The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 222

Jennifer Gonzalez, host

GONZALEZ: When I am in spaces where people talk about solutions to some of our biggest problems — poverty, crime, addiction, environmental decline — one theme that comes up often is community. Yes, we need infrastructure, equal access to services that meet our needs, fair laws, and ethical leaders, but while we wait and fight for those things, so much can be accomplished by building community, developing a strong network of mutual support by simply getting to know the people around us, sharing resources, and learning from each other. 

This holds true for education as well. Most schools operate within a larger community, and the better we are at building relationships between our schools and our communities, the better we can serve our students.

While this principle is not new, as our student population grows ever more diverse, many schools haven’t been quite as successful as they’d like to be when trying to connect with their students’ families. Despite holding open houses and special theme nights, setting up parent-teacher conferences, sending home newsletters, and using apps designed specifically to keep families in the loop, I hear too many teachers say these efforts still don’t produce the results they hope for. (On the other end of the spectrum, there are teachers in some districts where parents seem to be too involved, but this is a different problem altogether.)

So if current efforts aren’t working, it’s time we tried a different approach. This is where my guest today comes in. Nawal Qarooni is an educator and the author of the new book, Nourishing Caregiver Collaborations: Elevating Home Experiences and Classroom Practices for Collective Care. In a book that is both practical and beautiful, she lays out a pathway for how schools can make more authentic connections with the people in students’ lives outside of school. Even more than connections — how we can truly collaborate with families to educate our students by elevating the natural learning that happens at home and making our work in school more relevant to students’ home lives.

I have a long list of education books waiting to be considered for inclusion on this podcast, but every now and then, one book jumps right to the front of the line. This is one of those books, because at a time like now, when so many things feel broken, it gives us some ways to heal. In today’s episode, Nawal and I talk about specific things teachers can do to more authentically involve families in their children’s education.

Before we start, I’d like to thank Khan Academy Kids for sponsoring this episode. Ever dreamt of a teaching tool that’s not just effective but also simplifies your life? Meet Khan Academy Kids! No more juggling between apps – they’ve got all your lower elementary needs covered in one place. Picture this: age-appropriate learning, a full classroom library, and engaging math and literacy lessons and activities that bring every standard to life. And while Khan Academy Kids will always be free for individual teachers, their district partnership is just $5 per student. Partnership provides district-wide access to premium insights that support differentiation, along with features that give leaders their time back, like white-glove onboarding and professional development. They customize all of this to support your district’s individual goals. Dive into Khan Academy Kids and witness the magic of joyful learning. Visit – that’s “Khan,” K-H-A-N – to discover the most effective, affordable, and joyful edtech solution you’ve ever experienced!

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Now here’s my conversation with Nawal Qarooni about building stronger collaborative relationships with families and caregivers.

GONZALEZ: Nawal, welcome to the podcast.

QAROONI: Thank you so much for having me.

GONZALEZ: We are going to talk about including families more authentically and in lots of different ways in our classroom. So before we start getting into all of that, just tell us a little bit about your current role in education, what you’re doing, and then what led you to writing the book “Nourishing Caregiver Collaborations.”

QAROONI: I’m currently a staff developer and a literacy coach in PK-8 schools across the country, and more recently, I facilitate family literacy engagement workshops in community spaces. I was a classroom teacher for many years and a journalist before that and have always been a very voracious learner. I did school really well, but sometimes the idea of being a learner and doing school are not exactly synonymous. You know, we all know that, like, there are some people who are students in life who don’t, you know, who don’t necessarily succeed in our traditional school systems. And so school never felt challenging for me. I was definitely, like, targeted for talking too much. But I will say that my experience as a bilingual and multiethnic young woman being raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a predominantly white school, you know, my school assignments, my teachers potentially, didn’t really elevate the literacy-rich ways that my family, you know, that my family supported. And those experiences were not, there was no place for them in school assignments. And then it was really during the COVID-19 pandemic when I was supporting teachers virtually and I had four young kids at home — my kids are between 4 and 11 now, so imagine they were quite young — that I realized that families of all stripes and all kinds, no matter where they were living or where they came from, were doing the same work that we were trying to achieve as teachers in the classroom. And that they were doing that authentically, naturally without even realizing that they were doing incredible literacy work. So this, this book really came of that, came of that idea. This idea that, you know, caregiving and educating are synonymous, that when you give care, you are, you are doing the work of literacy education.

