Using letters to connect with parents
Many parents begin to feel distanced from their children’s schooling during middle school. Writing a letter that discusses the format of your course as well as the content students will study may help to draw in parents. A well-written letter can let parents know what you expect and can give them places to start conversations with their children.
Below is a sample letter that an 8th-grade U.S. History teacher could send home with her/his students the first week of school. Notice that the letter discusses subject matter the children will learn, explains classroom procedures, anticipates common problems students may have and creates accountability by asking for a signed response. You might consider each of these areas in adapting this letter for the courses you teach.
Welcome to the wonderful world of 8th graders! Our school's 8th-grade social studies course is a survey of United States history from late Colonial America to Reconstruction (1763-1877). This is a demanding course that asks your student to adopt the following goals:
- Become familiar with the broad outlines of U.S. history
- Sharpen your skills in reading, writing, thinking, drawing, speaking, discussing and computing
- Take on history and current events as lifelong pursuits
- Understand yourself and your family better by learning about your roots
- Become a better citizen
As you can see, our expectations are both broad and deep. This should require your student to "step it up a notch," and this stepping up will probably require some additional help and understanding from you. Listed below are some pointers to help you help your student. When you are done reading them, please sign the attached form, add your comments or questions and send it back to me.
Learning history is not about memorizing facts and dates. It's about trying to understand what happened in the past and relating it to our own time and our own lives. Thus, a lot of our course is about learning how to be an historian. We analyze many historical documents and artifacts, puzzling over what they can tell us about the past. This means that when we give homework assignments, the highest goals are not just finding the right answers like some History Jeopardy Game. Rather, they're about comprehension and making connections. Our basic questions are, "What? So what? Now what?"
You can help your student excel in history by asking these kinds of questions when you help them with their homework. Ask questions like "What is this whole section about?," "What did the Boston Tea Party have to do with the American Revolution?" and "What lessons are there for us in the way the Civil War worked out?" History should be a burden on the inquisitive mind, not on the memory.
Each 8th-grade student keeps a history journal. This journal provides a place for them to reflect on what the events studied mean to them and their lives. It is also a type of portfolio for preserving samples of one's best work. At the end of the year, the students are given their history journals in hopes that they will take them home, share them with their families, and then put them away as a record of how they thought and felt as 13-, 14-, and 15-year olds. You can help your student get the most from this journaling by showing an interest and by helping them relate what we're learning in class to their life and the experiences of your family.
Most 8th-graders don't know how to study very effectively, and this is a gap that will need to be filled this year and on into high school. Here are some suggestions of ways to help your student develop good study habits:
- Provide a quiet place and time for studying. "Homework before TV" always worked when we were growing up.
- Encourage your student to chip away at large assignments. Waiting until the last night breeds frustration and sloppiness.
- Insist on reading for understanding. If a student's eyes move across the lines of text but the brain is not engaged, no reading has occurred. Say this often: "So tell me what you learned by reading this assignment." Expect an elaborate and intelligent answer.
- Seize opportunities to show the importance of past and present events. Watch the news with your student. Make newspapers and news magazines available. Talk about the events of the day. Help your student realize that the nightly news can be more interesting than the nightly "reality shows."
- If the textbook is too difficult for your child, offer to read it to her or him or find someone who will. Also, we will have audiotapes of each of our chapters available to be loaned out.
Each of our middle school social studies courses includes three or more Friday Forums spread throughout the year. These are intense student discussions on current policy issues. Our first two Forums this year will be as follows:
Early November: Which of the president/vice-president teams should be elected?
January: What should be done, if anything, about the diet and exercise patterns of American young people?
These forums take place after a week of personal research into a broad range of materials on the Forum topic. We do our best to present the students with materials representing all points of view. We also have each student interview an adult of their choice about the topic. Our goal is to show our students how to sort through a tangle of conflicting viewpoints and form their own considered judgments. We hope that you will be a willing and patient interviewee if asked and that you will then probe your student's views to help them sort out and solidify their own positions.
Thank you for reading this lengthy letter. Would you please sign the form below so we know that it was delivered to you? Also, we would welcome your comments or questions.