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Sage Advice: What's the best way to stay connected to parents?

Betty Ray Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

Some of you may remember we had a column in the Edutopia magazine called Sage Advice. Now that we're going online-only, we wanted to reignite the spirit of Sage Advice here in the Edutopia community.

Anyone can post a Sage Advice question. All you have to do is put the words "Sage Advice" in front of your question. And Sage Advice questions can be posted in any of the groups.

And of course, anyone can answer a Sage Advice question.

So without further ado, here's the first one...

What's the best way to stay connected to parents?

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Teacher and Ed-Tech Blogger at


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My friend Patrick used Newsletters to communicate with his parents. It would involve communication about was going on in the class, projects/lessons that were taking place, and topics/articles/videos to discuss. With families having discussions about his lessons, it helped encourage interest in the topics.

High School Social Studies Teacher, Brooklyn, NY

Including Parents In Learning

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Another way to include parents is to create assignments that require parents (or other family members) to get involved in the actual learning of the student. For example, you could assign a family history interview or have students work on a project related to what one of their parents (or other trusted adult) does for a living. Parents could also be invited in for exhibitions of student work. If you create a culture where parent involvement is part of the curriculum you create an environment where parents feel welcome and free to ask questions, make suggestions, etc. Parent involvement should go beyond communication of due dates and behavioral updates. Good Luck!

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Normally, if a studen'ts photo is posted on the internet, you need the parent's permission. How does your district view this requirement in view of posting photos on Shutterfly, even using password protected site? Do you get permission from parents at the beginning of the school year, or is it enough to have it password protected?

Fifth Grade Teacher from Utah

As a grade level we meet with

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As a grade level we meet with parents at parent conferences. The teachers meet in one room so the parents can visit with each of us discussing different classes we teach. We also call parents, see them in the community and send information and answer questions on the email. Our school also keep our parents involved by our school and classroom websites, Powerschool, and periodic school wide phone calls. Parent communication is important. Parents are important.

texting my parents

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"Has anyone had text messages communication with parents that worked? I may try that next year."

Tanya - I do use text messages in my elementary classroom (my population is very similar to yours.) Often it's a good way to communicate little things quickly, but I use my messages as a follow-up (day to day communication) after an actual face-to-face or phone conversation. For instance, if I have a student with a homework or behavior issue, it's hard to connect with parents to relay daily info, and sometimes written notes "mysteriously disappear" on the bus. Text is a great alternative: I can send a "great day" or "check for action plan" message quick at the end of the day to keep them updated. I also receive messages like "Ask XXX about lunch check" or "What time is the assembly?" and can respond quickly and easily, where it's much harder to make a phone call in a busy classroom. I had to set boundaries, of course - I don't respond to messages after about 6 at night or before 7:30 unless it's an emergency (the same as I'd take phone calls) and I'm limited to responding during school to my prep and lunch times. At the same time, I love that it helps me keep in touch about the little stuff, because it really improves our (mine & my parents') follow-through.

texting my parents

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Sorry, posted twice! Thank you all for your great ideas!

Involved Dad

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There is no mention of the non-custodial father who is generally gender discriminated and kept out of the loop. Calls are rarely returned, messages in boxes not responded to, no invitation to parent teacher conferences, volunteering opourtunities missed. And in a school with 30% non-custodial dads.

Teacher and Ed-Tech Blogger at

Easy text messaging for teachers

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If you are considering going the text message route, you might want to use a Gmail account to send them.

This way you can cut and paste a message like "Open House is at 7pm" instead of having to type it out individually on the phone and add each contact manually.

Additionally, this would not charge your phone for the text, and all of the responses would come from and go to your gmail account. This keeps your phone number private and free from tons of messages.

School Leader at Young Audiences Charter School

Pooling for Parents 20 Keys to a Successful Event

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I once planned a Family Math and Science Night with an elementary school in New Orleans. The faculty and I spent hours and hours organizing the event. We put together model lessons, created interactive games, displayed student work, and lined up several guest speakers. We were pumped up like show dogs! Unfortunately, we didn’t take into consideration a number of potential obstacles. Lack of transportation and babysitting along with a conflicting event (a football game) doomed our endeavor. As a result, the night was a complete wash. Only a handful of parents came and we accomplished almost nothing. As is always the case in education though, we did learn from the experience.
As we all know, parental involvement is essential for meaningful and sustainable whole-school change. The challenge of course is getting it. How do we lure them in and how do we keep them onboard? One strategy many schools use is to hold major parent-teacher events. These might include open house, portfolio parties, tea with the teachers, family reading nights, PTO meetings, volunteer and career days, celebrations of learning, and project fairs. All of these can be incredibly worthwhile, yet they can also be costly and discouraging wastes of time. So, what can we do to insure a successful event? The following are just a few of the keys culled from experience:

