By Mary M. McConnaha
For so many people connected to education, last school year felt isolating and stressful. Even in schools like mine where teachers and students were in-person or at least hybrid for much of the year, it was easy to feel disconnected. Parents felt confused and concerned about the work being done at home, and they often had to juggle work and homeschooling. Teachers’ workloads more than doubled, as they coped with rebuilding classrooms completely online, teaching the same content to two groups, and worrying about their own health and safety when very little was known. It was a year of stress like none other.
In the midst of all this, I made one change to my teaching that improved my relationship with parents (and, I hope, eased some of their stress), built accountability in my students, and lessened my own workload. I call it “the parent email,” but it’s not quite what it sounds like. As a Language Arts teacher, I feel it’s important to model and explicitly teach communication skills to my middle school students, and there is perhaps no more important technology communication skill for them to learn than reading and responding to email. However, despite teachers and administrators telling students how important their email inbox is, the lesson never seems to stick. That’s why I made it a part of my curriculum.
Every Friday, the students spend the last five minutes of class writing an email to their parents or caregivers (and cc’ing me). They practice email etiquette, including using “Dear” and “Sincerely” (or “love,” “xoxo,” or their own creative send-off). They write a sentence about what we’ve learned in class this week, whether they are missing any assignments, and a closing, fun sentence.
The first sentence (what we’ve learned in class this week) requires students to reflect on their learning. If we have read and discussed in book clubs, I might specifically ask for an interesting point a group member made. If we are in the middle of a project, they might have to report what they are working on and what the next steps are. Instead of completing a weekly reflection that only I will read, they’re bringing their parents into the conversation. I like to think that this sentence sparks great dinner table conversations.
The second and third sentences are all about accountability. I’ve spent too much time over my career sending individual emails to students who are missing work, tracking them down, calling parents, and more. It added to my stress. In requiring students to check their grades and any missing assignments each week, they are holding themselves accountable for their own work. There is a world of difference between me emailing a student and parent and saying “You are missing your Romeo and Juliet packet” and the student writing “I am missing my Romeo and Juliet packet.” More often than not, it was this moment of checking that sent many students to their backpacks or Google Drive to say, “Hey, wait a second—I did that! I’ll turn it in right now.” I don’t go after kids for missing work now unless it becomes a pattern, in which case I help them after school or during study hall.
The third sentence in the parent email is always in response to a fun prompt I provide that changes each week. About once a month, it’s a gratitude question. Other times it’s a “looking forward” type of question—as in, “this is what I’m looking forward to.” Sometimes I ask my students to write how they will perform a good deed or help someone over the coming weekend. This sentence is where parents get to see their children growing and maturing. I always learn the most about my students from this sentence—this is where they start to show their senses of humor.
But my favorite part of this assignment is not the kids’ emails—it’s the parents’ replies. If fifty-five emails go out, I receive about a dozen reply-all responses, and I know more students are receiving responses without me being included. Always, it is the parent saying how proud they are of their child, and how they cannot wait to hear more about it after school. Students whose parents are not together often get two emails of love and support.
I love that this exercise helps to foster communication and relationships between myself, my students, and their parents. In a time when life and teaching felt so isolating, this weekly assignment was something the parents and I looked forward to over the course of the last school year. The students moaned and groaned, but I think they were pleased when they received replies from parents or from me.
To many teachers, this may seem like a huge time drain, but I found it to be quite the opposite. Once the students got the hang of the assignment (which took about three weeks), the parent email took only five minutes to complete. On my paper attendance sheet, I circled the student’s checkmark and let them know verbally I had received their email. If they forgot to cc me, I asked them forward or send it again. During the next class’s warm-up (ten minutes of independent reading time for me), I read the emails and searched for a few key points. First, I looked to see if the grade and missing assignment total was correct. If it wasn’t, I sent a quick reply all to remind the student of the true grade or missing assignment number. Then, I read the answer to their fun question. If it was creative or really stood out, I might send an email back saying so. Lastly, I’d look for really glaring spelling or grammar errors—which are especially important for a Language Arts teacher to address! Then, I’d file the email with the rest of my parent/student communication.
I did not grade these emails, though if you already give a participation grade, I can see this fitting in naturally.
Although this assignment began as a way to stay connected with my students and their parents during the isolation of the last school year, I have continued the practice this fall in the traditional classroom with just as much success. As a relationship-building tool, it works for me, and as an accountability-building tool for my students, it has been a godsend. I hope if you try this in your classroom, it works just as well for you!
Mary M. McConnaha is a 7th grade English teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland. In her spare time, she hikes on the Appalachian Trail, knits, and writes about restorative justice and prison programming. She has contributed to Education Week and America Magazine. You can read more of her work at mmmcconnaha.com and get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.