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Educator: Please Share More Student Work With Parents

Please Share More Student Work With Families 


Don’t you love the elegance of backward design and the joy of a perfectly crafted lesson plan? But recently a colleague reminded me of what’s really important:

“Listen,” he said, “that sounds like a nice plan, but what did the students do? I know as teachers we make plans and they are very pretty and interesting but unless I see the student work that comes out of it, I’m not terribly convinced they are that good. Show me they actually lead to student learning.”

Of course! Student work is the only evidence we have that our pretty, perfectly prepared plans are worth the paper they’re printed on.

I know this, I just forget sometimes. Early into my career, I attended my first conference on using student work to inform my teaching (amazingly, this was not part of my teacher training program!).  And I was reminded of it again when I read “Deeper Learning: Highlighting Student Work” on Edutopia. Ron Berger said this about student work: “ changes the vision of what is possible when students are allowed, compelled and supported to do great things.”

Student work changes our vision of what is possible. Who needs more help envisioning what students can and should do in our classrooms more than our students and their families?

Why routinely share student work with families?

Just as student work can change the vision for teachers and educators, student work can change the vision that families have for schools and for their students. They need to see student work that can show families both what can happen and what actually does happen in schools.

In the absence of student work, you know what gives families a vision of what happens in schools? Test scores. That “student work” is widely available. Is that the only vision we want to give them?

So where do we start?

To learn more about sharing student work, I turned to my colleague Jill Clark. She is a middle school teacher at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC and has been sharing student work with families for many years.

We agreed the best place to start may be a capstone project, portfolio presentation, a science fair or some other cumulative project. Families love seeing authentic student work and students create better projects when they know their families will see it. Over time the quality of work will grow as you shine the light of day on what’s happening in the classroom.

However, Clark explains, if you want these nights to go beyond the glitter on a nicely lettered poster, do more than just showcase the final product.

  1. Document and share the process of creating the product. This way you lift up the learning and hard work that went into the product and send a clear message that these are important, too. If the road to the final product wasn’t very interesting and didn’t require new learning and hard work--well, you may want to re-examine the work that you have students do. Is it work worth doing? Want an example of some work that will blow you away?

  2. Let students collect their own work and decide what to present. It’s the student’s work. Why not let them decide what’s in their portfolio and present it to their families? If you have not yet tried student-led conferences, here are some resources to help you. (There are videos of elementary, middle, and high school students leading a conference)

Clark points out that an added bonus of a student led conferences is that parents and students can get better acquainted with data and understand why standardized tests are useful. Instead of seeing tests as burdensome, they can understand how tests can be one way we know what to teach and reteach.  

OK. We do a portfolio night so we’re good, right? We’re using student work efficiently?

Not so fast. Although families love a good presentation or portfolio, if you want them to really see the nitty-gritty of learning, you should share some formative assessments with parents throughout the year. Yes, share those first draft essays, those preliminary attempts to solve a difficult story problem, those September book reports.

Formative assessments aren’t going to be pretty or polished. And that’s exactly the point. We want families and students to see learning as a process, a journey--not as a final poster, filled with glitter. You know that. You look at student work all the time to fine-tune the curriculum in your classroom. Why not share that process with families?

Clark points out that parents can get distracted by spelling mistakes or numbers written backwards—the little things that we teachers can overlook when we are looking for big picture learning and content. So be sure to provide some guidance with the formative assessment.  (Don’t worry, I got you covered.)

You could do this formally with a quarterly parents meeting. Invite parents in, have them look at the work their students did and talk about overall trends, how you’re using these trends to inform your teaching and how they can help at home. Remember to keep the night free of jargon, action-orientated and please, please--not super boring!

Or take a more individualized approach. Send home a “Look At Your Student’s Work Guide” stapled to a piece of in-process work. Explain what evidence of learning you see in the work and what you are hoping improves over the coming weeks. Tell the families the plan for learning and explain very concretely how families can help.  (“As you can see, right now we are ‘here’, but we’re going ‘there’ over the next weeks by doing x and y. Here’s how you can help at home...)

Need help? I have a simple Inviting Parents to Look At Student Work Template that you can use. Get it here. 

Or, start even more simply. You grade and return student work all the time. Don’t waste this opportunity. Instead of sending into the void of the student’s backpack, make it into a homework assignment. Ask families to read the work and provide a list of questions they could ask their child. Something like this: "We've been studying invasive species. Look at your child's science notebook and to find out what they’ve learned. (Look at Lab #8 specifically.) Then ask your child to tell you some examples of invasive species. If she/he have a hard time explaining, let me know. We may need to reteach. If your child can confidently talked about it, I want to know so we can move into more individual investigations. I appreciate your feedback!”

So, we’re showing students final products and work in process. Anything else?

I’m so glad you asked. What about student models? This is often an overlooked type of student work that you can and should share with families.

I think of it as trying to teach my son to play basketball. I can explain what “dribbling” is until I’m blue in the face or I could take him to a basketball game and say, “Look--that’s dribbling. And that’s why you want to know how to do it.” Showing student models is taking parents to a basketball game. It gives them a vision for what their students can do.

A few things to remember as you share models:

1. Do not share a model of the exact essay or project that you are working on. That gives away the punchline! Instead, find or create a near model--one that requires similar skills but different content knowledge.

2. If you use your students’ work as a model--great! But share it anonymously. Consider re-typing so no one can recognize the handwriting.

3. Sharing high-quality student work is inspiring. Do it! (and find some amazing examples at Center for High-Quality Student Work) But remind families that high-quality work takes lots of time, sustained effort, and support. Also help calibrate student work by giving an example of what not to do, too. However, never share a student’s work as the example of what not to do. Instead, make up this one yourself using some of the common errors in your class.

4. Do not commit to a grade when you show student work. (ie. “this is A work, this is C work.”) Instead discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the model.

Ultimately everything we do in the classroom comes down to student work. If students can produce high-quality work that shows themselves and their families what they are learning and how they are growing, then we can be certain our hard work is worth it.  

Start here: Invite families to look more deeply at one piece of student work this month. Use the Inviting Parents to Look At Student Work Template in the Toolbox, if you need it.

Challenge yourself: Already routinely sharing student work? Give students more voice and choice in the in-process and completed work they want to share with their families.

Need some more inspiration around student work? Check out this video with Ron Berger.

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