Official blog of Partnership for Inquiry Learning

4 Ideas for Meaningful Back-to-School Nights with Families

August 1, 2019

Pages of Parent Orientation Kit displayed on table

You know that the first weeks of school are important. You’ll build relationships with students and nurture the classroom community, establish routines and expectations, support students in setting their own learning goals—and so much more.

You also likely know that the annual “back to school night” or family open house is a similar opportunity to connect with parents and caregivers—with many of the same needs and goals. How can you make visitors’ time in your class resemble what you do with students on a daily basis?

Facilitate a modified “Morning Meeting” or other community time

Gather chairs in a circle in your meeting space and invite visitors to state their names and one question or hope they have for the year ahead. Read a brief excerpt from a text you’ve shared with students, or something that illustrates what learning is like in your classroom—an excerpt from You Have to Write by Janet Wong, Ish by Peter Reynolds, or Math Curse by Jon Scieszka perhaps. Or share a paragraph from a novel by a mentor author that the class will study during the year, or invite families to play a brief math game their students will learn. Ask yourself, “What can families do that will help them experience what their children do in class?”


Remember that families are probably not educators

You’ll need to connect the dots for families, helping them notice the similarities between what they do at open house and what students do all year. Even if you teach in an upper grade and students have been exposed to similar curriculum every year, many parents won’t know exactly what you mean when you use terms like “writing workshop,” “balanced math,” and “inquiry learning.” They’ll instinctively imagine content and instruction identical to what they experienced in school—unless you give them a vision of something else.

Consider having work from this class and/or previous classes on display. Draw attention to an anchor chart and something you’d like them to notice about it. Display photographs of book club talks, math conferences, and other small group work to set families’ expectations about learning in your classroom. You could even create a slideshow to showcase “A Day in the Life of a 2nd Grader” or something similar.

Help families envision how to help

Give parents and caregivers a few suggestions to help them support their children at home. You may wish, for example, to explicitly tell them not to spell words for their young writers, giving them instead the language you use to encourage invented spelling. Provide a list of math games they can play at home to nurture students’ problem-solving skills. Or simply remind them to read with and to their students, even if children can read independently.

Set expectations for communication, too. Let families know how you’ll stay in touch with them (weekly newsletter, social media feed, private group app, etc.) and how you want them to reach out to you if they have questions or need information—email, telephone, text. Consider committing to a timeframe for your response. For example, “If you have questions or would like to talk about how your child is doing in class, I prefer that you email me. I will respond within 48 hours with answers or suggested meeting times. If you’re unable to email, a telephone call is fine, but please know that I do not answer my personal phone during school hours.”

Cover of Parent Orientation KitOffer handouts for more information

It’s smart to remind parents that education—like any art and science—has evolved over time as researchers have learned more about how the brain works and how best to support learning. Additionally, experts in each individual content area continue to make new discoveries that impact our teaching. As one of our brilliant visiting scholars once quipped, “You wouldn’t want your dentist to use the same tools and procedures they used in the 1970s, would you? You shouldn’t want a teacher to do that either.”

Because there’s never enough time to cover everything during a brief open house, the Partnership for Inquiry Learning has created a series of one-page handouts (most are double-sided) to help you familiarize parents and caregivers with workshop teaching in reading, writing, and math in grades preK-8. Download the whole Parent Orientation Kit and print the pages you need. 

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