“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin
What did you learn at school today?
Every day parents ask their children what they’re up to in school. Sometimes the query beneath the question is: are you doing well and what is interesting to you? When kids are working on projects that go beyond a lesson or worksheet, they’re achieving a greater depth of learning. We know that Project Based Learning (PBL) and maker education allow students to translate what they learn into actions that are meaningful to them. But PBL might be a bit of a mystery to parents. Most of them didn’t experience this kind of learning system when they were in school, so what’s the best way for them to see what their kids are learning and how can you know if parents are happy with what they see?
Parent engagement activities are a critical way to show exactly how PBL works and highlight its focus on education through discovery. Parent support will come naturally when they see the results in their children’s education. When you invite them to see what students are creating in school, parents will have a better handle on the process and outcomes. This helps parents become partners in their child’s learning - something every teacher and principal hopes for! Students have real engagement with what they’re learning because they’re taking ownership in the process—chances are your students will be excited to show off their work to their parents! That excitement in teachers and students will transfer to parents.
Rodgers Forge Elementary School in Baltimore, MD, has been holding a variation on STEAM Nights for over 6 years. These events are great opportunities for the school to involve parents, welcome feedback, and connect parents with what (and how) their students are learning. “When kids come home from school and talk about the Breakout Box that they did in class that day, parents are often clueless about what this is,” says teacher Katie Schmidt. “STEAM Night is one of those times we can make connections between school and home in many ways. It also provides an opportunity for students to show off to their parents or share something cool that they can do.”
If you make it easy for parents to be engaged, you’ll be taking one of the most important steps in building parent support for your school. Plan a mix of daytime and evening events throughout the school year. Schedule your school’s science fair for an entire day, and allow students to present their projects during their class periods. Katie says this kind of flexibility has been an important strategy for Rodgers Forge: “A lot of the success of this night is due to the flexible structure of the night—it is held in an ‘open house’ manner, in that parents/students can come and go as they please throughout the 1.5 hour timeframe of the event.”
Creating digital portfolios for your students and classes is a convenient and portable way to give parents the chance to follow students’ in-class progress with different projects. It also offers a “real time” view of how projects are coming together. Class Instagram accounts can serve this purpose, too, and parents are able to check in whenever and wherever is most convenient for them. It’s always important to remember that any public photos require parent permission, so starting the year with a release is considered a best practice.
Once you establish a plan for parent engagement and get started hosting events, be sure you’re prepared to grow with your school community. “We try to be very responsive to feedback and a large committee of teachers works together to plan this night and to make this night meaningful and fun,” Katie explains. “For example, one year, we highlighted the ‘T’ for technology, and most of the activities were related to showcasing and using robotics, coding, and other cool tech tools. This year, we are focusing on the ‘M’ for math, and many of the activities are math-related.”Remember: don’t be discouraged if your own events, such as a STEAM Night or an all-day science fair, don’t get a lot of traffic initially. These aren’t simply one-off celebrations of learning; rather, they’re a work in progress. You’ll need time and feedback to figure out the right path. Stay persistent, and work toward finding the strategies that best fit your school, students, and parents.