by Florian SEROUSSI

Over this past school year my wife and I have slowly been watching a change in the way her Middle School students communicate with her. It has me thinking that we no longer get to decide the communication tool for a conversation. 

It started back in September when my wife received an e-mail from Facebook via a student. My wife is not friends with any students on Facebook but that didn’t and hasn’t stopped them from sending her messages about school. The first time it happened we laughed and my wife was a bit freaked out. But over the course of the year it’s been happenings more and more. Kids, who are always on Facebook, and using it like e-mail decided it was OK to contact their school counselor that way…and is it?

A counselors role is to be available to their students in time of need and crisis. Do we really care how they contact their counselor? What program or method they use? I sure don’t and even though at first it freaked my wife out she’s coming to terms with the fact that this is e-mail for the kids, this is how they have decided to communicate and we no longer control the communication tools.

Then a couple weeks ago…on a Sunday….she gets a text message from a students (our school directory lists cell phone numbers of admin and counselors). Now, forgetting your homework for the weekend and texting your counselor about it on Sunday night really does not qualify as a crisis, but the fact remains that this student decided that was the communication tool they were going to use. Are we going to see more of this as well? Time will tell.

All of this has me thinking about schools and what are the communication tools we set up and are they the right tools? Do our schools need a Facebook profile so that students and increasingly parents can contact the school in that way?

I keep thinking about all the places I carry on conversations. Some initiated by me, in which I choose the tool, but most by others. Some conversations are in Twitter, some on Facebook, others in text messages, and yet others in e-mails. Sometimes a conversation crosses platforms other times it stays in the original form factor. 

So the question becomes should every counselor be required to have a Facebook page?

How about Teachers?

Who decides?

As a technology person you don’t always get to decide where you are going to start with teachers. In fact, most of the time the teachers tell you where you are going to start.

Hence my focus on parent communication. Many teachers are looking at using blogs as a way to communicate with their parent communities.

Now, before I go any further I say they “use blogs” but that doesn’t mean they are blogging. I do believe there is a difference. Teachers find the ease of which you can setup a web site and post new content using a blogging program simple and straight forward.

So blogging and using a blogging program as a website…are to different things. I do believe, however, that you can start using the blogging software as a website for communication and as you get comfortable with how it works, how to create conversations, and how students/parents can and will respond that you can move from a blog as a website to a blog as an actual blog…..does that make sense?

I saw teachers make this transition at SAS: kpower, spower, adecardy just to name three who starting out using a blogging platform and ended up blogging.

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been working with the 1st grade team here at ISB in creating a portal for their parents. Vu, the technology leader, has really embraced the digital tools with the rest of the 1st grade team. They use a Google Doc to plan their meetings, and a blog to communicate with parents.

We talk about making it easy for teachers to use these tools so when I walked into Vu’s room the first day and he told me what he wanted to do I said:

“OK, we can do that….and what if we can do it all from your desktop? You, and the team, won’t have to remember passwords, or sites….you can just put content where you want it.”

Needless to say the Smartones are off and running!

So here’s the setup on the first grade teacher laptops.

  • ScribeFire: Still my favorite client for blogging. It’s simple, straight forward and teachers pick it up quickly. I showed Vu how to install it and connect to the blog and he helped the rest of the team get theirs set up.
  • Google Calendar Sync with iCal: This is different than just subscribing to a calendar. You can write an appointment into iCal and it syncs back to Google Calendar.
  • FFXporter iPhoto Plugin: Vu found this great plugin for iPhoto that allows you to select a picture (or group of pictures) and upload them to Flickr.
  • FlickrSLiDR: We created a FlickrSLiDr slideshow and embedded that on a page of the blog. Now when the teachers upload their photos to Flickr and put them in their set they automatically appear on the blog. From there parents can click on a picture that takes them back to Flickr where they can download it and keep it if they so choose.

So that’s the basic setup…so invision this.

You take a picture of a great project in your class, you download the picture to your Mac which automatically imports it into iPhoto. You select the picture and export to flickr. When it is down uploading the pic it automatically opens the picture on Flickr where you can name the picture and save it. Next you click on ScribeFire, write a post, drag and drop the picture from Flickr into your blog post where you want it, select your categories, and click “Publish”.

You want to add something to the calendar during a team meeting? No problem, while your iCal is open just select your Google Cal add the event and your parents know about it instantly.

We talk about what Web 2.0 can do for a teacher, how about making the web seem like it’s just on your desktop.

