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Engaging parents in the PYP exhibition

Agnes Theilen, PYP teacher, International Community School of Addis Ababa

Embarking on a new way of guiding the PYP exhibition and embracing parents as active participants.

A group of teachers at the International Community School of Addis Ababa embarked on a new way of guiding the exhibition this past school year. Most of us were new to the grade, new to the school, and even new to the continent.  We wanted to give our students a wide range of ideas, possibilities and experiences prior to them choosing their issue.

How would we do this when we ourselves had few connections with or knowledge of the local community?

Addis Ababa is the headquarters of the African Union and the capital city of Ethiopia. There are a plethora of embassies, non-profit organizations, and manufacturing corporations that employ countless workers whose children often attend our school. PYP: From principles into practice defines the parent community as active participants “involved in the exhibition, either in the organization and timing, in accessing resources…(and) supporting and celebrating the development of internationally minded students.” We asked ourselves, how can we make the exhibition more meaningful and student-centered by engaging parents?

With our exhibition scheduled for May and June, we decided to make initial contact early. In November students and teachers began calling for guest speakers from the wider community. We phrased our invitations in an open-ended manner in order to include as many parents from different backgrounds as possible. Our exhibition ran under the transdisciplinary theme, Sharing the planet, and our overarching central idea was Our choices and actions impact the world. We encountered some hesitation at first.  “Isn’t my field of research too difficult for grade 5 students? When will I find time to present around my work schedule?How large will the groups I speak to be?” were amongst the questions asked. We attempted to answer all these concerns with flexibility and respect.One parent worked at the African Union with internally displaced Ethiopian refugees. He shared his experience with a captivated group of ten-year olds, allowing the students to make connections to the local community. Another parent shared his passion for photography and the environment, and how he was bringing awareness to environmental issues here in Ethiopia. We had decided early on to make connections to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  One parent had worked extensively on development issues in Ethiopia as related to the SDG framework – e.g. on peace building, poverty reduction, gender equality, environment, and climate change, among other things. She turned out to be a wealth of knowledge and inspired both research and action in several groups. We felt we had really hit the jackpot with the variety and depth of knowledge and expertise our parent community was able to provide.

Another way parents contributed to the success of the exhibition was the organization of field trips. At previous schools and in previous years, field trips have been heavily inspired, planned and led by teachers. If we truly strive for student agency in the entire process, a teacher centered field trip wouldn’t do. One group of students researching gender equality organized a trip to the CARE organization which helps empower local women via access to healthcare, education and more. While the students made all the arrangements for their field trip, it was one of their parents who chaperoned the trip. Another group of students investigating plastic pollution planned and visited COBA, a local recycling plant. While yet another visited Bright Star, an organization helping street kids and the homeless. Without the support and guidance from our parent community, these local learning experiences would surely not have happened.

One of the research requirements for our grade five students was to partake in either a field trip or an interview. Many of the interviewees were parents. One mom who has worked on gender equality issues here in Ethiopia volunteered to be interviewed by a pair of eager girls. She spent over an hour with them in addition to emailing advice and answers as they arose. She shared with me, “I have experience talking to adults, but not with children. So, I was curious and a bit nervous but, unexpectedly, I enjoyed it and the children were very attentive.”  Another parent was interviewed for her knowledge of city planning in her home country, while yet another talked to students about her perspective on cyberbullying. All interviews allowed the students to gain a primary source of knowledge while growing the parent’s understanding of the PYP exhibition process.

A common grievance amongst PYP educators is that parents don’t understand the program and the benefits of an inquiry based educational model. The research shows that including parents in the learning process fosters a stronger sense of community, better school reputation, and higher quality programs*. We certainly found this to prove true here at ICS. After the exhibition, several parents shared their thoughts on how their feelings towards the PYP and exhibition had evolved. “In my opinion, students did not only demonstrate their knowledge in their projects, but also many other things like their capacity for team work, presenting their ideas in different methods, the idea of innovation, etc. It shows the whole process of learning too!”  Another parent shared, “Some kids told me on the school grounds later on that they thought my talk was awesome. Then I felt even better than if I had given a presentation to adults. I hope my talk in some small way will contribute to these kids growing up with knowledge about, and empathy for, those who are less privileged than themselves.”

This was only our first year as a team guiding the exhibition. What will our next steps be? We already have a long list of changes for next year. How can we move towards an even more student-centered exhibition? How will the new enhancements guide our practice? One thing is for sure, at a school like ICS, Addis Ababa (and hopefully any school), incorporating the parent community will continue to play a key role.


*2011,Olsen G.W., Fuller, M. L., Home and School Relations: Teachers and Parents Working Together, Pearson Education

Agnes Theilen, is the PYP Grade 5 teacher at International Community School of Addis Ababa. Agnes has taught in PYP schools for the past ten years in Europe, Asia, and now Africa. She loves the connection to one another the PYP, and specifically what the exhibition brings to PYP schools all over the world.

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