March 13, 2020, is a date that resonates deeply with our family. Here in Los Angeles County, that Friday was the last day of school as we knew it. Our daughter, Libi, was in her final months of seventh grade. Schooling in the weeks that followed was like “triage education,” doing our level best under new, strange, and sometimes scary circumstances. The 2020–21 school year is now well underway, and we’ve learned some important lessons from both a teacher and parent perspective that we have found helpful as we adapt to this dynamic, fluid time in education.
From a Teacher’s Perspective: Ron
Look for the good—and share it. As a teacher at Rio Norte Junior High School in Santa Clarita, CA, I try to send three to five positive messages home each week. It might be a quick email about a really good response to a writing prompt—like a student who made a great connection between a current events article and the Magna Carta. It might be a text message to the family about an amazing “lightbulb moment”—like the fact that so many of us dressed up last Friday for a school spirit day that one girl had the brilliant idea for us to take a screenshot of our virtual class for the yearbook. I sent a text to her mom that afternoon using Google Voice (a free service that allows you to send texts without disclosing your personal phone number) to send kudos about her kid. Looking for the good and sharing it creates positive relationships with parents and guardians, makes the student feel great, and improves your own mental state as an educator.
Keep everyone in the loop. As we entered quarantine in the spring, I reached out to an educator friend experienced in both in-person and virtual learning environments who shared that in a traditional classroom, most communication with secondary students is linear: teacher-to-student and student-to-teacher. In remote learning—even with high school students—communication needs to become a triangle of teacher-to-parent-to-student. At the start of this school year, I began using the Smore platform to send out a weekly digital newsletter to parents and families every Sunday. It includes a recap of what we learned the previous week, along with a preview of what we’re learning next.
Additionally, because Google Classroom is our primary learning management platform, it’s difficult for parents to see what’s going on daily without their child’s login. One method I use to give parents a glimpse into our daily agenda is with a Bitmoji classroom, where parents can see a cartoon character resembling me standing in a virtual classroom complete with a large easel displaying my plans. By publishing a Google Slides slideshow to the web, I’m able to have a public web presence where students and families can find out what the homework is for that night or catch up on a lesson they may have missed previously.
Communicate right away when you notice disconnection and disengagement. When I see that a student is falling behind or is disengaged, I send an email right away to both the student and the parent/guardian. If I send students to Zoom Breakout Rooms, for example, and one student’s lonely rectangle is just sitting there, that means the rest of the class is in small groups working and learning, and I have no idea what this child is doing. They might be playing digital hooky, but they may also be having internet trouble or helping a younger sibling. I even had one eighth grader apologize because he was asked to take out the trash in the middle of class.
Many times when students are disconnected, we don’t know what the reason might be. When that happens, I always send a gentle, inquisitive email. The subject line is usually “From your history teacher—is everything OK?” In the body of the email, I will then say something like, “Hey, the rest of the class was working in Breakout Rooms for 15 minutes, but Ricky never joined his group. Just checking in to make sure everything is OK. Today’s work is all in Google Classroom. Please let me know if I can help in any way.” I keep things nonthreatening and nonaccusatory, because—especially in a time of pandemic—you never know what’s going on in a kid’s life. If this kind of thing happens more than once, I’ll send a copy of the email to the counselor as well so we can bring in a greater level of support, if needed.
From a Parent’s Perspective: Heather
Stay connected. As a mom who’s also president of the junior high school’s parent-teacher student association (PTSA) and a former teacher, I have to say that communication is imperative in a remote/hybrid environment. For us, teachers reached out in the first weeks of school to connect with families and make sure we knew what would happen in their class. We had a virtual back-to-school night that allowed us to really see what the student experience was going to be like in the virtual space—with many of them showing off their Bitmoji classrooms and Google Classroom pages. Parents have appreciated more frequent emails from the teachers to keep them connected.
Parents and caregivers have a great opportunity to step up and join district or site committees during this time of distance learning. Meetings are so much easier to access than before, often being held via Zoom or Google Hangouts, and many organizations are trying to find more convenient times for families to attend (and avoid the bandwidth crunch of the school day). School districts are required to connect with and hear from their stakeholders, and this virtual time is giving many of them that opportunity. Encourage parents and caregivers by reminding them to take this chance to fully participate in their child’s education; this is a critical year for their input!
Support and share. PTAs, booster clubs, foundations, and other parent groups are all trying to find ways to connect parents to the schools they serve. At California State PTA, we have heard from our members that they feel disconnected from their school and they are worried about their children. Parent-led organizations help bridge that gap. We are using social media more than ever to share resources for families; provide updates on local, state, and national legislation; outline ideas for supporting your child’s social-emotional health; and more. We have shifted paper newsletters and flyers to digital versions and are using apps or emails to send them out. It is critical to share these resources with every parent so they have what they need to support their child in this unique learning environment. However, parents must reach out and join these organizations.
Teachers, administrators, and staff members should consider joining and connecting with those groups as well. Support your parent volunteers, check in with them, and share with them. Remember that these parents are volunteers who are doing amazing work for free while juggling their own jobs, families, and responsibilities. Find ways to work together and have the patience to help students through this. We are stronger together.
As we continue to shift from distance learning to hybrid and eventually a full return to campus, we hope that administrators, teachers, and parents remember some of the lessons they learned during the pandemic: Communication is a powerful tool, we are stronger as a community when we come together, and a little kindness and grace can go a long way.
Ron Ippolito teaches eighth grade U.S. history and advanced video production at Rio Norte Junior High School in Santa Clarita, CA. He also serves as the president-elect of the California Association of Directors of Activities. Heather Ippolito is a former teacher, PTSA president, Ron’s wife, and mother to their eighth grader, Liliana.