As a PBL teacher I learned many things the hard way; one of which was communicating with parents. Truth be told I was exhausted by designing projects, creating daily lesson plans, and then being fully present for students when they were alongside me all day. I almost always ran out of steam to reach out to parents to let them know about the amazing things their children were doing and learning, and/or ways we needed to work together to support their children.
As a young teacher, I spent my afternoons and evenings hovering over my laptop responding to parent emails, often times responding to the same questions about project work. Over the years, I learned that “the more you communicate, the less you have to communicate,” and what I mean by this is preemptive PBL communication is critical!
If we want to close the gaps in student learning, we have to engage the home life of every child — it truly needs to be “all hands on deck” to prepare our students for the 21st century. And what I found is most parents feel pretty lost with PBL — it feels foreign to them and they don’t know how to help their child. It’s up to us at the school to help educate not only the student, but the parents as well; and communicating what and how students are learning is a big first step in that process.
I realize there are limited hours in your day, so I’m here to share the top four communication tips to help you save time and keep your parents informed about project work:
1. Set up some sort of a digital account to share photos of learning. This sounds so simple, but a few pictures a day of rigorous or engaging PBL happening in your classroom will go a long way with parents. These snapshots give them a better understanding of what PBL looks like in action. If your district has purchased a program such as Seesaw or Schoology, then you're in luck because those have built in features that allow you to easily share class photos. But for all the rest of you, I highly recommend a basic Shutterfly Share Sites account. Shutterfly offers a private site with an easy-to-use app where you can upload pictures taken on your phone and within seconds it will notify all parents who are invited and approved members of your site.
If your district tech department provides access to social media, you can set up a private (approval required) Instagram account and easily post pictures from student iPads or your phone. Check out one of my favorite class Instagram accounts, run 100% by students (how awesome is that, you don’t even have to do the heavy lifting, students can!). You can take action shots of students working, pictures from field work, or snap student work. For more free ideas, check out this Teaching Channel resource.
You can recommend that parents use these photos every night as a starting point for conversation about what students are learning. This does two things for you: 1) helps increase student agency by increasing ownership over their learning, and 2) saves you from having to update parents via email replies. You can continue to build parent capacity to engage students in conversation about their learning with this PBL parent guide from CraftEd.
2. Create a template for a project email. Once I got my PBL “sea legs” I began the practice of sending out a project email the day I launched a new project with students, and then a follow up every Monday for the week ahead. It sounds like a lot of extra work but it wasn’t, because I used the same template every time. My template included:
A very basic introduction: Two to three sentences written anew for each email that were specific to that week.
Ways you can get involved: Any field work related announcements, reminders, or maybe even a book recommendation. Need more ideas? Check out this Teaching Channel resource.
Questions you can ask your child about their learning this week: I would include two to three new ones for the week. You can even point them to a resource such as this one to help them with this process.
3. Use Google Docs. Again, it sounds simple, but Google Docs saved my life when it came to home communication. In my early years of teaching, I would work so hard to create a project calendar with important due dates and field work. But I quickly learned that being responsive meant being flexible with project dates, so I found myself constantly sending out revised versions of schoolwork calendars.
When I work with teachers on project planning, I encourage them to build a table in a basic Google Doc and upload all their lesson information, objectives, and tentative dates on it. You can see a sample and learn about the planning process here. You can share a link to this calendar with parents in your project hub and they can see in “real time” what and when learning is happening in your room. No need to spend more time sending it out, simply give them access and they can see it any time. This also helps increase student agency because if they're absent or don’t remember critical dates in the project, they too always have access to the same information you do.
4. Use group contracts. There are a variety of group work contracts, team huddles, and group game plans out there — whatever your style is, use one! And don’t just have students make it, but have them bring it home for parent signature and keep it alive through ongoing reflection. This immediately educates parents on what students are working on and opens up the dialogue for them to talk to their kids about responsibilities and accountability within the project. Should a problem arise, it won’t catch the parent off guard because they're already familiar with the group dynamics and agreements.
As the demands continue to increase in education, we have to keep finding ways to use the tools available to us to work smarter, not harder. Free yourself up from what often feels like the shackles of parent emails by giving them a bigger window into project work in your classroom. I hope these four simple and free tools can help you focus more on designing and facilitating HQPBL for your students.