I’ve been reflecting this week a lot about some conversations I’ve had recently with staff about parent communication. In Elmhurst, we have something called, “Acceleration Block.” It is a time when we group students based on a specific learning standard or need and plan learning experiences to accelerate their growth in that area. In previous years we had focused solely on literacy, but this year I have opened up Acceleration Block to include any area that the teachers think would benefit students.
Because this was something new, last week I secured 1/2 day subs for my staff so that they would have time to reflect on our first round of Acceleration Block and plan for the next six-week interval. Part of the planning was creating parent communication regarding how students progressed in the last round and how we would communicate progress during this round.
I have to confess that when I was in the classroom, I was a pretty basic communicator. I had a weekly parent newsletter that shared what we were working on as well as a few highlights of students who had demonstrated great character that week. I made sure to grade papers in a timely manner and send them home with a few comments or feedback. If students were not meeting my expectations academically or behaviorally I made sure to email, send a handwritten note, or call depending on the severity. About halfway through each trimester, I sent home a progress report in addition to sending home a report card at the end of the trimester. If parents wanted to communicate with me they could email, call, or write a note in their child’s assignment notebook.
As we talked about different ways that teachers communicate with parents, I realized that as much as the need for communication has stayed the same, the medium in which it happens has expanded greatly. The tiny world of email, notes, and phone calls has expanded into texts, video messages, class websites, blogging, social media, student self-assessment, and on-demand access to student work. There are so many options that it can get a little bit overwhelming at times. Some of our questions became:
- What information should we be communicating with parents?
- What is the frequency that we should communicate?
- What mediums make the most sense to communicate with?
In looking at these questions I decided to refer back to guidelines that Christine Trendel, a colleague whom I greatly respect created for her staff at the beginning of the year. She starts by explaining that the overall purpose of any parent communication is to build relationships and to keep parents informed. She then breaks communication into two groups: Global & Personal. Also included are timelines, purpose and examples for both.
Purpose: To communicate grade-level standards students will be working on, learning experiences happening in the classroom and resources that parents might find helpful
Frequency: Once a week
- Newsletter Created by Teacher: Gives a general summary of what is happening in each subject with links to resources. Teachers can choose to do a written version or record themselves in video format. These can be sent to parents by email, in paper or through social media such as Seesaw, Class Instagram or Facebook page or text message using an app like Remind.
- Newsletter Created by Students: Students can create the content at the end of the week by either writing a newsletter or recording themselves using a web-based service like WeVideo where they can edit together different clips and turn it into a show.
- Class Website or Blog: Using Google Sites or another service like Weebly, Kidblog, Edublog etc. teachers or students create different pages based on what has been taught or will be taught in upcoming units. If a blog is included there can be additional narrative and reflection included by anyone in the classroom. This gives parents an additional window into the work that has been done
- Social Media: Teachers can create a class Instagram, Twitter or Facebook account. They can use this to create stories or posts about different learning experiences happening in the classroom. This keeps parents informed in real-time. The account can be controlled solely by the teacher or students can be assigned as a class job for the week to document learning occurring.
Purpose: To communicate individual student progress towards meeting standards, celebrate success, or communicate concern in all aspects of the classroom
Frequency: Varies based on student, but at a minimum once a month
- Student Work With Feedback Attached: Students are more likely to learn from the work if it is in the form of feedback as opposed to a grade. At Jefferson, we love the single-point rubric for this reason. Making sure the feedback given is specific and timely is key.
- Progress Report: Giving parents an update on their child’s progress between report cards is important. This can be a simple one-page sheet with the standards you are working on along with executive functioning or SEL goals. Sitting down with students and having them give feedback on where they think they are will make this process even more effective.
- Student Goal Setting & Reflection: As mentioned in the previous bullet, involving students in reflecting on their progress and setting goals is a meaningful way to help them grow. Having students share their goals with parents is a great way to increase home/school communication as well as collaboration. Some of my teachers have students write about them and others have kids do a video reflection like a Vlog.
- Parent Access to Google Drive: Giving parents access to their child’s Google Drive or inviting them to your Google Classroom is another easy way to communicate with families. Even if you are not writing comments on their work, it allows parents to see what students are working on so they can talk with their students about it at home.
- Seesaw: This is such a great tool for parent communication. Students can record videos, take pictures with voice-over, fill-out templates, create demonstrations of their learning and more in this application. Parents can comment on their child’s work as well or simply click a heart to like it. Some of my teachers use this with their students almost daily and the parent response has been incredibly positive.
- Report Card: No explanation needed on this one. (I think)
- Phone Call, Email, or Note to Celebrate or Voice Concern: One of the mistakes I made my first years of teaching was only communicating when I had concerns about students. As I got more experienced I realized that positive communication is just as important as expressing concerns. I recommend creating a schedule of when you plan on sending a quick note, email or phone call about each student in your classroom. As a principal I have teachers nominate a positive phone call of the week. The students then get called down to the office and we call their parents and celebrate the good news!
- Assignment Notebook: Students can write down a daily reflection in their assignment notebook or set a goal or celebrate an accomplishment. Assignment notebooks can also be used as communication logs back and forth between parents and school.
As we talk about parent communication it’s also important to remember that it shouldn’t be one-sided. We should be just as proactive in reaching out to parents with celebrations/concerns as we are in asking them for feedback. Requesting information on their child’s strengths and interests as well as discussing the goals they have for their child can only strengthen our ability to help every student in our classroom to grow. Giving parents an opportunity to give feedback regularly will also strengthen our efficacy as educators.
School has changed greatly since many of our parents were in school. (For the better I think!) The trends that I have seen are less formal paper and pencil assignments where students receive concrete grades as well as less formal assessing overall. The volume of assignments has decreased because we are placing greater importance on giving students more meaningful long-term projects and explorations and/or assessing students informally through observation and conversation. Many elementary schools have decided to give homework only if it is necessary and meaningful for learning. The unintended consequence of this is that parents have less of a sense of what their child is working on as well as how they are progressing in all subject areas. We have to start thinking differently about how we communicate with our families.
Just like we design our learning experiences to meet the needs of our students, we need to create communication plans that meet the needs of our families. I would recommend sending home a survey at the beginning of the year (or now) and then building a plan of action from there. Do most families have older children in the school or is this their first year? How do they prefer to be communicated with? Email? Text? Social Media? What do they know about the learning in the grade that you teach? As a general rule, the more communication the better. No parents have ever complained to me their teacher overcommunicates with them, but I have definitely gotten feedback when parents feel that communication is lacking.
The changes to the way that we communicate with parents can be overwhelming, but can also be a game-changer when it comes to partnering with parents and building a shared vision of what we want our school to be.