Microdemocracy in Schools: 5 Ways to Engage 21st Century Families

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When social media was in its infancy and access to the internet was limited by the length of an ethernet cable, The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) introduced its initiative to prime students for citizenship in the new millennium. It was 2002. In the years since, P21’s coalition has evolved its framework to respond to the tectonic techno-cultural shifts that have made interacting more portable, instantaneous and politically potent.

But in a world largely unrecognizable from the days of the P21 launch, the adage “it takes a village to raise a child" is no less true. Educators know anecdotally that family engagement is a game changer in children’s social and academic progress. Study upon study acknowledges that the participation of caregivers is just as important today as it was in the days of chalk dust and Basal readers. But what has changed since P21 built its framework: how our society communicates—as well as when, where, why and how often.

To truly reformat education to meet the needs of citizens in the digital era, teachers need more than 21st century curricula: they need to align family engagement with how families actually engage with the world. When teachers forge school interactions that mirror everyday social interactions, “engagement” can become “empowerment.” And when teachers become architects of school communities, students stand only to gain. Better yet, by harnessing authentic tools of engagement, teachers can leverage their power as leaders to foster and shape 21st century communities from the ground up.

This is what the Right Question Institute refers to as microdemocracy: the idea that interactions with public officials and institutions are opportunities for people to exert preferences, make decisions, ask questions and raise important topics—all features of democratic engagement occurring on a small scale. If voting or submitting a proposal to the city council are examples of democracy in its traditional form, then a parent who collaborates with his child’s teacher to modify a behavior plan or a patient who asks critical questions of a healthcare provider before seeking a referral are examples of microdemocratic engagement.

Similar to its older sibling, microdemocracy takes its best form when it is facilitated with thought, skill and intention. Educators, with leadership and community-building at the core of their daily work, can sculpt microdemocratic spaces that embody the values taught to students each day. This starts with inviting families into the conversation.

Designing an e-newsletter, hosting a class page and posting photos of classroom highlights are digital actions you may already take in support of your students and their caregivers. Yet, these actions fall short of being microdemocratic because they are one-directional: solely initiated and managed by the educator. Put like that, home-school communication sounds almost dictatorial—and we all who have ever been the de facto communication hub know that it also takes a lot of work.

It’s time for a family engagement revolution. In the digital world, it’s easier than ever to build community and host communication networks, ultimately avoiding the sort of correspondence bottleneck that positions you as the home-school czar. Here are some tips on how to invite the participation of your students’ caregivers and truly channel the spirit of the founding fathers within the sphere of your school or classroom.

🌍 Communicate in a format that reaches everybody

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018, nearly 80% of Americans regularly access the internet through a smartphone or other device. Even if you teach in a setting that falls outside of this statistic, the same thing is true: in order to invite caregivers into decision-making and advocacy, you’ll need to employ the tools of engagement that they use communicate every day. Find out how your students’ caregivers are connecting to the world and start there.

🌍 Share in families’ language(s) of choice

With translation engines hosting hundreds of world languages, inclusion is not just a word, but an action. If you make information accessible to your students’ caregivers, it is more likely that they will engage on behalf of their children, but this falls short of facilitating microdemocratic interactions. You can (and should) make microdemocracy possible by arranging for translation during in-person meetings with families. In the digital space, you can invite participation every day without the need to consider translation. Find a communication platform specifically for classrooms or schools that has world languages built in. That way, language is not a barrier, but a channel.

🌍 Host a digital community

The very best way to democratize your school community is to offer families a space in which they can communicate with you and with each other. Whether through a Facebook group or your class’s Instagram, teachers who host online communities forge connections among those with a common interest: positive outcomes for students. Better still are tools intentionally built for home-school communication. Founded upon the principle that positive teacher-family relationships enhance student outcomes, HEARD is a communication platform that allows schools and teachers to create private online  communities with families. These digital communities embrace inclusivity via a democratic access to features, two-way communication, and accessibility on any device and in any language. Caregivers can engage in the way they want and when they can—whether it’s just staying informed, supporting the learning via home-school connections, or collaborating with their teacher or other families. Whichever the means, educators who host digital communities lay the groundwork for microdemocracy.

