s setting and achieving a goal with my kid. And especially the families that we work with, they’re often having that experience for the first time. And it can be a transformative experience as I talked about at the very outset, that got my sister and I through to a place where we could set expectations for ourselves rather than accept expectations being imposed on us.
Steve: 14:33 So learning to set a goal and learning the power of goals is another element that the student leaves the process with.
Alejandro: 14:43 That’s exactly right. I think it has all kinds of implications beyond even the reading gains that we measure pretty closely. It also creates a multiplier on the teacher’s time. For every hour that a teacher leads a family workshop, parents delivered 25 hours of one-on-one coaching at home to try to replicate that amount of individual coaching in the classroom setting would be cost prohibitive. But parents are willing and able to teach for free because they love their kids. And many of the families we’ve worked with, they’ve learned the hard way just how important it is for their kid to have a better educational outcome than than they did. If you give them a pathway to be a part of the process and you arm them with skills and strategies to be able to do that role with confidence and pride, consistently, we get 91% of parents on average to attend that weekly workshop and coach their kids for 26 minutes a night in reading.
Steve: 15:46 Would you would you share one or two of the strategies that you that you provide for the parents?
Alejandro: 15:55 Yeah, as you can imagine that they’re going to look different based on the reading level ranges of kids. A basic strategy
that we use for families to determine if a book is just right, too hard, or too easy is the five finger rule, right? Where the kid reads the first two pages and the parents keep track of how many words they have trouble with. If it’s just one or two, that book might be too easy. If it’s three or four, it might be just right. And it’s five or more, that book is either too hard for them to read independently, or it will require additional support from the from the family member. It’s basic, but for our parents to be able to use that strategy with their child in the library and come home with an armful of books that that they can dig into together, it makes a difference.
Alejandro: 16:47 Another one is doing a picture walk. Before reading, parents are often eager to just start at the first word and flip past the cover and get right to it. But as you know, having taught first grade, if you don’t activate prior knowledge, and if the kid isn’t ready for what they’re about to read, then they’re not going to be as successful as if they flipped through and the parents just asked them all kinds of questions about what they’re seeing in the pictures, what they think is going to happen next, making predictions. All of that before the child’s starting to read, sets of families up to have a more successful experience together. And importantly, by asking all those questions consistently before, during and after the parent is modeling what a thoughtful and critical reader does. You ask yourself questions and children begin to internalize that over time.
Steve: 17:44 Very cool. It’s interesting because when I talk about the parents as coach, I use an example from my experience that I didn’t realize until I I’m listening to you now, again, the connectedness of it. I use the example of my granddaughter coming home the first day that she got her flute at school, and she had to get the flute to make this noise for 10 seconds. And I absolutely know nothing about a flute or what she had to do to get it to make that noise, but as her grandparent, timing her and and saying, try again, try again, that’s that that’s five seconds, you’re halfway there. You know, when she got to 10 and we celebrated, and I said do you want to go for 12, those are all the coaching behaviors without me having any of the any of the background of specifically what it is she she needed to do and I’m just seeing that kind of example fit in here.
Alejandro: 18:55 That’s exactly right. And the, the FILA method that we cautified, we use it in literacy. Our mission is to close the reading achievement gap by fourth grade, but it can apply that to any subject area. The president of springboard, Aubrey, she used this with her son’s basketball coach to help him improve his layup. He was getting really frustrated and wasn’t playing as joyfully as he typically did becuase he couldn’t make a layup. And so she got together the basketball coach, they set a goal, here’s how many layups you can make in a minute today, in a month, in five weeks. Here’s how many layups I would be thinking you can make it a minute. That’s your goal.
Alejandro: 19:46 Once a week, she’d come to practice and kind of team up with their coach, they’d support one another. Every day at home, she’d with their kid for 10 minutes on his layup. He would still go to basketball practice on his own and having a direct coaching experience from the from the official coach. At the end of it all, they saw how many lamps you can make in a minute he’d reach this goal, they all went out for pizza together. It’s all the same principles really, for any educator and any family member that want to work together in order to help kids reach a goal of some kind.
Steve: 20:21 It’s interesting when you said the pizza – the celebration is part of it. A goal sets up a celebration then.
Alejandro: 20:28 Exactly. The celebration is what kind of crystallizes the the habit. Just like the flute recital, right? It’s some end point
where you feel excitement. It increases the stakes to an extent. It’s the practice before the championship game. But kind of having that crescendo at end and leaving that experience with an experience growth, even if you didn’t quite hit your goal, the feeling that you really worked hard and made progress. That’s why when we do a follow up studies six months after one of these cycles is ended, parents should still coaching their kids in reading every bit as much, every bit as often. And it’s because of that relatively short, but intense goal setting cycle. We liken it to it’s more like interval training than marathon running. It’s a short, intense experience, but it produces these lasting gains.
Steve: 21:29 Could you close us out by telling us a little bit about what what listeners can find on your website as resources? So kind of first label for them how to find you and then what they might look for when they go there.
Alejandro: 21:44 Yeah. So the organization, again, we’re a nonprofit, it’s called springboard collaborative and our website is springboardcollaborative.org. And there’s really three ways that we work with schools and districts. And then there’s about 700 schools across the country that that we’ve had the honor of working with. One, is that we we’ve got, for anyone and everyone that wants to use the FILA method, we’ve open sourced it, it’s on our website. There’s a bunch of free resources that that can help you and your teachers to get up and running with these goal-setting cycles between teachers and families independently, on your own, and at no charge as we want to make that accessible to everyone. Where a school or district wants springboard support in running a FILA in literacy, then we’ve got two ways of doing that. There’s both kind of a high touch model, we call it our flagship program where we come in, we run the program, we do a lot of intense capacity building. There’s also a low touch, do it yourself version. Some folks that want to operate more independently and they prefer to do so at a lower price point. So it’s a bit of a choose your own adventure. But whether you want free resources or you want our support, our website is the place to go.
Steve: 23:07 Well, thank you very much. And we’ll we’ll post your website on the lead-in to this podcast so folks can can look back there and grab it. I’m just really impressed with the work you do and thank you so much for sharing it with our listeners here today.
Alejandro: 23:25 Thank you for having me.
Steve [Outro]: 23:27 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.