Organizing to Communicate: Open the Door of Your Writing Workshop to School Families

I’ve just moved to a new city, and with a move comes lots of conversations with strangers, small talk with new people who I hope against hope might become new friends. Inevitably, that small talk turns to work, and when I tell those potential new friends that I teach high school, inevitably someone in the new crowd shudders a bit and says, “Teenagers? I could never do that.” The shuddering stranger doesn’t get to see or hear what many of us witness every day–kind, compassionate hearts; eager, hungry minds; goofy, geeky abandon; dogged, unflappable determination–no, the shuddering stranger doesn’t know that the people I’m most anxious to face are actually…teenagers’ parents.

Sound familiar?

I’ve spent each of my ten years of teaching wondering why, when most of the interactions I’ve had with parents have been incredibly positive and encouraging, I’m still sometimes reluctant to reach out or make contact. I revert back to my timid, first-year teacher self. My best guess comes down to communities and borders: each year, my students and I build a community–we all know the rules, expectations, and customs, so we’re comfortable with each other–but then those students go home to family communities with their own sets of rules and expectations, customs I must learn when I venture into those communities.

What’s unfamiliar can be scary; I’m a daughter and a sister, but I’ve never been a parent, so I always feel a little out of my depth in these conversations. Perhaps some parents feel a little apprehensive because they’ve been students but not teachers. No matter what’s provoking our nervousness, it’s clear that diplomatic communication can strengthen community partnerships, creating more places for our writers to thrive. Writing workshop needs some neighborhood buy-in to succeed.

Now that you’ve followed advice from the previous posts to create a wonderful writing workshop, it’s time to organize so you can share what’s great about that writing workshop with parents and families.

Let’s start by planning backward and anticipating the questions parents and guardians might ask. Here are some frequently asked writing workshop questions from parents and strategies for answering them.

  • Writing workshop? What’s that?
  • What are the benefits of writing workshop? Where’s the rigor?
  • How will my student be assessed? 
  • How can I help? 

Question #1: Writing workshop? What’s that?

Communication Strategies: Back to School Night Demo and Google Classroom Guardian Invitations

While a Google search for “writing workshop parent FAQ” yields many model letters to edit and share with parents, why not follow one of our best writing rules and SHOW rather than tell?  

  • Demonstrate how students will use mentor texts by teaching a quick six-word memoir lesson to parents at Back to School Night (See Maria Bartz’s post here for a six-word memoir lesson). For added fun, use students’ six-word memoirs as models for their guardians’ work! Teaching a lesson at Back to School Night is also a good way to share your style and expertise with school families, so toss out that syllabus handout and lead families in hands-on learning!
  • Share assignments and course materials with parents through Google Classroom by activating the Guardian Update feature (consult your administrators or technology coordinators if this feature is turned off or doesn’t seem to be available). If you post assignment handouts or ScreenCast lessons on Google Classroom, like I do, simply inviting guardians to receive updates can make the course more transparent and easy to understand. If  you share your daily agenda in Classroom, weekly summaries sent to parents will show them what rigorous thinking and working their students did that week. 

Question #2: Why writing workshop? Aren’t you wasting class time? When will you read the classics? Is this model rigorous enough for my student? 

Communication Strategy: Talk it out with confidence–here’s a script! (Hang onto this, first-year teachers!)

Ok, so this question is actually a combination of many, all of which ask teachers to justify the decision to move from a more traditional model to writing workshop. If you have evidence-based research about writing workshop from your classroom or a favorite education scholar, here’s the time to use it, but if you have only 30 seconds to respond at meet-the-teacher night, here is a possible script (or some information for a syllabus):

I’m glad you asked about the rigor of writing workshop! Since our workshop is a choose-your-challenge environment, students have a chance to push themselves beyond what our normal grade expectations might be! 

Recently, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner David McCullough told the crowd at the National Book Festival, “I’m not a writer, I’m a re-writer.” Writing Workshop is about teaching students how to be effective re-writers, creative and critical thinkers who are independent, self-disciplined, problem-solvers. The choices and time for writing that are baked into the writing workshop model help students discover their writing voices and make connections between the skills they learn in English class and the content they study across the curriculum. These opportunities for independent thinking and response prepare students for the rigors of college classroom discussions or even hands-on apprenticeships.

In the same way that experiments help students to learn the laws and possibilities of science, writing workshop lets students experiment with language and learn the best and most artful ways to communicate with real audiences. Reading mentor texts like writers will make students stronger independent readers who can tackle complex texts on their own, and learning to approach writing as a process rather than a product encourages lifelong learning and intellectual growth. Writing workshop isn’t about making writing for a grade’s sake; it’s about making writers for life. 

Still need evidence? Grab some student work!

My 9th graders are working on poem chapbooks. One requirement is that their poems demonstrate significant and meaningful revision, based on writing “moves” we studied in class. To show parents what writing workshop can do, I might pull out examples like this one, where, thanks to workshop studies, the student has changed a repetitive poem about one spill to an expanded celebration of her clumsiness:

Screen Shot 2017-09-19 at 10.35.50 AM

Question #3: How will my student be assessed?

Communication Strategies: Class description feature in your online grading platform or classroom website

Besides a syllabus, digital tools like your online grade book or classroom website can help you communicate expectations and parameters for assessment.

  • If you use PowerTeacher as your online grade book, click on the “settings” menu and adjust course descriptions to reflect your assessment policy and/or schedule. A former colleague used this feature to allay parents’ fears about grades that looked poor but were simply stepping stones to a final collaborative assessment of the students’ progress. If you have access to standards-based scores or a “standards drawer,” you can connect specific skills to your assessments to show parents the focus of a lesson, activity, or writing task. I’m still working on my class descriptions, but I’ll be sure to share them once they’ve been developed.PowerTeacher
  • Post your assessment descriptors on a classroom website, too; the more upfront you can be about how students are assessed and the opportunities they have to improve their performance, the less confusion you will encounter when those assessments are posted.
  • Going gradeless? Check out Rebekah’s excellent series of posts for tips on parent communication.

Question #4:  My student never tells me anything about class. What are you studying? How can I help?

Communication Strategies: Surveys or interviews

Another way to communicate the positive impact of writing workshop is to involve families in the process. Ask students to enlist a guardian as a reviewer (send peer review forms home or share them on your website) or start a new writing study with an interview questionnaire like this one that I used to start a persuasive writing for authentic audiences study with 9th graders.

 

If you’ve taught in a writing workshop setting for a few years, you may have already developed the communication strategies that work best for you, but if you’re new and taking a risk, I hope these four suggestions offered you a place to start. Anticipating parents’ questions and having resources ready to share can build bridges between home and school that empower our writers.

What questions have parents asked you to answer about writing workshop? What are your best methods for communicating what’s happening in workshop? Please share your best communication strategies in the comments below or on Twitter @msjochman. 

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