From Binders to Instagram: How Teachers Can Better Communicate With Families in 2018

—Cristie Watson posted this photograph of her students working on Instagram to share with families.
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"An empty backpack." My sister gestured towards the limp receptacle hanging on a kitchen chair to emphasize her point. "Months of 5th grade, and the only thing my son has brought home is an empty backpack."

I appreciated that my sister asked for my teacher perspective on my nephew’s schooling. As a mom, I understood where she was coming from. Over the last few years, many educators have embraced technology, happily "ditched that textbook," and eliminated, or at least minimized, nightly homework. I’m proud of the changes I’ve made since my school went 1:1 with digital devices, but my sister’s remark was a good reminder that the digital replacement of paper notes, assignments, and assessments also removes a tried and true way for families to keep up with their students’ school work.

When writing samples, graded tests, and other types of classwork are sent home in weekly folders or organized in binders, families see how their children are performing, as well as what they’re learning. The lack of that frequent, concrete evidence and feedback can cause anxiety for parents and leave them feeling unsure of how to support their children’s education.

Fortunately, technology has the potential to connect families to our classrooms far better than any folders, and it makes home communication easy for teachers. We just have to shift our mindsets about what that communication looks like, the same way we’ve shifted our instruction to allow for the creative use of digital tools.

'Show,' Don’t 'Tell'

Many teachers send newsletters or emails listing the week’s learning goals or activities, but we need to think of ways we can “show” and not just “tell” families what’s going on in our classrooms. Instead of simply typing, “We are wrapping up our Properties of Matter unit,” think of the activities and resources you could share to make the learning goals more accessible for families. Weekly emails make it easy to show digital content, but if you rely primarily on paper newsletters, a shortened link to a class website, instructional video, or exemplar assignment would still be very helpful to include.

Learning management systems and digital portfolios allow guardians even more expedient access to the workings of the classroom. Parents can sign in to Canvas or receive notifications from Google Classroom and know exactly what is due and when. In the digital portfolio Seesaw, parents can view a teacher’s prompts and their children’s responses. These tools help families ask their students better questions about what they’re learning and provide support to students who struggle with time management.

Take Advantage of Social Media

My favorite way to offer parents a glimpse into my 6th grade classroom is through my professional Instagram account (it’s a private account that only my classroom’s families have access to). I started out taking a few snapshots a week, and quickly realized there are many wonderful things worth sharing! Quick videos of students building cardboard ziggurats, racing Sphero chariots, and discussing their reading in book clubs are just a few examples that visibly display the creativity and hard work of my students. Through social media, families can experience what I see—their children’s enthusiasm and success—and, as an added bonus, it takes less than a minute to post updates from my phone.

Since using Instagram, I've received a lot of enthusiastic feedback from parents and students. One dad said he loves seeing all the ways my students work—as a whole class or in small groups, sitting in seats or stretched out on the floor. A student shared (with only a slight eye roll) that her mom said scrolling through my Instagram feed to spy on her daughter was the highlight of her day. My students enjoy the photos so much that I’ve started using my Instagram account for positive reinforcement. Students can get shout-outs for winning review games, earning badges in online programs, and meeting reading goals. Whether we use Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, it simply makes sense to model the positive use of social media to build community within our schools.

Include Grades and Assessments

Standards-based grading is another way to communicate a student’s learning with guardians. However, I’ve realized this shift in grading practices can also be confusing to parents. After all, a score for a "historical fiction book report" clearly identifies what product was assessed, while the standard “analyzing impact of setting” can be rather bewildering. To clarify for families, teachers can use online gradebooks to post both the standard and the name of the assessment, and it can be done in a couple of different ways. For instance, science teachers in my school show the standard measured for a particular quiz, while the math teachers post scores for a particular skill, but add in the comment section if the recent score was measured with a pretest, exit ticket, or benchmark.

"We just have to shift our mindsets about what that communication looks like."

Many of us don’t send home hand-graded tests anymore, but it’s still important to share assessment data with students and their families. There are many online resources that immediately notify students of their scores or provide printable reports. When I’m emailing parents, I try to link in any evaluation tools I’m using, such as rubrics or learning progressions. Because learning goals shouldn’t be mysteries, assessments shouldn’t be "gotchas," and grades shouldn’t be surprises. Students—and their families—deserve to know what they’re working toward, how they’ll be measured, and what strategies to use to get there.

Consider a Parent's Perspective

Being a mom naturally changed me as a teacher. In between my own classes, I wonder what my daughter is doing in hers, and as I review my students’ progress, I worry that I’m not doing enough to help my own child be successful. Most notably, these reflections motivate me to put in the extra effort to include the people who love my students most. It feels so good to receive an email complimenting my daughter’s hard work; I can’t help but want to pass that feeling along to other parents.

In education, we all know the value of parent involvement, so let’s use today’s tools to include our students' families. With only a few clicks of the mouse or quick taps on the cellphone, we can share so much: the fun of pep rallies and spirit days, the skills students can practice at home, the data from online assessment tools, the pride in a student-showcase, and the imagination in student art displays. Families want to support their children’s education, and we have a responsibility to coach them on how to do that. With or without the backpack.

Images courtesy of the author.

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