4 Access Points for Family Communication

by | 04.4.22

Kennita Ballard is an ELA teacher in Louisville, KY. Follow her on Twitter @iheart6ela.

We see more growth toward learning outcomes when we plan for the child as a whole in our teaching, as opposed to putting learning in one box, culture in another box and family engagement in another. It all has to go together. We have to be in partnership with our students and families, codesigning curriculum and pedagogy.

In this three-part series, I’ll share codesigning strategies that work well for me, and I hope you’ll find some inspiration, too! – Kennita Ballard, Teacher in Louisville, KY.

We have students with us, often, for more hours a day than they spend with their families at home. When I think about that, it feels so clear that there shouldn’t be a disconnect between what makes a student feel safe, happy and taken care of at home and how they feel taken care of at school. There has to be a partnership, in which those two spaces come together. 

Family communication is an evidence-based practice that improves learning outcomes. When we connect with families, a student experiences a support system that feels like a caring group of adults putting arms around them.

Many families have responsibilities that prevent them from being available for the time slots when schools typically hold conferences and family nights. The fact that they aren’t available in these moments doesn’t mean that they’re any less involved in their childrens’ lives, nor that they care any less. Just like in teaching, our approach to family engagement needs to include multiple entry points.

Making the extra effort to meet families where they are is very, very important. It sends the message, “I need you and I want you to be as involved as you can be.” It’s also my way of showing families, “Hey, I care about you, too. You’re part of the school as well.” 

Here are 4 entry points I offer for family communication:

1. One-question survey

At the beginning of the year, I send out a family survey with just one question: “What are your goals for your student this year?” This allows me to get a sense for the families’ perspective on their students’ learning journey, so I can then consider how to best play my role as the teacher, working alongside the whole family to support the child’s growth. It also sends a message to families, “I see you as a partner.”

2. Home or community visits

This has looked different during the pandemic, but typically – with the support of my administration – I conduct visits with families outside of school, allowing them to choose whether they’d like me to come to their home or meet at a common space within the community, like a coffee shop or park. This practice is more common in elementary schools, but I think it’s important for the families of middle and high school students to see that I am taking the time to come to them. I don’t go into these meetings with much of an agenda beyond building a connection. Instead, I offer an invitation: “Let’s just talk about your child.” 

3. Positive phone calls home

Positive phone calls home are a core part of my practice. They sound simple, but I believe they can make all the difference in a students’ feelings about our classroom if we approach them with intentionality. By speaking to something specific about students’ learning during these calls, we give family members something they can discuss with their students, and we draw families further into the learning experiences. (I’ll share more detail about positive phone calls home in Part 3 of this series.)

4. Family message journals

The family message journal is just a little spiral notebook that serves as a two-person diary. I will give students a prompt to answer, such as, “What is something you feel like you did well this week?” or “What’s something you’re looking forward to about the weekend?” They write their response in the journal and then exchange it with a family member, who responds. 

Now, the “family member” category is broad and wide open. I tell my students, “Family doesn’t always mean your blood.” We have to respect family models and composition and use inclusive language. Sometimes “family” is an older brother or aunt or uncle. And some of my former students, whose new teachers also use these, will come back to drop their family message journals with me. The journal is about deepening relationships all over the place.

The writing in a family message journal offers caretakers a window into the classroom beyond whatever is in Google Classroom or the syllabus – and beyond their teen coming home and saying, “Oh, we didn’t do much today.” The journal gives families another access point through which they can engage with students around learning.

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