School-to-Home Communication is critical, but every parent values it differently

Key WestIs it weird to talk about schools while on vacation?

I had joined my sister and her family for their spring break vacation in Key West when I started this blog post about avenues for school-to-home communication.

Writing poolside, with a view of the turquoise Atlantic Ocean, the idyllic example of school-to-home communication I was remembering was this:

One afternoon, while working from home, I intercepted a call on the house phone from my son’s social studies teacher. Justin, then in eighth-grade, had just arrived home from school. The teacher, at school grading tests, called to tell him he’d “hit it out of the park” on the essay question.

“His writing on Reconstruction was well reasoned from primary and secondary sources,” she told me. “It showed the complexity of the situation and contained insights I that I had never considered.”

I passed the phone to Justin. High praise should be heard directly.

“It’s a banner day,” I said as Justin hung up the phone. “Do you have any idea how rare it is for a teacher to call a student’s home to say something good?”

Justin, looking puzzled, shrugged.

“She’s called me two other times,” he said. (It was the first I’d heard of it.) “Everybody in the class gets calls sometimes. I think we’re so good she gets excited. She can’t hold it until can’t we see her again.”

I marveled. In the crush of grading tests from her 125 eighth-graders, this teacher had made time to personally acknowledge one thoughtful answer from my little genius – and probably countless others.

Meanwhile, back at the pool…

As I was writing down that memory, my sister, while passing me a tube of sunscreen, inquired what I was writing about.

She rolled her eyes when I said I was writing an article about school-to-home communication.

“I cringe whenever something from school shows up in my email,” Janna sighed. “It’s always ‘read this newsletter,’ ‘participate in this school activity,’ ‘help with this PTA fundraiser.’ The truth is, I’m busy with business. I’m just not interested in school stuff.”

crossword educationMy sister runs three successful businesses. She says she can’t justify spending her time reading all of the communication her son’s middle school sends, helping with school events, or organizing school fundraisers.

Free time has to be scheduled in advance. She prefers to spend her’s decompressing in the tropics, where her son can indulge his passion for scuba diving.

Janna suspects some teachers and parents equate her lack of involvement at school as poor support to her son, but she stands ready to correct that misperception. She and her husband travel with their son almost every weekend to support Keegan as he competes in motocross.

“Have you ever received a call from school that wasn’t about lining up free labor or selling something?” I asked. “Anything from a teacher specific to Keegan?”

Sighing deeply she said yes. One of his teachers had called to report that she thought he had the ability to be achieving better grades in her class.

This call was received in the throes of evaluating estimates for a suddenly essential, costly roof repair on a retail property. My sister was incredulous that the teacher would phone instead of text or email. Phone calls are so intrusive, she said. Keegan wasn’t even failing her class, or at risk of failing.

What happened? I asked.

“She emailed an apology,” Janna said. “She said she never intended to add to my stress.”

I suspect my sister already knew that.

Navigating the communications gauntlet

In these two examples – both within the same family – we see the yin and yang of school-to-home communications.

In one instance, a phone call from the teacher is a warm fuzzy, even when the memory is recalled years later.

In the other, a phone call is castigated to a degree that a well-meaning teacher is moved to apologize.

One could argue that the purpose of the calls – one positive, one negative – accounts for the difference in reactions.

But I think the unexpectedness of a call from school is the more significant factor. In the first example, the call was received happily because it wasn’t expected. In the second, the call was not well received because it was unexpected.

Timing of the call is also critical. As a parent, every teacher call I got was received mid-afternoon. That’s conveniently at the end of a teacher’s work day, but was smack dab in the busiest part of my work day.

Like my sister, I’ve experienced my-brain-is-full moments when I could not gracefully handle one more thing, even if it was about my favorite thing — my family.

Searching for insights

Awakened to new layers in the labyrinth of school-home communications, I put my article aside until I could learn what means of communication teachers consider most effective.

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 9.33.52 PMSince it’s still spring break, the easiest way to connect with a gaggle of teachers was to attend the March 23 edition of the weekly Twitter conversation around the #edtechchat hashtag. Chat topic that night was school-home communication.

“Good, timely communication with parents helps everyone stay on the same page to ensure student learning,” one teacher wrote.

“Honest, open communication solves a lot of issues at school before they become problems,” wrote another.

