Parent Communication 3.0

Imagine it's Sunday night. You're sitting on the couch with your spouse watching a reality show. During a commercial break, you pick up your smartphone to check Facebook and notice you have 3 new emails from your son's school. Each one is an automated messages about his grades.

He's failing.

Without much understanding of the school's online gradebook or new grading policies, you call him into the room and ask for an explanation about what's going on. You're concerned.

He's dumbfounded. There is no way he could be failing. This must be a mistake.

In fact, he asserts, it may not even be his fault. His teachers don't even teach any more; they call themselves facilitators now and expect the students to do all the learning on their own. It's very stressful and everyone is failing.

This hits a nerve. You know that the school is going through a change process; you attended a meeting about the changes at the beginning of the year. Could they be expecting too much too soon? Is your child, who has always received high marks in school, being harmed by these new changes at school?

You call a few other parents to hear how their kids are doing. The perception is mixed: some are doing better, some the same, and some worse. During each of these conversations, you share your concern for what's going on at school. Could it be the school's fault that your kid is failing?

In desperation, you send a terse email to the teachers and carbon copy the school principal.


While the actual conversations that play out may vary, the theme of the messages I receive is almost always the same:

  1. My child is not doing as well at school as he has in the past.
  2. The school has changed a lot since I was in school.
  3. My child can't articulate what he is doing wrong.
  4. The problem must be the school, program, or teachers.

This is understandable. When the only information parents have comes from their prior experience, an automated email, and a struggling child, it's tough to argue with their logic.

There's no solution to this problem; in fact, it's not even a "problem" to be solved. Rather, it's a complex circumstance of communication that needs to be addressed in multiple simple ways.

1. Reduce the default number of notifications sent out to parents by online gradebooks.

I've heard from parents that our online gradebook sends out as many as ten emails per day, by default, depending on teacher activity. Simply from a signal vs. noise point-of-view, that's far too many. While some parents tune out all emails they receive, others anxiously look into each one in fear that they are going to miss something important if they don't.

I feel sorry for the students with parents in either case.

The truth is that in a challenging school environment, grades fluctuate, especially at the start of each grading term. To notify parents of each fluctuation as they occur is unreasonable: it causes anxiety and leads to an inaccurate assessments of reality.

Schools need the capability to change these default settings to meet their school's particular needs. Or, the default ought to be set to zero; motivated parents who want notifications are more likely to turn them on than they are to turn them off.

2. Involve parents well before problems ever arise.

It's a common misconception that parents should become less involved in their children's education as they grow older. This is harmful. Teenagers need their parents support and understanding as much as they did when they were in elementary school. The only change should be what parental involvement looks like over the years.

A group of parent leaders recently told me that I need to hold a mandatory "parent bootcamp" every summer. While the logistics of this alone scare me to death, the need behind the sentiment is quite real: the high school their kids are going to is a lot different from the high school they attended. The building might be the same, but the culture, instruction, and resources are not.

Parents of 21st-century educated kids need more than a handbook and an hour-long orientation. They need consistent, quality, flexible, and varied opportunities to become involved in their children's educational development.

3.) Educate students on training their parents to use and understand the school's online gradebook.

There's a very practical reason why students should want to do this: to get their parents off their backs when grades do fluctuate. As long as the training comes well before problems arise, parents will know what to expect and when.

Parents may still send teachers emails (and we want them to), but with a more thorough understanding of the school's online gradebook, and after a practical conversation with their child, the tone of that email should change from terse to inquisitive.

4.) Urge teachers to email parents before posting grades that may have a negative impact on overall scores.

There are times when a teacher's lessons do not go as planned. Student writing, for example, does not always live up to expectations. Sometimes, students do not test as well as we'd like them to.

Without getting into an entirely different challenge, let's just acknowledge that when teachers raise performance expectations beyond that which students are accustomed to reaching, the scaffolding can sometimes fall apart.

When it does, it is essential that teachers email parents before grades are posted. And, it's equally important that this email is positive.

Here's an example email that was sent by one of my American Studies facilitators to learners (CC'ing parents) regarding a recent draft:

Learners,

We have published the Background Information grades. As we stated in class, the paper was graded on each person's individual section of this portion of the White Paper. We were looking for citations, in-text citations, proper use of mechanics, and organization. We also looked to make sure you were contributing equally to your group.

We acknowledge that many of you will be disappointed by your grade, but ask that you understand this is just one phase of the project. As you take our feedback and apply it to your paper, the paper will improve and so will your overall grade for it. Remember, we are all learning and a big part of learning is struggling with the concepts until we can grasp them. I have already seen how much many of you have learned as a result of your struggles and everyday we learn more and more. Please keep that in mind as we push toward completing our rough draft in the week to come.

Have a wonderful week!

This email informs learners and parents that:

  • expectations on the project are high and will not be lowered.
  • that many struggled to meet the expectation.
  • there is no reason for alarm.
  • lessons learned through feedback can be applied to future phases of the project.
  • With effort, everything will be okay.

Imagine the same Sunday night again. This time, something is different.

Getting emails from the school's gradebook is rare, so when one comes in, you investigate it. Recalling the parent workshops you attend, you check for grade comments, look at the posted agendas, and find the rubric used to assess your son's writing.

