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The Parent Journal


Q. It is so difficult to get parents involved with their children's educations. What's a cheap and ineffective way to get parents into the educational circle and participate more?


One idea is a "parent journal." The parent literally becomes a penpal for the student! Once a week, the teacher assigns a free-writing exercise in class and the student responds to it. The writing will not be graded or corrected for errors - it's a chance to just "download" what is on the student's mind without fear of being evaluated negatively.


Then the student brings the journal home, and the parent can either comment on the student's writing, or respond to the "prompt" in his or her own writing. To complete the circle, the teacher then comments on both pieces of writing.


This simple process goes a long way toward improving communication between parent and child, and between parent and teacher. But more than that, the parent is literally "teaching" the child how to write better. How? Because a child is much more motivated to write well when the "audience" is someone he or she loves and wants to please!


The teacher is much more likely to get a high parental response rate if he or she requires parents to participate. But don't let them know that if they don't, the impact on the child's grade will be minor. That way, the students will bug their parents to get the journal done and the parents will feel motivated. But if they slack, it's not fair to punish the children of those few parents who don't participate.


When this is used in real life, participation rates in excess of 90% are common. Even parents who speak a different language at home than English participate. They view the parent journal as a chance to practice their own writing skills in a supportive, nonjudgmental environment with a goal of helping their own child succeed.


Teachers believe this innovative idea makes a drastic improvement in students' writing skills and overall academic performance because parents become more proactive. They become more understanding of the educational process and, frankly, their own children.


Educators are often pleasantly surprised by how willing parents are to give of their time in an activity like this. The bottom line is: all you have to do is ask. Most parents will be happy to help.


This relieves the uncertainty and inadequacy that many parents feel in offering support to their children after a certain grade level, usually in the middle-school years. By then, those whose children are struggling in school have usually had a run-in or two in which they conclude that the school isn't able to give them support or understand their needs. So it's a nice surprise when they are respectfully asked to participate.


All you need is about 10 minutes with the students once a week, and to purchase a spiral or composition notebook for each student to take home and bring back. A great way to do it is for the teacher to have the kids free-write on Fridays, bring the notebook home, have the parents respond, and then bring the notebook back on Monday so that the teacher has all week to read both responses and write comments to get ready for the next week's exchange.


You might be able to get a local business or your school district's foundation to pay for the notebooks, since this is a family-centered activity and not strictly for students.


Ideas for prompts:


n      What is your favorite thing to do on the weekend?


n      Who is your most interesting relative, and why?


n      Define "tragedy" in literature and describe a tragic time in your own life.


n      What's something going on in science in the real world that excites you?


n      Tell your feelings about a current event that is in the news.


n      Many people would like to invent something someday. What would you like to invent?


n      Tell a story about someone you know who did something really nice for a friend.


If the teacher is ambitious, he or she might even create an online discussion board for this activity. Those students and parents who don't require privacy can write their responses on the blog; those who prefer privacy could just email the assignment to the teacher or write in the notebook as usual. The online board creates opportunities for "community" among the students and parents, with them commenting on each other's responses. It's a great way to build better school-based relationships.


There are still households that are not online, but for minimal expense, a district should be able to loan these families the components that will allow for text transmission on a dial-up basis from their homes. Your district's technology coordinator can help.


Homework: For those parents and teachers who really want to help their child develop as a writer, here's a neat article from the National Writing Project, "Ten Ideas That Get Kids Writing"


By Susan Darst Williams

Writing 22 2009


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