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.