The conversation you have with your son is more productive because you have talked about the online gradebook before and you have a common understanding about what's going on at school. Moreover, you already had a similar conversation with your son about his grades when the teacher emailed his concern earlier in the week.

Feeling a sense of relationship with the school and the teachers there, you still send an email. This time, though, it's more to learn about after-school study hours and to ask if there is anything you can do to help at home.

Your son is still failing, but you understand why and know what steps he needs to take to improve.

What more could you ask for?

Roll Your Own Digital Signage

Last fall, I was lucky to have an interesting problem: our newly renovated learning space included eight 42" monitors, each located above a "laptop touchdown station" where students could plug in to collaborate, practice presentations, etc. The challenge was deciding what to show on these screens when students were not plugged in.

Corridor at Niles New Tech in Niles, Michigan

After researching commercial digital signage solutions, we decided that there has to be a better (less expensive) way to do this on our own. This post will outline what we did to create a social and dynamic digital signage solution using HTML, CSS, and a bit of javascript. While I image that "what we did" will be pretty specific to our needs at the time, my hope is that some of the ideas shared in this post will be helpful to others down the road.

To start, let's talk about the hardware:

  • The monitor we went with was the NEC V422 because it had sound, accepted a variety of input types, and had scheduling capabilities to turn on and off automatically at specified times of day.
  • Behind each monitor was an electrical outlet, an ethernet port, and an HDMI port. The HDMI port worked simply as a local connection for students to plug into that station. It only ran one foot down the wall to a second input plate above the counter.
  • Connected to the back of each monitor via VGA was a simple NComputing L-Series virtual PC.  These boxes were connected to our network via the ethernet jack and were the necessary link to make our digital signage work.
  • On the other end of the network connection was obviously a server running the virtual PC installations.

That was about all the hardware we needed to make this thing work. The rest of the work was in the software. Here's what happened on each:

  • My network admin setup the NComputing devices to automatically restart, login to the network, and open Chrome in full-screen mode every night. Since I didn't do any of this work I can't provide much detail beyond telling you that it worked. Of course, there were times when a particular device lagged or didn't work properly but the fix was usually as easy as restarting the individual box manually.
  • We set http://sign.nilesnewtech.org as the homepage in Chrome for each of these setups so that it would always open to our signage webpage.
  • We then set the timer on each monitor to turn on at 7am and turn off at 4pm. Every morning, when the students came in, the signage would be on every screen. If students wanted to "take over" a monitor locally to use it as an external monitor, they simply changed inputs and plugged in their laptop via HDMI.

Screenshot of the Niles New Tech digital signage webpage.

Once we had monitors connected to virtual PCs that automatically opened a webpage every night, our next step was to design and code a webpage with some interesting content.

When designing the site, I knew that I didn't want to create anything that would require much future updating through the backend. In other words, if I had to go back through the HTML every time I wanted to make a change, I knew this solution would fail. I don't have time to spend my day in code.

With this in mind, I started looking for javascript solutions that would take advantage of APIs to pull content from other sources like GoogleDocs, Twitter, or Flickr. By taking advantage of these services, I was able to create a single webpage that dynamically pulls content from these services throughout the day. My teachers, students, their parents, and visitors can all easily post content right alongside our school calendar and announcements. 

Here are the resources I used:

  • The calendar is a simple Google Calendar embedded into the page. You can setup your parameters for this right within the Google Calendar embed interface.
  • Everything that follows requires the jQuery library.
  • The HTC Hero inspired digital clock / weather widget is called jDigiClock.
  • Both the News & Announcements and Shout-outs sections of the site pull content from Twitter and are powered by electronaut's LiveTwitter plugin.
  • The image slideshow that pulls recent images from the school's Flickr is powered by Flickrfeed.

Screenshot of index.html

Once I found all of the resources needed to make the signage work, I started coding. Attached is a zipped up copy of everything I have at http://sign.nilesnewtech.org. Your free to steal the design and everything I've done. I've simply pulled together resources from other places. 

Download the files here.

Other things you'll need to do and know:

  • The News & Announcements section pulls content from a specific Twitter account. I gave access to this Twitter account to my teachers and secretary so that they could post whenever they had something to share. A notable benefit of doing this is that you can share the Twitter account with parents and students through other places (like your website, on Twitter, etc.). It's not only useful for the sign. (Edited on line 50 of index.php)
  • The "Shout-outs section pulls content from tweets that include a specified phrase (like a hashtag). This allows anyone to get their words on the screen just by using that tag in their tweet. This is an important and powerful part of the sign - it keeps people looking. (Edited on line 51 of index.php)
  • You'll need a Flickr account to link up to the pictures. (Edited on line 7 of setup.js) We all installed Flickr uploader apps on our phones so that we could easily take a picture of student learning in the classroom and upload it right to our shared account. Then, the next time the sign refreshed, it would show the new pictures you just took.
  • There are refresh rate caps with Twitter. You may need to change the refresh rates on lines 50 and 51 of index.php if you have a lot of signs pulling from Twitter simultaneously.

That's about all I have to share. I realize that this is not a very good technical post for those of you without a coding background. I simply can't think of any way to explain much more without turning this into a coding tutorial. If you have questions or hang-ups, feel free to post questions as comments or you can find me on Twitter @ptrkmkl.