GONZALEZ: Right. And so that’s sort of the angle that you’re coming at with the book. And you know, as I’m thinking about how to introduce this to our audience of teachers, I’m thinking the first reaction is going to be, you know, yeah, we’ve always tried to include families in school. So the idea of that is not a new one. However, reading your book, it felt like a very, very fresh angle and a very fresh approach and very much needed. So what has been missing from sort of the standard messaging that we have been giving in our schools around this idea? And where have we missed the mark when it comes to, you know, trying, our typical approach of trying to involve families more in school and, you know, keep engagement going at home?

QAROONI: Well, I think in so much of what we do, and what I’ve noticed in all of my work across the schools in the country, is that, is that family engagement is very top down. It’s a top-down approach saying, “Families, this is how you can support your children.” They might be surface-level ideas. They might feel isolated or one-off. It either says, like, do this or don’t do that. You know, here are the sight words we need to know. Read for, with your child for 20 minutes. Please pick up report cards. Please attend this literacy night. And so my work hopefully in this book really seeks to elevate what families are already doing and naming that for families so that they can continue to do it with some intentionality, bring it back into the classroom to strengthen our literacy experience, and then cycle it back to families to say, “Do you see? This is what we’re doing in the classroom.” So it’s much more of a cyclical, collective care approach that every child is supported by a whole community of caregivers and educators really that are doing the same type of work. And I really think of it as like a cycle where there’s stronger instructional promise if we communicate better. And that’s why every chapter in the book starts with a family story or a family experience that’s literacy rich. I first had thought about writing the book in the opposite direction, saying, anchoring it first in the classroom, then moving into what they’re already doing. But I thought this must stem from family strength and funds of knowledge like Dr. Luis Moll says, you know.

GONZALEZ: Yes, yes, and I, as a reader of your book, I really appreciated that, having, it’s a very personal, you know, you sort of start with the personal, and I think that is a really great place to anchor, because we speak in generality so much in education. It’s really hard sometimes, I think, for practitioners to take it down to the level of “how do I do this and how do I apply it” and think about just specific students and how this would work with them.

QAROONI: Yeah, absolutely.

GONZALEZ: So if I’m going to just sort of paraphrase what the overall approach is, is that, you know, some of the things that we’ve been doing haven’t really taken into account all of the rich experiences that are happening at home. And so we’re communicating to them “do this” without recognizing what they’re doing and sharing that with them and validating the practices that they already have at home can help them to almost do more of it knowing that it’s really helping their student’s growth and learning, and it can become a more of a cooperative collaborative approach as opposed to just “this is home” and “this is school” and they’re separate.

QAROONI: Exactly. You said it beautifully, because the siloed approach of your job is to give care really doesn’t, doesn’t value the fact that families are doing literacy, exactly.

GONZALEZ: Mhmm. Okay, so what we, this is what I suggested, and you agree that we could just pull out some of the takeaways from your book in terms of action steps that teachers can take to generate more of these kinds of cyclical relationships. And obviously whenever I do these interviews, reading the whole book is going to be the best approach to this, but to sort of at least give teachers an idea of what your, your approach is and maybe if they never end up reading the book, we can still put some seeds in their heads of new practices that they can try. So we’re going to do that, but when I first broached that idea with you, you came back and said yes, but I really don’t like the idea of it being like a checklist. Let’s not give them a checklist. So we decided let’s address that first so that we make sure that no one listening to this thinks that this is a checklist we’re giving them. What’s the issue with checklists?

QAROONI: Well, just because I work in so many schools, and I know this to be true, but we don’t want to reduce this work to a “must do’s.” There will be no, there are no two schools that are identical, not the student makeup, not the student population, nor the teaching body. And so when I’m working with teachers and staff, I often do this work where I have them close their eyes, and I say, “If I say the word ‘family’ to you, who do you hear? What do you envision? Whose sounds are you, you know, whose sounds are you hearing? Is it a location, right, that you’re envisioning.” And once we do this kind of like drawing board of who comes to you when I say the word “family,” and then we turn and talk with our partners, and we unpack, like, who shows up. No two families are the same, and so as a result, our understanding of what families look like and sound like and should act like changes the way that we communicate with families. And so if we approach this work in a checklist form, it like eliminates all those nuances.

GONZALEZ: Mhmm. Okay, and so it’s much more important to know and really deeply understand who is in your room and what their families look like from even year to year, not even just within your own community but even at a finer grain level. You know, every year it’s going to be different too.

