Family & Community Communication as a Specialist Teacher

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

Student-Led Conferences: Signs of Student Ownership

This past week was a long one — I think that I spent more hours at school than at home. I am feeling fortunate that the Thanksgiving holiday break is upon us (just two more school days to go!) because I am definitely in need of an opportunity to recharge my batteries.

But, the extra time that I put in this week was so rewarding. This week, my school held our parent-teacher conferences. These conferences, however, as I described last year (https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2013/11/17/parent-teacher-conferences-and-parental-expectations-for-children/) are not of the typical variety, where the parents and the teacher sit down together to discuss the child. Instead, these conferences involve the parents and the student and, in my version at least, the student takes the reins for directing the whole conference.

I was a bit nervous about this year’s conferences. They really snuck up on me and I didn’t have much time at all to discuss them or what the expectations would be for them with my students. In retrospect, I am actually glad that I didn’t have time to prep them on what to do — watching their conferences unfold without my explicit instruction about what to do was far more insightful and interesting from my perspective.

For the most part, I was really floored by the students during their conferences. I had given them a list of things they might consider sharing and talking about and gathered up a lot of their materials from the classroom so that they would have it at their fingertips. What amazed me most was how accurately they described what we are doing in our classroom — rarely did I have to interject to clarify something. Additionally, the enthusiasm that my students showed when talking about their work (especially some of the students who display negative attitudes toward classroom tasks of any stripe) truly surprised me. In fact, one of the students who I have been struggling to figure out actually stayed for more than an hour, showing his parents literally everything he has done since September. It was so validating to hear my students speak so proudly about what they’ve accomplished since the beginning of school.

Perhaps even more valuable than watching my students share their work was observing the interactions between my students and their parents and their parents’ reactions to what was being shared. Unlike last year at this time, I hadn’t officially met all of my students’ parents, so being able to do so really helped me to gain a better understanding of where my students are coming from. I give many of my parents so much credit for making the time to come in for these conferences — they are balancing so many things at one time, from school to financial struggles to multiple children — that it’s pretty astounding that they made the time to come in for their second grader to tell them about their work. I think that, as educators, it is often easy to want to blame the parents for student issues (and in some cases, there may be specific things that do clearly stem from parents), but, the more time that I spend with families in my community, the harder I find it to think that the challenges that lower-class children exhibit fall squarely on the shoulders of their parents. That’s one reason why I think it is so important to hold conferences and why I love that the students attend ours — parents love their kids and it is no more clear than when they sit through their child reading and sharing every paper they’ve done all year.

Overall, despite the late nights, conferences were a wonderful success this year. What do conferences look like at your school or in your community?

Parent-Teacher Conferences and Parental Expectations for Children

This past week, I had my very first experience with parent-teacher conferences. I am so fortunate that I only have 13 students, because orchestrating the schedule was such a challenge! The parental relationships in my school are sometimes complicated, so I had to arrange things so that families who shouldn’t run into each other wouldn’t run into each other.

At my school, our conferences are student-led, meaning that the student, and not the teacher, is really the director of the show. During class, I explained the format to my students and we brainstormed a list of things that they could share with their parents — their autobiography projects, their Mad Minute folders with data charts, their spelling word folders, their “Good Learner Goal Sheets,” their portfolios, and their independent math learning rubrics. I left this list up on the white board so that when my students arrived, they would know exactly what to do.

During the conferences, I had two families come for each 30-minute time slot. They each spent 20 minutes having their student share work with them and then 10 minutes talking with me and their student. It is was interesting to watch my students interact with their parents — and to see how their parents interacted with them. In many ways, it explained an awful lot. It was so fascinating to watch kids become more shy or more outgoing or less focused than they are in class. I almost wished that I could have just observed them rather than having to talk with the families — I probably would have learned more than I did during our conversations.

