Stop the Email Chain


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5 ways to communicate and engage with families

By Amber Chandler

When I first started teaching just over 20 years ago, the flow of information was considerably slower, sort of like the difference between a leaky faucet and the tidal wave we face now. The expectation was that if a student was failing, they would know because we returned their work to them, and their parents would definitely know at the five-week mark when the school sent progress reports home via snail mail.

I always dreaded this time because irate parents would start calling about a missing homework from three weeks before or a lower-than-expected test grade. Sure, I suppose I could have called them, but this was a different time. Twenty years ago, if you called home about missing homework, people would think you were crazy! Nowadays, though, the expectation is near constant communication with families to keep them in the loop, and speaking as the mom of an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old, I can’t say enough about this change.

The best education for students happens when teachers and families work together collaboratively, and technology has made this partnership incredibly easy.

Nearly a decade ago, I started using email to update parents weekly with a list of assignments, announcements, and the like. Soon, parents began replying with questions about their kiddos (and who could blame them?), which then resulted in a never-ending email chain. I’d reply, but then there’d be a quiz, and the parents just wanted to know why their child missed question number seven. How could I, as a teacher who wants engaged parents, not answer an email from a clearly concerned parent? Of course I answered! The chain continued to expand exponentially as parents began emailing me to inquire about the life of their child, and before I knew it, I was irritated about engaged families, which should not be the case!

The great news is that there are really easy solutions for communicating and engaging with families, and you can choose the method that best fits your style and tolerance for constant communication.

Teacher-created website

Websites are great for the type of teachers who write the homework on the board at the beginning of the week. Having a website takes some time and preparation, but it also is a really effective platform to share and store information. Once students and parents are trained to go to the website for the answers to questions, the emails you receive will be fewer and more targeted at real issues, not just pleas for information. I use Wix.com because it is free and user-friendly — I even have my students create their own sites with this platform. I also use the website to showcase student work, post my own writing, and provide links to resources.

Remind

Remind is a great app for teachers who want to share short bursts of information, and as the name suggests, “remind” students and families about upcoming events. I’ve never been one to remind students continually about things, but if you are, this is for you. Parents are especially appreciative of Remind as they get the information on the go instead of having to visit a website.
I did use Remind this year, mostly to send pictures and text back and forth with parents. The app simply allows you to communicate like a text without revealing your phone number. You can also send a group message without the group being able to communicate with each other, though they can reply to the teacher. I’ll continue to use Remind, even though I don’t use it that often, because it is free, quick to set up, and provides a way to communicate on the fly. For example, I sent a Remind message when returning from a class field trip so that students would be picked up on time.

Twitter

I love Twitter. It is my professional learning network (PLN) of choice, as I like the fact that it is on the go. I do not use Twitter with my students, but a decent number of them follow me. My Twitter is 100 percent professional, so I like that they follow me and see the professional writing I do. As an English teacher, I think it is important for students to see me as I exist in the world, which can give them a vision of themselves as writers, too.

Twitter’s challenges include the need for hashtags (#) to follow and the possibility of inciting online behavior that could be questionable. My superintendent, Dr. Richard Hughes, uses Twitter to share information about snow days, post videos updating progress on capital projects and the like, as well as build an interconnectedness with the entire community. My son’s teacher also uses it to communicate what is happening in her class. I guarantee you that without her posts, I’d never know they were peer editing their personal narratives! It is awesome to be able to ask Oliver about what he is doing specifically, since, like so many other kids, he isn’t all that interested in talking about school once he gets home.

Facebook

Facebook is widely used to communicate, and the best way I’ve seen it is a page moderated by a parent member of the PTA. She has the authority to remove posts if things turn snarky, and the main function is for information. Questions such as “What’s for lunch tomorrow?” or “Where does my son go to sign up for baseball?” are answered quickly, as the information is basically crowdsourced by the other members. The only downside, and the reason I don’t use this for my class, is that members can post comments to each other.

Instagram

Instagram offers the high impact of visual social media. I have a colleague who uses it to showcase her student work, but also as a reminder. She will post a picture of the book they are supposed to read that night with a “Hey! I know you are all deep into Freak the Mighty right now, so I won’t disturb you.” I like this method of communication because students and parents can follow her, and she doesn’t follow them back. My own children are most likely to check Instagram, and I’d recommend this method for the same type of people who like Remind.

Sometimes I’ll hear people complain that we overdo communicating with families — that we aren’t making students independently capable. Though I know where they are coming from, I also don’t think it is developmentally appropriate to lay all the responsibility at students’ feet. Personally, I’ve had better success reaching students when there is a whole team of people checking in and encouraging them instead of waiting until the five-week progress report! From the parent perspective, it has been invaluable to me to have had teachers use social media to communicate.

I encourage you to try a communication method that breaks the email chain. It is liberating, good for families, and great for students.
Before getting started, there are a few things you need to do to protect yourself and your students. First, obtain permission from your students’ parents or guardians. Even if they already have permission on a school level and are cleared from the “Do Not Photograph” list, I still recommend getting another permission slip. Mine reads something like this:

Dear Families,
I love to share positive things about our students, and I often use Twitter, Remind, Facebook, and Instagram to share pictures and student work. I promise, I will only post about how amazing your child is and all photos will be flattering (no eating pictures or bad angles!). Please sign below indicating that you understand that I am promoting your child and our class in a positive light. If you don’t want your child to be photographed or his/her work shared, please indicate that. There are always good reasons NOT to be involved too. Thanks! Let me know what questions you have.

Next, always ask students if you can post. I show them the picture I plan to use. If they don’t like it, I take another. It is very important to keep this trust with your students and their families. The last thing you want is a student crying because you shared something that embarrasses them in some way. My students love being a part of my social media campaigns to show classrooms in a positive light. They know I believe in them and want to show them off, and once I gain their trust, they’ll tell me about good photo opportunities.

I knew that my class really enjoyed my social-media use this year when a student asked if I could share something she was doing in another class — because her grandma followed me on Twitter! When families, teachers, students, and schools collaborate to make learning valuable, we all win. For students nowadays, that five-week progress report just isn’t going to do it, so I encourage you to get started with a platform that seems comfortable for you!

Amber Chandler is a National Board-Certified ELA teacher and the author of The Flexible ELA Classroom: Practical Tools for Differentiated Instruction in Grades 4–8. Find her online at FlexibleClass.com and on Twitter @MsAmberChandler.

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