QAROONI: Exactly, and I can never tell you “this is what you must do with all the families” because you’ll say back to me, “But these, the families in our care need, but the families in our care are also experiencing … ” and I will not know that, right?


QAROONI: I just want to make sure that a checklist is not the end-all be-all, you know, just like curricula is not the end-all be-all. But let this be a springboard for our own thinking.

GONZALEZ: Yes, okay. And so kind of along the lines of what you were saying, the first thing that we are suggesting is that teachers really unpack the biases that they have around “what is a family and what does that look like.” Let’s talk more about that.

QAROONI: Well, if we think a little bit about our own upbringings, it, and our own education experiences, it will shape how we then communicate with the families in our care. Because we have opinions about what is success in school, what is success in life, what is a “proper,” in quotes, way to look, act, behave in a school setting, right? So all of these things carry their own weight, and as a result, it then changes the way that we interact with the families. And so when we talk about, like, getting to know students at the beginning of the year, I would argue that you can’t separate knowing the children from knowing their families. And when we think about our own biases, we just have to sit with the fact that families might look different, and families might sound different, and this might, you know, it might then affect the way that we interact with that family as a result. We might reach for mothers before fathers. We might assume two-parent households. We might then have a bias around having a different sort of household, right, even inadvertently. And so, you know, the power is really like in, in reflecting on that and just sitting with it, and for administrators to carve out time for teachers to sit down and reflect on that before we then continue with the traditional ways of communicating with families.

GONZALEZ: And that can actually even start, you know, before you get to know your families. It can even start with just the language that you choose to use when you’re referring to, you know, rather than saying “parent night” —

QAROONI: That’s right.

GONZALEZ: — or “this is a parent signature that we need.” What are your current words that you use when you’re talking to kids and colleagues about families? What, what, what terminology works best for you?

QAROONI: I tend to say things like “your grown-up” or your, you know, “your caregivers, “the people who care for you.” I tend to say “caregiver conferences” or “collaborative conferences” instead of “parent-teacher conferences.” I think about all of the activities that are around Mother’s Day or around Father’s Day or around all these different events that might inadvertently alienate children. Just like we’re thinking about representation in our texts, we have to think, like, about the representation in our language. And so yeah, that, it bleeds into everything we do. I talk about re-envisioning the family tree assignment, which is like a very typical assignment that’s not meant to alienate or cause harm but that could, and re-envisioning it as community care or collective maps or constellation of care. And thinking just, you know, beyond blood relatives. I think about chosen family. You know, when I do that first activity with teachers, they often choose chosen family first. They might say, like, it’s, it’s the family that created them. But a lot of people envision the family they create and the families that, you know, the people who are in their family who are not blood relatives, but those people would not show up on a family tree, for example. And so tons of students have collective care maps that are like beyond. But all of this can’t happen if we don’t sit with our own understandings of what families must look like, right? Like, our own definitions.

GONZALEZ: And just how much could we learn about a student if we open up an assignment as simple as a family tree to allow even a kid who has what looks like a very sort of typical, you know, kind of family structure, if they’re not allowed to include that neighbor that basically raised them for a certain chunk of time, and they’re not blood relatives, you can’t put them on. And we miss the opportunity to get to know this really important person in their life because it’s not part of that typical map.

QAROONI: That’s right I had a student recently put on their collective care map like the bodega owner Yusef who was the person who, I like to ask, like, where does literacy happen for you? Like, what literacy happened in those relationships, right? And this student, who was like in seventh grade, said Yusef always debriefs my day with me, it’s like before my parents, because the parent couldn’t pick up at that time, so he goes with his siblings to that school, I mean to that bodega, and he sits back there, and he just debriefs all the problems. And so the mom would always say, “I can’t get them to stop talking,” right? But that person is part of the collective care map for the child.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Probably knows a lot about that child’s life. So, okay, so we are, we’re going to look at some other things. You know, we’ve unpacked our biases and just made sure that whenever we think “family,” “caregivers,” whatever that we’re broadening that lens and being open to all different kinds of setups and arrangements and the different ways that families look. So the second thing that teachers can do when they are trying to build these collaborative relationships is explain best practices to families. You talked in the book a lot about how, you know, parents — from their own school experiences — have this idea of what should be happening in a school. And so when they see that something different is happening, it’s like, well, what are you learning? What are they doing? Why, why is this happening? And so, you know, we can be doing a better job sometimes of helping parents understand why we’re making the instructional decisions we’re making.