The overall reaction amongst the parents seemed to be “holy cow, you’ve been doing a lot of serious work in here!” Many of the parents seem to have come around to the idea that the high expectations in my classroom are a good thing. They seemed really impressed by how articulate their children were in their explanations of what we do in class. Others, however, seemed dismayed that the conferences were student-led at all and seemed to think that it was all too much. I’ve heard that there is talk in the community at the moment about whether the expectations in my second-grade room are too-high. (Frankly, I am pretty excited that they are talking about this!) It seems that I’ve got some great advocates amongst my parents — and I think that all of my kids rising to the challenge is the best evidence for which I could ask!

Have you ever had a situation where parents think that the work in your classroom is too demanding? How did you handle it? I personally find that we often underestimate what kids can do, but this can be a hard message to transmit to parents who don’t buy into that philosophy.

Bridging the Gap Between Home and School: Designing a Literacy Intervention

I am really passionate about and interested in home-school relationships. So far in my classroom, I’ve been doing everything that I can think of to get information out to my students’ parents about what we’re doing in class and how they can help out at home. All of my weekly homework assignments require the involvement of a parent to help to build in opportunities for my students and their parents to grapple with academic material at home. I also send home a bi-weekly newsletter and maintain a parent website: https://sites.google.com/site/newsfrommisshewes/.

Yet, despite all of this, I still have students who are struggling to show their understanding of the material they are supposed to be covering at home. We had our first spelling test on Thursday, and even though my students had a month to practice their words at home with their parents (and I sent home reminders), I had over the half of my students spell more than half of the words incorrectly. (The words were taken from the second-grade list, so they were not extraordinarily difficult.)

Late this week and throughout this weekend, I’ve been thinking about what the disconnect might be between the parents saying that they are working hard with their students and the lackluster performance of their students. It occurred to me that just as we don’t hold our students accountable for content that we haven’t taught them, we also should not hold parents accountable for teaching their students things if they have never been instructed on how to effectively work on academic material at home.

To this end, I’ve spent the last few days working on a home literacy packet that I’ll be sending home with each of my students on Monday. I also plan to try to disseminate this information and model these practices with my parents in a workshop format, for those who want to attend. My packet is titled, “A Menu for a Healthy Home-Reading Diet” and emphasizes that just as a healthy diet requires eating from a variety of different food groups, becoming a healthy reader requires having many different experiences with texts.

Here’s a glimpse at what the menu looks like:

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I sent home a notice last week that informed my parents how their student had done on our benchmark assessments and included items that gauged their interest in learning more about how to support their child’s literacy development at home. Unfortunately (but predictably), the greatest interest so far has been shown by the parents of the students that are already thriving in terms of literacy. I’m hoping to reach the parents of the struggling readers with my packet — I hope that it will prove successful!

What strategies do you use for engaging your more reluctant parents? I’d love to hear suggestions and comments!

P.S. If you are interested, my complete literacy packet is available for download on Teacherspayteachers. I am just getting started on this site, but I appreciate the way that it opens the doors of different classrooms and helps to break down teacher isolation and celebrates the great work that teachers are doing every day!

From Teacher to Facilitator

With my first full week of teaching under my belt, I am still really pleased with how things have been going. We’ve been able to dive into some of the curriculum (which I promise to write about next week…) and the kids have eagerly seized onto the topics of biographies, nouns, and telling time.

Though they are only seven or eight-years old, I am eager to have them become responsible, self-directed learners during the course of the year. This week, I’ve started putting some steps in place to facilitate this process, some of which have been more successful than others.

