This piece first appeared on Usable Knowledge, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
One of my freshmen stopped me while I was passing out papers one morning. “Ms. Lander,” he said — half accusing, half amused — “You texted my father?!”
“I did indeed,” I admitted. And then, curious, I asked, “What did he say?”
“He asked me to name and explain the three branches of government, and then when I couldn’t remember them all, he had me pull out my notes and made me review each one with him.”
A real-life example of what the research has long told us: when parents are engaged, children are more likely to succeed. School attendance and grades go up, so do reading and math scores. Discipline challenges go down. More students go on to graduate from high school, and more enroll in college.
But “engaging” sounds easier than it is, especially as the years go on. We’re all familiar with the canonical parent-teen conversation:
“How was school today?” “Fine.” “What happened?” “Nothing.”
Even the most determined parents can't always circumvent a high schooler’s recalcitrance.
And not all parents can participate in the traditional parents’ nights and class presentations. Such activities can be particularly challenging for lower-income parents, who might be juggling multiple jobs, or for parents who speak limited English and may feel uncomfortable in school halls.
In many communities, a legacy of discrimination lingers, sewing deep-seated distrust of schools and their staff members. Some schools are hostile to parents wanting to engage; others do too little to meaningfully connect.
Forget the robo-call invitation to school events and the colorful flyers that remain scrunched for months in a child’s backpack; schools need new approaches and new tools for building strong two-way partnerships between teachers and families.
Texting to build bridges
Innovative technology and exciting research suggest we already have one powerful tool right in our back pocket — quite literally. For the past half year, I’ve been experimenting with the free texting app Remind. Now used by more than 35 million teachers, students, and parents nationwide, Remind is simple: It allows me to text my students and their families and allows them to text me.
Even more important for me as an ELL teacher, I can text in 84 different languages (including: Kazakh, Yoruba, and Nepali) using this app. My students (and their families) speak more than 30 languages and hail from more than 40 countries, from Burma to Brazil. Many families speak little or no English. With few school translators to help foster conversations, texting technology has given me a tool to begin making connections.
I try to build bridges into our classroom using text messages as my foundation. I ask parents if they can help quiz their children on ancient civilizations. I share pictures of presentations students gave on Holocaust memorials. When we’re studying democracy, I ask if parents can talk with their children about different forms of government.
I have been surprised and excited by the messages I’ve received in response. “Thank you for including us.” “Thank you for keeping me in the loop.” “Thank you for letting us participate in this work that is so important to us.”
Among other researchers, Todd Rogers at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government has been investigating the impact of text messages — small, inexpensive nudges that provide parents with simple, concrete ways to engage. The results are exciting.
In one study, in partnership with the University of Bristol, Rogers and his collaborators found that sending short text message reminders had a positive impact on attendance and an impressive impact on math scores — equivalent to an entire extra month of classroom time. In another study, Rogers’ team found that simply having a teacher send home weekly messages, including text messages during summer school (such as “Kirk did not submit his homework yesterday; please follow up with him about it”), significantly decreased a student’s chance of failing the course.
Texting doesn’t just bolster older students’ success. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found literacy growth in preschoolers whose parents received frequent short texts with reading tips.
Texting to break barriers
In and outside of my classroom, messages fly back and forth in Khmer, Portuguese, Creole, Swahili. Our text conversations have allowed me to learn from my students’ families, in a way that would have been incredibly difficult even a few years earlier, given language barriers. We share strategies on supporting a shy girl, or a boy who serially forgets his homework. I have learned more about my students’ history and background, all of which helps me better support them in class.
One night I received perhaps the best text message ever, from one of my students. It read: “When your teacher tells your father about a PowerPoint presentation,” and with it she had sent a photo of the presentation projected onto their TV screen. As I learned the next morning, her father had made her practice again and again, until she had it down perfectly.
Of course, great technology is never a stand-alone solution. Schools that are serious about fostering rich partnerships with families will need to examine their beliefs and attitudes about families and communities. They will need to think comprehensively about how they can build trust between school and home, and how they can train teachers to do this work successfully.
In my classroom, this is only the beginning. But I’m now connected with more than 80 families from half as many countries — mothers, fathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, even a few older sisters. I know I have so much to learn from them.
Jessica Lander is a high school teacher - follow her on Twitter at @jessica_lander.
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