Communicating with Parents

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

CommunicationI’m having a really hard time with the fact that I will not be in the same place as my daughter when she is in preschool, even though I know that parents before me have done this. I won’t have a shared experience. I will not be privy to that part of her life.

As we’ve been looking at different schools, one of the metrics I find myself using to measure whether I like a school or not is how the teacher and school communicate with parents. So when I asked one teacher, “How do you communicate with parents?” and she answered, “Well, there’s conferences,” I was a little freaked out. Just to be clear, if you are waiting until conferences to talk to parents about their child, you are waiting too long.

As a middle school Language Arts teacher, I have re-prioritized my list of things I must do as a teacher, and elevated parent communication as one of my top three things. (The other two are: build personal relationships with students, and model reading and writing for my students.) Communication is a fundamental part of a teacher’s livelihood. I understand this better as my child is making her way into school.

As a parent, I will want to know what my child did in school, if anyone was mean to her or vice-versa, and what she did that was admirable or that needs work. In the beginning, I will want to see glimpses of what happens in the classroom–so that I can “be there” and know the routines, and have the language of the class, so that I can draw more out of my daughter in our conversations about school.

A Question of Frequency

Each fall, I go into the school year with lofty plans to call or email every student’s parent or guardian within the first month of school, with a positive, thoughtful comment that would demonstrate how I got to know their child–and which would also give me some leeway if I needed to contact them later in the year for an issue or concern. The years I met my goal, I needed some planning and dedication. One thing that worked was writing the names of four to eight students a day in my planner so that I would have them in my mind for each hour. That way, I could try to write or say something specific about the student’s participation in my class that day.

How often should a teacher communicate with parents and what do parents want to hear about? As students get older, do parents want to know different things? How much is too much? Which forms of communication (texts, phone calls, emails) work best for parents? How can I best manage showing glimpses of my classroom while respecting any anonymity requested by parents or students?

These are all questions that I’m pondering as I think about communication in my classroom. In the past, I haven’t really had a definite plan, just a few things that I did that fall under communication:

  • Weekly email to parents, describing key topics covered in class and any big projects or papers
  • Daily emails with homework to specific parents that requested this
  • Daily or weekly updates to Moodle with homework and “today in class”
  • A blog with student work and classroom photos (some years)
  • A blog with links and resources for students and parents to use (other years)

Technology should help make communicating with parents easier. There are tons of platforms, like Moodle or Weebly, that offer a way for you to easily communicate with parents/guardians. Mainly, I want to use something that is easy for me to update and easy for parents to access.  

Photo Jan 27, 9 46 39 AM

Welcome board at Pierce Elementary School with a calendar for parents and guardians to sign up to volunteer in the preschool classroom.

One area that I haven’t tapped into, but that I really liked in my visits to preschools, was how teachers invite or welcome parents and guardians into their classrooms. I know that this might look different in varying grade levels, but I really liked the schools that offered some way for me to be able to come into the classroom if I wanted to. Just by having this option available, it gave me a sense that this teacher was confident and capable.

Not only would I like to invite parents into my classroom to help out with preparing materials or bulletin boards, but I would like to have them come in for classroom celebrations of writing. Another thing to consider is how to engage parents and guardians of low-income students or English Language Learners.  

I’d like to be more deliberate in my plan for communication, so here’s my list of what a comprehensive communication plan for parents and guardians should include:

  • A survey or initial email that invites parents and guardians to share their concerns or hopes for their child in the coming school year
  • An invitation for parents and guardians to come visit your classroom in some way
  • A way for parents and guardians to know what is happening in your classroom
  • A place where students can share their work for a wider audience, including parents and guardians
  • Resources for parents and guardians who are looking for ways to support their students in your subject or grade
  • A calendar of important due dates and classroom events
  • Ideas for connecting with parents and guardians throughout the year

Parents want teachers who are accessible and transparent, so what is your plan for communicating with parents on a regular basis? Post your ideas in the comments below or on social media.

blog preschoolCaroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

The Importance of Reading at Home

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_221592391I am fortunate that both of my daughters absolutely love reading. They look at not having time to read as a punishment, one that’s equivalent to losing their favorite toy.

Maybe this is because my husband and I are both educators, and we’ve been reading to them since I found out I was pregnant. But we also do more with books than just read in a monotone voice.

I believe it is important to teach these habits to parents with young children. This can help build the connection between learning at school and at home, a connection that’s desperately needed. It can also make learning more interesting for students.

Setting Higher Expectations

I created a blog for my kindergarten classroom that is updated biweekly. This blog explains what we are doing in the classroom, and includes details on what we are reading. It also describes the stamina we are building as students read to themselves.

Parents are always amazed that my goal for kindergarten is that students read to themselves for 20 minutes or more. (Yes, this takes a while, since we usually start the year with a whopping two minutes!) Most parents can’t believe their child can sit that long and read.

But setting ambitious goals is not enough. I believe that, in addition, we need to explain to parents how we teach reading.

We want students to ask questions of themselves while reading. We also want them to predict what is going to happen next, and to make a connection to themselves or another book they have read.

We teach these skills in the classroom. But we also must encourage parents to do the same at home.

A Few Strategies that Help

How can we ensure that reading instruction continues at home?

One tool I have used is a reading strategy bookmark. In guided-reading book bags, which come home two times a week, we include this bookmark. This bookmark explains in simple detail the strategies we use to teach reading. It also has a page of questions parents can ask while reading with their child, like:

  • What do you think the author is trying to teach us?
  • What was your favorite part?
  • Can you find the word _____?
  • Tell me what happened at the beginning, middle, or end of the story.

shutterstock_158942981This kind of reading can be used during the daily bedtime routine. This makes the books more fun and interesting, and helps students retain more information about their books. Such a routine can also become a time the child looks at with fond memories, a quality time with his or her family.

There’s another conversation to have with parents, and it can be awkward. That is, emphasizing the importance of their reading, too, so their child can see them taking pleasure in it.

We know children learn by watching. When they see parents only playing phone games or video games, checking emails, or staring at the television, this becomes the norm. On the other hand, if children see their parents enjoying a good book, we can more easily expect that child to read at home. Homework also becomes less of a battle.

We as educators know the importance of reading. But while we establish the importance of reading in our classroom, we need to remember that parents can help us further the importance of reading at home.

image1Tricia Ziegler (Twitter: @axf96; blog: is a kindergarten teacher at Loon Lake Elementary, in the Walled Lake School District. She recently became part of the Walled Lake Teacher Leader Fellowship. She is in her tenth year of teaching, with eight in kindergarten and two in Second Grade. Prior to that she taught in the Walled Lake Great Start Readiness Program, which is a state-funded preschool program for at-risk students. Tricia attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree and specialization in Early Childhood. She then attended Wayne State University for her Master’s in Teacher Education.

The Grammar Ambush

Notes from the Classroom Research & Theory

shutterstock_201882445It happens to my husband all the time. He is a police officer, and it is rare that he can make it through a party without someone asking him how to get out of a recent ticket. It almost always starts the same way.

“Oh, you’re a police officer? Well, let me ask you this . . .”

I’ve seen it happen so many times that I should have realized when it was happening to me at the neighborhood Halloween party.

“Oh, you’re an English teacher? Well, let me ask you this. When is my son going to start learning grammar? This is ridiculous. The garbage they’re sending home from his school is unbelievable! He doesn’t even know parts of speech!”

I quickly scanned the room for exits. It was a Friday night. I was exhausted. I really didn’t want to try to defend the English curriculum of a school where I don’t teach, in a class taught by a teacher I don’t know. However, this was my well-meaning neighbor who is really just a concerned parent, and who wants to make sure her child is prepared to be a good writer. And besides—for all I knew, some poor teacher from another district was defending my curriculum at a Halloween party in Novi.

I did my best to explain the concept of teaching grammar in context. I talked about all the research that shows kids don’t retain much when we teach them abstract terms and expect them to memorize constructions outside of their own writing. Then I tried to push the conversation toward reading. I explained that her son should be reading, reading, and then reading some more so that he can see what good writing looks like.

I’m still thinking about the conversation. Many parents want to see the traditional type of grammar instruction that they grew up with. And who can blame them? They did it that way and they turned out just fine. They’re concerned that their kids aren’t going to know how to communicate professionally.

Teaching Grammar in Context

Unfortunately, the problem with isolated grammar instruction is that it doesn’t work. Research since 1960 has shown us that “relatively few students learn grammar well, fewer retain it, and still fewer transfer the grammar they have learned to improving or editing their writing.”

So what do we do instead? Thumb through some teaching books or do a quick Google search, and you’ll find “mini-lessons” hailed as answers. Start writing workshops with quick bursts of targeted instruction, the lessons say.

But that’s tough. If I want to teach my kids a quick lesson about correctly punctuating clauses, they first need to know what clauses are. They need to know what subjects and verbs are, and they need to know what conjunctions are—both coordinating and subordinating. Say any of those terms in a tenth-grade classroom only if you’re into watching eyes glaze over. I’m not into glazed-over eyes, so my grammar mini-lessons have always been haphazard at best.

shutterstock_302927471After Thanksgiving, my AP Language students and my ELA 10 students are starting new writing assignments. Now is the time, I think, to deliberately use grammar mini-lessons.

I’ll use their independent novels for samples of grammar in context. I will also hold them accountable to show me they can write with these grammatical concepts in mind.

And, I can’t forget about the other part of this grammar issue: communication. The Halloween ambush reminded me that I am not doing a good job of communicating the message to my students or parents. I need to be explicit about the expectations I have for my students’ grammar, and I need to let their parents know that grammar instruction is a valued, consistent part of my curriculum.

My students’ next major writing assignments will be submitted and graded by the end of December. Look for part two of this experiment in explicit grammar instruction. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fifteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition and English 10. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.