#PTCamp Summer Learning 2014

The following posts will be associated with a six week course I am participating in this summer (June, 2014) to help me get ideas and strategies on Parent Engagement and how we can increase that at McCall Elementary.

Week 5:  Cabin Fun on the Vox
July 29, 2014

While the main draw to enroll in #PTCamp was to investigate making a change in family engagement on my campus, engaging in new to me social media tools was another draw for #PTCamp. Joe "advertised" that we'd be using Apprennet, Voxer , blogging and Twitter to share our learning and engaging in conversations regarding the book, Beyond the Bake Sale.  Apprennet and Voxer are two social tools that were completely foreign to me when Joe Mazza set up the invite.  Admittedly, I have been lousy at Apprennet, which is a video platform.  I posted one video and loathed the video footage there of myself.  The voxer  and the blog have been another story entirely--you are here reading a page on my blog!  I felt like the blog was a better way to be transparent to my staff, and to my parents, so I wanted to blog as it has been on my bucket list for awhile.

So, this week, Joe divided our large#PTCamp group into smaller groups this week and set up a Voxer group to match.  This was so we could reflect upon the learning as a like minded group; my voxer group was the school leader group. Let me say that this introvert was so happy to be in a smaller group. Keeping up with voxs of 100 people enrolled in this #PTCamp has been a bit overwhelming and impossible for me to keep up with.  However, this week, the smaller group really allowed us to have more voices (mine a few times) in the conversation.

As our small group voxes began to take life, someone along the way decided this group was like a cabin among the big #PTCamp voxer group.  Thus, we began calling it our cabin.  We shared stories, well other extroverts shared stories, and discussed our learning up to this point.  It is clear to me that all of us in the cabin, as school leaders, are committed to making a shift about how we engage our families.  We've shared what the best tools are to use to reach our families, what ideas to share, but most importantly, that the parent VOICE and PARTNERSHIP is paramount to our work in the upcoming school year.  We all are very passionate and serious about that shift.  I have no doubt that the campuses we lead will have some deep conversations about changes in practice; especially as the school year starts.  I go back to my July 8th #PTCamp reflection and the week 3 reflection as my starting points with my school (below).  Each discussion and conversation circles back to the core beliefs and the way we start with parents.  As Jay Posick said in a vox and on his blog, we have one chance to make a first and lasting impression.  I've been immersed in great learning from this #ptcamp group--large and small.  I cannot think of a better way to have spent my summer.  I appreciate all the open conversations that my group had this week!  

#PTCamp--July 1, 2014
Why PTCamp?

I remember being so excited to start my principalship at McCall nearly four years ago.  We were such a different school then--our enrollment was at 575 and we had a bilingual program housed with us.  We were also really struggling with our PTA; in fact, we started my first August without a PTA Board in place.  That was a bit nerve wracking.  It worked out in the end, but I would not say that was our finest year as a PTA.  It was that year that I first encountered the book, Beyond the Bake Sale:  The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships. Given the state of our PTA, I really did not dive into that book much, our focus just had to be to have the basic frameworks in place for the school and the organization.  Upon reflection, I definitely feel like our campus was more of a come if you call school (as described in the rubrics in chapter 2). I had a lot of work to do as I stepped into the leadership.  

In the spring of 2013, the district decided that due to our high enrollment, and potential neighborhood growth with new houses popping up on a daily basis, that our campus would no longer be a bilingual campus.  That was a difficult transition for all of us to make.  It didn't go as smoothly as I would have liked, but in the end, all turned out ok.  Parallel to this decision in instructional programming change, we had a new PTA president come on board and the world is a different place at McCall.  Good leadership and fresh ideas help out a lot!
So, this summer, as I was closing things down for the year and making goals for the upcoming school year,   I saw Joe Mazza's tweet advertising #PTCamp and the opportunity to look more in depth at the book, Beyond the Bake Sale:  The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships.  Given how many changes we have been through with our school community in the past few years, and knowing where I want to be, this was my chance to look more closely at the book and bring some of the ideas off the page and into practice at McCall.  I know that this will be a worthy investment of my time this summer.

Why Our Parents Are Important
I have long said that our parents are our biggest cheerleaders and our best advocates. If we are not nurturing those relationships, we have a long road ahead of gaining full trust in what we can do for their kids in our school.  As I said before, our campus was not viewed as a cheerful place that welcomed parents when I was first appointed principal.  We've worked really hard to change our climate from my appointment to now.  I frequently get feedback on how warm and welcoming everyone is from our secretary to our custodian.  We are headed in the right direction.

