During the first week of school this year, Kelly Anderson told her students that they didn't have homework that night -- but their parents did. Anderson then gave each student a piece of paper containing the following assignment:
Dazzling Dawg Request
In 1,000,000 Words Or Fewer, Please Tell Us About Your Child
Anderson asked her seventh and eighth grade language arts students at Raymond B. Stewart Middle School in Zephyrhills, Florida, to return the page by the end of the week. What she learned about her students from that assignment has had a lasting positive effect on her relations with them and with their parents.
"Almost all the parents took the request seriously," Anderson reported. "About 90 percent of them returned the paper, and I learned more than I could possible have learned from simply having their children in class. I have approximately 145 students, and it's tough to really get to know each one individually, no matter how hard I try. Parents will always know things that the kids won't share with me."
In Anderson's opinion, the assignment also improved parental involvement with her team in many ways. "First, the parents are more likely to see us as people who really are interested in, and want to know more about, their children," she said. "We are no longer perceived as strangers who do nothing but dole out grades. I also feel that when we do have conversations with parents, there is a shared knowledge that lets us communicate better. We know more about our students -- their good and bad qualities -- and can make better judgments about the requirements we set for them."
Anderson revealed that one of the most telling responses to the assignment came in the form of the only negative statement that she received. It read, "He walks, talks, and sometimes listens."
"That was tough," she recalled. "This kid brought in the paper to me knowing what was written on it. I felt so awful for him. It gave me loads of insight into this child and what he deals with in his home. He really tried to do his best in my class and always aimed to please me. He also needed lots of attention. I doubt if this did much for parental involvement, but it did much for my responses and dealings with this child."
Anderson knows that many issues in the lives of students affect their schoolwork, yet teachers often are not aware of them. The parent writing assignment let her in on some of those issues so her teaching could be more specialized.
"I know when and for whom I need to alter some assignments, especially for those with little support at home," Anderson explained. "Our students come from a wide variety of family situations, and because of the candor of their parents, I now know some of the challenges facing them. I also see the depth of love and caring that most of these parents feel for their kids. When there are difficulties with either the parents or the children, I see them through a new, more open lens."
Somewhere, saved in a box, Anne S. Robertson has a ten-year-old "reciprocal journal" belonging to her daughter, who is now 17 years old. Robertson, coordinator of the National Parent Information Network, still has fond memories of the activity and of how it helped she and her husband stay involved in school activities.
"Each week, the teacher provided each child with a 'curriculum wheel' that briefly listed the subjects and content studied in the classroom that week," recalls Robertson. "The children stapled the wheel onto a page in their journals, wrote about one of the things they had studied, and then took the journal home for the weekend. Parents learned what was being studied from seeing the curriculum wheel, read what their child had written in the journal, and then responded to the child by writing in the journal as well -- perhaps relating an incident from their own childhood when they studied the same subject."
The reciprocal journal informed parents about curriculum topics, invited children and parents to communicate with one another, and supplied children with writing opportunities without the pressure of a grade. The activity encouraged creativity and sharing of ideas between parents and children and provided the teacher with insight into each child's family. Robertson feels the journal also provided the teacher with a chance to view the parents in a more positive way.
"The method was especially helpful for getting my husband involved," Robertson said. "He worked very long hours during those years, and didn't have the option of volunteering or attending many school events. He could participate in the journaling, though, and he did most of it, although occasionally I added some of my experiences. My husband also immigrated to this country, so his school experiences were significantly different from our daughter's; that gave her a unique opportunity to learn what school might be like for children in other countries."
The reciprocal journal and Dazzling Dawg Request are just two examples of ways in which teachers can encourage parent involvement in their children's school activities. Here are a few more: