Building relationships with digital media

Dr. Julie M. Wood and Nicole Ponsford

Nicole Ponsford and Julie M Wood are the authors of TechnoTeaching: Taking Practice to the Next Level in a Digital World (2014, Harvard Education Press).

Nicole is the digital leader of @WomenEd, leader of @WomenEd_Tech and founder of @gendercharter. Previously, she was an award-winning AST in Media and New Technologies. Nicole is passionate about gender equality being the ‘new normal’.

Julie’s roles include: International digital literacy consultant. Advisor for US Department of Education. Senior Advisor at EtonKids’ Parents Academy, Beijing. Presenter / panelist. Literacy and technology advocate. Researcher. Children’s book author.

Follow @NicolePonsford

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Originally published on 21st October 2016 Originally published on 21st October 2016

Imagine this scenario. You wear a wristwatch-like device to track the number of miles you walk; you monitor each day’s progress and sync the data to your smart phone and computer. You watch your favourite TV shows on your tablet, whenever you can catch a few minutes. You keep up with your friends near and far using Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.

Also imagine the mother of Ernesto Jobim, one of your students, who uses GPS to find her way around her new neighborhood. Mrs Jobim also practices conversational English using a digital language program to supplement a course she is taking. Twice a week she emails photos of her children to family members in her native Brazil via TinyBeans.

So far so good, right? Except that you and Mrs Jobim are operating in separate cyber-universes. You’re both connected - just not to each other. Which is a cruel irony, since there’s so much you want to tell Mrs Jobim about Ernesto before your official conference day - how he’s coming along in Maths, and how much his classmates enjoyed the global warming article he just posted on his blog. Mrs Jobim, too, has many things she wants to confide in you. Lately Ernesto is having difficulty adjusting to his aunt’s new baby. He’s used to being the center of attention, his aunt’s “DN” (dear nephew) in mummy chatroom-speak. Suddenly he has to share the spotlight. He’s also been playing computer games when he’s supposed to be sleeping.

Well okay. This scenario may be an extreme example of what missed opportunities"There’s so much you want to tell Mrs Jobim about Ernesto." for family engagement can look like. Given that you’re reading this article, you are probably already committed to ensuring that parents are an integral part of their children’s education. But are you using digital tools to connect with families? Read on.

In the underserved communities where Nicole and I continue to lead school reform efforts (in the US and UK), we are often struck by how difficult it can be to build bridges between home and school. Similar obstacles stand in the way, but not because the majority of parents want to be disengaged with their children’s education.

The reality is that parents often work two or three jobs and have little time for impromptu meetings during school hours. Many parents are English-language learners or have additional learning needs. These parents may feel anxious about meeting with people they perceive as authority figures. They worry that their English will not be “good enough”, and are afraid of making a poor impression. Or their (brief) experience of education was so awful, they will do anything to avoid passing through the school gates.

Teachers face obstacles as well. They are often juggling many different responsibilities - chipping into the piles of marking, studying for an advanced degree, coaching the soccer team, or mentoring teachers-in-training.

Some schools, however, are stepping up their commitment to family engagement by making it an integral part of the school culture. We have witnessed the benefits first-hand, from higher academic performance, to children’s sense of wellbeing and belonging, to parents’ increased participation in school events. While these schools may be embattled on many fronts (eg low scores on standardised tests, being situated in high-crime areas), the minute you walk in the door, receive welcoming smiles from school staff, and observe high levels of parent participation (as translators, volunteers, and committee leaders) you know. The effort is paying off.

The main lesson we have learned from these committed schools is twofold: Family engagement is all about building strong relationships between home and school. And good communication is at the heart of building those strong relationships.

Back to our scenario. How can you and Mrs Jobim leverage the communication tools that are already a big part of your lives to strengthen your relationship?

You and your colleagues might begin by inviting families to an event at a time that suits them rather than following the school bell. Find out what communication tools they especially like using. Do they prefer phone calls to email messages? Do they use Skype to connect with grandparents in their native land?

Be sure to add your own professional media preferences to the mix (eg Facebook, LinkedIn, and texting)."Tell parents a little about how your preferred platforms." Tell parents a little about how you use them. Once you have a shared understanding of people’s preferences, you can establish guidelines, or “netiquette”. How late in the day are you willing to receive phone calls, for example? How do parents feel about your sending email messages over the weekend? Is it helpful, or burdensome?

You have likely established a pattern for sending email messages. But have you tried also sending a weekly newsletter, as an attachment to an email or text alert? Given that most parents have access to email accounts, either at home or in a community center, this is a good place to start.

You might also try setting up a classroom blog or wiki to showcase children’s writing, illustrations, reports, and classroom events. Share the password with parents, and show them how to access the blog or wiki at home.

If parents are keen on texting, ask them whether they’d be open to receiving texts from you with of-the-minute information, such as a change in schedule. If yes, try group text messaging, which allows you to send messages to students and their families simultaneously. Free tools such as Class Pager and SendHub can help you.

Alternatively, try setting up a dedicated Twitter account for families and send out tweets about classroom projects and events. You can also recommend books, movies, or educational TV programmes to co-view at home.

Skype can be an invaluable (free) tool for e-meeting when schedules are packed, or when there’s particularly bad weather (as a Bostonian, I know about this - especially with nor’easters!). More sophisticated Skypers can take advantage of additional features, such as the ability to leave voicemail messages, which can be retrieved when it’s convenient. You can also add buttons to your website or class blog to make it even more convenient for parents to contact you.

After a month or two of trying various styles of e-communicating, invite parents back to school for a debriefing session. What are the benefits (if any) of Twitter? Group texting? Is the pace too frenetic? Or does the combination of, say, blogs, websites, and email newsletters help parents feel that they’re in the loop. Don’t get bogged down with a few missteps that happened along the way. Your overall message will be clear. You and parents are working together as partners. You have a relationship. You are all committed to providing the best education possible for every child. And you are unswerving in your desire to harness the power of new tools to help bridge home and school.

None of this will be lost on children like Ernesto. He will quickly figure out just how much you and his parents are invested in his success. And that is a lot better than being left to your own devices, each in your own cyber–universe.

How do you engage with parents? Let us know in the comments below.

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