🌍 Support families’ democratic access

Now more than ever, we enact what Flickr Co-founder Caterina Fake referred to as “democracy through clicking.” Once you connect digitally with caregivers, you can include them in sharing preferences and participating in decision-making processes that have bearing on their students’ academic and social experiences. “Liking” a post is exerting a preference—and if it regards decision-making or advocacy for students, has the potential to be a microdemocratic act. It is also an easy and familiar way to engage families in their students’ lives at school.

🌍 Tap into existing resources to collaborate with families

Some things will never change, and one is the saying, “there is no need to reinvent the wheel.” Make use of the rich tools of microdemocracy that are already out there. The Coalition of Community Schools helps connect caregivers to a network of partner institutions within education, healthcare and community improvement. Parents as Teachers invites families to participate more fully in their child’s growth and development via training, resources and networks of parents. After decades of collaboration with caregiver communities and deep research into family engagement, Luz Santana, Dan Rothstein and Agnes Bain of The Right Question Institute (RQI) developed a school-family partnership strategy that was created to engage parents as decision-makers and vocal advocates for their children. We owe the term “microdemocracy” to RQI’s groundbreaking work in both naming the benefits of inviting new voices into the space of public institutions as well as for providing tools that empower caregivers to act as stewards of their children’s growth and achievement.

Educators are community leaders, and the research is unequivocal: supporting student achievement means leading caregivers to participate in the process. If teachers harness the potential of digital interactions, microdemocracy can happen every day, as opposed to on the infrequent occasions of PTA meetings, triennial IEPs or family conferences. Now more than ever, educators can form the contours of the space that has become our digital democracy. There is no doubt—putting any one (or more) of the above suggestions in place will democratize your classroom community more than any Washington, Jefferson or Hamilton could have dreamed.

Judy Alexander is a National Board certified teacher, educational thought leader and consultant for HEARD. She loves biking, the great outdoors and all things Italian. Follow her @judy_giuditta.


 

HEARD in the Classroom: Staci

Staci - 5th Grade Teacher, @donutlovinteacher

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"In preschool, I was set on becoming a teacher because I loved learning. By middle school, I knew I needed the structure and organization of school and wanted that in my career. During high school, I decided that I wanted to work with kids because I felt a strong connection to children. Throughout college, I knew that my purpose was to empower young people because of the inequities in education that I both experienced and saw in communities. Though many teachers have deeply impacted me, I can't simply pinpoint one teacher alone that contributed to the work I do today. It was all of them -- the ones that saw me as a leader, the ones that pushed me beyond my comfort zone, and even the ones that told me I'd never make it to college. All teachers make an impact, whether positive or negative (hopefully, positive) and all of my teachers made a difference in the person I am today and the teacher I strive to be for my students every day in my classroom.”

HEARD in the Classroom: Judy

Judy, National Board Certified Teacher

Judy from HEARD

“My first year of teaching was at a school in Queens. None of the children spoke English at home. I was teaching fifth grade, but modifying each lesson so that the students could learn English alongside the academic content. It was a Title I, Title III, “Title everything” school. Connecting with parents that first year of teaching was a faraway thought. I was so beleaguered. I could have told you when the sun set because that’s when I began to think “just another hour or two” before I should ride the train home. Parent communication was not on my mind. It wasn’t something that was encouraged by administration. It wasn’t something my kids’ families asked for. At some point, I realized it was because of the language barrier and the culture of being undocumented: those things change how you interact with your children’s teacher and school. So I brushed up on my high school Spanish and was able to communicate more with about a third of the families. It meant a lot to them--even for me to say “hello, how are you,” smile and indicate that we were in a partnership with their child at the center. That’s when I started to see relationships with families change. That first year left me with one of the most important understandings of my career in education: I couldn’t truly serve children if I failed to collaborate with their caregivers.”