Due to the instructional changes at our campus, we have even more reasons to gain our parents as partners. Many of our students are learning a second language and without the support of a bilingual program, (many denied moving with the program to another campus--victory again!)the need resources and supports to help them at home and at school. We have to find ways to reach our parents and communicate their child's progress in a language that they can understand.  More importantly, we have to reach their heart so that they know our intentions are true.  Additionally, we have to understand the resources that our parents may need at home, so we have to be a place of welcoming and nurturing, so they feel safe in sharing what they need with us.  Parents cement a child's success in school--research proves that over and over again.  We must be on the same page.

McCall wants to be a partnership school as described in the book.  We are not there yet.  There are many indicators for that rubric that are not a norm in our district.  It will be my job to bring that point forward to the "powers that be" and see how we can work to make a change.  Some things that jump out as items to bring forward are :  home visits to every new family, building open community use (currently a hefty fee and policy to work for that usage), social services availability at the building level, and student led conferences three times a year.  While we have a definite need for that in my community, because it isn't the norm on other campuses, those practices would be frowned upon if I instituted those solo at my campus.  In fact, our district has eliminated our one parent/teacher conference day off of our school calendar for the upcoming year.  This fact alone has caused me to take many reflective moments about how we are going to manage to do conferences justice with this change.  I also do not have a parent liaison on my campus; while I am a Title 1 campus, my Title 1 funds are earmarked and spent on my behalf.  I do not have the control to staff or fund a program that would benefit my parents in this way.  Some Title 1 campuses in my district do have a Parent Liaison, but their free and reduced lunch numbers are greater than mine, so they get that staff allotment.  Of course, just because my numbers are not that high doesn't mean I don't have the need that a liaison would certainly help fulfill.  It just means that sometimes my neediest families fly under the radar far too long before getting the help that they need from us and other resources. It also means that my counselor works very hard to understand and meet their needs.

I do feel that we are an Open Door school.  My teachers work very hard to ensure that parents get quick responses to their questions and concerns.  Student feedback is delivered quickly.  We host many evenings for our families to understand curriculum and get ideas on how to help their children at home.  We embrace our diversity and host a beautiful Multicultural Night every year.  Our PTA is growing and spreading the message about our funding needs and how parents can help.  I have started meeting with our families that speak a second language to better understand their needs and ways our school can support them.  We are on our way to becoming a partner school.  It is my sincere desire that my engagement in #PTCamp will give me the ideas and courage to take the next steps necessary for our school's continued improvement.

#PTCamp---Week 2 Reflections July 8, 2014
This week we are to analyze where we are with the core beliefs.

Core Belief #1:  All Parents Have Dreams for Their Children and Want the Best for Them
There are some teachers who struggle with this in my building, and in all honesty and it breaks my heart.  I BELIEVE that all parents love their kids. Certainly, there are exceptions to the rules, but by and large, parents are doing the very best they can.  It is not our role to judge what their family's definition of best is in their home.  It is our job to communicate with them and show them that as educators, we too, have dreams for their child that often match their dreams.   I absolutely love the suggested steps for action in this section (page 31).  I can see using this with a small group of moms that I am working with to help continue foster our relationships next school year.  I want them to know that their dreams for their children are our dreams as well.

Core Belief #2:  All Parents Have the Capacity to Support Their Children's Learning
This section sings to me.  So often, we have a set idea of what "homework" should be and then penalize the children who do not reproduce that "homework" the way we envisioned it complete.  I feel like this section will really help my teachers understand why the continued homework academies and sitting out of recess due to missing homework assignments drives me absolutely insane.  I feel like the authors have eloquently described that the family's vision of "homework" DOES NOT match the traditional homework many of us have grown up with in the past. I love the job description of the involved parent that starts on page 34; that would be a great starting place for a teacher to determine what the parents feel their role is with projects and homework.  I really feel this simple shift and exercise alone could really move us to at true partnership school.

Core Belief #3:  Parents and School Staff Should Be Equal Partners
Here again, I know on our campus, we have a way to go before we really embrace the beliefs of a true partnership.  It is what I want for our families, but the teachers have to have the confidence to embrace and implement.  One of the areas that I KNOW we need to start with in this section is bringing our parents into the classrooms to see for themselves what is happening.  We have not be transparent in this way, but I really want us to move to this direction.  Once parents see what is happening, their understanding and background knowledge builds and our partnership can really happen once we are all on the same page.

