“Knowing the families of the children we teach is as important as knowing the children.”
One of my favorite parts about being a “connected educator” is the ideas and inspiration that come from talking with educators across grade levels and geographic areas. This summer, I began a Voxer conversation with Peter Anderson, who teaches English Language Arts to middle schoolers in Virginia. Peter and I are both members of the National Writing Project and have some mutual connections between the Long Island Writing Project and the Northern Virginia Writing Project. Initially, we began discussing how Peter moved to a “grade-less” classroom. During our discussion, Peter referenced Family Dialogue Journals. My interest was piqued and so I asked lots of questions about the whats, whys, and hows such a journal would work. Peter shared the blog post he wrote about using Family Dialogue Journals with me. He recently revisited the topic in another blog post you can read here. Peter found inspiration for this idea from the book Family Dialogue Journals: School-Home Partnerships That Support Student Learning (Practitioner Inquiry).
My understanding of a Family Dialogue Journal is that it is a place for teachers, students, and families to have a conversation about what the student is learning in school. The teacher writes a letter to both the student and parent or family member. The student responds to the teacher’s letter or prompt, writing to his/her parent or family representative. The parent or family member then writes back to the student. After the journal is returned to school, the teacher responds to what the student and parent wrote and then the cycle continues. Students can share the letters with their peers or during a class meeting.
This idea appeals to me for many reasons. It is another authentic way for students to write, for a real, meaningful audience, about their ideas, reflections, and learning. It also gives parents the opportunity to share stories in writing with their children, creating space for more conversation and potentially deepening the relationship. I like how the Family Dialogue Journal removes the teacher as “expert” as the learning is being shared and discussed by the students and the parents, along with the teacher. Each person has a voice in the written conversation.
This week, I launched the Family Dialogue Journal. I wrote a letter explaining the journal and students pasted it in a small black and white notebook. My class was considering the idea of perseverance and persistence, and I wrote a letter to students and families about this topic. I wanted this journal to be a place where we discussed class topics and concepts, which is why I chose to open the journal in this way. Some students were able to write about perseverance while others wrote a totally different message to their family members. I took a deep breath and told myself, “It’s okay.” I am hoping when parents respond, they will find ways to work in the idea of perseverance and persistence as they answer their children.
When Peter first told me about this idea, I asked, “What about the students who have parents who don’t speak English? What if parents don’t write in the journal?” Peter said that all of these things are real possibilities and likelihoods. Parents are encouraged to write in whatever language or style they are comfortable with. Some families might not participate. In his blog post, “Family Dialogue Journals Revisited- One Year Later,” Peter writes, “Many families allowed me a glimpse into their lives. But not all did. Some offered me only random sentences here and there, inconsistent descriptions of inconsequential things. That’s part of the process. Meeting every family where they’re comfortable and then trying to build something of value. There can be no judgement in a family dialogue journal.”
And so, I am taking an inquiry stance as I start the Family Dialogue Journal. How can I use writing to strengthen relationships between home and school in order to enhance student learning and reflection? How can I make parents more part of our learning community? How might I get through the roadblocks of language differences and communication breakdowns? I honestly have more questions than answers as to how this will all develop, but I am looking forward to trying this strategy of writing to build deeper connections.
How do you use writing to help families understand what is happening in the classroom? Please share your ideas and experiences to continue the conversation.