Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The New Faces of Parent Engagement: The Impact of Facebook and FaceTime in a Kindergarten Program

I teach in a small rural school, and more than half of my students arrive and depart by bus everyday. So how do I maintain strong communication with parents when I rarely see them face-to-face? I send home a monthly calendar, and you may have read past posts about using clipboards with weekly sheets and Twitter, but my quickest and easiest tool for disseminating information quickly is Facebook! After posting daily to my classroom Facebook group for two years now, I've gleaned a few tips that I'm happy to share with you.

Facebook Group or Facebook Page?
There are some differences between Facebook groups and pages. Basically, a group is for a smaller number of people to communicate and the group administrator has control over privacy and membership. A page shares information among a broad group of people, and its content is public. I have created a "secret group" that is only visible to the members that I've added. Follow these links to learn more:
Facebook Group Basics 
Privacy Options for Groups

Where to Begin?
I was the first teacher in my division to start using Facebook with parents, so there were some growing pains to get started. I would recommend getting permission from your principal, ICT consultant, and superintendent, and informed consent from parents. I introduced the idea of a classroom Facebook group at my pre-kindergarten conferences in September, and I explained it in person to each parent. I stressed that it would be set up to share information and resources with parents. If anyone had a major concern, Facebook was not the forum for airing it (phone call, meeting, or private message please). After nearly two years, it has worked wonderfully well and I follow the same procedure at the beginning of each school year.

Use Lists to Avoid Getting Too Up Close and Personal
Setting up a classroom Facebook group does require that I am Facebook friends with all my kindergarten parents. This has not posed a problem (I have a fantastic group of parents), as I have simply created a "kindergarten parents" list in Facebook. This allows me to control my privacy settings and make sure that they only have access to the content I want them to see. With each status update and uploaded photograph, I can easily decide if my kindergarten parents will see it. For example, pictures of their child's teacher having a blast at the wine festival can easily be hidden from their news feed!

Who is part of the group?
The only members of our secret kindergarten group are my current parents/caregivers and any student teachers that I have that year. If my principal were on Facebook I would include her as well. Every September, I remove the previous year's parents from the group, and add the new parents after my pre-kindergarten conferences.

What is posted in our group?
 -daily updates and reminders posted by the teacher: return your library book/home reading books, it's music today, send back permission forms, etc.
-what we are learning about: sharing details about lessons and important skills we are practicing
-links to online resources and games that might be of interest to parents
-links to apps that we are using on the classroom iPads if parents would like to download them at home
-pictures of bulletin board displays, crafts, work samples, etc.
-uploaded presentations from parent nights/literacy events
-kindergarten handbook and supply lists
-movies/social stories that the students or I have created for easy home viewing

-occasionally parents post information about sports' teams or kids' events in the community
Creating Facebook Events and Asking Questions
I often use the event tool to invite parents to conferences, Kindergarten Graduation, and concerts. It gives me an idea of how many to expect, and again--that information is right there for them in their Facebook account.

Occasionally I use the "ask a question" in the status box to poll parents on new ideas or dates. For example, I created a poll to find out how parents felt about me purchasing all the school supplies and charging them a flat fee in the fall. The feedback was excellent and helped me to decide how to approach school supplies for September 2013.

Parent Engagement
Updating our page in real time throughout the day is so quick and easy with my smart phone and iPad, and parents love knowing what is happening in the classroom by checking their Facebook account throughout the day. I also believe that it improves parent-child communication. When parents are picking up their children or visiting with them after school, parents are able to ask about specific events from the day. For example, "What did you think of those new plasma cars in your classroom?" or "I hear that you learned how to print teen numbers today. Why don't you show me how to do it?" is going to lead to a much richer discussion and sharing than the age-old, "How was school today?"   
 I would highly recommend this form of communication to any classroom teacher. Parent engagement is extremely high in my classroom because they all feel so involved. It is very rare that a parent tells me that they didn't know about something. And last minute messages are easy to share with parents--and the counter attached to each post lets me know who and how many parents have seen it.

Another important face in kindergarten...FaceTime!
I make use of my iPhone a great deal in the classroom to enhance parent communication. All of my parent contact information is saved in my iPhone, so it is a snap to text, call, and FaceTime parents when the occasion calls for it. I take the opportunity at pre-kindergarten conferences to enter all their information into my laptop on iCloud which syncs it with my iPad and iPhone. Regardless of the situation, I always have one of my devices with me and can contact parents easily.

How do I use my smart phone in kindergarten?
-I regularly photograph children at centres or completing a craft/work sample and text the picture to parents. Parents are always thrilled to see what their children have been doing at school, and it can be really motivating for children to know that when he/she has completed a task, a record of it can be sent to mom or dad. 

-and, once the picture is taken on my iPhone or iPad, it can easily be uploaded to the student's Evernote portfolio (but that's a whole new blog post)
-all parents have my cell number and know that they can text me at anytime and I will respond (some of my colleagues don't agree with this, but I have had no problems. I've found that by responding immediately to parent questions, little concerns don't have the chance to turn into huge problems).
-we use FaceTime (video calling) for separation anxiety and illness (i.e. how sick are you really? If mom sees you she can decide).

So why not consider getting face-to-face with the most important people in your students' lives? As long as you operate within the parameters of your school division/district's policy, obtain informed consent from parents, and exercise good judgment when using social media, you have nothing ahead of you except more involved, engaged parents!

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