Core Belief #4:  The Responsibility for Building Partnerships Between School and Home Rest Primarily with School Staff, Especially School Leaders
This is where what I have heard from some of our #PTCampers who are parents and other educational advocates, feel that the TEACHER is really the big player here.  I believe that our campus needs to work on some of the ideas presented in the voxes that really will drill to the heart of the matter with this core belief.  I like the idea of multiple ways to reach out to parents to really make them feel involved.  I also like that you may need to use several sources of media to reach them as well.  I am fairly disciplined with a weekly eNews home with snippets from the week, announcements, and upcoming activities, but the teachers also have to follow up with this in their own way.  This multifaceted communication will help parents again feel the partnership that we are working towards.

I can see a lot of ways to look at this more in depth with my entire staff to ensure that we are working towards developing a true partnership within our school.  I love the climate walk discussed in Chapter Four; someone on vox (Joe, perhaps?!) suggested that the principal is involved with building the team, but does not participate.  The principal receives the information from the team and then works with the team to hear their ideas on how to improve the climate.

I also want to work toward ensuring that our Back to School Nights are filmed and uploaded to a site that parents can view who miss the meeting, or simply want to refresh their brain with the information provided at a later date. We have the technology to ensure this gets done and their simply is no reason that we have lagged on taking this next step.  This is a simple gesture that will be a win on our way to developing our partnership with parents.

#PTCamp Week 3 Reflections--How Well is Our School Bridging Racial, Class and Cultural Differences? 

This chapter and this week's discussion on Voxer (the ones I could manage to catch up with as time allowed) have captured my attention as my campus is still going through a big healing process. I feel like there were so many resources shared on the Vox conversation, which have also hopefully been uploaded to the Google doc, that my campus can use in our year two efforts of healing our community.  A little background to clear up the healing we need to do:  we are a Title 1 school and we were a bilingual campus two years ago.  A year ago, the district moved our bilingual program to help with overcrowding.  The entire transition was not smooth and I have learned so much since that point that I really wish I could have a "do-over" of the entire thing.  We retained a core group of parents that we are working with to rebuild our relationship and ensure that their children have a smooth transition from a bilingual campus to a monolingual campus.  So, much of what is contained within this chapter will be utilized in my meetings with that group as we move into year two of our transition.

However, just looking into the question as it is posed, I can answer definitively that we can be doing much more to embrace all the cultures present at our campus. I do feel that we do a great job in welcoming families, as I have stated previously we get overwhelmingly positive feedback regarding the "feel" of our campus, so I am very proud of that feedback, as we have worked purposefully on this since I became the principal of McCall.  To strengthen this welcoming feel, I loved the idea of the teachers writing the phonetic spellings of all the children on their class lists and providing that to the office and support staff so that we ensure we are all saying their family's name correctly when we interact with them.  This one addition will round out our welcoming nature so nicely and it's an easy (and the right thing) to do.

Additionally, to continue to make parents feel welcome and comfortable, I really loved the suggestion of the six-step agenda for the traditional "Back to School" Nights.  So often, those nights are "canned" and packed so full with content that we leave the parents feeling so overwhelmed.  As the chapter suggests, if we appeal to the points that are on the parents minds the move (and maybe with some tweaking of the five), our parents will feel less stressed when they leave the meetings and more excited about being a true partner with the teacher.  For those without the book who are curious about the proposed agenda, here's my take on their proposed agenda:

  1. Ask parents to make a list of their own favorite teacher and what makes them special.
  2. TALK about WHY YOU became a teacher.  Describe your qualifications and let them see your passion for teaching.
  3. Share your VISION for the class.  Share how you will encourage a love of learning with the children.
  4. Discuss HOW you will support students who struggle. Demonstrate your commitment that every child will meet their potential.
  5. Share ALL the ways you will communicate with the parents. How can they contact you?

One continual challenge that our campus has is getting our PTA rounded out and supported with all the cultures present on our campus.  I want to provide the guided questions on page 144-145 to our PTA president to see what we can possibly tweak there to help more families feel comfortable with the PTA.  It is such a "formal" organization, and it does have rules and regulations, but we can reach a happy medium to meet both needs.  There is a richness that the PTA brings that can help all of us with educating our children that we have to find a way to meet in the middle so that we don't loose this valuable resource on our campus.  I am very proud of the diversity on our Board currently. I do feel like the membership of the Board reflects the community, so we are step ahead many PTAs that face the challenge of a diverse campus where parents may not feel comfortable participating in the PTA.

Those are my pressing concerns coming our of these last two chapters that we have been discussing on Voxer the last week.  I can see how the first chapters/discussion have laid the foundation for the mid chapters.  What is even more exciting to me, is that I am leading my staff on an online chat of Teach Like A Pirate and so much of what i have learned with #PTCamp dovetails so nicely into Mr. Burgess' philosophies on being a PIRATE in the classroom!   I am excited to see what continues to evolve over the course of the next three weeks with #PTCamp.

