Home Visits With a STEM Twist
Research shows that home visits reduce absences and improve test scores and school climate, but what if they could also spark an interest in the science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, fields? That's the question the college of education at Sacramento State University set out to answer when it began training in home visits for math and science teacher candidates.
These teachers are the key to opening up STEM fields to lower-income students and students of color, said Deidre B. Sessoms, a professor in the college of education at Sacramento State, where all candidates get their training in high-needs districts, including Sacramento City Unified, San Juan, and Elk Grove. "We don't have enough students of color going into the STEM field and we have a hard time keeping girls and girls of color interested in math and science," said Sessoms. "So while we want all of our students to have this training, it is especially important for our math and science teachers."
Sessoms pointed out that the fastest-growing jobs in Sacramento are in the STEM fields. Biotech firms, tech companies like Intel, and space companies like Aerojet Rocketdyne, are all cropping up in Sacramento. Even the state government has a need for engineers. "We need to connect with families and let them know their children can get these high-paying jobs," Sessoms said.
Eyes on the Goal
It's unusual for a school of education to provide home-visit training for its candidates, but science teacher Jennifer Clemens and physical education instructor LuTisha Stockdale bet the investment will pay off. "The earlier teachers try this in their careers, the better," said Clemens. "It helps to just jump in, shadow teachers, and see how the whole conversation works. You've got to take away the mystery and fear early on."
Clemens and Stockdale teach freshmen at Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School in Sacramento, and Clemens is a Master Teacher Fellow in the National Science Foundation Robert Noyce grant program at Sacramento State. They've been pairing up to do home visits over the summer for a couple years now. The visits serve a practical purpose—the teachers can answer any questions students have about starting a new school—but the results can be far-reaching. Stockdale credits the visits with a major decline in behavior issues.
As a part of the training for Sacramento State math and science teacher candidates, Ashlee Amber Teczon accompanied Clemens and Stockdale on a home visit. Teczon does her student teaching in environmental science and biology at Rosemont High School in Sacramento. Even though she was shadowing more-experienced teachers, Teczon said she was really nervous about the visit. But the family was so welcoming, and the conversation so constructive, that she ended up feeling determined to do home visits when she has her own class next school year.
"Parents tend to be a bit hesitant or unsure about how to act around a teacher, but home visits help to break down that barrier," she said. "The visits help to show that you are not such a scary person. It's more about, 'I've got the kids at school and you've got them at home and we should be working together.'"
STEM for All
Kristen Endean, a Sacramento State math candidate who teaches geometry at Cordova High School near Sacramento, also felt unsure about the idea of doing home visits. But after shadowing experienced teachers, she came to see the visit as yet another way to connect with her students' families and share her experience in STEM careers with them.
As a student teacher, Endean builds relationships with her students and families by going to high school sporting events, and the personal knowledge she has gained has come in handy in the classroom. She once explained arcs to her soccer-playing students by reminding them about what they do when they make a penalty kick. "You have to think about where you kick the ball from with your foot to make sure you get it over or around the goalie," she explained. "How hard do you have to kick the ball?" When they answered "pretty hard," she told them that's the "initial velocity."
Some will joke that they don't "think about math when they're making a penalty kick," but Endean is OK with that because she knows the concept clicked.
"That's the power of STEM teachers getting to know their students," said Lysette Lemay, project coordinator for Parent Teacher Home Visits in Sacramento, the program that trains the teacher candidates. "As you build those relationships, you learn things about your students' and their families that chances are you might not find out in the day-to-day classroom. Maybe they like sports or maybe they tend the family garden. These interests can be brought out in classroom lessons."
Endean's students, the majority of whom are black and Hispanic, will dismiss certain jobs, she said, mainly because they don't see other people like them in the field. So she has decided she will use her own story as an example when she visits her students' homes next year. "I'm a woman in a STEM field," she said. "I have a degree in astronomy and math, with a focus in physics. It's not common for a woman to be in these fields, but here I am."
Dreams for the Future
Training STEM teachers in home visits will help to broaden their impact, according to Steve Sheldon, an associate professor in the school of education at Johns Hopkins University. He has done research on home visits in Washington, D.C., and is now doing a national study of the impact of home visits nationwide for Parent Teacher Home Visits.
"Most secondary teachers see themselves as subject-matter experts," Sheldon said. "'I am a science teacher, so I'm a scientist,' or 'I'm a math teacher, so I'm a mathematician.' They hug closely to that expertise. Family conversation is outside of that realm. It's all about academic subject matter and rigor. Home visits break that down, and push teachers outside their comfort zone where we all learn and grow."
But math and science teachers should be careful not to take STEM promotion too far, warned Clemens, the science teacher at Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School. She thinks the benefits of careers in science and other fields should come out naturally through a conversation about the hopes and dreams students and parents have for the future.
"I don't see the home visit as an opportunity to advertise STEM fields," said Clemens. "But if home visits are successful, parents and teachers are becoming more connected, and the kids are thriving at a science school like Benjamin Health Professions as a result, then that could only benefit the field."
Photo: Courtesy of Parent Teacher Home Visits