QAROONI: Yeah. I, I pull out a couple of ideas, you know, per chapter, back and forth of how we can communicate this with families. Because, you know, our understanding of education, I think, has changed in so many ways. And so for example, you know, following directions is really important, but it’s not the only and most crucial thing. What is important though is knowing how, how to make our own decisions based on context and on consequences, and, and determining what’s best, right? But these types of ideas are just like novel to families, the idea of like “mistake-making culture” is like, you know, Colleen Cruz talks about re-examining perfection as a mindset, embracing mistakes, like innovation and iteration. Families don’t see that all of that needs to unfold in the education space as well. And so these are parts of school that many of our families might have trouble letting go completely, because what they want to see is that final polished product. But like, I deeply believe that we can’t prepare children for an unjust world by, without giving them the tools to, like, reimagine a different way, right?


QAROONI: And I think a lot of it is giving families the agency to ask beyond, like, how is my child doing? Or how does my child compare to other children? Which is just like a very typical question because they, that’s a construct of our, like, society, this comparison, and the ways that we have to grade, right?


QAROONI: But I, I try to make all these suggestions for even deeper and more nuanced questions for families, especially think of the families that don’t have the agency to ask those and might not even know what to advocate for, you know. From what services does my child, is my child, does he have the right, he or she, have the right to? To how does my child learn best? To how does my child speak up for themselves in groups? Does my child know that you know these details about them? These are the sorts of questions that I hope my, my classroom teachers for my own children would know about, you know, my children, but also, I just, I want families to have the language to know what to ask and, and then it like also just sitting with it as a classroom teacher and saying, do I know these things about all this, all of my students?

GONZALEZ: Yeah, how, how would you suggest that a teacher go about communicating that to families? You know, you’re talking about giving families different ways of asking. Especially if I’m thinking about a family where a lot of the caregivers don’t speak English all that proficiently, how do we get that information to them where we’re basically saying, “I invite you to ask, ask these questions”? How do we do that?

QAROONI: So one of the ways is just in in every touch point with the family is starting at the beginning of the year, you’re giving a series of questions so that they are over time, across the year understanding that the lexicon and the language that we use is process-oriented, is mistake-oriented. Like, that those are not imperfections, right? Like the, what I call the holistic literacy tenants are important, right? Part of it is inviting them into the space more and not in one-offs. And so when I was tasked with thinking through the family literacy engagement program for Chicago public schools, when there was an influx of funding after COVID-19, all of my interviews from stakeholders in those schools revealed, of course, that the one-offs, the one-offs don’t actually change relationships with families. And it still feels like a top-down transactional situation where we still then have our own biases around why families attend and why they don’t attend and, right? Not realizing that, that the way to shift connection and communication with families is by further connection and invitation. And so one thing that I do are these family lab sites, which are really low stakes experiences that I unpack in the last chapter of my book. That is basically inviting families into a mini lesson and a shared literacy experience with their child. And they co-create something or co-think through something, and then a debrief at the end where you share with families one of these kind of main holistic literacy tenants that you’re trying to communicate. For example, that reading the world is a form of literacy that is strengthening analytic skills, for example.

GONZALEZ: So, family lab sites, and this is sort of like, like this wouldn’t, this isn’t the family sitting in class while you’re teaching the whole class? This is a separate meeting where you’ve got a small group of caregivers and students and you’re teaching a lesson to all of them and they’re all doing it?

QAROONI: That’s right, and it feels like, it feels almost like a little fishbowl, because I usually model it. I am in there, but teachers do it themselves after I leave, right? And so it’s just a tight mini lesson of some kind. It might be something like we’re going to create a community map together and then brainstorm and remember the moments that happened there. And then parents co-create, you know, co-create with their kids. So there’s power of the shared pen, and they’re like brainstorming these stories, and then potentially that becomes the fodder for their writing at some point because they — so then what happens? Families then understand what that writing piece then could look like. They know what better to ask in the future because they know what that kind of assignment looks like over time. But what’s the most important part of that is, other than the just like sheer joy that happens when families and, and of course siblings come instead of parents if they can’t or caregivers can’t. And I always have like children on my hips because yes, all kinds of ages are welcome. It’s like unapologetically joyful. Other than that, the best part is that, that families then have a sense of what’s happening inside the classroom better, and it breaks down this “us versus them” or “us and them” barrier. All of a sudden teachers start saying things like people are taking multiple buses to come, and they’re not going to, they will not miss this opportunity to have a shared literacy experience with their kid, and it feels like we have more teachers now, because now they know what to ask and what to say and what to communicate with their kid, right?

