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A New Spin On Back-to-School Night

Voice of ExperienceAs educators re-examine the purpose, relevance, and appeal of Back-to-School Night, Brenda Dyck describes a new model where students take the lead and adults step back and follow. Included: Ideas for planning a student-led Back-to-School Night.

I have vivid memories of Back-to-School Night, 1961. My classmates and I had spent that afternoon constructing life-size replicas of ourselves from large brown grocery bags. All of us giggled at the thought of our parents walking into a classroom filled with paper-bag children sitting at their desks. We had coyly told our parents at dinner that we too would be attending Back-to-School Night!

Unfortunately, those paper-bag replicas would be the closest any of us would ever come to actually attending Back-to-School Night because, in those days, those special evenings took place in the adult world -- a place where children were not invited.

Like many other sacred cows of the teaching profession, Back-to-School Nights are undergoing a facelift. Educators are re-examining their purpose and relevance, and wondering how to entice parents to attend. Those were among the considerations that led my school to rethink Back-to-School Night. We ended up enlisting the help of those who have plenty of relevant things to say about what goes on in our classrooms -- our students!


In this new paradigm, students have become the key players in the events of Back-to-School Night. This special evening has shifted from an event that students only heard about secondhand to a special opportunity for them to take the lead. Back-to-School Night now offers teachers a unique opportunity to teach communication, organization, and leadership skills that will serve students throughout their lives. This start-of-the-year event also offers students an early opportunity to develop and demonstrate their growing self-confidence.

In this new vision of Back-to-School Night, students play a major role in planning and carrying out the night's events. They begin by working with their teachers to identify the key learning components of their classrooms. Each component is assigned a number and listed in a "classroom tour brochure" that students prepare. That brochure is a collaborative effort; students create artwork, write descriptions, type text into the computer, and help fold the completed brochures.

The brochure my students created included descriptions of classroom areas such as

  • the overhead that projects a "Do Now" activity on the wall;
  • a bulletin board display of our class motto;
  • our portfolio and reading corner;
  • a display of the texts and novel studies that will be covered during the year;
  • a display of student writing;
  • a computer screen opened to our Web site; and
  • a computer screen displaying a Zoomerang survey that polls parents on their Grade Six Knowledge Quotient.

In preparation for the parent tour, we discussed the purpose/use of each area/activity described in the brochure, we shared presentation suggestions, and we anticipated questions parents might have or snags we might encounter. Students practiced with their peers and everybody worked together to ready the room for the evening. By the time we were finished with our preparations, the whole process was running like a well-oiled machine.


That night, as students entered the classroom with their parents, they morphed into tour guides. I was the proverbial fly on the wall. I stood back and watched students take the driver's seat. I listened as they described their learning environment to their parents. They performed their newly discovered leadership roles with confidence and enthusiasm as parents followed along behind. I could tell from the expressions on parents' faces that they were clearly impressed with their children's abilities to lead; most had never seen their children take on that role before.

This year, "meeting the teacher" took a back seat on Back-to-School Night. In place of that old standby, the students took on responsibility for describing their first-hand knowledge of their school day and learning.

Those paper-bag students of my school days have been retired for good. They came to life on Back-to-School Night!

About the Author

Brenda Dyck is a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching preservice teachers, Brenda is the moderator of MiddleTalk, a listserve sponsored by the National Middle School Association (NMSA). Her "HotLinks" column is a regular feature in NMSA's magazine, Middle Ground. Brenda also is a teacher-editor for MidLink magazine.

Article by Brenda Dyck
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Updated 9/09/2008