Good educators understand the need to personalize lessons, assignments, and assessments to meet the needs of a diverse population in their classrooms. The educational term for this is differentiation. How many times do educators treat every home as though it were the same as all of the rest? How is it that we see every student as a unique individual, but try to pigeon-hole the homelives into an assumed formula?
Several years ago I began using more technology in the classroom. My district was employing an online teaching component that included lessons and quizzes. With limited classroom time on shaky tech tools, I thought I’d assign some work to be done at home. The day after the very first assignment, I received an email from a single mom who traveled very far for work. My initial thought was defensive. Luckily, although new to teaching, I knew enough not to type what I was feeling. The practice of assigning online HW discontinued, and all was well.
Last year, I tried sending “Reading Logs” home. I had done this in the past with moderate success. Some parents told me that they liked having their children write a sentence or two about what they had read each day! Of course there was never 100% participation, and as you can imagine, the quality varied greatly. I was floored, however, when I witnessed the vast gap in equity last year. There were some students whose writing was the best I had ever seen. Third graders were composing beautifully written paragraphs every night, after reading impressive texts. Others, however, weren’t even touching a text or scratching out one line on the log. What was I to do?
Right around this time I was becoming more active on Twitter. Luckily for everyone, I came across many tweets suggesting negative effects of these kinds of blanket assignments. As I reflected on what I was seeing return to school, I realized that these reading logs were really assessing students’ home life more than their ability to read and write. Also, within only a few short weeks, I could see that this continued practice would simply widen the gap between the homes that provided a lot of support and environments that didn’t. What to do? Should I punish the “No-Log-Students”? Instead, I ditched the reading log. I am thankful to my Personal Learning Network (PLN) from Twitter for helping process all of these ideas.
One thought has continued to burn on my brain, though: How different all of these homes are. During parent-teacher conference season I have some parents who visit my room as couples, arriving early, entering with notes, prepared questions, and goal-setting agendas. There are also parents who never sign up or contact me. We might speak on the phone, but I’m not surprised to learn that there are homes that feel like learning should be done strictly at school.
Earlier in my teaching career I idealized some home situations and thought that everyone should strive to be like them. Then my daughter Scarlet was born. Scarlet is entering second grade this year. With each new teacher there are new communication styles, formats, and platforms being used. There have been times when I wished my daughter’s teachers communicated the way I did on the same social media platforms that I used. As an educator, though, I know that they have a bunch of students’ families to communicate with, and they should use the vehicle that works best for them. How could a teacher differentiate communication to parents while using the same platform for all? Content; Quantity; and even Quality could be ways to meet parents’ needs.
Do you type up a newsletter for all families, and then wipe your hands of home communication responsibilities? What if the parents of a youth can’t read, can’t read English, or never receives the letter? Here’s an idea: Find out what families want to know. At the beginning of the year, learn what content would be helpful to each home. The newsletter could still be posted on your website, but you could tailor your communication with the homes of your students to meet the specific needs of each one. It could be a short note, a text, a quick email with a screenshot of scores, etc. You have data on your students. Collect some for your families.
How often do your families want to hear from you? Do you know? How much do they want to read? A parent told me last year that they liked bullet-point-emails. That opened my eyes. I knew my emails were too long. From then on, I had a list at the beginning of what was in each email.
Some parents like getting lots of detail, while others are more interested in simply knowing their kid is doing okay. Which style of parenting is better? Not only is there no good answer to that question, but it is a horrible question to begin with! They are simply different. One thing that has helped me communicate with parents in a tailored way is through providing specific feedback for each student’s writing in Google Classroom. The families that want to know a lot get a lot of text to read. The families that would rather a short blurb get just that.
Right now I am beginning a new school year. Last night was “Meet the Teacher Night.” Not every student’s parents visited my room, but of the ones that did, one thing that they all had in common was their uniqueness! Everyone was so different! Not just the way they looked; The attitudes shown in facial expressions, the ways they sat or stood to listen to me, their interest in speaking with me before and after my short presentation; These and many more characteristics spoke to me a very valuable lesson: Not only do I need to differentiate instruction in my classroom when teaching my class, but I should be differentiating communication with families.
Is it my job to get parents who are okay being completely hands-off to change and become more involved? No, but I’m not going to ignore any families, either. My aim is to work at respecting the expectations of homes. Differentiating Homes means the same thing as differentiating instruction: Meeting parents where they are philosophically, psychologically, and physically. If a family thinks education should be confined to school, then I better make it happen in school, while I have their kid! If parents wish weekly reports, I will make sure there is information available about weekly progress. If parents need to feel involved in their child’s education, I will provide opportunities for them to be plugged into classroom activities. If parents don’t have time to read lengthy reports and emails, I will make short videos that can be listened to. My goal for this year is to work at breaking old habits of one-size-fits-all approach to parent-teacher communication. How will you differentiate communication between school and home this year?