Navigating the school system can be hard. For parents who don’t speak English as their first language, it’s even harder. Family engagement can help. Family engagement – defined as a family’s involvement in their child’s education – is a powerful and underutilized lever for student success. No one knows this better than Heejae Lim. The founder of TalkingPoints, Heejae leads the tech nonprofit’s work connecting multilingual families and teachers through accessible technology.
In 2018, TalkingPoints received $1.5M in funding from Google.org and a team of full-time Google.org Fellows. One of these fellows was Fiona Yeung, a UX designer. I had the pleasure of chatting with Heejae and Fiona to learn how they build connections between families and educators.
Shannon Farley: Heejae and Fiona, you’re both children of immigrants. What experiences growing up connect you to the mission of TalkingPoints?
Heejae Lim: As a Korean immigrant, I grew up learning English as my second language and went to school with many immigrant friends. But there was a key difference between my experience and theirs. My mother spoke English, giving her “the voice” and ability to be involved in my education. She helped me with my homework, and understood what it meant when my school sent home a permission slip that required her signature.
This wasn’t the case for my immigrant friends whose parents didn’t speak English. These peers struggled through school. Some dropped out. I realized the difference in our trajectories wasn’t because of gaps in intelligence, but because of my mother’s involvement in my learning. And I knew my experience wasn’t unique. I saw a tremendous opportunity to facilitate this engagement for the millions of immigrant students and families who are left behind by our education system. And so, TalkingPoints was born.
Fiona Yeung: I’m a first-generation Canadian with Asian parents, so I grew up speaking Chinese or “Chinglish” – a mix of Chinese and English – at home, and English in school. Like countless families, we experienced the language divide that made it hard to navigate the school system. I feel an immense connection and responsibility to TalkingPoints’ mission of helping families overcome this divide, because their story is my story too.
“Immigrant families face significant challenges to supporting their child’s learning…from language gaps, to working multiple jobs, to being overwhelmed by the unfamiliar U.S. school system. At TalkingPoints, we’re removing these barriers through accessible technology.”
Heejae Lim, Founder & CEO, TalkingPoints
Farley: At TalkingPoints, you’re focused on an important aspect of education opportunity: family engagement. Why did you choose that approach?
Lim: Research is clear that family engagement can be twice as effective in predicting student success than a family’s level of wealth. Family engagement can be transformative for students, but immigrant families face significant challenges to supporting their child’s learning. Barriers run the gamut from language gaps, to working multiple jobs, to being overwhelmed by the unfamiliar U.S. school system. At TalkingPoints, we’re removing these barriers through accessible technology. Our goal is to unlock the potential of family engagement, and in doing so, the potential of students across the country.
Farley: You’ve been successful so far. TalkingPoints has reached more than 3 million teachers and families. Can you talk us through how you support them?
Lim: Thank you, Shannon! At TalkingPoints, we leverage the power of technology to build relationships between educators and families in under-resourced communities. Our multilingual engagement platform connects family members and teachers through two-way translated messages informed by human translation and powered by artificial intelligence. It’s as simple as texting. Accessible technology is at the core of our mission, so families only need access to SMS to get started.
Farley: Tell me more about how you’re leveraging AI.
Lim: Our use of AI enables us to provide the highest quality, contextually relevant translations. What’s more, we use AI to understand patterns of communication between families and teachers. These themes help us identify best practices for relationship-building.
Farley: Fiona, you joined the TalkingPoints team in a pretty unique way – as a Google.org Fellow. Through this program for Google employees, you committed six months of pro bono work to TalkingPoints. What did you work on?
Yeung: Working with TalkingPoints through the Google.org Fellowship was an incredible experience. As a UX designer, I was able to help TalkingPoints visually redesign and reimagine all three of its apps. From evolving its communications app to offer in-product support, to designing new features for the web app, I was thrilled to provide key contributions to the TalkingPoints’ platform.
On a more personal note, it was very rewarding to use my design expertise to support a mission I care deeply about. I feel lucky that I was able to make a real impact for the families TalkingPoints serves.
Farley: Heejae, what was it like hosting Google.org Fellows?
Lim: It was awesome. As a host organization, we were lucky to tap into top tier talent within Google. The Fellows brought a fresh perspective. They helped us make significant strides towards our mission. And, through collaborating with the Fellows, our TalkingPoints team gained valuable experience and knowledge.
Yeung:Since the Fellowship, I’ve stayed in touch with the team at TalkingPoints by helping shape UX processes and onboarding the team’s first UX hire. I’m so excited to see what they will accomplish.
Farley: Since March 2020, education looks dramatically different. How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your work at TalkingPoints?
Lim: The pandemic widened already existing learning gaps for underserved students. We saw a huge opportunity to support students and teachers while they were at home. So we scaled up to facilitate 100 million conversations among more than 3 million teachers and parents by the end of 2020. This impact really highlights the need for our work, and I’m excited to continue accelerating our growth.
Farley: How will TalkingPoints – and the features you built together – scale impact in the next school year and beyond?
Lim: Looking ahead, our team is equipped with valuable insights, innovations, and new technologies forged during more than a year of distance learning. As we collectively address student learning loss from the pandemic, family-school connections will be key to helping students regain lost ground. I’m excited to lead this effort and continue scaling TalkingPoints’ work to reach more families across the country.
Yeung:Echoing what Heejae said, as the world continues to shift to remote and hybrid learning, tools like TalkingPoints will be more important than ever. I’m so proud to have been a part of this work, and I can’t wait to cheer on the TalkingPoints team in the years to come.