What We Should Say to Parents Each Week

Strong home-school communication is an important facet of any successful school.  While reluctant at first, I’ve become a big fan of writing a weekly newsletter to our parent community.  A strong weekly letter can be so much more than a great space for reminders, event notices, and important announcements, and it is important that we challenge ourselves to share more than the date and time of the next parent coffee klatch.

I use our weekly newsletter to:

1) Highlight the important work of our teachers and students.

2) Reiterate our school mission and showcase how our school is championing that mission.

3) Discuss my educational philosophy and vision.

4) Respond to current events, recent articles, and things that might be buzzing around our community.

5) Share my learning as the lead learner of my division.

6) Encourage, persuade, teach, and challenge our community in different ways for the benefit of our students.


Some weeks I have so much to say it’s hard to decide what topic I should share, while on other weeks the inspiration for my newsletter is slow to come to me.  It’s an important forum, though, so I do my best to make my “virtual mailbag” worthwhile.  I know that no one letter or conversation defines my parent outreach or determines the success of our communication strategy.  Rather it is the consistent and steady dialogue about the stuff that matters most that ultimately shapes our work.

A Call for Change in Harvard Magazine

Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn, authors of the seminal book on online education Disrupting Class, have just published an article in Harvard Magazine on the state of American colleges and the coming changes to the collegiate landscape: “Colleges in Crisis: Disruptive change comes to American higher education.”

Their article, written for the Harvard alumni community, aims to help those unfamiliar with online education to understand the potential positive impact that online education will have for American higher education, and even for an institution as august as Harvard.  It seems to me that the article might resonate in a slightly more accessible way for boards and heads at independent schools, and I suggest it highly for those groups.

I think that their article has a number of salient points for independent school heads and boards to consider:

… The business model that has characterized American higher education is at—or even past—its breaking point… Undergraduate tuition has risen dramatically: at a 6.3 percent annual clip for nearly the last three decades—even faster than the much-decried 4.9 percent annual cost increases plaguing the healthcare industry. The full increase in the price of higher education has actually been hidden from many students and families over the years because gifts from alumni, earnings from private university endowments, subsidies from state tax revenues for public universities, and federal subsidies for students have been used to mitigate some costs. But universities are exhausting these mechanisms.

Christensen and Horn point to a business model that is succeeding (instead of just “treading water”), noting that education is seeing the disruptive forces seen by other industries (and predicted three years ago by them in Disrupting Class):

The success of these online competitors and the crisis among many of higher education’s traditional institutions are far from unique. These are familiar steps in a process known as “disruptive innovation” that has occurred in many industries, from accounting and music to communications and computers. It is the process by which products and services that were once so expensive, complicated, inaccessible, and inconvenient that only a small fraction of people could access them, are transformed into simpler, more accessible and convenient forms that are also, ultimately, lower in cost. We are seeing it happen more rapidly than one could have imagined in higher education, as online learning has exploded: roughly 10 percent of students took at least one online course in 2003, 25 percent in 2008, and nearly 30 percent in the fall of 2009.

Christensen and Horn end with a commentary on how an individual university (or, I would add, independent school) could embrace online learning in a way that moves the university from “treading water” to becoming more long-term sustainable and to meet the mission of offering a high quality, accessible education to more:

This stance exposes an even more significant problem that is forcing many American universities outside the top institutions to the brink of collapse. Although some traditional universities have used online learning as a sustaining innovation—in effect disrupting their individual classes—almost none have used it to change their business model in any significant way. Whenever we have seen a disruptive innovation reinvent a sector, change has resulted from the joint action of a new technology and an accompanying new business model. But cost increases and an increasingly broken business model—reliance on ever-rising tuition, more endowment income or government support, and research funding, all wrapped up in expensive physical campuses with large support staffs—continue to plague much of higher education.

Certainly, these are thoughts for our independent school boards and heads to consider… and act upon.

Tips for Successful Parent Teacher Conferences

On Friday we held our spring parent-teacher conferences.  I believe the best conferences serve three purposes.  Conferences should be a two-way conversation, an opportunity to review previous goals and set new ones using evidence from in and out of the classroom, and a time for planning where we can identify and align home and school supports to ensure success. 

To that end here are a few suggestions for preparing and leading successful conferences:

  • Create a welcoming waiting area with snacks and a class book, some pictures, etc. for parents to peruse! 
  • Begin with student strengths and positive news.
  • Use student work to illustrate your message.  
  • Share student quotes so collect a few beforehand!
  • Use parent-friendly language. Avoid edu-jargon and subjective adjectives.  Instead, discuss a child’s actions in objective verbs and observable terms.
  • Couple critiques with supportive strategies for both school and home. Practice difficult discussions beforehand.
  • Set goals in partnership with parents.
  • Discuss how to help at home. Have a handout with strategies. Demonstrate at-home tips. 
  • Have empathy for parents’ feelings.  Restate their concerns to let them know you understand what they are saying.  Language you can use includes “What I hear you saying is…" or “I understand that you feel…”
  •  End on a positive note.  Summarize plans and goals for the remainder of the year and reiterate how great you think their child is and all that you hope to see going forward.
Portfolios shouldn’t be academic…

           Since Educon I have been thinking quite a bit about portfolios.  I love the idea of children actively selecting, organizing and maintaining a collection of artifacts that celebrates their journey at school. The idea of portfolios has been around for a very long time and is by no means an amazing innovation.  As a classroom teacher ten years ago my class and I used pizza boxes to house our portfolios.  Moving from paper to cloud-based portfolios is definitely more in line with the times, but I don’t think we can qualify doing so as an innovation.  So what would be innovative? What new and interesting purpose could portfolios serve? 