“Communicating with your community (not just parents) is important because if you don’t tell your story, someone else will,” was another response.

The number of platforms teachers are using to communicate with parents astounded me.

One teacher live-streams video from his classroom that parents can watch over the Internet. I heard about classroom wikis, teacher blogs, student-written blogs, email blasts and personal messages, tweets, Facebook and Edmodo status updates and group discussions, podcasts, Instagrams, phone calls and the list goes on.

The ability to electronically send targeted messages directly to parents appears to be a godsend, especially for music, art and physical education teachers, who have too many students and parents to phone or email. One school librarian said she now sends parents targeted text messages about overdue library books, which has reduced the number of lost books.

What I didn’t hear referenced much was communication printed on paper and curried home in a student’s backpack. I imagine this is still the best way to communicate to some parents, but I suspect that number dwindles each year.

Here are teachers’ most interesting observations: 

  • Meet parents where they are.
  • Keep students the focal point.
  • Build good will by attaching a photo of the student and/or is work.
  • Video reminders uploaded to youtube.com, with the link tweeted out, usually reach the widest audience of parents.
  • If a negative communication is warranted, try to counter it with two pieces of positive communication.
  • Consistency is important but don’t communicate too much. Busy parents will tune out.
  • There is no one best way for educators to communicate to parents. Plan on using a variety of methods and monitoring what’s most effective.
  • Get students involved in preparing and sending parent communication, even tweets and podcasts.
  • Early in the academic year, hold a “mini tech conference” one evening so the teacher can affirm his or her desire for good school-home communications and ask parents how they prefer to receive communication. Have students practice using communication tools with their parents in a setting where the teacher can troubleshoot problems.
  • Many parents prefer the convenience of text messages, but there’s a down side. Some parents change mobile carriers often and forget to notify their child’s school. Too many text messages end up in a black hole of non-working numbers.

There seemed to be one school-to-home communications tool that drew the most praise.

And that’s where I’ll pick up in part two next week!  

Be ready to weigh in on the SCN Forum with your suggestions, too.

 

 

Who’d be an ideal speaker at your next school communicators conference? – SCN Encourager

I’d give the nod to Eddie Haskell.

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 8.00.55 PMYep, that Eddie Haskell.

The fawning, wise-cracking iconic teenager from the “Leave It to Beaver” TV show from the early 1960s would be my choice.

One TV historian described Eddie as “unctuous.”

This was a brand new word for me so I can’t actually confirm or deny this for you.

All I know is that Eddie Haskell would’ve been a pretty fair school communicator back in his hey-day.

Granted, he would’ve been one of the more “oily” members of our tribe, but his ability to adapt his words speedy-kwik and quick-shift his countenance from a snarl to a smile was unique.

Eddie was on the slimy side, but he had an untiring spunk that somewhat balanced his unabashed insincerity.

That’s why I think he would’ve fit right in.

I can think of more than a few legislators I’d sic him after – and he wouldn’t have to change any of his ways at all.

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 7.58.31 PMThe same can’t be said for All-American TV dad Ward Cleaver.

He’d have to change.

Unlike Eddie, Wally and “the Beaver’s” dad would need a transformation in 2015.

At first I didn’t think so, but a panel of social media experts in a recent podcast convinced me otherwise.

They said that today’s tech-driven, social media age have forced all of us  to come to grips with our “authentic voices” and every Ward Cleaver type in our midst are destined to struggle.

Apparently, maintaining the Ward Cleaver compartmentalized life enjoyed by so many in prior generations is nearly impossible now.

In the 1960s, Ward Cleaver could flip-flop between his –
• work & career life,
• traditional dad life,
• golf buddy life,
• traditional husband to June life,
• and his putzing around the house life.

But no more.

If Ward Cleaver was on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram – he wouldn’t be able to compartmentalize.

He’d have to be comfortable with his “authentic voice.”

Crossroad with signs of priority of passageAnd, according to the panel, each one of us faces this same crossroad.

If we choose to walk the social media path, we’ve got to pursue it with consistency, relevance, openness, and a willingness to let people connect with us for who we are.

No compartments.

If we choose to walk the anti-social media path, we’re turning our backs on fully connecting with the future.

So, there you have it.

You’ve got two choices: to social media or not to social media.

One way forces you to be yourself and drag your baggage around with you, while the other doesn’t.

Dang.

