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In a Million Words or Fewer...

A simple activity offers a powerful tool for learning about your students and connecting with their parents. After doing the activity, "I was suddenly a part of each child's life," said teacher Trisha Fogarty. Read what others had to say about the "Million Words" activity. Included: Tips for introducing the Million Words activity in your classroom.

"I thought the activity was worthwhile for all involved -- parents, students, and myself. In fact, I even recommended it to other teachers," said Kate Geisen, who taught last year at Whiteside Middle School in Belleville, Illinois, and will start a new job this month as a kindergarten teacher at Whiteside Elementary. "I will definitely have use for this activity in kindergarten. It might be an even more valuable tool at that level."

"Worthwhile" doesn't begin to describe this activity, Trisha Fogarty told Education World. "I would recommend it to any and all teachers. It is the easiest and most valuable tool I will have access to all year," added Fogarty, who teaches English and writing at Southside School in Houlton, Maine.

"Any teacher who is not currently doing this activity, or something similar, is really missing out," said Matt Dickendesher, who teaches at Sandusky (Michigan) Middle School. "It's a terrific way to learn about our students at the beginning of the year."

So what is the activity all those experienced teachers are raving about? It's a beginning-of-the-school-year homework assignment, a uniquely simple approach to learning about your students. Kids especially love this homework assignment -- because the assignment is for their parents!

HOMEWORK FOR PARENTS!

Last summer, teacher Deborah Bova introduced the Million Word essay to teachers on the MiddleWeb listserv. It was an idea she had used for the first time more than ten years ago. "At the onset of the year," Bova wrote in Middling Matters, a publication of the Indiana Middle Level Education Association ["A Million Words" Tool to Connect With Parents, "I prepare a simple handout, on which I ask parents to 'in a million words or fewer, tell me about your child.' Parents do the rest."

More Raves!

Teacher Deb Bova posted the original idea for the Million Words homework assignment last summer on the MiddleWeb listserv. Dozens of teachers picked up the idea. Following are a few comments from teachers who used the activity:

"The responses were thoughtful, loving, funny, and extremely insightful. I feel as if I learned more in a day than I could in a year."

"The stories were priceless. They brought me to tears and heartfelt laughter. They made me realize in brand new ways how much most parents and guardians love their children This has been enlightening for me, freeing for the parents, and rather fun for the students."

"I learned all about my students from the people who know them best Out of 120 students, I had one parent say [the activity] was 'patronizing'."

"I have been teaching for 23 years, and have never had a more powerful assignment. Every parent who wrote thanked me for giving it."

To read additional teachers' comments, check out the A Million Words conversation on Middle Web. While you're there, check out some of the other archived chats. Better yet, if you teach the middle grades, why not join the conversation?

"Through this assignment, I learn so much from parents and families about health issues, social upheaval, and other issues that help me be a better teacher and connect with kids and their parents," added Bova.

"Your families know you so much better than I ever will," explains Bova as she hands out the assignment to her students. "I would like to give them the opportunity to share what they know about you, your talents, your hobbies, and your life in general."

"I also tell kids that if their families are uncomfortable writing out their responses, the student could be the official recorder," she added. "I tell them not to worry about spelling and punctuation, since this is a draft. I also explain that some parents might write pages and some might just write 'He is a good kid. We love him.'"

Bova says she never gets back all the forms, but she always gets back the majority of them.

THE "MILLION WORDS" IDEA GROWS

Soon after Bova introduced the Million Words idea, other teachers picked up on it. "I like this assignment," said teacher Charles Lindgren, "and parents really liked it." Lindgren introduced the assignment with a letter to his students' parents.

"Almost all the parents thanked me for giving them the chance to talk about their kids," said Lindgren, who teaches at Gates Intermediate School in Scituate, Massachusetts. For parents, the first week of school can be a nightmare of form signing, Lindgren noted, "but this assignment turns it all around. Parents get to tell us a little bit about their scholars. If we had 20 minutes to sit down with each parent over a cup of coffee we would learn these things, but we don't have that luxury."

What kinds of things did Lindgren learn about his students? "Some mentioned tricks that worked with other teachers to get their children to work harder," said Lindgren. "Others had tips about what not to do or say to make their scholars work harder."

Teacher Kate Geisen found the Million Word essay idea to be an extremely valuable one. "It was a good initial contact with parents," added Kate Geisen. "It demonstrated to them that I cared about knowing who their children were. It gave me a heads up on student interests and family situations. And it gave parents a chance to share anything else they thought was important about their child and to brag on them a little. What parent doesn't like to shout to the world how wonderful their child is?"

"Parents comments varied from pragmatic descriptions of their children to emotional descriptive poems," said Sharon Greenberg, who used the assignment with her students' parents at Hamilton International Middle School in Seattle. "The parents' writing provided detail and perspective that enabled me to provide some students with the extra support they needed."

"I was also able to share the parents' letters with the other teachers on my team; they found them equally enlightening," added Greenberg.

"I found out early on what parents thought of their students, what they expected of their children as students and people," said Lori Hill, who teaches at the American Middle School in Hanau, Germany.