  • Calendar Time: After modeling calendar time last week, I handed the duties over to the students. Now I stay in my chair and wait for them to direct each other about what to do. I have index cards on the board that say the six current components of our calendar time (the date, days in school on the place value chart, days in my school on money, name that number, math concept of the month, and spelling word of the day.) Under each index card I write a student’s name, and the names rotate one spot to the left each day, so students get a chance to do each task. The students have really loved the opportunity to be in charge of this activity — I have found they are much more engaged on what could be a very repetitive or even boring routine.
  • Center Time: I have been getting the students initiated into how centers will work in our classroom. I have a pocket chart at the front of my room that has the names of five different centers (What?, Why?, How?, Where?, and Who? — which align with the table signs that I have hanging in various places in my classroom). Over the past week, the number of students saying, “Where do I go?” and “What do I do?” has significantly decreased. I am hoping next month to move into centers where students will get to choose from a plethora of activities what they would like to do — it seems like they are almost ready for that, which I am really excited about.
  • Homework Messages: One effort that fell flat on its face was my experiment in having my students deliver messages about homework. My students get a large homework assignment each Monday that they have until the following Monday to complete, which I send home a thorough description about because my expectation is that the parents and students work together. However, in the middle of the week, I also send home their unfinished Mad Minutes with the expectation that they complete them for extra math practice. I have told the students about the Mad Minutes EVERY day after school for seven of our nine days. I sent home missing homework slips in folders yesterday and I got SIX emails and notes from concerned parents (out of 14 students!) who said their student had “no idea” about the Mad Minutes homework. I guess they aren’t quite ready for that yet!
  • Classroom Chat Monitor: My most clever (and most successful) initiative thus far has been the classroom chat monitor. Last Friday and this Monday, my students were exceptionally chatty in class. On Monday night, I was reeling about what I was going to do. Since I try to avoid punishment and good-behavior-linked rewards at all costs (another topic which I should write a post about), I was in need of a solution that wouldn’t simply be a bribe or a “do this and you’ll get that” scenario. So, I did two things. First, without explanation, I put in a chunk of free time (15 minutes) during the afternoon to give them an opportunity where they are allowed to chat as much as they want. (The results have been amazing so far — you wouldn’t believe the academic tasks students work on during this time!) Additionally, I instituted the position of “Classroom Chat Monitor.” This student observes and listens to class throughout the day and then issues a report at the end of the day where the class receives a thumbs-up, thumbs-to-the-side, or thumbs-down for their chattiness for the day. The Chat Monitor also makes recommendations about a way we might improve our chatty tendencies. The students are all clamoring for it to be their turn to be the chat monitor and I’ve noticed a significant improvement since the position was put in place. I think it really helps them to hear the “You’re way too loud”-related comments from a peer and not just from me.

So, things have been going fairly well as I try to slowly take the training wheels off. We still have a long way to go until my students will be able to tackle some of the curriculum that I have planned for them this year, but I like where we are going so far.

What do you do to try to be a facilitator of learning rather than a hegemonic teacher? I’d love to hear anything that has proven successful (or unsuccessful) in your own classroom!

Open House Planning

ImageMy school’s Open House is being held this coming Wednesday evening. While the event is only an hour, I’m hoping to make it a meaningful glimpse (for both my students and their parents) of what they can expect to experience this year. Thus far, I’ve planned to have a paper station, which will feature the latest issue of “News From Miss Hewes” (my newsletter,  which you can see a screenshot of at the top of this post), a contact preference form, and a home resource checklist (to avoid making assumptions about what students may have access to in their homes). I’ve also made magnets with my contact information and the class blog address, which I hope will mean that the parents always have my contact information in an accessible place. Also, I’m planning on giving out my first homework assignment — bringing in an index card with the birth dates of family members. These dates will serve as the first entries on the classroom timeline that my students and I will be filling in throughout the course of the year.

During the evening, I am planning to try to speak briefly with each set of parents and to snap a picture of each family group to put up on a bulletin board that will hang above my parent information center. What I’m not sure about is what to have parents and kids do while I’m not free to talk with them. I’m planning to have the room open for exploration and possibly setting out some math games and books for families to glance through. Does anyone have any other suggestions for great Open House ideas? I’m especially seeking activities that will get parents and kids mingling with each other.

Open House is a really important event for me because building strong family-school relationships is one of my key goals for this school year. During my Master’s year, I realized how passionate I am about parent-teacher relationships and devoted one of my final projects to brainstorming ways to bridge the gap between home and school in rural communities. From my research, I know how imperative fostering these relationships is to both student outcomes and facilitating school community, so I am determined to keep the lines of communication open throughout the school year. Open House is the first opportunity that I’ll have to signal how important parent partnerships are to me — I hope that my students’ parents will be willing to reciprocate my efforts!