In Mary Modaff’s third-grade class, in Madison, Wisconsin, the driving question of the unit is, “Why do I see so many squirrels, but I can’t find any stegosauruses?” One student, Amaya, shares the interview about squirrels that she conducted with her mom. “My mom told me about a squirrel that visits the bird feeder every day at the same time.” Another student raises her hand and asks, “Does it eat the birds’ food?” Then she shares that a squirrel stole fruit to eat from a family picnic.
Building on the experiences, knowledge, and histories that students bring to class improves learning and engagement. One powerful tool that can enable this is the family interview, which helps teachers and peers value what students already know and creates opportunities for bridging school and home. Interviewing family members about science is highlighted in the Next Generation Science Standards’ case studies as a strategy that supports diversity and equity.
Making Personal Connections to Science
Family interviews offer a meaningful way for students to tap their cultural backgrounds and engage families in discussions about science. Using interviews helps students, including English language learners, build communication skills.
For example, Jake goes to school in Kent City, Michigan. He tells his peers about how his father, as a boy in Mexico, loved to chase and be chased by squirrels. After hearing this story, several other students made connections to their parents’ stories. These stories brought the students together by connecting their home lives.
“We have quite a few kids from different countries,” says Jake’s teacher, Billie Freeland. “So, when these kids are sharing the information they have, that is exciting!”
Building Different Ways of Understanding Science
Creating interviews with family members about natural phenomena fosters learning of scientific ideas. Research shows that students build new understandings about science by connecting new ideas with prior knowledge and skills. Family interviews help create the disciplinary connections among students’ prior knowledge toward achieving the learning targets.
In the Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning (ML-PBL) toy unit, students work together to build toys that move. They interview adult family members to learn about what kinds of moving toys they had as children. Students use the interviews to consider how differently engineered toys produce different kinds of motion.
Some students share that their parents made moving toys out of readily available materials. One dad who grew up in Honduras described the toy planes he made of paper and fabric. The students connect his story with other classroom-based ideas about how toys move through the air.
Crafting Meaningful Interview Questions
So how to get started? In ML-PBL, there is a driving question and a phenomenon that students are working to solve over an extended period of time. Productive interview questions ask open-ended questions or ask for family stories related to the anchoring driving question and science phenomenon.
The questions that students ask their families shouldn’t require deep content knowledge. One unit about how landforms change over time includes interview questions that elicit family stories about land that has changed. Students then share family stories about digging a hole for a new basement, a buckling road, and the impact of flooding in an urban area. The questions are open-ended, allowing for rich conversations and different interpretations.
Introducing Family Interviews
Explain to students the reason for the interviews. Tell them the class will gather evidence about the driving question from their families’ knowledge. Then, read the interview questions, role-play around how to approach a family member for an interview, and use words and drawings that capture the story. For practice, you might interview a favorite staff member as a class.
Have students share interviews with the whole group, or invite family members to share stories with the class. Ask peers to repeat some of what they heard, or act out the story, and discuss what they learned about the driving question. Record evidence from the interview and students’ names on a chart. Then, emphasize that every family is unique and can help the class construct new knowledge.
As the class progresses toward answering the unit’s driving question, remember to return often to the evidence gathered from the interviews. For example, if students learn that squirrels eat different foods, return to the interview about squirrels eating birdseed and fruits. Explain that the interviews provided corroborating evidence.
Family interviews make for deeply engaging lessons and help students apply authentic uses for literacy and science thinking. They also can serve as a home-school bridge and give students a chance to celebrate and learn from their families.