FASTalk: Activating the Power of Families to Support Mathematics

By Elisabeth O’Bryon, co-founder and Chief Impact Officer at Family Engagement Lab and Megan Lorio, Managing Editor at Family Engagement Lab

Engaging families in meaningful and equitable ways is a cornerstone of student success in the classroom. Decades of research have demonstrated the strong, positive impact that families’ engagement in their children’s education has on student learning.

The pandemic has shed a new light on the critical role that families play as partners in supporting student success. Over the course of the school closures, families were afforded unique visibility into their children’s educational experiences, prompting a new and powerful interconnectedness between families and teachers. Let’s leverage this momentum and reimagine families’ roles in collaborating with schools to support student learning—this school year and beyond.

So what does this look like, especially as we think about family engagement and mathematics instruction?

When family engagement is a central practice in support of equitable mathematics outcomes for students, families are regularly and actively invited in as partners. Families are recognized for their many assets, including their deep understanding of their child’s specific strengths and weaknesses and their ability to uniquely activate students’ background knowledge. Families are valued as essential collaborators and, ultimately, children benefit as the key adults in their lives jointly support their success in mathematics.

The influential role that families play in their children’s development of mathematics skills is well-documented. As reported in a June 2020 review of the Family Math literature, parents’ math talk can support children’s math achievement by helping to develop children’s math vocabulary which, in turn, supports their mathematical thinking. Further, parents’ enjoyment and positive attitudes towards math have been associated with higher levels of parent-reported math activities.

Leveraging Technology to Equitably Engage Families in Learning 

At Family Engagement Lab, we are committed to advancing equitable outcomes for students through high-impact family engagement solutions. Our signature family engagement program,  FASTalk (Families and Schools Talk), provides a scalable, cost-effective tool for teachers that sends curriculum-aligned learning activities to families by text message in their home language. FASTalk catalyzes partnerships between the most passionate advocates for children—teachers and family members—to help students achieve their fullest potential.

As a Short Message Service (SMS)-based solution, FASTalk is helping schools equitably provide learning-related resources to families at a time when the digital divide privileges access for families who have the resources (technological and otherwise) that are required to meaningfully engage virtually. Currently 99%+ of US adults have access to an SMS-enabled phone, and text messaging is a preferred method of communication for both English-speaking and linguistically diverse families. Since FASTalk does not require Wi-Fi or computing devices, it is a particularly effective way for districts to maintain consistent connection points with families during both in-person and distance learning.

Importantly, FASTalk leverages a trusted messenger (the child’s teacher) and an accessible, scalable technology (text messaging) to send families curriculum-aligned tips and activities in their home language. ​Ongoing parent-teacher communication about student learning is seamless with two-way, automatic translation.

FASTalk Partnership with Illustrative Mathematics & the Los Angeles Unified School District

Through a partnership with Illustrative Mathematics and Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, we had the wonderful opportunity to develop FASTalk messages aligned with IM K–5 Math. During the spring of 2021, we launched a 15-week pilot in grade 3 classrooms in two Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools. We created FASTalk messages that were designed to reinforce classroom mathematics instruction through quick, easy, and actionable tips and at-home learning activities. Messages were then translated into families’ home languages and sent out through SMS to families each week.

The FASTalk messages were closely aligned to the goals and key standards for IM Units 5, 6, and 7 for grade 3 and included a focus on fractions, measurement, shapes, and perimeter. Here’s a look at what the IM-aligned FASTalk messages look like:

EXAMPLE 1:

Monday:
The next time you go to a store or shop online, build your child’s math skills by asking them to estimate the cost to buy a group of items.

Wednesday:
If shirts cost 12 dollars, ask: How many could we buy for 96 dollars? Ask your child to describe how they found the answer. What was their strategy?

Friday:
Was your child able to practice their math skills at a store or online shop this week? Reply:

1: Yes
2: Not yet

Auto-response:
I appreciate your support at home—it makes a big difference!

EXAMPLE 2:

Monday:
FRACTIONS are numbers that describe parts of a whole that’s been broken into equal parts (ex: 1/2, 1/6). Talk about fractions at home this week!

Wednesday:
Fractions are all around us. Eating oranges? Ask for 1/4 of the orange. Folding laundry? Ask your child to fold a towel into thirds.

Friday:
Did you talk with your child about fractions at home this week? Reply:

1: Yes
2: Not yet

Auto-response:
Thank you! Keep finding opportunities to talk about fractions! You’re helping build key 3rd grade math skills.

LAUSD families and teachers provided positive feedback on the pilot program, with families reporting that the text messages benefitted their children’s learning and that they would like to receive the messages from their child’s teacher the next year. Teachers reported that FASTalk helped students access the curriculum. All pilot teachers wanted to use FASTalk again the following year. Teachers were especially excited about an easy-to-use tool and an opportunity to provide families with accessible activities to enrich students’ learning.

We’re excited to be expanding our work to include new schools and grade levels during the 2021–22 school year. We are building a library of aligned FASTalk messages for all of IM K-5 Math in close collaboration with the Illustrative Mathematics team. We know that family engagement is a critical and powerful tool in supporting student success and look forward to continuing to facilitate meaningful opportunities for mathematics learning at home.

Next Steps

Reflect on the ways you are engaging families in their child’s educational journey in mathematics:

  • How are you activating the potential of families as partners?
  • Do families have the information they need to reinforce classroom mathematics instruction at home? 
  • Is information being shared in a way that is accessible and equitable?

 

Elisabeth O’Bryon, Ph.D.
co-founder and Chief Impact Officer at Family Engagement Lab

Elisabeth O’Bryon, Ph.D., is a cofounder and the chief impact officer at Family Engagement Lab. Previously, she was the director of research and evaluation at GreatSchools, where she worked to design and implement evaluation projects, with a particular focus on rapid-cycle research approaches. Elisabeth was formerly a postdoctoral research associate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, where she evaluated the effectiveness of school-based social-emotional learning programming for children, teachers, and families.

Elisabeth has a doctorate in psychology and experience providing school psychological services to preschool through high school-age students in both English and Spanish. Her research has focused on how to promote the educational success of students identified as English learners, as well as ways to support home-school partnerships with culturally and linguistically diverse families. Elisabeth is also the mom of two young boys, from whom she learns every day.

Megan Lorio
Managing Editor at Family Engagement Lab

Megan Lorio is the Managing Editor at Family Engagement Lab. In this role, she supports content strategy and development for Family Engagement Lab’s family engagement tool, FASTalk. Prior to being in this role, she began her career as a kindergarten teacher, teaching in public and charter schools in Washington D.C. and New York City. After moving to New Orleans, she became a founding kindergarten teacher at Bricolage Academy, a charter school focused on advancing educational equity and creating innovators. She then served as an administrator at Bricolage, offering instructional and curriculum support to teams of teachers, pre-kindergarten–grade 5. She is passionate about providing equitable and meaningful learning opportunities for students and families and is thrilled to be pursuing that passion through her work at Family Engagement Lab.