When teachers create connections between their classrooms and their students’ families, they are opening and investing in lines of communication that can sustain student success. Connections are now especially important given the ongoing pandemic. These days, parents and families are isolated from schools, as social distancing and extra precautionary measures preclude parent-teacher conferences, open houses, and other opportunities for teachers and students’ families to meet.
Whether their students are in person or virtual, teachers need to be open, creative, and flexible in finding ways to engage families with their classrooms, even if from a distance.
I use community-building strategies that are culturally responsive and attuned to students’ emotional needs, sustain family engagement, and provide ongoing structure and support. Use of these strategies can help ensure that students are honored, families are valued, and a feeling of community is instilled both inside and outside the classroom.
Ongoing Student Engagement
Something that feels like home: Ask students to bring something from home that makes their classroom feel more like home. This could be a photograph, a stuffed animal, or a musical instrument. Having an artifact from home gives students the opportunity to reach out and grab something familiar if they’re feeling a bit down or homesick. Also, it provides a way for all families to be represented within our classroom.
The best part of me: Have the class create a book in which each student tells one thing they like about themselves. Each student chooses one part of their body that they love and then photographs it. Next, each child writes the name of that body part on sturdy paper and then the teacher writes down the reason. For example, “The best part of me is my foot because I like to kick a soccer ball.” Each student has a designated page, and the book can be displayed and reread anytime.
Circle time emotions: I typically like to end each week with a group circle where we discuss different topics as a class and each student gets a turn to speak. Students can use Circle Time to discuss conflict or repair a fractured relationship in the class, as well as connect with their emotions. Start with “What makes you happy?” and then adding other emotions once students are familiar with the format. My classes have had productive conversations built around what makes us happy, sad, nervous, or angry.
Identifying emotions: Students feel a wide range of emotions, so it is an important skill for young learners to be able to identify which emotions they’re feeling and why. Emojis can be an easy way to convey how they’re feeling. This will allow the practice of checking in with emotions and practicing the acknowledgment of different feelings, and even being able to talk about them without fear of ridicule. Once this is mastered, have students connect their emotions to other items, such as a certain color or a certain texture. Exposure to a variety of ways to discuss emotions will help validate all the feelings that they have.
Portfolio assessment: Assessments for our students are frequent and ongoing, but children quickly learn that quiz/test culture is how they are judged. Make it clear that there are numerous ways that people can show what they know, and then introduce the idea of a portfolio assessment. Tell students to keep work they are most proud of in their portfolio and give them opportunities to practice explaining how it is a good representation of what they know.
Ongoing Family Engagement
Home surveys: Sending weekly surveys home (or biweekly or monthly) can provide ongoing data and thus insight into your students and their families. I prefer small surveys with one or two questions at a time, as I have found families more receptive and responsive to them.
For example, one time I sent home a survey because I wanted to find out the kind of art they had at home. I explained that I wanted to learn about what type of art was in their homes to help build connections in the classroom. I asked for examples of music that students’ families liked, visual art that interested them, and the movies and television shows that they watched. Ideas for future small home surveys can include family traditions, favorite recipes, and what supports students may need.
Zoom family hours: Hold evening office or family hours on Zoom for parents and family members to pop in and ask questions or otherwise engage with you about their children. It can be an accessible way for families to connect with you. However, it’s important to set boundaries and not let the same families dominate each session. Also provide other opportunities for those not wanting to attend a Zoom session or who are unable to connect in this way.
Outdoor book walk: Find a public park or walkable street where you can post pages of a book to create a walkable reading experience that families can do together. Choose books that are representative of your students, even texts in their home languages. Laminate each page separately. Post pages every so often along the walking path, and encourage students’ families to go for a walk together and read.
Family book club: Choose a book that is representative of your students and in their home language if possible. Record a video of you reading a portion of the book aloud each week until the book is complete. After each section of reading, post discussion questions that families can talk about with their children. Post a few questions for families in their home languages as well if possible.