GONZALEZ: I love that. That’s a wonderful idea. And I know that is definitely not something I’m hearing about happening in schools, not on any large scale anyway, and it’s a simple enough thing to do, you know. Especially if, you know, if a school puts a ton of effort into parent night, and it’s like we’re not getting much out of this, something as simple as inviting just a few families in for an actual lesson that they would participate in, that just seems so much more intimate and rich, and then you get to know the family so much better too because they’re, they’re talking and they’re contributing things to, to the lesson.

QAROONI: It’s really, really, really, really fun, and we do it for, we do it cross-curricular. I mean, we do it in math as well.


QAROONI: But the best part is how low stakes it is. So when I look across, like, the curriculum with teachers and we just sit together, we ask ourselves, like, where are the places where we can invite families in that would make sense? And/or what is the, like, lower level ask or lower stakes asks to send something home to, like, invite a contribution? So I just think about all the places of intersection. So across your whole year, across all the different, you know, genres that you’re teaching, what are the places of intersection?


QAROONI: And so lab sites is one of them.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. So the next item that we have here is to suggest ways that caregivers can talk about the work that comes home with students, some, some ideas for that.

QAROONI: Part of this has to do with, I mean if we’re thinking about writing, family’s understanding of, you know, writing coming home looking polished and perfect and neat. I know that that would have been like my father for sure. I’ll never forget the way that he talked to me about my handwriting. But it’s, it’s a surface-level understanding perhaps of the work that went into the final piece. And so it’s essential that we communicate with families, I think, not only the processes but more than that, share these kind of, the ideas of questions that they could ask. And I think it has to do also with like our displays on a very base level. If we’re just putting up the final pieces, what does that communicate to families, as opposed to putting up the whole process or part of the process? I have schools where kids record part of the process and explain to families what they did, so you can, you know, listen to it with a QR code, so families can see how they got to that piece. And so that type of just like process-oriented thinking is just with accompanying sentence stems that you’re sharing across the year I think supports caregivers’ understanding what the papers are that come home, and why they should be important.

GONZALEZ: Right, right.

QAROONI: And what kinds of questions. You know, my husband is not in education, and so he does that thing where he just like shuffles out the paper from the backpack and just like puts it to the side. But I, of course, as a teacher have like the agency and, you know, to ask a whole bunch more questions about what went into that piece of paper, and those are the kinds of questions that we aim to seek.

GONZALEZ: Would you, would you mind if we just sort of said a couple of those? Because you’ve actually got this kind of really great list that, that really stood out to me as just examples. You know, one of them is how did you, you’re, this is the parent or caregiver asking the child, how did you come up with that idea? What changes did you make from the beginning to end? I love this one. What part are you particularly proud of and why? Because it’s just, it may not be what you can see at first glance.

QAROONI: Yeah, and you know, what part do you still think could improve? What, you know, if you got to do it again, or share it in a different way, or if you were able to represent it in a different way, what would you have chosen, why? Like, can you show me the beginning to the end? I have four kids, so I have them do this with each other, you know. I think a lot about, like, setting families up with, like, sibling support, because families are busy. Like, I can’t even think about how long it would take me to sit down and engage with each of my children about each of their works, right? Like, how long are we actually spending time with our kids?


QAROONI: And as a classroom teacher, like how long are we actually spending thinking about, you know, we have so many things going on, but thinking about exalting families or thinking about getting to know families or inviting families, because then you’ll have more hands.


QAROONI: You have more, you have more, it’s just more teachers.

GONZALEZ: Yes, and you know, I know that a lot of teachers will, especially depending on the kind of school district they’re in, if you have highly involved families sometimes. Because I’m, right now that, the kinds of communities I’m picturing are families of more marginalized types of students. But I know that in affluent areas the, the family involvement’s very different and very oppressive to the teacher and so this kind of work could also be really, really helpful for those situations to help those families understand better the kind of pedagogy that we’re doing and how they can really be supportive to let go of that intense kind of competition.

QAROONI: Absolutely, absolutely.