1. Work Together! When it comes to designing a winning program, input from parents, teachers, administrators, students, and community partners is critical. Form a committee or action team that includes all or most of these players. Establish norms, designate a team leader, put together a mission statement and a timeline, delegate responsibilities, brainstorm and work toward consensus. Remember, strength in numbers comes with cooperation and commitment.
2. Poll the Parents! As any hunter would attest, you have to know your prey. Find out what parents need and want, where they live and what they do. Give them a survey and crunch the numbers. Figure out what the obstacles are and how best to maneuver around them. From agenda items and menu requests to preferential times and special needs, the more you know, the fewer the mistakes. To quote a principal, “knowledge is power.”
3. Talk to the Teachers! Involvement is a two-way street. Ask the faculty (and the students) to share their hopes and fears, ideas, experiences, and concerns. Have them look at the test data and scour the school improvement plan. Process their contributions and prioritize accordingly. Make sure that the fruits of their labor are well worth all the blood, sweat, time, and tears.
4. Set Goals & Objectives! As with any good lesson, battle, or business plan, you have to start with the desired results. These goals and objectives should be SMART: Simple, Measurable, Achievable, Results driven, and Timely. After scrolling them through the writing process, publish them for the entire community to see. Let all stakeholders know what the destination is, and then show them how you plan to get there…
5. Put Together a Solid Program! Many schools spend an inordinate amount of time and energy filling seats and forget to produce a memorable and productive show. Getting parents there is only half the battle. It’s what you do with them that matters most. A tight, thoughtful program that both empowers participants and supports teaching and learning is at the heart of any successful event. Make it meaningful and you’ll truly make a difference…
6. Be Culturally Sensitive! Rubrics, technology integration, accountability, standardized testing…many parents are intimidated and/or confused by all of the educational gobbledygook. They end up not attending for fear of embarrassment or lack of understanding. From changing the name from “literacy carnival” to “pizza and book night,” to providing translators for non-English speakers, accommodations for cultural differences must be included.
7. Avoid Competition! Many parent events are undermined by a simple ballgame or TV show. Poor over calendars and choose the path of least resistance. Coordinate with feeder schools, local organizations, and religious groups. Set the time, place, and date well in advance. Carve them in stone and stick to them like indelible graffiti.
8. Join Forces! The “If ya can’t beat em, join em.” adage definitely applies to parent-teacher events. Teaming up with the folks who run Bingo, meeting in the gym just before the big game, or holding court in the local church can all add to the overall draw. A little bit of trickery can go a long way…
9. Promote, Promote & Then Promote Some More! Use the AOL marketing model: put the word out often and everywhere. From fliers and announcements to the school web page and e-mail, make sure that everyone and their pets know what’s going on. Beat the drum loudly and sound the alarm again and again!
10. Alert the Media! Definitely take advantage of the press. Find allies in radio, television, and periodicals. Use them to spread the word and, if attendance is poor, to shame those who missed out. Keep in mind that events like these are also great opportunities to promote the school and to recognize the faculty. Sometimes you can knock down two birds with just one press release…
11. Provide Transportation! Many of our parents would love to come; they just can’t get there. Make arrangements for carpools, reserve busses and drivers from the district, solicit transportation donations from local businesses and charities. For those who still can’t make it, video the program and share it with them on cable access or a later date…
12. Provide Babysitting! A screaming baby or a parent who doesn’t come because they have one, either way the school loses. Recruit older students (Many high schools have community service requirements for graduation.) and allocate space for supervised care. Pacify and prosper.
13. Feed Them! In Field of Dreams, the mantra was “build it and they will come.” With parent events, it’s “feed them and they will learn.” Spaghetti, pizza, cookies, and cake – a full tummy often leads to an open mind…
14. Entertain Them! A roomful of yawns and snores is a telltale sign that the parents won’t return. After enticing them with bread, amuse them with plenty of circuses! Guest speakers, musical performances, humor, and games - do what you can to keep them smiling and awake.
15. Get Them Involved! “Hands-On” is like cartoons, it’s not just for kids anymore. Get the parents moving, talking, interacting, singing, dancing, and doing. Set up stations, plan fun and educational games and activities, get them on the computer, provoke them to ask and answer provocative questions…Make it memorable and they’re sure to return and retain.
16. Give Them Stuff! Door prizes, handouts, attendance incentives, books, and buttons - line their pockets with a good mix of both substance and filler. Note: In lieu of number six and to avoid feeding the spotted owl destroying trash bin, remember to make sure that all of the materials are culturally appropriate and worthwhile.
17. Include Kids! One of the best and most obvious ways to fill the infamous “cafetorium” is to put children on the stage (If nothing else, their parents have to come in order to pick them up.). Dramatic readings, multi media presentations, skits, projects, and puppet shows all show parents what their children are learning and, with your guidance after the applause, what they can do to support the learning process…
18. Document! Take pictures, shoot video, and save all the hard evidence. Make sure that you get credit for the effort and leave a paper trail straight to the SIP.
19. Get Feedback! With even the most Academy Award worthy programs, there’s usually room for improvement. Find out from the parents, teachers, and kids what worked and what didn’t. Ask them directly and give them a questionnaire. An ounce of reflection can prevent a ton of future mistakes...
20. Make Revisions! And then do it again BIGGER and better next time round!

School events, when successful, can both increase and improve parental involvement. They can also help us grow as a professional learning community. Plan ahead and make the most of the occasion!

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