Check the blog, Mum!

August 2015


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JUDE BARBACK looks at how technology is changing the way schools engage with parents and whānau.

Blog teacherIt’s Thursday afternoon and I receive a text. It’s from my daughter Emily’s New Entrants teacher, Mr Jay.

It reads: ‘Challenge question: What is the name of Mr Jay’s cat?
P.S. Don’t forget mufti day tomorrow.’

I relay the text to Emily who responds with great excitement.

“Check the blog, Mum!” she says. “There should be a picture of the cat on the blog. I’m pretty sure its name is Bella. We talked about families today, and Mr Jay’s family has a cat named Bella.”
We check the classroom blog and, sure enough, there in the latest post is a huge fluffy cat, purring away.

Friday morning rolls around quickly and Emily is in a huge rush to get to school – her fifth day. She says they have to whisper the cat’s name to Mr Jay if they think they know it. She barely manages to say goodbye to me, such is the excitement.

She is beaming when I collect her that afternoon. The cat’s name was indeed Bella and she and others received a small prize for having listened carefully to get the right answer.

In many ways it was such a small thing, yet the text and the blog post gave parents a topic on which they could engage with their children about what they did at school that day. It had the effect of helping parents feel included in their children’s learning, and of making the teacher more accessible.

Technology can be used to help strengthen teacher-parent-student relationships in a multitude of ways.

Putting technology in the hands of the parents

Of course, not all families were created technologically equal. Most schools are aware of the best way of communicating with their school community, but it doesn’t hurt to introduce new mediums and new ways of doing things either.

Jason Ruakere is a facilitator for the Ministry of Education’s Enabling e-Learning hub, which supports teachers and schools in developing their e-learning practice. He worked with a group of boys at Te Ika Unahi Nui, a marae-based wānanga that was developed and trialed with students from Coastal Taranaki School at Puniho Pā, Tarawainukumarae in Okato, Taranaki.

From the outset, whānau were invited to provide their input into the learning programme and regular, ongoing communication was maintained through texts, phone calls and notices in the school blog.
The firm foundation of communication allowed Ruakere to trust the boys to take their iPads home and share their learning with their whānau. He says conversations about expectations of the appropriate use of the iPads took place from the very beginning of the initiative.

This inclusive approach to using digital technologies is helping the wānanga achieve its goals of strengthening the relationship between the school, whānau, and the local marae, while also supporting learning and literacy.

Hillcrest Normal School also found a creative way of engaging parents. On an Enabling e-Learning thread, teacher Michelle Macintyre explains how “technology has enabled parents to be involved in a different way”.

She told how they gave iPads to parents at the school’s learning conferences, gave them a quick demo on taking videos and photos, then allowed them to document the conference. Upon uploading the video clips and photos to the classroom blogs, they found that the parents engaged more with the blog as they had contributed to the process.

Macintyre said that the blogs proved particularly effective for parents who spoke English as a second language as the photos and clips allowed them to discuss the learning experiences with their children in their first language – therefore contributing to a richer and more in-depth understanding of the the learning that took place.

Social media transforms home-school partnerships

The blog is a powerful tool. In addition to providing practical information and outlining homework and expectations, it can serve as a photo diary to highlight students’ work.

A parent of a new entrant, perhaps feeling a little shell-shocked that their little one is now in school, or already missing the cosy learning stories of early childhood education, is bound to appreciate the classroom blog.

However, it is perhaps even more appreciated as children get older and the parental ‘head in the door’ of the classroom is no longer needed in the morning. The update chats with the teacher can be replaced with the blog, limiting email communication for specific queries that aren’t captured in the blog’s contents.

Some teachers have admitted to feeling a little disheartened by the lack of comments or parental interaction on the blog, which is why some have taken to Facebook community pages as a way of communicating with families. With most ‘on Facebook’ already, in many cases this prompts more feedback and engagement.

Both can exist. A parent at Holy Cross Catholic School shared her experience with Enabling e-Learning, saying that the blogs, in addition to the school’s text messaging service, teacher emails, website and Facebook page all allowed her to keep up with what was happening with her children regardless of time, place, or device.

Rachel Boyd’s article in Education Review last year outlined how Waiuku Primary had found Facebook to be useful in terms of directing people to the classroom blogs.

The Facebook page has also helped to publicise school events, celebrate achievement and canvass community views and ideas.

Interestingly, Boyd says Twitter was a less successful social media tool; however, the school has used it to power their daily text messages to whānau, which is useful as almost everyone in their school community owns a mobile phone.

Boyd says social media has transformed home-school partnerships and made school information and engagement a lot more accessible to whānau.

An end to the humble newsletter?

Schools are faced with the tricky job of trying to meet the needs of a diverse community and educating them at the same time. While I was impressed by the ease of the online school interview booking system, I heard another parent complaining about it. While I enjoy being able to read the school newsletters in digital format, I heard another lamenting the lack of a printed newsletter to slap on the fridge.

Australian e-newsletter platform Schoolzine has recently announced its expansion into New Zealand schools, offering an efficient way of producing and disseminating their school newsletters so they can easily be read by parents on any device. From print to emailed PDFs to e-newsletter platforms that allow schools to monitor and increase engagement, it is clear the days are numbered for the humble print newsletter.

Or are they? Boyd makes the point that while social media might work for some parents, others may still prefer a printed newsletter. Consequently, Waiuku Primary School ran a “Connect with Us” campaign allowing whānau a choice in how they engage with the school.

The key seems to be not necessarily to choose one medium, but rather link the various communication channels so they are all working in unison with each other.

Digital alerts and bookings

The process for booking teacher-parent-student learning conferences at my children’s school was enlightening. Towards the end of term 2, parents received the opportunity to vote on their preferred time of day for the school to hold the interviews.

“We value your feedback and ask that you take the time to let us know your preference for when these sessions will be offered,” read the school’s electronic newsletter. “The link to the survey is below.” Sure enough, I was able to vote accordingly via a SurveyMonkey link.

Then in term 3 a newsletter contained a link to with an event code. I hopped onto the site, where I was able to specify that I had two children at the school, at which point it gave a range of available 15-minute time slots for both the kids’ teachers.

The system was so clever that when I tried to book back-to-back interviews, it suggested this might not be a good idea in case the first overran. All done. A ping on my phone immediately alerted me to the email confirmation of the bookings.

This is the world we live in now – one of alerts, online voting and booking sytems. With parents so digitally connected now, it makes total sense that schools employ the technology in their interaction swith parents and whānau.

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