QAROONI: I work in schools that, you know, schools with like a severely toxic relationship between families expecting teachers to be a certain way. The level of scrutiny is super intense. But leaning back on the pedagogy and just saying this is the reason why we’re elevating this. This is the reason, you know, this is the philosophy behind it. We want your child to innovate.


QAROONI: We want your child to iterate.

GONZALEZ: The next one is to elevate the collective, and as much as you, you definitely have a lot in your book about elevating, you know, process and really not looking for the perfection in the endpoint, there’s also this idea of just the collective as, as a high value, an important value between school and home. What are some ways that teachers can do that?

QAROONI: I mean I think it’s, it’s important for families. It’s, it’s important to know from families what they believe their child’s unique strengths are and what they believe their child’s unique needs are. But more than that, suggesting tons of ideas for ways that we can elevate the collective. I mean I think a lot of this is around remembering that no two people or families need to look, sound, or act the same, and that each contributes beautifully to the community as a result of their differences, which is actually a mindset because our tendency is to compare, like, either siblings or to other children. But the truth is, we don’t actually need the same results. Like, I’ll never forget my daughter Ezzy came home with an assignment and she said, like, “I need to create a PSA for the community,” and it was going to be, like, “this is where you need to park.” But she said that the way that the paper needed to be was horizontal because that was the example, and she could not think beyond, and she was so stressed that I said, “Well, it works best for you to turn it this way, maybe. I think it’s okay if we add another piece of paper. We make it like an accordion.” It was, like, not allowed for her. And I think that’s like a product of the way that we’re, the way that we’re not elevating all the different ways that we can be, and all the different ways that, like, our assignments can look. And so celebrating alternative ways of doing things is like the crux of this, celebrating that each person in the collective has their own unique contribution and that equality and equity is not the same. That what that one child needs, needs or is getting is different than what that child needs or is getting. And that, in that, in this chapter I talk a lot about the diversity of texts, of course, about like collectively creating a project or an assignment together, and, and then all the ways that we can do that in our homes also.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, and, and so, and also the kind of the gist behind why, because I think I feel like I kind of skipped that a little bit earlier, about why elevating the collective is such an important piece of collaborating with families has kind of to do with this whole idea of the individual, the competition, and how that, that ends up motivating all that pressure on, you know, what’s happening in school? What are you doing? How is my child doing? Are they doing better than everybody else? Are they on track? And so communicating more of a value of each individual person’s contribution can soothe those concerns. Is that where all that comes from?

QAROONI: Yeah, absolutely, and I mean I think it’s this idea that families always want the kid to be, are they below, are they high, are they exactly where they’re supposed to be?


QAROONI: I think a lot about, for example, if you go to the pediatrician. It just matters that that child is growing on their plotline. It doesn’t matter if the kid is like —


QAROONI: — percentile or like in the 80th percentile for size as long as they’re going up. And so it’s that kind of communication. That, like, your child is growing exactly how your child should be growing at this moment, and my job is to grow them from wherever they are.


QAROONI: And that’s the elevation of the collective. It’s that each child is going to be where they are and we will have a concern if that child is not going on their plotline up, right?

GONZALEZ: Right. The next one is that another thing that we can be elevating as a practice and as a, you know, a good thing is observational literacy as something that should have a, a larger place, basically, in a child’s growth and education. What is, what is observational literacy in your book?

QAROONI: The idea of observational literacy is that, is that we can read the world around us using the same analytic skills that we would read to use alphabetic text. So just asking simple stems like what do you see or what do you notice or what do you wonder? Who do you think paid for this? How do you, you know, how do you think this got here? Who do you think benefits from it? Asking these sorts of questions about something that a child sees, whether that’s a piece of art or a kitchen scene or a film or a building that’s changing over time will then strengthen their ability to make those same analyses once they are, you know, once they approach an alphabetic text. And so there are a lot of ways that we can do this. I mean, literacy doesn’t solely exist on the pages of a book. Of course it’s, it’s tied to identity, it’s tied to place. And forcing a single version of, of literacy is kind of like forcing a single version of humanity, I think. And so there are kids who have these incredible observational literacy skills. My youngest daughter, she can read — she’s 4 — she can read frustration on my face, she can read sadness. And she’s that kind of emotionally astute, and because of her observational literacy skills, I think, and this innate ability of kids to hyper-analyze something that they see in the world also can just springboard our teaching. And so I think about that in the book in a very tangible way of reading art with families, reading art in our classrooms, visual literacy. You know, our youngest kids can look at a, look at an image and say, “This is what I see, this is what I notice, this is what I wonder.” And then if you learn more about the artist, or you learn more about that storyteller, you can add to your understanding. You can explain it verbally, you can write an essay, right, about that. You can, our eighth graders can use evidence from the text or that piece of art to then explain why they think that story is being told. And so I have a whole cadre of art that I love to use, that I house on my website that I incorporate into family lab sites or that I incorporate into, you know, our own literacy curriculum and our own literacy work or you, you know, do it with families whenever you have time with them. But families don’t know that that is a version of literacy.