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"One year, a relationship with a parent was nearly destroyed after her son’s glasses were broken in a playground scuffle. That day, I focused on restoring the relationship between the two children involved and didn’t realize what had happened to the glasses. I wanted to explain that I prioritized human relationships over material possessions -- that was the reason for my oversight. But I decided not to weigh in further because I feared damaging a fruitful relationship between my student’s mother and I. But here’s the truth: Teachers are overworked. We’re human beings trying to keep all these plates spinning in the air -- applying a band-aid to a child, trying to manage somebody’s tantrum, trying not to lose the attendance form. Mistakes are made. We are understaffed. You can’t expect perfect outcomes if you have an incomplete set of crayons. And I’m one crayon in a box that should have 12. I taught your kid how to read and kept him safe every day. Let’s not put glasses ahead of academic, social, emotional and physical wellbeing.

HEARD in the Classroom: Hayim

Hayim Wolf, Dean of Students

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"Teachers get to know kids really well between the hours of nine and three. But there’s this whole world of information that we don’t have access to, which comes from families. If we’re working in the child’s best interest, then the more information we have, the better that work is, the more efficient that work is, the more thoughtful that work is. I’ve had parents tell me they heard something from their child at home -- a good thing or bad, but they haven’t shared it with the teacher because they didn’t want to disturb them -- they're too busy. That’s a very thoughtful sentiment, but totally misguided. The more information we have, the more we can work with your child and the more we can be in dialogue with you. There’s more work our school can do to make that communication happen organically, and I think it’s repeating at every opportunity: You’re not putting us out by telling us about the little things. And when you tell us about the little things, it keeps them from becoming big things.”


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"If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the American education system it would be to get rid of the emphasis on content. The role of specific content seems less and less important to me because it’s interchangeable. Any content will do if what we’re teaching is a love of learning and we’re asking interesting questions. No one’s going to get all the content. You’re going to learn some stuff; you’re not going to learn other stuff. What matters is that there’s content, that you’re being enriched, that there are things offered to you, and it’s being presented in ways that are engaging. But there’s tremendous resistance to this idea. It’s okay in kindergarten. But as soon as you leave middle school or high school, content becomes this big thing. 'Will the kids be ready for the SSAT?' 'Will they be ready for the SAT?' 'How will they ever succeed in college if they don’t have California history in 4th grade?' I don’t even understand that question. It’s like asking how will they succeed if they don’t have macaroni salad for dinner.”
 

HEARD in the Classroom: Jakub

Jakub - Parent and PTO Co-Chair

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"My family escaped Poland in 1984. We lived as refugees in Greece for six months before coming to the United States under political asylum. My father spoke some English. But my mom, brother and I didn’t speak any English. I was a 3rd grader. We moved around a lot in those first six months, and I went to four different elementary schools. In San Diego, the ESL program was not equipped to help Polish-speaking English learners, so we were thrown into the general population to have full immersion in the class with other students. My father would take us to the public library on Sundays to check out as many books we were interested in. There was one history book that I kept checking out constantly, reading and reading to learn the language. But I was held back in 3rd grade for not speaking English well enough. In 5th grade, I had Ms. Garcia who was teaching a 5th and 6th grade combined class. She noticed my comprehension was higher than usual and switched me to 6th grade within the first few weeks of school. Her decision to do this really gave me more confidence in school and showed me that through hard work my achievements can be rewarded. I continued to work as hard as I could and ended up skipping 10th grade and graduating early.”

