Fox Valley educator, author shares his vision for family learning

  • Fox Valley educator and author William Russell is a strong advocate for learning outside the classroom.

    Fox Valley educator and author William Russell is a strong advocate for learning outside the classroom. Courtesy of William Russell

Posted5/1/2020 6:00 AM

For the better part of two decades, William Russell made the pitch through a newspaper column that parents should extend learning beyond school walls by educationally engaging with children in the home.

Russell grew up in St. Charles and now lives in Aurora. Still, he lived in Menlo Park, California, in the late 1980s and turned his first short columns in the Sacramento Bee into a syndicated column called "Family Learning" for parents of children in kindergarten through eighth grade.


When he moved back to St. Charles in the early 1990s, his column was syndicated nationally, and I added it to the content mix of the newspaper where I worked.

Russell says those columns, along with his doctoral work at Northern Illinois University, were designed to inspire "some forward-thinking principals and superintendents toward creating programs and relationships that would encourage out-of-school learning in their districts."

Today, it almost rings like a prophet seeking to help others understand a core value and need -- that a family atmosphere should encourage learning at every turn -- for use at a time when it is needed.

That time is now, with families quarantined and schools closed. And Russell's not just a voice in the wilderness. He's been a teacher at Oswego High School and assistant principal at Faith Christian Academy in Geneva. Those jobs made him more clearly see the vital connection -- and need -- for parents to be more engaged.

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"Don't you think every school district wishes it had developed some of these cooperative learning arrangements with parents before this COVID-19 pandemic closed their schools?" Russell asked. "If schools had recognized parents as the powerful force for learning that they are, or can be, today they would be able to take advantage of the relationships they built and the guidance they gave in developing the 'adjunct faculty' of parents that exists in every community."

One could easily argue that the vision Russell had of a family more than 30 years ago has changed quite a bit, and that time and job demands on both parents and kids have increased dramatically.

But Russell has long known that "learning" is not the same as "schooling" that is dictated through specific time slots.

The premise behind his whole concept is stressing "learning attributes," which he outlines thoroughly in his 1997 book, which has been updated into e-book form and available through Amazon. The 364-page e-book includes his numerous columns and other learning ideas as well as a directory of different materials and internet links.

"Learning can happen anywhere inside or outside of school," Russell said. "In fact, the goal that we, as parents, should have for our children's education is that they grow to be competent, principled and lifelong learners."


That's not the same as being lifelong "schoolers," Russell added. "If we encourage them to know the joy of learning while they are young, they will want to continue feeling that joy as they grow."

You could sum up Russell's reasoning this way: No matter how long the current pandemic lingers, it will be wise for parents and school officials to keep communication lines open as to how to complement each others' efforts. As opposed to sometimes contradicting each other or trying to find fault for failures.

After all, late-night TV comedian Jimmy Fallon, now at home with his daughters, summed it up well when saying, "If we have learned one thing from this pandemic, it is that teachers should make a billion dollars."

More than at any other time in our recent history, parents have essentially been in charge of getting their young children through school studies. The tools of family learning would be vital now.

"It's not just in preparation for a pandemic, but also to restore some joy to learning and to diminish the annual 'summer slide' in student understanding and for schools to start restoring the cooperative relationship with parents they once enjoyed," Russell said.

Anyone interested in the Family Learning book, with the subtitle of "How to Help Your Children Succeed in School by Learning at Home," can do so by typing "Family Learning" and Russell's name into a bookseller's site to obtain info and make a purchase.

Document this pandemic:

With events celebrating its 60th anniversary falling victim to the coronavirus pandemic this year, the Batavia Historical Society is instead focusing on what this quarantine has meant to residents.

It's encouraging residents and organizations to record daily thoughts or actions in a 30-, 60- or 90-day format, or whichever process works best, as part of a Share Your Story project to preserve that history for future generations.

"I recently came across an article in the Smithsonian magazine that showed how people living during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1917-1918 wrote journal entries, and letters to friends and relatives in chronicling their experience during that time," historical society president Dan Hoefler said. "We think it would be a great idea to do this now in Batavia to see how everyone's lives are being impacted by this.

"There are many good stories out there about how people are helping each other," Hoefler said.

While the Batavia History Museum will be the place for future generations to research this time, the society is encouraging all organizations, government agencies and citizens to participate in documenting their experiences.

"We ask individuals to do the same, especially diaries from children, with artifacts like chalk drawings, artwork, photos and displays of what they did," Hoefler said.

Send questions to Hoefler at

The society is asking that entries be digital files sent to museum curator Amber Foster at

Clearing the way for new coroner's office:

Residents in the Fisher Farms subdivision in Geneva may be wondering what the construction trucks are doing on a parcel of land off Bricher Road at Fisher Drive.

About a year ago, the Kane County Board approved $10 million toward the design and construction of a building that would also house a new coroner's office on the Kane County Judicial Center campus south of Route 38.

Coroner Rob Russell has long pitched the need for a new office/morgue in the county, and the land just southeast of the judicial center is earmarked as the spot for this undertaking.

More ways to engage:

In continuing the theme of family learning and parents engaging with kids, St. Charles author Jay Payleitner has taken parts of his various books on parenting and turned it into an e-book called "10 Ways to Engage Your Kids During Quarantine."

It's a free download for parents that Payleitner is touting as a cure for cabin fever. It's available at Rex Bohn of Geneva created the clever cover illustration.

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