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Tch Tips: Four Tips for a New and Improved Back-To-School Night

September 9, 2015 / by Gretchen Vierstra

Now that most schools are back in session, you're probably getting ready for Back-to-School Night (or you recently survived it). It's a great time for connecting with families, sharing what they should expect from the year, and putting families at ease by showing them you are a lovable human who is here to guide their child through an amazing year of learning.

Back-to-School Night is exciting, but it can also be nerve-racking. As a first year teacher, I had no idea what I was supposed to do! Most teachers never get a chance to observe another teacher's Back-to-School Night. It wasn't until I was a parent that I got to experience the many different ways teachers approach the event. In light of this, I thought it might be helpful to share my own story, as well as some of the ways others in our Tch community approach Back-to-School Night.

Be Yourself

In my second year of teaching, after a sweaty and jittery lecture-like Back-to-School Night, an experienced colleague gave me great advice. She said, "Parents just want to know what it's like to be in your classroom, so show them rather than tell them."

This advice was brilliant, because I was much more comfortable as a teacher than as a presenter. So I decided to flip my Back-to-School Night. I provided families with my materials on curriculum and standards beforehand and asked them to submit questions. Then, on the night itself, I was free to show families who I was as a teacher, by having them experience part of a lesson that their children had done earlier that week. Families enjoyed being a middle schooler again, I had fun teaching, and the experience was a great launching point for discussing key curriculum details for the year, including the questions they had submitted. The conversations always felt deeper, and I was much less sweaty!

Similarly, as a math teacher, Teaching Channel Laureate Kristin Gray feels it's important to engage families in a mathematical experience. At her Back-to-School Night, she asks families to do math together. They engage in Estimation 180, an investigations math activity, and reflect on grade level standards and Standards for Mathematical Practice. She hopes to instill math curiosity and excitement among the families, while creating an open, collaborative relationship that will grow during the year.

Give Them Something to Talk About

Families want to hear from you, but it's also great for you to hear from them. Sometimes you may need a conversation starter to get families talking -- parents and guardians can be nervous too. Lindsay Young, a high school teacher in Los Angeles, California, shows families her classroom’s "Exemplary Work" board, where students select one item weekly that they think exemplifies their best work. She uses this board to start a discussion about what it means to do your best work.

Sarah Brown Wessling gives families a copy of Carol Dweck's article, "Even Geniuses Work Hard," and invites them to consider what their work and learning will be like this year. It helps her to frame not only what she values, but how she and families can work together to support their students.

Make it "Hope Night"

Teaching Channel Laureate Joshua Parker thinks about the families who come to Back-to-School Night with many hopes for the year, and he takes their aspirations to heart. Through a presentation that includes information about both his personal life and professional experience, he helps families understand just how committed he is to education and their children. He follows this by leading a conversation focused on how he can meet the needs of both students and their families.

Kate Barber and Chana Stewart, elementary teachers in East Palo Alto, California, say they use Back-to-School Night to build trust and a sense of community. They ask students to share ideas about what their teachers and families could do to support them in first grade. When families come to Back-to-School Night, the teachers share this list and ask families to talk about it in groups, as well as share their own hopes and dreams for their children. The teachers want families to leave Back-to-School Night feeling like they're part of a supportive community, where their voices and perspectives are valued, and with at least one new idea for how to support their children. Hearing families share hopes such as, "Our dream is for our children to go to college and then come back to improve their community," is a wonderful way to start the year.

Incorporate Technology

When I did my first Back-to-School Night, my only piece of technology was an overhead projector, whereas now there are many ways to use technology to present and gather information. Here are a few ideas from our Teaching Channel Laureate team:

  • Use the night to make sure everyone connects digitally with you, whether you plan on using email, a texting program, a website, a newsletter, or a learning platform.
  • Gather important information from your families using Google forms.
  • Share your presentation after the event via email or your website, so families don't feel compelled to take notes -- or in case they miss the night.
  • Try engaging families in a pre- or post-night twitter chat.

Whether you're planning your first or your twentieth Back-to-School Night, I hope this peek at what others are doing inspires you to try something new. You can also check out Lily Jones' Back-to-School Night tips.

Topics: Professional Learning, Back to School Starter Pack, Tch Tips

Gretchen Vierstra

Written by Gretchen Vierstra

Gretchen Vierstra taught middle school for ten years in the San Francisco Bay Area. During her 15+ years in education, she’s also been a department chair, new teacher coach, curriculum developer, and policy analyst. She is Director of Educational Content at Teaching Channel.

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