QAROONI: Families will say, “I thought literacy is just reading and writing.”


QAROONI: They don’t also see that it’s listening and it’s speaking and it’s empathy and it’s eye contact and it’s, you know, reading facial expressions. And that those things then support character analysis when a kid is reading, you know. I think a lot about the natural literacy work that happens. Like if you make a big T-chart, and you think about all the experiences that families have with their kids, like going to the grocery store, or setting the table, or grieving and creating a family ritual, or changing attire, or like their family traditions around holidays. And I think then on the other side, what literacy is living there. Like, what literacy experiences, and you can even break it down to like genre. Is nonfiction learning happening there? Or is fiction learning happening there? Is, you know, is sequence happening there? Is order of events happening there? Like, think about the things that we teach in a typical and traditional, like, literacy classroom. Families are doing that critical literacy work all the time. I think of the ways that we can tell families that and communicate that back with families.

GONZALEZ: Right, right. And I’m imagining, you know, a lot of times we’ve already got these systems in place for communicating because you’ve got the family lab sites, but could this also be transmitted through the same types of things that we already are sending home? The newsletters or videos for parents or anything like that, build that stuff into it too?

QAROONI: Totally, and that is all broken down in the first chapter of, like, all the modes of communication. It’s, it’s about figuring out what works for your community, right?


QAROONI: And I think the truth is multiple touch points, a combination of the lab sites and the newsletters home. You know, my husband won’t look at those newsletters at home, but maybe he’ll check that Slack channel, or maybe he’ll check that Remind app, right?

GONZALEZ: Right, right. So we are, we’re elevating several things, sort of the idea of process, the idea of the collective, observational literacy, and another thing that you recommend is that we really elevate this idea of oral conversation as a literacy practice.

QAROONI: I really just think about how families talk to their kids all the time. They narrate their worlds they, they, they tell stories that — my, you know, my mother didn’t read books to me, and she still doesn’t read books to my children, but she will tell tons of stories about Iran in the past. And, you know, when I have to travel for work, my mother will watch the children because my husband travels for work too. And she was invited to be guest reader in my daughter’s class, and she wouldn’t do it because she said she would not read in front of the class. And so I think again about, like, inadvertent alienation.

GONZALEZ: Oh yeah.

QAROONI: I said, you know, you could just be a storyteller and how that would change. But, you know, when I, when I, when I work with staff, I like to ask them to write their definition of family engagement at the beginning. And then at the end of our time together, I like them to write it again. And spoiler alert, what usually changes from the end, from the beginning to the end is their understanding of where engagement happens. That like the idea that family engagement is just about bringing families in is erroneous. That really, it’s about elevating already existing conversation, language, passions, curiosities, and engagement, right? Anywhere. And I think about, like, our roles as teachers in that way, having this unapologetic reverence for all the natural ways that families talk, talk, talk, and share language, like either in singing or, right? Like, whatever rituals that might look like and how that supports our collective literacy growth.

GONZALEZ: I’m, I’m, I want to go back to this word “reverence,” because I think that’s such a different, I think that that’s what sets your work apart from maybe what we’ve seen before. We’ve talked a lot in educational communities about understanding what’s happening in the homes, and it’s different from school. And you’re talking about reverence of it, of really looking at it as a wonderful, rich set of practices that are already happening at home as opposed to it being slightly below what we do academically in school. That it’s, no, it is its own thing and it’s, it’s really important, and the more we not only have that reverence within ourselves but then communicate to families what you’re doing at home is this fantastic thing. Know that and keep doing it please.

QAROONI: Yeah, you said it exactly. It’s giving families the confidence to know that they already are being amazing, even in the dysfunction. I’m thinking of, like, times when families have, like, emotional dysregulation and are like floating at home. What does a kid learn from that? Are they learning language? Are they learning — like, what is the problem solving that is happening from a really difficult family situation?