HEARD in the Classroom: Michael

Michael - 1st year teacher, 6th grade

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“Mr. Ellis was my language arts teacher my senior year of high school. I give credit to him for planting the seed to teach and what I thought the job should look like. Every other class, the teacher told us what was correct. And the best you could do is memorize that. But every week, he’d introduce a controversial topic that rattled you. ‘You think you know how the world works? Let me throw this gray question out there, and you have to decide black or white.’ Kids were standing up and getting upset about physician-assisted suicide and how we decide what crime is too heinous for a juvenile to be tried. But his point was: You need to have evidence for your opinions. I’d walk away feeling ‘how did I learn so much and it didn’t feel like work?’ At the end, we had to write a paper. But I knew where I stood and could write and write and write. I did an activity reminiscent of that with my own class. I wanted them to understand claims, evidence, and response. I told them the Earth was too polluted to live on and gave them two other planets we could colonize. They had to decide which planet. Our house was divided. They really got into it and debated back and forth. ‘We can’t live there because the reptiles are poisonous!’ ‘But there’s no water on that planet!’ They could have gone on forever.”
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📷 and ♥️ by @anastridendeavor

HEARD in the Classroom: Christina

Christina, Director of Community‬

 Heard Communication Platform and App for School and Classrooms

“The real experts of children are their parents. They are the Ph.D. of their child. And they can’t go it alone. Schools need to engage families to create the partnership that’s necessary to raise all children. That looks different for every family, but the foundation is creating a partnership and understanding it’s a partnership. We send out messages simultaneously in English and in Spanish. Sometimes I push our co-head of school to keep messages short. But I’m realizing that when communicating about very important things, his priority is delivering the highest level of transparency. And parents appreciate that.”
 

 Heard Communication Platform and App for School and Classrooms

“Our school is founded on the value of curiosity. And that translates to an‪ ear, an open mind, and the commitment to continue asking questions. Say you’re the attendance supervisor at a school; it can be hard when a family continuously shows up late every single day. Without approaching it with curiosity, it’s really easy to make assumptions about why they’re being late. And that assumption could be they don’t care about school. But if you approach it with curiosity -- just ask and listen, the answer can surprise you. In order to build partnerships and trust, you have to listen.‬”

HEARD in the Classroom: Michael

Michael, First Year Teacher - 6th Grade Math & Science

 Heard Communication Platform and App for School and Classrooms

"I think it’s very natural to want to be a teacher when you’re a kid. It’s one of the main professions you’re exposed to. In 6th grade, I had a teacher who didn’t connect with the students and was very cruel. He told my mom: "The reason why your son’s not doing well is because he has no friends."  I believed him. But looking back? No. There were a lot of other factors here. He needed to take his job seriously and really dig. Here’s a job that I revere and always have. I thought this job deserves a lot more respect than it was given. Students, like myself who were quiet, were falling through the cracks. Maybe if this teacher had made the investment, he might have caught the problem or encouraged something better. I felt being a teacher was worth an intense work ethic. Over time, I figured out that’s where I wanted to spend my brain power."
 

 Heard Communication Platform and App for School and Classrooms

“Mr. Ellis was my language arts teacher my senior year of high school. I give credit to him for planting the seed to teach and what I thought the job should look like. Every other class, the teacher told us what was correct. And the best you could do is memorize that. But every week, he’d introduce a controversial topic that rattled you. ‘You think you know how the world works? Let me throw this gray question out there, and you have to decide black or white.’ Kids were standing up and getting upset about physician-assisted suicide and how we decide what crime is too heinous for a juvenile to be tried. But his point was: You need to have evidence for your opinions. I’d walk away feeling ‘how did I learn so much and it didn’t feel like work?’ At the end, we had to write a paper. But I knew where I stood and could write and write and write. I did an activity reminiscent of that with my own class. I wanted them to understand claims, evidence, and response. I told them the Earth was too polluted to live on and gave them two other planets we could colonize. They had to decide which planet. Our house was divided. They really got into it and debated back and forth. ‘We can’t live there because the reptiles are poisonous!’ ‘But there’s no water on that planet!’ They could have gone on forever.”