Week 4:  July 22, 2014 
Supporting Advocacy
I am not sure if I stated this before, but I first bought this book when I became a principal nearly three years ago.  I skimmed it and put it aside.  When this summer opportunity was stumbled upon on Twitter in June, I was wiser, older, and realized that I needed to revisit this book and crossed my fingers that I was one of the first one hundred to respond to the tweet.  I have had a lot of changes on my campus and I really wonder if I had read this more closely the first time around, how many parent "situations" I could have handled so much better.   The first chapter this week focuses upon the idea of advocacy.  How many special education ARDs have we all attended and been notified that there was an "advocate" attending with the parent?  How many of us have been "put out" by that fact?  Well, if we are all being truthful, I am certain that I know your answer to those questions.  The fact of the matter is, as the authors point out, it is a parents JOB to ask questions and "push" for the very best for their kids.  They are supposed to be advocating for their children.  We have to come to the table ready to understand that fact and reshape our mindset around parents who are asking questions and bringing forward concerns.  They are not an imposition to what we are doing, they, the parents, are the REASON we have a profession at all!

So, to help me re-frame my thinking, I am absorbing all the ways that I can impact our parents in the fall when they return.  The one "tip" that jumps out at me for the best way for me to help support parents and teachers is such a simple one, that it makes me sad that this tip was not always a part of my practice.  What is this great tip, you dear reader are asking yourself?  In order to help parents understand how and when to contact certain staff members, you need to PUBLISH that information; post an organizational chart to help them know who to call and when to call them.  Duh.  I will be putting a page on my website that will allow me to do just that.  I will title it, Who do I call when... or something catchy like that.  I mean really simple and yet not done ever at my school.  Further, it is suggested that you would highlight your staff in a weekly/biweekly newsletter.  With voxer, we have learned about the Smore site, so I think that is something that I can easily incorporate into a task that I already do each week.  I also feel like I could put together a google doc that my teachers could plug information into a form to help me write these every week.  There are a multitude of ways that we can help parents successfully navigate the school system and become the advocate of their child that we already know they want to be every day.

Sharing Power
The chapter was titled "Sharing Power" and I am such a big believer in this idea.  We need many heads to solve the problems of today's educational needs.  As the principal, I simply do not have them all.  In fact, so much has changed since I started as a teacher 19 years ago, it makes my head swim that we are facing some of the challenges we are today, as I would have never thought it possible.  I love for many people of differing backgrounds to come together to help solve problems.  That is my philosophy and I will stick to it. Now, the ideas in the book of some of the committees seem very daunting; doable, but very daunting.  However, I was looking for ways to improve and I need to push myself to the daunting.  We will not move forward without moving outside of our comfort level.  For me, that is leaving the model of the traditional model that the majority of my time in education has been based upon.  It's time for a revolution and I sure hope that I am up to the task of pushing forward for the good of our children.

For concrete help with the revolution, I loved the rubric in the back of the chapter that helps you focus where you can make improvements for your campus. Many of them, I feel, are systematic at a school district level, that I am very curious about the other #PTCampers responses about how to build community involvement.  Perhaps it is my skewed perception, but I feel like my district has so many policies and procedures that sufficiently prevent community involvement in some of the ways described in this chapter. Many groups want to help, but most often, it is with  money or goods, they simply cannot provide the volunteers to help us with mentoring and/or tutoring.  To be able to accept those monetary gifts or goods, the process to get those approved often drives away the community helper.   Again, it may be my interpretation of the "rules", but it's hard for me to reach out for help when I know that the bureaucratic red tape is going to be a headache for both of us.  As I said before, it's time to step up for my kids and families, as every year that passes, we enroll more and more children that do not come from the traditional background that many of us did.  It's time to stop waiting to make accommodations and move forward and ease the transition of our new families.


  1. Core Belief #1 is so important. Sometimes I have to remind teachers that the fact that parents get their kids to school shows they care! We have to meet families where they are, it's not easy but that's why we work!

  2. Thanks for sharing your proposed agenda! I am thinking of doing the same with my staff and will definitely be sharing #1-3 and #5. As for #4 - In addition to students who struggle, we also need to think about students that need to be challenged. They are often overlooked with so much emphasis on remediation.

  3. Stacy,

    Thank you for sharing the struggles and the how you're working through things. Hindsight may be 20/20, but acknowledging the struggles, the mistakes, and taking action to move forward shows 100% effort, right?

  4. Thanks for the shoutout, Stacy. I enjoyed reading your blog and the way you shared the risks of something new, like Voxer, with your audience.
    Keep up the great work!