GONZALEZ: I’m so glad you said that, because as I’m listening to this, I’m, I’m screening my own home practices with my own kids. And looking back, because they’re teenagers now, but I know there were periods when I was way too stressed out, I wasn’t looking at the work coming home. I wasn’t doing all these nice family conversations around the dinner table because we just got takeout and everybody got on their devices for a while, and that’s how we dealt with it.

QAROONI: That’s right.

GONZALEZ: So I want to make sure that we don’t alienate the families that really are taxed for time and stressed out and, you know.

QAROONI: Absolutely, absolutely. I still think that kids are learning amazing, like, problem solving, literacy, empathy. There is a lot happening still there that then we can tuck into the ways that we teach those kids and understand families, right?

GONZALEZ: That’s interesting. Yeah, the very last one that you’ve got here is that we, another way that we can build this collective is to free students to make self-driven decisions by following their natural curiosities. Talk more a little about that.

QAROONI: Yeah, I talk a lot about the differences between schooled literacy and authentic literacy, and how often authentic literacy feels stickier, like it doesn’t leave us, and it’s more exciting for kids. And when we get to choose what we’re passionate about learning, or make decisions about how we learn it, obviously as adults as well, we do better. So I think, for example, about my son and his social literacy is and how his language is so strengthened by, by world building in Dungeons and Dragons, for example. Like, he knows the word defenestrate. Do you know that word?

GONZALEZ: I do not. Wait, does that have to do with windows?

QAROONI: That’s right.

GONZALEZ: I heard the little root in there.

QAROONI: You know the root. “Defenestrate” means to throw someone out of a window.

GONZALEZ: Oh my gosh.

QAROONI: And it’s a word, of course, that he learned in context, and it’s [inaudible] and it’s sticky for him because it’s important to him in the world of Dungeons and Dragons.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.

QAROONI: And I just, I think a lot about that in the book, and I share myriad ways that we can craft more choice in a child’s day, both at home with suggestions for families, but also in the classroom, of course. You know, thinking about where a student is sitting, thinking about freedom of choice and how, in topic or, you know, and how that loss of control, though it’s, it doesn’t, it’s not actually loss of control. That that actually means a freedom to self-drive their own curiosities in ways that then makes the, the learning stickier. And I think this is really hard for families also to understand, and not for a lot of our administrators. You know, a silent classroom might feel nicer and tidier, as opposed to, like, a messy talk, you know, talk driven space.


QAROONI: And that bleeds into, of course, the, the family, family choices. How often are kids getting choices in their days, or in what they’re wearing, or in, you know, in like the order of events? And so what are the small ways that we can make suggestions to families to ensure that kids are getting a fair degree of choice.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, I think that could be a real epiphany for families too to sort of be told by a teacher, “No, the time that your kid is spending on Minecraft may actually really be an important literacy practice,” because they’re thinking, “No, you spend too much time doing that.”


GONZALEZ: It could just be a nice, you know, portal for a lot of other conversations that could support some of the things we want to do academically with them.

QAROONI: That’s right. Exactly, exactly.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. So the book is “Nourishing Caregiver Collaborations: Elevating Home Experiences and Classroom Practices for Collective Care.” It was just published like, what, like three months ago, maybe?

QAROONI: Yeah, the end of December.

 GONZALEZ: Yeah, so it’s brand new. It’s a beautiful book. It’s got lots of beautiful pictures of kilim rugs?

 QAROONI: Yeah, kilim rugs. Yes, this idea that no two rugs are the same, and they’re just imperfect, and they’re imperfect and they hold us, and they’re natural and authentic, and that’s like a pedagogical approach for how we might, might work with families.

 GONZALEZ: Yeah, it’s a, it’s a beautiful theme that’s woven throughout — oh, look at that, “woven.” So I’m going to have links to that book over on the site, and if people want to connect with you online, what’s the best way for them to do that?

 QAROONI: Via my website,, or on Instagram, @nqarooni, N-Q-A-R-O-O-N-I or at Twitter/X, @NQCLiteracy.

 GONZALEZ: Awesome. Nawal, thank you so much for spending this little bit of time with me and for writing this book.

 QAROONI: Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun.

For links to Nawal’s book and a full transcript of our conversation, visit, click Podcast, and choose episode 222. To get a bimonthly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, courses and products, sign up for my mailing list at Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.