By: Shira Loewenstein
We’ve all had those moments. Something amazing happens in your classroom—Sam made the most brilliant observation, Sarah and Rebecca built the coolest contraption, Jonah and Isaac had the most heated and respectful debate – but no one was there to witness it. You think to yourself “If only his mother were here” or “I wish I had that on film.” Sometimes, as teachers, we feel disconnected from the families that complete our students.
So the questions here are, how do we bring parents into our classroom? How can we get these important stakeholders to experience their children like we do, to see what their children do all day? And how do we, as educators, tap into these parent-resources on a regular basis? Here are some tips to help strengthen this essential partnership between teachers and parents.
1) Ask the parents.
I know this sounds simple, but it is amazing what parents will volunteer to do when you ask them what their “hidden talents” are. At back-to-school night, have the parents share a special interest or talent and take note. Or have a sheet out where they can share with you what they could offer to your classroom. I can think of countless stories about parents volunteering for everything – from playing musical instruments at Rosh Chodesh celebrations to bringing in beekeeping attire around Rosh Hashanah. My husband went to my son’s kindergarten class to show the kids his karate skills and to talk about self-defense rather than offense. One parent recently told me that she is bringing her (almost) three year old to her older son’s class for his upshurin and she is working with the classroom teacher to make this a learning experience for all of the children. You never know what you might get if you just ask!
2) Document the memories.
A picture really is worth a thousand words. Make sure to have a camera available and ready, and don’t forget to send those pictures at the end of the day. You can capture a proud look, an amazing structure, or a rare moment on film. Short of seeing it in person, this will mean so much to a parent.
3) Ask Me.
We have all heard of the weekly (or daily) newsletter. If you are teaching in a Jewish day school you probably write one at least once a week and send them home hoping that someone will read them. What if instead (or in addition) you have the children write their own “Ask Me” newsletters? In these newsletters, children can write 5 questions that their parents should ask them about new things they have learned that week. You can add a space for ‘proud moments’ or ‘things to work on for next week’. This way, parents know not only what is happening in the class, but what specifically their own child is working on within the larger class. This personalization (which the kids can own), will make the newsletter much more engaging and relevant and will ensure increased readership!
What do you do first thing in the morning? Tefillah? Morning Meeting? Why not invite parents to join in one of these activities? Open your classroom to parents during times when you want to showcase what is going on. Host an author’s tea right before pickup, or invite parents to join you for the last 15 minutes of class to watch the wrap-up of your lesson. Not all parents will be able to come every time, but offering different options and opportunities will allow many more parents to engage in your classroom.
5) Interactive Assignments.
There is a slippery slope when it comes to homework that involves parent help. You don’t want to assign too many assignments because that just becomes homework for the parents, but homework can be a fantastic opportunity to get parents involved. Assignments that encourage parental involvement can include: “Ask your parents what was their favorite book in fourth grade and write it down.” or “What do your parents remember about Pesach when they were little?” As long as the burden of the work lies on the child and not the parents, these assignments can build a solid bridge between your classroom and the home.
We know that parents can be a hidden gem in our schools. They work tirelessly behind the scenes to make our schools run and to raise the children we have the pleasure of teaching. Unfortunately, they often find themselves disconnected from our actual classrooms. As you begin this year, I hope that some of these strategies will help you and the families in your school change the nature of the question “What did you do in school today?”
Shira Loewenstein is the Associate Director of New Teacher Support at the YU School Partnership where she has worked with over 20 schools to help them establish programs to support their incoming staff. Shira also works with schools on many professional development opportunities including assessment, classroom community, culture and routines, and knowing our students as learners. Shira can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .