Last week I had several opportunities to connect on Zoom calls with educators across the country and we discussed the challenges and opportunities of this most unusual “back to school” season. Themes such as relationships and community-building, along with a natural orientation to using new tools and resources, were central in the conversations about distance learning. In addition to these important topics, an increased understanding that family engagement must be different surfaced as one of the important considerations for at home learning. Given the new context, here are six suggestions for ways to promote meaningful family engagement during distance learning:
Family Orientation: Just as we normally conduct an “orientation” to school for incoming families such as new kindergarteners, 6th graders at middle school, or freshman at high school we now must realize that ALL families are new to the plans for distance learning this fall. While in the spring we were in reactive mode, we should now be planning for series of online workshops for families to provide an overview of the goals, expectations, procedures, software systems, schedules, and engagement strategies that will be employed this year.
Family Input: While we normally collect feedback from families throughout the year through various surveys and community forums, we need to get their input early and often regarding challenges and opportunities so that we can adjust and provide targeted support. See here for a sample surveys from Panorama Education.
Empathy Interviews: Time permitting, spending some time with families conducting empathy interviews provides richness and nuance that surveys are not likely to capture. In addition to the quality input, this provides an opportunity for connection and trust-building which will contribute to positive relationships. For sample questions, check out this post from Dr. Katie Martin.
Help Desk: Families are now providing IT support in their homes to support distance learning. While it is stretch to imagine that schools and districts can meet all of the varied needs related to devices and connectivity, providing access to phone-based support, particularly in the first few weeks of school, would be optimal. While this may require creative scheduling, it is possible that flex coverage may also meet the needs of certain staff members while also extending hours of support. As a note of caution, please remember that web-based ticket systems are not ideal given that network connectivity and/or functioning devices may be the problem that requires attention.
Back-To-School Night: This will be an opportunity to reinforce key messages from the family orientation and to reflect back early lessons learned and key adjustments based on feedback from students, families, and staff. Providing Back-To-School Night through the same technology resources that are used to support students synchronously is also a fine way to model some of the techniques that are showing promise such as the use of breakout rooms and chat. If possible, find ways to elevate and celebrate successes and show evidence of student learning that aligns with the vision, mission, values, and goals of the school community.
Family Engagement Network: When I was a new superintendent in 2012 we received abundant input from our community regarding the need for strong family engagement. As a result, we hired Family And Community Engagement (FACE) specialists who are still providing support to individual families as well as creating community connections. We ensured that we hired bilingual staff members who could effectively communicate with our families and their activities include conducting trainings, hosting community-building events, distributing food, and connecting families with technology resources such as discounted/refurbished devices.
Families have always had a profound influence on their children’s learning. During a time when we are physically separated and adapting our approach to promote distance learning, rethinking how we connect with families, support them with emergent needs, and learn from their experiences will be important elements of our collective learning.
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Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.