Thursday, August 05, 2010

Transparent Algebra: Parent Communication

As is hopefully pretty obvious by the titles of many of my recent posts, I want my Algebra class to be transparent: transparent to students, transparent to parents, transparent to everyone. While I think I did an okay job with parent communication during my first stint in the classroom, the communication was generally after the fact, dealing with a behavior problem or an academic issue. I did communicate positive information as well, but this time I want to not only communicate those pieces of information, but I also want to share more of what we're doing, as well as why we're doing it. As I plan for this, I'm primarily struggling with two things: how much is too much information and how involved should parents be.

I generally like information. Lots of information. And, as the staff at my school will attest, I'm not adverse to sending out fairly long, involved emails that try to communicate important information in (sometimes excruciating) detail. At times folks have let me know that those emails are not always helpful, because they contain so much information that they often end up going unread. So as I contemplate how to communicate with the parents of the students in my class, I worry that I will bombard them with so much information that they'll end up ignoring it. How to strike the balance between being informative but not overwhelming?

My other concern is that high school is a time for parents to step back a little and students to step up. My philosophy has always been that I want the important conversations to typically be between me and the student, not me trying to get the student to comply by going through his or her parents. Yet I also think that parents should still be involved, and usually want to be involved, just not as a referee. If I communicate too much with parents, will I undermine the students' investment in my class?

With those concerns as backdrop, here are the various ways I'm currently planning on communicating with parents.
  1. I've already called all the parents to confirm their student has broadband access from home. When I did that, I asked for an email address I could use to contact them.

  2. I followed-up that phone call with an initial email message with some general information about the class.

  3. Yesterday I then sent a second email message, which had information for both the parents and the students.

  4. As you can see from that second message, I'm encouraging them to subscribe to the class blog via RSS or email. If they choose to do that, they'll get a daily glimpse into what we're doing, as that's where I'll post any homework the students have or other important information about the class.

  5. I'll be encouraging them to come to our scheduled parent-teacher conferences, preferably with their student present.

  6. I'm still thinking about how best to do this, but I want to encourage them not to wait until the scheduled parent-teacher conferences, but to come in and visit before that. I want to invite them in to observe/participate in a class, then perhaps stick around after and talk with me a bit about what they saw, as well as about their student. But this is one where I worry about my second concern, is that inviting them too far in, and will that make the students uncomfortable?

  7. I'll be emailing them periodically with good news, such as when their student does well on an assessment or has a great idea in class.

  8. I will, of course, contact parents if students are struggling, either academically or behaviorally, if talking with the student first doesn't seem to be helping.

  9. I'm trying to be pretty available for them to contact me as well, sharing my Google Voice number, my email address, and various other parts of my digital footprint.

  10. I hope to share interesting things that are going on in class, some of which may not be apparent even if they subscribe to the class blog. So, if we Skype someone in, or are doing a particularly interesting activity, I'll share that out.
I have a few more ideas floating around, but I think this is the core of my plan. What do you think? Too much? Not enough? What could I do better?


  1. First, you've already communicated three times more ahead of time than I ever did in the classroom. Kudos to you, Karl. With that in mind, is there a way you could communicate your new grading system in some sort of unique and innovative way? YouTube video? Maybe ask a few of your students to create one after a few weeks in the class?

  2. Matt - I was thinking of having you skype all of them personally . . .

    Seriously, I'll have to think about it. Nothing particularly innovative comes to mind.

  3. So not innovative, but as a fan of dense emails myself: I've learned to bullet point the main parts on top, and those interested in "the rest of the story" can read the bottom.

    Everyone gets what they need.

  4. So... not innovative, but as a fan of dense emails myself: I've learned to bullet point the main parts on top, and those interested in "the rest of the story" can read the bottom.

    Everyone gets what they need.

    Also, you may want to consider offering student's a "menu" of points for a math project: 1. parent come in, observe and verbally speak to you. 2. they could create a video/movie/etc about how math rocks. 3. They could create a pp explaining a state concept in relatable detail (ex: how skateparks use geometry, etc).

  5. I'll put on my parent hat and say that in general, no news was good news. That coming from a parent of kids who did very well in school. I would have liked to have more of an insight into their classes but in order to make algebra more friendly to parents, perhaps you and your students could target them as an audience and think of ways to make them interested and even somewhat knowledgeable about the subject.

    I worry that we simply use these tools to communicate homework, assignments and tests and do little to encourage more interesting conversations between families about the learning. Perhaps you've already addressed this but as a parent, I'd need these communications to be more than the routine communications and information to matter to me. Information is good but storytelling is better. If that makes sense.

  6. I'm sure you have students and families at your school without the technology resources or means to acquire them.

    How do you provide information to those students and families without that access?

  7. Shareski - Yes, that makes sense. I think you need both, the routine, nuts-and-bolts communication, and the conversations about the learning. As a parent of students that always did well in school, you may have a little bit of a skewed perspective on the value of those routine communications.

    As far as conversations about the learning, I hope to address that, although not nearly as well as you would hope. Certainly my hope is that by subscribing to the class blog, they will be drawn into what we're doing in class, and that will foster some conversations with their student about Algebra and the class. By semi-regularly sending additional communications home - either whole class talking about something we did in class, or individual talking about something great that student did - I also hope to start some conversations. Finally, I hope both some of my writing assignments and the invitation to parents to come in and observe/participate and then talk with me will provide additional avenues for discussion about the learning.

    I really like your idea of having students targeting parents as an audience, but I'm going to fall back on the excuse of not enough time. At least this first time around, I don't see any way to accomplish that. I'm already way outside the box in multiple ways and pushing the edges, and I don't have enough time as it is, so I'm going to give myself a one year break on this one (subject to change if I find a good way to do it that fits within the time constraints).

  8. ckchitwood - As I mentioned, I called all of my parents to verify they have broadband Internet access. They do, and I've communicated with them via email already. I've also provided them voice contact information and will invite them in to school. I think we're pretty good here, don't you think?

  9. Karl,

    A few years ago, I began the same practice (though not to the same extent). I have since retired the frequent communications because I found I opened myself up to some kind comments, which was wonderful, but also to some brazen remarks that have since ceased since I stopped those sporadic email updates. I am not quite sure why this happened, particularly since I have always had an email address, but that was my experience. I hope yours will be more positive and, if it is, I look forward to hearing how you did it differently as I certainly see the value in what you are doing.

  10. I wish more teachers were as communicative as you seem to be. It's almost like pulling teeth to get information from the teacher, when I do email them with a question, they seem not to really READ my question and just answer something else. Then I have to go into the school and see them, which I can do right now (unemployed). My friend's son failed 7th grade, he is a single dad, works 10 hours a day, and wonders why nobody ever contacted him when his child STARTED to falter, not after he failed.
    Anyway, after that venting, I would LOVE to see a 'you-tube' video of a typical day in the classroom every so often. It would connect me to what my child is learning and how the entire class is interacting.

  11. Mindy - I toyed with the idea of streaming some of my classes, but decided against it for two reasons. One, too much work and complications for probably a minimal amount of payback. Two, permissions. That's always the hangup for streaming/recording/posting is getting permission from everyone.