Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Family Journals



Thank you for checking out my posts on Engaging and Connecting with Families!  It is so important to begin the school year on the right foot by building relationships with families!  Today, I am going to share with you some tips for using Family Visits in your classroom.  


Have you used Family Journals in your classroom before?  I find that Family Journals are one of the best ways to connect with my families.  And a huge bonus is that it gets your kids writing!

I was incredibly lucky to work with one of the best teachers when I did my student teaching, and I learned SO MUCH from her.  She was incredible.  She used Family Journals in her classroom, and that is something that I wanted to take away from my time in her classroom so that I could use them with my own students.

There are a few different ways to do Family Journals, but the result is the same:  increased communication between school and home.  And I don't know about you, but I am always looking for a new way to increase positive communication between me and my families!  One way you can do Family Journals is to have the students write in their journals at school.  They write about something they learned at school that day.  Then they take their journals home that night, and a family member responds to their writing.  There are a few resources here and here, and a book about Family Message Journals as well. (I have that book, and it's pretty good!  It really explains how to make Family Message Journals work in the younger grades!)  Some teachers use the journals every day, while others just use them once or twice a week.  The best thing about these journals is that you can use them however you like!

The other way to do Family Journals is the way that I use them in my classroom, which is where they write in them at home.  I use them as a tool to get to know more about my students and their families.  The student and a family member responds to a prompt that I assign them each week by stapling it into their journal.  The students had an entire week to respond to the prompt, and then they would return their journals to school.  The most important thing about the Family Journals is that they are authentic: the students have a purpose for writing, and they have an audience to communicate to.  The extra writing practice is also incredibly useful!

I know what you're thinking: that sounds like SO MUCH EXTRA WORK.  I understand where you are coming from, but believe me, it's not as hard as it sounds!  Each Monday, I would take out their journals, open to the next page, and staple in that week's prompt.  (This year, I am going to put a ribbon in the journals so that I can easily find the next clean page in their journal!)  I sent home the journals with the students on Monday.  This process took me probably around 7 minutes for 20 students.  The students would respond, their parents or another family member would respond, and they would return the journal to me.

Though I had a strict "homework can't be turned in until Friday" policy in my classroom, I would take the journals any day of the week.  Usually, I read the journals that day, because it only took a minute to read what they had written.  I responded a minimum of once a month (we are busy, after all!), but sometimes I responded more often, especially if the student had something they wrote that caught my eye or something I felt I should respond to.

The very first thing I did when beginning to use the journals in my classroom was to have the students decorate and personalize their journals.  The only requirement I had was that I knew whose journal it was!  I wrote their names (and number) at the top of their journal, and then they decorated them at home as part of their homework the first week of school.  I wanted them to feel like these journals were special.

  


Attached to their journal that first week was a letter from me, explaining what this journal was and how this process worked.  I kept extras on hand for new students as well.  The letter explaining how to do the Family Journal is included in my pack of Family Journal Prompts.  There are actually 2 different letters:  1 where the students first assignment is just to personalize their journal, and a second where they personalize the journal and have a prompt to complete for the week.  There are letters for Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade included, as well as a generic letter for all grade levels.  The pack of prompts includes 69 different prompts, though there are some prompts that are repeated for each grade level, Kindergarten through fifth.  On most pages, there are 10 prompts to a page.  On each page, the prompt is the same, so all you have to do is print the prompts out, cut them out, and staple them into the notebooks.  If you had older students, they could probably even glue the journal entries in themselves.  Or you could have an older student help out by stapling the prompts in.  



The second week, I sent home the first prompt for them to respond to.  There is sometimes one prompt for both parents to respond to, and sometimes there is a separate but related prompt for the parent and child.  Notice I put the world "adult" instead of "parent."  In my school, and in my classroom, I had students who did not live with their parents.  Some of them lived with grandparents, while others lived with foster parents or aunts and uncles.  I didn't want to cause issues by implying that only a parent could respond, and to recognize those families that were different.  Also, some of my students have much older brothers and sisters who responded to their little brothers and sisters, and I wanted them to realize that it didn't matter who responded as long as someone did.


I started off using prompts that I already had, but quickly progressed into writing my own prompts.  I tried to match the prompts to the season, or events that were happening in our classroom, or things that we had learned recently, so that the students could really connect to the prompts.  Of course, having journals like this does come with some problems.  Sometimes the students don't have a parent to respond to them, because they have to work at night, or there is a sick family member that they are visiting at the hospital.  I handled that by requiring that the students did their journal each week.  If, for some reason, a grown up couldn't respond to them, they weren't penalized.  I would find a grown up in the school, such as our preferred sub or our secretary, to respond to the child.  They loved having one of the grown ups at school write in their journals!

Some other problems that my arise with doing family journals are that families may feel uncomfortable responding to a particular prompt, the student loses their journal, or that the student doesn't do their journal at home.  I had some ideas in place just in case these things happened in my classroom.  I tried to be proactive about solving problems beforehand so that these journals would be successful.

And they were so successful!  If I were to say any one thing I have done in the past 5 years has made a difference and helped me to really know my students, these journals would be it!  I loved reading what the families wrote each week.  I loved responding to what they had written.  Sometimes, the journal became a conversation between a student and I or a parent and I.  I even had families include pictures!  Some students had multiple family members write in their journal each week.  I learned more about my students than I ever would have without these journals.  I learned that one student could do the splits, and she demonstrated this ability to the class.  I learned that another student wanted to be a nurse, or that another went out for ice cream each Friday if her behavior was good.  I learned that some of my parents were good writers, while others had a lot of information to share about certain topics.

 

   

And we all know the kids love it when you have "inside information" about them that you can share!  They loved that I knew stuff about them, and this helped me make a connection to some of these students.  

And then, sometimes, you get sweet messages like these that really just make the whole process worth it!

Please check out my Family Journal Prompts in my TPT store!

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