Update: I intended, but didn’t, include guardians in the list of those who are stakeholders in a child’s education. I apologize to the many wonderful people who care for children and hold titles other than parent, such as “Grandparent,” “Aunt,” “Uncle,” “Sister,” “Brother,” or “Foster Parent.” Please know that I recognize the incredible contribution you make to children’s lives and regret the oversight. I was so focused on my experiences with my son that I did not weave guardian into the post.
Every parent is also a teacher and has at least one student: a child. During the formidable first years, the parent is the primary educator. The child looks to the parent first for guidance, learning how to walk, talk, eat, etc. This little person spends a great deal of time watching, experimenting, and mimicking until one day, the actions make sense. Then, while Mom is cooking in the kitchen, she hears uncertain footsteps clopping on the floor and turns around to see the baby standing there, watching her. Dad, beaming with pride, is standing behind the baby. (What a moment that was!)
Most parents start the process of relinquishing at least part of their educational responsibility when they enroll the child in school. The first time the little one walks into a classroom can be a painful and frightening moment for both, for a part of the relationship that is now changing drastically. The parent becomes a partner with a stranger who, although a professional educator, is still completely unknown. The child needs to acclimate to a new authority figure, a new routine, and a new space. Some do not go gently into that situation; others take to it like a duck upon water. I cried for some time after dropping my son off for his first day in Kindergarten, even though he had been in preschool for two years. That first day made it official, in my mind: I had gone from primary teacher to secondary for at least 9 months of the year. My son would now spend more waking hours with a caregiver other than me. Like many parents, I also had to accept the fact that I would not know everything that was happening during that time.
It doesn’t have to be that way, however.
A teacher can request parental involvement and give parents the resources they need to stay involved. One way to do that is to use the State standards to continuously converse with parents about what is happening in school. Transform your discussion with parents about a student’s progress from a discussion of numbers and letters (grades) to a review of skill and concept mastery (standards proficiency). Expand the conversation beyond topics such as behavior, effort, and ability to one about progress toward goals.
As a parent, this is what I would love to see my son’s teachers do. As a teacher currently without a classroom, this is what I would love to do if I had one. The suggestions that follow are already in practice in some form or another across the country. Still, these are suggestions for your consideration that are open to debate and debunk. Please leave a comment below with your thoughts.
Take the Mystery Out of What is Happening in School
“Welcome Back to School!”
Before the year begins, send your students’ parents a message. If your school has a parent portal of some kind, you will most likely have an email address for one of the parents in the family, if not both. As soon as you have your schedule and roster set, you should be able to email every parent with a description of the class in which their child is enrolled (ask your IT guru if there is a way to generate an email distribution list to make this process easier). If you do not have an email address for the parents, send them a letter through regular mail, also known as “snail-mail.” In the message, include information about Long Term Transfer Goals, Big Ideas, and Essential Questions related to the subjects you are teaching this year. Some departments of education have done the heavy lifting for you. For example, here is the PA Core Curriculum Framework for Language Arts. Conclude your message with an encouraging invitation to “Back to School” night.
Put the Standards in Parent and Kid-Friendly Language
Pennsylvania’s Core Standards offer a set of rigorous, high-quality academic expectations in English Language Arts and Mathematics that all students should master by the end of each grade level. The PA Core Standards are robust and relevant to the real world and reflect the knowledge and skills our young people need to succeed in life after high school, in both post-secondary education and a globally competitive workforce. – The PA Department of Education’s Standards Aligned System (pdesas.org)
Work with a team of teachers to put the standards into parent- and kid-friendly language. You don’t have to detail every standard during “Back to School” night, but give them highlights. Perhaps your department of education has a resource guide for parents you can use.
Use the standards to frame a conversation about what students will learn and be able to do by the end of the school year. Explain the purpose of the standards: to help guide your planning and instruction, and to emphasize what is most important for students to learn at each grade level. Provide examples of the content you will use to help students master the standards, and rubrics you will use to assess them. Entertain questions, and then provide example questions they can ask their children to monitor how well they are doing in school. Finally, expect to have to model and re-teach the behavior you seek from parents often in the first months, until they get used to this type of communication.
Standards-based discussions and grading practices provide more information to teachers, students, and parents, as long as everyone understands them. According to researchers such as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, standards can often be confusing because they are either too broad in scope or too specific. Therefore, break down the standard into its component parts and rewrite them using layman’s terms. This will help everyone involved – including you. As the school year progresses, align each lesson and assessment with the standards related to them. When the assessments are properly aligned, you can create robust reports that show progress for each student using student performance management software.
Use the Internet to Communicate with Parents
During “Back to School Night,” introduce the website you will use as one way to communicate with parents. If you are really ambitious, you could use multiple modalities to explain the standards and classroom procedures and post them to the website before this important evening. (This would be especially helpful for those parents who could not attend “Back to School” night, so be sure to give your students the link to share with their parents.) You could make a video that reiterates what you covered during the evening, for example. In the secondary grades, you could create a syllabus that you could show to the parents. I would not expect most parents to read it, of course, but there will be a parent or two who will. Explain that you will use the website to post assignments and blog posts that will update them on what is happening in class. You could also post links to the websites others on your team or at your grade level are using, to make it easier for parents to monitor what is going on in other disciplines. Many websites today are designed to render pages in mobile-friendly ways, so parents will be able to check your website on their smart phones. Provide a TinyURL during the evening that they can use in their mobile browser to get to your website easily and bookmark it within the browser.
Some parent portals allow teachers to post assignments and lesson plans to a calendar. If that is so, use that calendar consistently to keep parents up-to-date on what is happening. Since they will be using the portal to check their child’s grades, they would only have to check one website to see assignments and upcoming assessments. In that case, you would not need to post to two places. Use the portal. Some portals also have an app that parents can use on their smart phones, which makes it easier for the parents to check grades and see calendars. Tell them about it and that they can download the app at their convenience.
Use Other Methods to Communicate with Parents, Too
If parents do not have access to the Internet, you could use Remind to send text messages to parents and students. I highly recommend giving Remind a try. Check out the PDF “Top 10 Ways to Use Remind” for helpful ideas. Include in the message information about lessons, assignment due dates, and upcoming assessments. You can even attach documents to a message that students and parents can open via their smart phones. You might also want to set up a voice mail message with the same information, for those parents who do not have computers or smart phones.
Interim Progress Reports and Report Cards
Many elementary schools now use standards-based grading to help parents see a child’s proficiency with each subject area. Unfortunately, that does not often happen once the child is in middle or high school. However, if you are able to use student performance management software, you can produce reports for parents that translate that letter grade or numeric average into meaningful information. (Even if you do not, Microsoft Excel can help with this.) This requires you to make sure that every lesson is aligned to standards and – most importantly – that every assessment you track is aligned to standards. The report can show student growth toward mastery of the standards; each marking period can build upon the previous one to create a running record of that student’s growth. Although it takes more time to set up these assessments, the results make the effort well worth it. First, you know the standards to which you are teaching and how each assessment is tied to the standards. Second, students learn to see standards as relevant and helpful when they see you consistently using them when planning and delivering instruction. Third, parents feel they are truly partners with you in their child’s education and that what happens in the classroom is no longer a mystery. Take a look at the video below for more information on this type of grading and school reform.