One thing Hill learned was that parents had big concerns about their children's study skills. "I taught more study skills and note-taking formats than I had ever taught before," said Hill, "because, overwhelmingly, the parents expressed concern about their child's ability to prepare for tests and quizzes."

Cossondra George, who teaches math at Newberry (Michigan) Middle School, saw value in the Million Words assignment too. "I think the greatest benefit was making that initial contact with parents," she explained. "They felt included. They realized that I was interested in involving them in their child's educational progress."

GETTING TO KNOW THE KIDS

"It was some of the best reading I have done all year," said teacher Trisha Fogarty. "Parents told me about their children in and out of school. They told me about their troubles and their triumphs. They told me of court cases, divorces, and ailing grandparents -- and I was suddenly a part of each child's life."

"The Million Words assignment helped me establish a relationship with these kids that would normally take months," added Fogarty.

The assignment helped Kate Geisen "get a sense of who my students were out of school, which sometimes helped me keep their classroom behavior in perspective."

"It also gave me a chance to participate in their lives," added Geisen. "For example, one of my biggest behavior problems in the classroom was a gifted runner, so I made sure I was at those track meets cheering and that I talked to him about the meets the next day. That gave me a chance to have some positive interactions with him.

"I also used information I learned about students to help tailor my mini-lessons, select the books we read and the projects we did, and make suggestions for independent reading."

"The biggest benefit I received from doing this activity was the ability to see each student as a child of a parent," said Carolyn Beitzel, who teaches social studies at Beverly Hills Middle School in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. "Sometimes we get caught up in the kids' own actions and forget there is someone who would like to support their child and support you as their teacher."

An Assignment with a Twist

"I might do it a little differently this year," said Sharon Greenberg of the Million Word essay. At the start of each year Greenberg has her students write a bio poem about themselves. She frames each poem with a digital photo of the student. "I might give the same assignment to parents -- have them write a bio poem about their child [then have parent and child compare their poems]. Or I might have the parents do a bio poem about themselves to reveal something of themselves to their child."

"The assignment also gave me insight into my students' lives at home," added Beitzel. "I thought I would get some nice platitudes about their children. What I got instead was raw, intense, honest emotions. I was able in a short time to get to know my students on a deeper level."

"Knowing a student has moved three times in a year is very helpful information," said Lori Hill. "So is knowing that one child had a sister die over the summer or that one had new twins come home the day school started."

Cossondra George agreed. "I learned about kids in foster care, kids [living] with grandparents, families with new babies on the way, and family illnesses," she said. "All of those things can impact kids and their learning, but often teachers don't get to know about them. I also found out about their strengths and weaknesses, their past math experiences"

"Whenever a student is struggling, I dig out the letter from the parents to see if it gives me any insight into what might be at the root of the problem," George added.

"This assignment simply helped me get to know my students, which is the single most important thing a teacher can do," added Matt Dickendesher.

A TEAM EFFORT!

"The Million Words assignment helped students recognize that I cared about more than their grades," said Kate Geisen. "From discussions I had later with parents and students, I learned that some of the letters I received were team efforts -- that parents wrote and students reminded them to 'Tell her this... tell her...'"

"I loved re-reading the parent letters in May," added Geisen. "They are helpful at the beginning of the school year, when you're putting names with faces, but they're priceless at the end of the year when you really do know the kids!"

"We used this as a team activity," said Lori Hill. "[The teachers on my team] all read all the parents' writings and we shared our thoughts in team meetings."

"If you are in a teamed middle school setting, one teacher might be designated as the one to post the assignment," suggested Charles Lindgren. He also noted that teachers should be aware that, at open house or parent conferences, "parents expected me to remember what was in their 'million word essay.' Almost every parent mentioned it."

"I have already had teachers from my team check with me to see if I was planning on doing this assignment again," added Trisha Fogarty, who assured those teachers "it will go home on the Monday of the first full week of school."

A COUPLE CAUTIONS

A few teachers offered cautions or suggestions you might consider before doing this activity. They suggested that you should be aware that some parents might see the activity as a burden or "none of your business." If you approach the activity with the knowledge that you might have a parent or two who will resist, however, and if parents are invited, not directed, to participate, the Million Words activity can be an extremely valuable tool.

"Unfortunately, the parents who did not respond were, in most cases, also the ones who did not attend the parent conferences," said Sharon Greenberg. An extra effort -- perhaps a phone call -- might get the response you desire or, at the very least, provide an opportunity for those parents to share some valuable information about their children.

"There were a few parents who felt put out by 'parent homework,'" said Carolyn Beitzel, "so I might not label it as such this year." Beitzel said she might instead suggest the activity in an informal letter to parents.

Matt Dickendesher had one student whose mother didn't want to do the assignment, so "I made every effort to let that student know how valuable he was to me and my classroom."

Most kids enjoyed having their parents do this activity, added Deborah Bova. "My kids come from a school with a 65 percent poverty level, and these parents love their kids and tell us good things about them," Bova wrote in Middling Matters. "Most of the kids were eager to return the essays because they actually saw that their parents had positive things to say about them. So often, parents forget to praise their kids about the positives"

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