Now’s a fine time to find this out!

(I wonder what Eddie Haskell would say.)

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Tech Tip Tuesday: You’re free to be YOU… even with Wufoo!

wufoo meetingParents, board members, we present Wufoo . . .

You gotta admit, gracing your online form with the name “Wufoo” in the left hand corner could be startling.

Some people might think something’s strange is up… like you’re about to check IDs to confirm that everyone is older than 21.

For sure, just seeing the name Wufoo can have that kind of effect on folks.

And what school communicator needs another controversy to contend with?

This is why we’re wrapping up our Wufoo series with a lesson on how to customize forms with your school or business logo.  You can even make these changes on the free Wufoo form. Find out how in this video:

Let me know what you think at [email protected]

James Bond, Sherlock, and the Common Core – SCN Encourager

Keep honing your “I Spy” skills.

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 8.29.22 PMYou may need them.

For there’s yet one more troubling dimension of our nation’s pell-mell drive toward relentless standardized testing that totally caught me off guard – test security.

Of course, our student testing must always be fair and above-board, but there’s something about the new “super sleuthing” part of it all that’s a little unsettling.

I don’t know if I’m happy I read this article in The Politico on Saturday or not.

And it’s also troubling to me that I hesitated including this in today’s Encourager.

This is good info – but it’s such a downer.

Who wants to start off the week with this kind of news?

What a pickle.

I told Cindy how difficult it is to determine what to send you and when.

“What’s wrong with Monday?” she asked.

Official Test Cop Pickle

Official Test Cop Pickle

“School communicators are just beginning their crazy busy week,” I said. “They don’t need extra distractions or extra burdens on Mondays. Besides, there are often board meetings on Monday nights.”

“Well, how ’bout Friday?” she wondered.

“No,” I said. “Friday’s not a good day, either. Usually folks have worked so hard during the four previous days, they  just want to get to the weekend without getting involved in some kind of school crisis or be given a surprise project. People definitely don’t want any depressing stuff on a Friday. They just want to get home.”

“OK, then Wednesdays are best, right?” she deduced, keeping at it.

“Oh no, not Wednesdays.” I explained. “Wednesdays are always pivotal days in the life of every school communicator. A strong Wednesday makes or breaks your week. You usually know on Wednesday whether you’ll hit most of your deadlines. So, no one wants anything dragging them down on a Wednesday, trust me.”

“You should listen to yourself,” Cindy said. “With Tech Tip Tuesday and Kym writing SCN features on Thursday, I think you’re sunk. Obviously, there’s no good day for you to email any school person about anything.”

Hmmm.

Cindy’s probably right.

But maybe I should hire a cyber-sleuth of my own just to be sure.

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The naked digital native – SCN Encourager

And don’t worry.

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 9.09.32 PM

As Bob Dylan used to sing,“It ain’t me, babe.”

I’ll keep my clothes on.

And… come to find out, a naked digital native isn’t as racy as it sounds, anyway.

Dang.

A naked digital native is actually someone who chooses to “unplug” and remain free of today’s technological entanglements.

Kind of a rare bird, don’tcha think?

Especially when you see the kids in our schools.

And the rest of us, too, I suppose!

The link I’ve sent you is from MindShift – an insightful NPR partnered website about the future of learning, culture, and technology.
Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 9.06.22 PM

 

Click here to get to the article about a school where students “attempted” to become naked digital natives for three days.

No doubt, the story will have you imagining how a similar experiment would go over in your schools.

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 9.57.40 PMIf you spend some time with the MindShift article later, take note of how it contains micro-podcasts within its structure.

I thought this format was pretty cool – and definitely another idea worth swiping!

Once Jim Camenga, our podcast guru, can explain SoundCloud to me, that is.

You know, as a non-techie, I originally thought about writing this Encourager in the buff.

I figured I could be an honest-to-goodness “naked native”…  despite being unable to adequately represent the “digital” part of the triad.

All I had to do was drop the word “digital” and drop some clothes.

But then I remembered Cindy.

She’s a such a stickler about not letting me just leave my clothes on the floor – or draped over the bed frame – or insisting that I put my clothes away where they belong, I gave up.

She makes getting naked seem like too much work.

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U new to Wufoo? This redux covers the basics.

Everyone learns in their own way.

opoheartNo getting around it.

