I’m currently working on a book project about the procedures Emily and I have incorporated with technology. I’m re-reading some of my blog posts to make sure I keep my voice in this project. The book will be part theory (the why) and part nuts and bolts (the how). The thing about the how is that it’s really quite simple. We don’t employ all kinds of crazy-great technology; we use the technology to allow students full voice and choice.
Some of the things that have evolved in our procedures cannot be extricated from the why to the how. One of our favorite new procedures is having our students write an email every week to their parents.
I’ve mentioned this in a few blog posts, but I thought it deserved its own post. The inception for this idea came from a recent ed-tech discussion. I was engaging with the TG2chat this past Sunday, and one of my responses was about the emails. Today is Tuesday, and I keep getting notifications of retweets and likes on that tweet. I’ve had people contact me for more information, and I’ve somehow, from that one tweet, built up my followers by 50+ educators.
In my book project, I had a section devoted to the email, so I thought I’d kill two birds and blog about it and use part of this for my chapter on emailing.
So, here goes.
With our class structure, we have Mondays and Tuesdays devoted to “writing” days. Because students have almost full choice in what they are working on every day, they can write any and all days (or read, or research), but we have our daily questions focused on writing on Mondays and Tuesdays. Tuesdays is email day, so usually our question is geared toward getting them to reflect on themselves as learners, so they can incorporate some deeper, metacognitive ideas into their emails.
The purpose of the emails:
- To inform their parents about what they’re learning.
- For students to feel more empowered with their learning experiences.
- To include teachers who need insight into what kind of help they need.
- For students to self-reflect on where they are and where they need to go.
- To keep the dialogue from school to family focused on the student’s perspectives.
- To practice writing in a semi-formal style with a platform they’ll be using for a long time.
Those are the “whys” of the email, but it has evolved into so many unforeseen advantages.
- Parents have embraced the email and usually “reply all” with information about themselves in this education triangle. This insight into the family life broadens and deepens my understanding of the student’s needs.
- Students are beyond empowered. They take such pride in their emails, and they show their style and can practice honing their communication style. Some of my students bend over backwards trying to entertain us all, some attempt to be as concise as possible while still delivering an entire picture of what they’re learning. Conversely, others try to use so much detail that they don’t just show what they’re learning; they are teaching us all the concepts. Others use days to craft the email to ensure it is their very best work. This blog post describes these processes.
- Students share their thoughts in their emails in their fresh, unique voice, and all of their teachers benefit from what they share. It’s sometimes as simple as “I don’t understand how to find the area of a surface,” but more often, it’s feedback about the class, about the structure of school, about their fears and stresses, and what they enjoy. All of that perspective allows us to help them individually, but more often as a whole. We have changed things that students don’t like, done more of what they do like, and it’s all moving and changing.
- The insight we get into students from their self-evaluation of their learning is deeply impactful to us in our instruction and in our humanity. I had one student who wrote about how he loved language arts now, and he had, in the past, struggled and been below grade level. He wrote about how well he was doing and how he was now “at grade level,” and he was proud and inspired. This student “tested” still at just below grade level, but his work was proficient and advanced. I will never tell this student his “test” scores. They are a programmed test that I have no control over. I do have control over how he feels in the classroom. His confidence and pride will take him where he needs to go.
- Having the students’ perspectives, from their voice, fully explained, of course delivers an amazing insight. What became a nice surprise is how often parents got to hear things they didn’t hear when they asked, “how was school today?” Having students explain their perspective opened up the communication. The idea to have the onus on students helped parents step back more from the “helicopter role.”
- Any writing is good writing practice, and it has always felt good, as an ELA teacher, to have students have authentic purpose for their writing. We allow students full choice in their daily writing, and the email was, of course, a great practice for a different style. They’ve incorporated everything they’re learning in all of their classes into these emails. They structure it carefully, as they’ve learned to in science and social studies, they pay attention to audience and work on voice and word choice, as they’ve learned in ELA.
I’ve had some educators ask how this can happen during the class time, given how much “other” we have to do. I contend there is no other work more important than having students self-reflect and reach out to others with their perspectives. As an ELA teacher, I’m not concerned with curriculum; I’m concerned with students growing as readers, writers, and thinkers. I don’t see any way that writing an email, with an authentic purpose and audience, isn’t essential. They are pulling together so many skills: developing ideas, organization, voice, word choice, purpose, topic, audience, and they are doing this on a continual basis. Besides the obvious writing practice, there are so many beneficial aftershocks. I can help students so much more, having this insight into their thoughts. This blog post about student agency explains that part a lot.
That’s all the why. Here’s for the how.
- Our students use a daily work Google Doc (think spiral).
- Every day, they answer a “big question.”
- On email day, the question is about writing or a self-reflection that will help guide them in crafting their email.
- They put the answer to that day’s question in their email.
- They compose the email there and make revisions/edits.
- They copy and paste their email into their school email account.
- They CC me and any other teacher who needs to be contacted (for help or because of struggles in that class).
This is the email document that contains directions, exemplars, rubric.
Almost finally, for the why, I must quote a response on Twitter, “Writing for an audience you understand & care about nurtures better writing & relationships.All around”. Connie Blomgren @Docblom. I could not have summed this all up better!
And for fun. Here are just a few of the many great lines I get to read in these weekly emails:
Liewe Moeder Vader Suster,
I hope you all are having a splendid day. I started my email with
“Dear Mother, Father, and Sister,” in Afrikaans . my room is very
messy which as you know is rare. I hate it! I plan on taking care of
it tomorrow. Yesterday when I was making work, I look over, and the
next thing I know, my room has turned into a disaster!
How was your walk this morning with your friend? Was it nice?
I hope you are having a great day if not I hope this will make you day better. I am having an amazing day i can't wait for my concert.
We’re learning about our carbon fiber footprint. Today we learned about how many earths it would take for everyone in the world to live like me. And it would take 8.1. That's not a good thing apparently.
P.S Can you make my bed?
Goal: Keep learning new ways to help students find their voices.
Gratitude: Getting to hear my students’ voices.