Prior to becoming a specialist teacher, community and family communication was one of the strongest aspects of my practice — I created bi-weekly paper newsletters featuring a different student in each edition, I maintained a classroom blog with my students, I kept a digital e-portfolio for each student that parents could access at any time, I maintained a classroom website, and I sent home weekly update emails/paper notes to each family in my class (Thank you MailMerge!). I spent a lot of time on family communication and I felt that it paid enormous dividends during conferences, events, or family meetings — what was going on in the classroom was transparent and I could easily engage with families about student learning. It also helped to establish an important rapport that I could draw upon during those difficult conversations that periodically crop up and used to cause a sinking feeling in my stomach.
Now that I’m a specialist teacher, everything about communication with families has changed. Other than my eight 6th grade advisees, I’m not the primary contact point for anyone trying to find how their child is doing. I have one small box on the triennial report card that provides a list of standards and scores for my class, without much explanation about what my STEM class is about or the activities that we undertake during it. My classroom is down a hallway that is infrequently used unless you’re heading to my room or the locker rooms, so I also don’t get much in the way of incidental observation when families are dropping off or picking up kids. Overall, then, families would only know about STEM class based on the report card and anything that their child might share about the course. (Which, for my STEM-loving kids, might actually be quite a lot.)
One of my professional goals for the year has been raising family community awareness about what students are doing in STEM class. In choosing my approaches, I’ve tried to carefully balance effort with potential for results. I quickly ruled out a paper-based communication strategy, as I don’t have a lot of faith in students bringing papers from my classroom to their home classrooms, putting them in their backpacks, and then taking them home. I teach 400 students across 10 grade levels, so I also ruled out anything like an individualized weekly update.
I ultimately decided to take a three-pronged approach to reaching families.
- A STEM bulletin board in a high-traffic area. As mentioned above, my classroom is located down at the end of a hallway that isn’t highly frequented — except when people need to use the bathroom at school events. I’ve gotten quite a lot of foot traffic now that basketball season is here — I often see people stopping to check out the photos on the colorful board on their way to and from the gym; it’s even prompted a few conversations about what STEM is and what it looks like at our school.
- A STEM website with student blog element. Teachers in my district are encouraged to maintain websites and they are linked on our school website. I’ve created a Blogger site that serves as both a content-based site, where families can see STEM curriculum goals and information about activities. But, the homepage of the site is actually a blog, which I update once a week with student work from one of the grade levels. While I’m not sure how many families have actually viewed the site, an unintended benefit of this has been that students are checking out what other grade levels are doing, as the website is the homepage on all of the computers in our lab.
- E-portfolios. I’ve created e-portfolios for each of my 400 students. Once a week, I have what I call “documentation day,” and I try to update the e-portfolios of one grade level with work or photos that they’ve completed in STEM class. My 6th, 7th, and 8th graders are increasingly taking on more ownership of their portfolios and I made specific reference to them in my report card comments, which I’m hoping means that at least some families have seen them. I’m currently working on how to easily and effectively share the portfolios with families of my K-5 students — balancing privacy and accessibility is an ongoing challenge. These e-portfolios are also incredibly valuable for me, as I’ll be able to track and monitor student growth over the ten years that they spend at our school. It excites me to think about students have a record of their STEM progress that includes artifacts from both 8th grade and kindergarten.
I’m hoping that, combined together, these three strategies will help to raise family and community awareness about our STEM program. Are you a specialist teacher? How do you get the word out about the awesome things your students are doing in your class?