At Monday’s after school help session I was talking with a different teacher explaining how she can get Flickr pictures to show up on her blog. My reply was simple:

“You have to understand that the Interent is created by connections or links. Once you understand that it is connections that run the web, a whole new world opens up to you. By connecting people, places, and websites we can push and pull almost any information anywhere.”

There were a couple comments left on my last post about communicating in this new digital landscape. Blogs and wikis might not be the best solution. I agree they might not be…but then again they might be for a particular teacher or school. I do believe however that my thoughts on communicating digitally do not apply to only blogs, or wikis or Web 2.0 tools. I believe it’s just solid advice for communicating digitally period!

(If you want to hear more on that subject you’ll have to come to my Learning 2.008 session!)

These tools are here to make our lives simpler. If teachers can not find that simpleness they will not use the tools. At a technology person in the school you have to find ways to make it simple and help teachers to understand that this is not “just one more thing” but actually replaces some of the old things they were doing. This isn’t deep change, but it’s a start.

Over the last couple of years I have helped numerous teachers set up blogs, wikis, and just plain old html pages to be used to communicate with parents.

As some point teachers always ask:

“So, I can just copy and paste my newsletter right here?”

You can, but you shouldn’t

Newsletters do not transfer well to the web. Well, as in the amount of information people expect and will pay attention to in digital form.

For example: Most parent newsletters are two pages long (or front and back). Parents will read a two page newsletter that comes home in the Friday folder, but they won’t scroll for two pages worth of information on a single web page.

You’ve seen those web pages….the ones that seem to go on forever and you know that feeling you get when you see those pages thinking to yourself, “I don’t have time to read all that!”

Starting a digital communication site for parents will also mean rethinking how you post information. Many teachers are finding blogs to be a great tool for creating such a site. Easy to use, easy to update, and looks pretty. The three things every teacher looks for in a web site. 🙂

So, how do you change your communication style when you move from print communication to digital communication?

1. Shorter is better
Think about the length of your posts. I’m not saying that you need to leave stuff out. But don’t include math, reading, writing, science and social studies all in the same post or on the same page.

2. Increased Frequency
We expect digital print not only to be shorter but to be updated more frequently. So think of it this way. Don’t write about all subjects in one post, or even in one day. Do shorter posting over multiple days. For example: Reading report on Monday, Update on Math on Wednesday, Weekly reflection on Friday.

Instead of giving parents all the information in one long sitting. Give it to them in shorter more frequent bursts over time. Many teachers also find this easier then having to write the complete newsletter in one day. Take a bit of time every day will make those newsletter blues slowly disappear (I can still remember doing my newsletters during library time. Frantically trying to create and print the whole newsletter in 45 minutes).

3. Images, Images, Images
Parents like nothing more than to see their little loved ones hard at work in the classroom. Know your schools policy for putting student pictures on the web and work within it to make your posts more inviting to your parents. We (and I’m talking elementary here) love putting those clip arts into our newsletters..they make them seem….prettier. Do the same with pictures from your classroom. If your district doesn’t allow student pictures on the web, get creative and take pictures of student work, or when talking about reading, just two little hands on a book. You can still add imagines…you just need to be creative. You can always use Flickr Creative Commons search to find that perfect picture (and they are already on the web!).

4. Add a personal touch
Whether you use a blog or not, make sure to add a personal touch to your communications with parents. Talk about lessons you did, or an exciting day where you as a teacher were really excited about the way a lesson went. Celebrate the small things, not just about your kids, but about you. Be human to your parents and they will react in kind.

5. Keep Stats
This might be a strange one. But I have found that teachers that have some way to keep stats on their web sites have buy in. As a 4th grade teacher I never knew how many newsletters made it home or how many were ever read. With a stats tracker you get that feedback and you can see that people are reading what you post. Knowing there are readers will keep you motivated to continue to post information.

Also, remember we live in a time of data gathering in our schools. Keeping stats on your site makes it easy to go to your principal when they say “How have you been communicating with your parents?” you can show them how many hits you have, and if you use a great free tool like Google Analytics you can even tell them how many are within your district/school boundary.

Learning to communicate with parents in a digital world is more then coping and pasting your newsletter into a web page. It means learning a new writing skill…the same skills we need to be teaching our students. 🙂

If you have a good online parent communication portal that you want to share with others, feel free to add a link in the comments for others to see and for all of us to get ideas.