           I think its time to stop thinking about portfolios as collections of academic work.  We have a plethora of other tools to catalogue a student’s academic learning, from Writer’s and Reader’s notebooks and benchmark data, to report cards and science experiments.   Rather than highlight academics, portfolios should be used to celebrate children as individuals.  In my vision, I see students creating portfolios organized around communication, creativity, and character.  A child could highlight these things in innumerable ways; you could have a voicethread of a presentation, a video of an imaginative block structure, or a slideshow of a child’s service learning project, for example.  The artifacts would tell the story of how articulate a child has become, how creatively he thinks, and how he applies the school’s values in his daily interactions.  In our case, those values are courage, honesty, integrity, loyalty, and sportsmanship, represented by 5 stripes on our uniforms and in our logo.  It would be great to engage children in thinking about ways to capture their learning journey in those terms, and a portfolio organized around creativity, communication, and character would be the perfect compliment to the other tools we use to highlight a child’s academic progress.  It would honor those aspects of a child we do not assess, demonstrate the value we place on the child as an individual, and serve as a touching record of his time with us at school.

Create Classroom Newsletters that Shine

I think weekly communication between the classroom and home is imperative.  A good digital newsletter shares:

  • What We Learned.  Concisely highlight the main objectives for each subject, including the main social/emotional goals of the week.  
  • How to Help At Home. Share a few strategies or activities parents can use to support their child’s mastery of the week’s objectives
  • Conversation Starters.  For early childhood classes, suggest a few questions parents can ask their child or topics for the dinner table. 
  • What’s Coming Up.  Include a section of important dates for the next two months (tests, field trips, conferences, coffee klatches, etc).
  • Fresh Pictures.  All parents love to see their child.  Pictures also capture fun projects, innovative lessons, and give parents a window into the classroom.
  • Resources.  Direct parents to links, books, and articles that complement your curriculum.

Reflections on Digital Citizenship

Last week, Canadian educator and connected learning specialist George Couros spent the day with SCH faculty and students. He worked with us on connected learning in a digital age and challenged us all to further lean into our new mission. I’ve been following George on Twitter for years, so it was a treat to meet him and hear his ideas in person, and I feel like we all grew as educators this week.    Perhaps the most interesting idea that Mr. Couros shared was that we need to teach digital leadership and not just digital citizenship. As a faculty, we’ve been diligently working hard to cultivate a strong sense of digital citizenship for years. Last week, we hosted a parent meeting with Common Sense Media on this very topic, and our academic technologists and teachers have consistently shared the basic tenets of safe, responsible, and respectful Internet use. To that end, I personally model what I hope to see—through this blog, Twitter, my Linkedin profile, and Scoop.It site, just to name a few ways I manage my digital footprint. After working with George, though, it’s exciting to think beyond these tenets and consider the many ways in which we can encourage and facilitate the development of digital leadership skills—positive, proactive connection, cultivation, sharing, and creation of new knowledge and learning to help others. I’m proud to say that some of my faculty have already been doing this (our third graders are designing original audiobooks for our younger grades and fifth grade has started ePortfolios, for example) and I look forward to seeing this bloom even more as our division continues to grow. The possibilities are endless, and I know that the teachers and I will work hard to explore more ways to help our students actively and creatively create and share content to help others in the weeks ahead.
Teaching, Not Testing, To Improve Student Learning

     In the fall, NBC hosted their annual summit on education, Education Nation, and we were reminded how China tops the world in academic performance while the US continues to perform poorly according to international assessments like PISA and TIMSS. And while we all can agree that American public education needs to improve, test-driven education reform, in my opinion, is not the way to improve. And I’m not alone in that thinking.  Yong Zhao, Dean of Education at the University of Oregon, argues in his latest book, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, that test-driven education is harmful to our children, and that our schools need to focus on preparing creative, confident, entrepreneurial and globally minded students. Even in high-test-scoring China, this is recognized as true. Zhao writes that, despite their high test scores, prominent thought leaders from Wen Jiabao and Kai-fu Lee recognize the weakness of their educational system and lament the overall lack of creativity in their schools. Simply put, high test scores would be great if they bore more significance. But unfortunately, focusing on testing gets us students who are good at taking tests and not much more. Creativity, confidence, grit, and emotional intelligence won’t show up in a stanine or percentile, and as study after study has shown, those are the things that matter most. 

     That’s why fostering creativity and nurturing global awareness are priorities in our school. Our teachers put their time and energy into creating a program that will allow our students to not only master core curriculum, but to also think in new ways, use their imaginations, and flex their creative muscles. In our third grade, in addition to developing strong reading, writing, and math skills, our teachers make sure there’s an opportunity to design and build each day. In our fourth grade,

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Creativity is Not a Luxury

Children should experience the joys and frustrations of the creative process on a daily basis. As educators, we need to design experiences that allow students to grow their creativity across all subject areas and develop their voices through the many languages of art. In doing so, we make school more fun, and we prepare our students for a world where their ideas and their ability to communicate and connect with an audience are paramount. How do you commit to creativity each day in your school and in your personal life?