If you’re like OPO here (your “One Person Office” partner in crime), you may have missed SCN’s first two video tutorials on Wufoo, which is a great service for creating online forms.

As a busy school communicator, it’s understandable that you’re crazy schedule is understandable.

However, if you’re like Tom, you didn’t miss the tutorials because of your workload– you just couldn’t figure out how to set up your free Wufoo account so that you could follow along with the tutorials.

If you’re like Tom, I suggest you keep this news to yourself. Your career might be better off.

But I’ll play along with Tom’s contention that there are at least three other individuals out there who had difficulty setting up their initial Wufoo account, so here’s a very brief video covering how to do this.

Whatever your approach to gaining access to Wufoo, I think you’ll find its format quite intuitive. You’re mere minutes away from creating online surveys and registration forms.

So, to you I say “enjoy!”

And to Tom and the three others, I say “no more excuses!”

If you have questions, contact me at: [email protected]

Here are links to SCN’s first two Wufoo lessons:

More cowbell & Will Farrell’s creative process – SCN Encourager

What was the genesis for this classic Saturday Night Live skit?

Have you ever wondered about this?

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 9.33.46 PMYou gotta know the one I’m talking about.

It was on TV 15 years ago.
A Blue Oyster Cult hit.
Christopher Walken.
Will Farrell.
One soon-to-be-famous cowbell.

And sorry.
No more hints.

But here is the link to the 5 1/2 minute skit if you need to reboot your memory.

I laugh every time I see it.
(No, not the sight of you re-booting your memory… I mean, the video!)

When Will Farrell was recently asked how he first came up with the idea for this skit, he said something that surprised me.

It shouldn’t have.

And it probably wouldn’t have surprised you at all.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 10.19.09 PMBut for a few moments, I forgot about an essential component in successful communication.

Empathy.

And Will Farrell helped me remember this.

He said Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” has always been one of his favorite all-time songs.

He was fascinated by the distinct sound of a cowbell, simply keeping the beat, all the way from beginning to end.

“I then had to wonder,” Farrell said. “What would a cowbell player’s life in a rock band be like? I knew that if I could imagine walking in the shoes of a cowbell player for a while, I’d come up with a good idea or two.”

Makes sense, don’tcha think?

Now I wish I could find a cowbell player to “job shadow” for a few days.

I could use a good idea or two myself!

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Tech Tip Tuesday: Make Wufoo your new lucky charm

8 out 10 leprechauns choose Wufoo every St. Pat’s Day

cloverWufoo exudes the charm and finesse of the Irish when it comes to creating online surveys.

In fact, I think Wufoo’s survey building process is easier to use than its parent company, Survey Monkey.

Check it out in the video below.

Now that you’ve seen it, please share your thoughts!

You can reach me at [email protected]

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

A Daily Double at the 2015 MSPRA Conference – SCN Encourager

Kudos to the Michigan School Public Relations Association

Shoes at 6.55.09 AMBravo to the leadership tag team of President Micki O’Neill (Ingham ISD) and President-Elect Kristin Tank (Muskegon Area ISD).

They’re definitely one-of-a kind school communicators… unique just like these red tennies… only 2X.

If one-of-a-kinds can be 2x, that is.

But no matter.

My computer is working properly again and the Encourager is back on track.

Anywoo…

Micki and Kristin assembled a great speaker lineup, kept the discussion focused on the main issues in public education, and made sure no one suffered from a lack of good humor or good food.

You know, there’s always an interesting group dynamic whenever school communicators get together.

Although many are former journalists, the range of skills in the room is as diverse as the school districts we represent.

The manner in which Micki and Kristin directed the conference reminded me of this poster.

(It’s from a fun blog worth checking out sometime: believe-toachieve.tumblr.com.)

I did at 6.40.05 AM

We all came to the conference at 40% – WE want to!

We all departed from the conference at 80% – WE can!

And that’s a pretty good double-down if you ask me.

Only time will tell if we can all push it up to the 100% – We did!

But… Micki and Kristin can’t do it all, I guess.

Dang it!

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There’s fresh hope for “changing the conversation” about public ed

And it begins with a new strategy.

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 8.58.05 PMYou know how stories are shared.

Traditional media excels at telling stories of crisis, challenge, and loss.

In Michigan, public school entities are hiring a company with a different news gathering paradigm to spread the word that public education – despite economic challenges — is working better than ever.

The news product is InspirED Michigan, a monthly news magazine that debuted online in October 2014. It is produced by Issue Media Group (IMG) for its client, the Michigan Public School Partnership (MPSP), a nonpartisan and nonprofit group whose 50 members include associations of public school employees and school districts.

InspirED Michigan replaces Standing Strong for Public Schools, a previous attempt by MPSP to spread the good news of public education in online venue.

Standing Strong for Michigan Schools relied solely on aggregating content produced by member organizations, or previously published by traditional media. InspirED Michigan enriches that with two original stories per issue that are assigned to trained reporters by IMG staff. Story ideas are pitched by readers via an online contact form. IMG also reruns stories pertinent to education in InspirED Michigan that were produced for sister publications.

The quest for balance

Linda Wacyk

Linda Wacyk

As legacy news organizations contracted their editorial staffs in response to the economic recession and the way people consume news, educators found it more difficult than ever to get positive stories in the media.

School news seemed to disintegrate to “standardized test scores, financial failures and individual teachers behaving badly,” said Linda Wacyk, communications director for the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

“No one’s saying those things aren’t news,” Wacyk said. “But if that’s all the news that the public hears, they will have a skewed vision of the value of public schools.”

What’s needed, Wacyk said, is to:
•  Elevate respect for teachers
•  Restore belief in the power of education to brighten futures
•  Kindle a sense of hope.

That’s why MPSP, hoping to balance public perceptions, bid out a public school public relations campaign.

“We are busy with our duties,” Wacyk said. “We needed a partner skilled in communications to bring this to life.”

IMG – an online news organization with offices in Detroit that publishes stories about growth, investment, and innovation in 21 regions of North America – won the bid with a proposal that changed the trajectory of the project from a public relations campaign to an online magazine, Wacyk said.

InspirED Michigan is similiar to School News Network (SNN), a school news website covering districts in Kent County, Mich. Both leverage the talent of trained journalists, many of whom were staffers at traditional media outlets until the recession hit.

SNN produces all original content. Although organizers hoped advertising would fund the news gathering operation, Kent County superintendents have been largely footing the bill.

Costs of producing InspirED Michigan are pre-paid on a sliding scale by MPSP members, with contributions by school districts and individuals, Wacyk said.

IMG is paid $86,000 per year to collect, write, organize and publish inspiring stories of hope and innovation from schools all over Michigan, said Christine Beardsley, superintendent of the Eaton Regional Education Service Agency, a member of an editorial board that oversees the project.

Solutions Journalism

Paul Schutt

Paul Schutt

Paul Schutt, a Michigan native who is co-founder of IMG, borrows journalist and author David Bornstein’s phrase “solutions journalism” as a label for his business’s approach to news.

“This approach allows us to look at the challenges that communities are facing – in this case public education – and then look at various responses” Schutt said in the article “InspirED Michigan Seeks to Change the Conversation About Public Education,” published in the Winter 2015 edition of MASA Leader.

“What are the innovative programs that superintendents, principals, or teachers are putting into place?” Schutt continued. “We address the challenges that are out there, and take a real solutions approach to the story rather than just talking about the problems that exist. It’s important that we understand the problems and recognize at the same time who’s doing something about them and how these actions are actually having an impact and moving public education forward. “

The current edition includes features on year-round school calendars, early college programs, a Grand Rapids secondary school’s composting program, stories from contributors and links to previously published good news stories.

The goal, Schutt told MASA Leader, is: “Every single month, every single story, really focuses on that idea of innovation and change.”

How it can work

Supporters of InspirED Michigan are relying on the power of social media to elevate the narrative around public media, one tweet and Facebook post at time.

All entities in the MPSP send out links to editions to their members. The online magazine also has subscribers. IMG also touts stories on their social media.

When readers share links to stories they like with people in their social circles who are outside of education, the good news will spread, Wacyk said.

Without that sharing, InspirED Michigan is little more than preaching to the choir.

Keys to making InspirED Michigan a success are twofold, Wacyk said.

  • Stories will have to have compelling story lines and be very well written, or the public won’t pay attention.
  • Getting public education supporters to contribute and suggest content is essential because the paid news gathering operation is very limited. 

And as a school communicator, don’t think you’re off the hook.

Click here to submit a story, or story idea, to InspirED Michigan.