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FINE Newsletter, Volume V, Issue 1
Issue Topic: New Directions for the New Year

Voices from the Field

Joe Mazza is the principal of Knapp Elementary School in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. As a “connected educator,” he maintains the e-FACE Today (Electronic Family And Community Engagement) blog* and can often be found tweeting. He is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and is finishing his dissertation on “Principals’ Use of Social Media to Build Home–School Partnerships.” He is also the proud new father of a baby boy.

*Mazza’s relevant posts from e-FACE Today and other blogs are referenced throughout the text.

PRINCIPAL AS FAMILY ENGAGEMENT "DEAL BREAKER"

As a principal, or lead learner, I see myself as the family engagement “deal breaker” at my school. Unless I’m the one that’s expecting it, modeling it, creating opportunities for families to engage, providing time and training for my staff, and trying to be the bridge between home and school, family engagement just isn’t going to get done because it’s not yet at the priority level of something like standardized tests—that is, something that “has to happen.”

Blog post: Principals Need to Be the Bridge for Parents-Teachers  

My passion for family engagement is fueled by the fact that I’ve seen it work right in front of my eyes. I see the relationships being built, the positive growth, and the parents coming back and telling me how much they love the school and love being connected to the school because of the things that my family engagement team1is doing. Every day, there’s a new opportunity for us to be consistent in promoting the vision and the goals that we have for family engagement, and really helping families feel welcome here at the school.  I think principals and educators have to treat families like they’ve just checked into a 5-star hotel.  Parents have got to feel completely comfortable and open to engaging with you, because if they come in on that first day and they don’t feel that warm welcome, then the likelihood of their continuing to work with you, or digging deeper in terms of engaging with the school, goes way down.

A principal also provides guidance about the ways that school staff can connect with families and share information about what’s going on at the school. Just as I’m passionate about family engagement, I’m also a big technology geek, and for the past 6 years I’ve being trying to integrate technology more and more into our school’s family engagement work—what I call our “e-FACE” efforts: electronic family and community engagement—as a complement to our in-person relationship-building work. I’ve seen how technology tools can greatly expand our ability to reach out to and connect with our families and how these tools also provide valuable opportunities for us to give parents real-time updates on how their child’s day is going—especially through Twitter.

Joe Mazza uses technology to network, share with, and learn from others in the community--including Ben Franklin!

TWEETING IN THE SCHOOL HALLS

In 2011, I started experimenting with Twitter as a way to expand our family engagement work. I created a Twitter account for our school, @KnappElementary, and every day I walk through the building and try to capture learning moments to share with families and the community. I send an average of 5 to 10 tweets per day to recognize great teaching moments and share the inspiring visuals I see posted outside the classrooms. My doing this helps to create a virtual pulse of the school for parents and teachers as well as community members. We post these tweets right on the front of our Family Engagement Wiki, so that, even if someone is not a registered Twitter user, they can still see the tweets. It’s one of the ways we try to make it as easy as possible for parents to feel engaged with the school, so that every day they can find something to talk about with their children. We also post pictures of the students doing different activities or making class presentations so families can get a glimpse of what’s going on inside the classroom.

We also recognize that Twitter is still a new technology for many people, staff and parents alike, and we don’t just expect them to learn it on their own. We provide training for parents and staff, and all 50 of our teachers now have Twitter accounts, so in addition to the school’s @KnappElementary account, all of the teachers can send out their own tweets to keep parents and the community informed about what they’re doing. On top of that, I have my own Twitter account, @Joe_Mazza, where I share many other family engagement and leadership-related tweets and learnings.

HOME & SCHOOL 2.0: TRANSFORMING HOME-SCHOOL MEETINGS THROUGH DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY

About a year and a half ago, I started to become frustrated about the fact that at most of our monthly Home & School meetings—which is what we call our PTA/PTO meetings—we had only 5 or 10 parents there, and they were always the same parents. Where were all the other parents who could help these meetings be truly representative of our school’s diverse population? We realized that technology could provide us with an opportunity to make these meetings more inclusive by live-streaming them. We use a free tool called anymeeting.com, which, with just 10 minutes of set-up time, lets us stream audio and video, share slides, and invite parents to chime in with comments and questions via the text box in the corner of the screen. That way, wherever parents are, as long as they have an Internet connection, they can be part of these meetings. Making it easier for parents to virtually tune in and be a part of what’s going on at these meetings helps show them that we care and that we’re invested in making sure that we provide as many opportunities as possible for them to be part of what we do.

Blog post: Home & School Meeting 2.0

For the past 18 months, we’ve been live-streaming our Home & School 2.0 meetings, which has allowed us to hold them at different physical spaces throughout the community. We’ve got a very diverse population at our school, and we spend a lot of time building relationships with our families and understanding their cultures. One of the Home & School 2.0 meetings we held last spring took place at a local mosque. Instead of asking parents to come to our school library, we were able to go out into the community and hold the meeting at a place that was familiar to them. We had over 150 people at the meeting at the mosque, and of course we live-streamed it for the parents who couldn’t be there. The appreciation we saw on the faces of those families, for the opportunity to have an hour of informal conversation in a place that allowed them to feel very comfortable engaging with us, was just priceless.

Blog post: “Connecting” Cultures

BLENDING TECHNOLOGY WITH FACE-TO-FACE RELATIONSHIP BUILDING

Our Home & School 2.0 meetings aren’t the only activities where we’ve introduced a technology component. Last year, we started offering Skype as an option for parent–teacher conferences if parents couldn’t attend in person, and we’ve also done lots of conference calls, using the language line or interpreter services when we need to, because we have over 20 different languages represented among our school population. Skype has been a great way for us to help preserve that face-to-face interaction when parents can’t come to the school because, while phone contact with parents is great, you just can’t beat the power of face-to-face conversations. We can use as many technology tools as we can get our hands on, and we can be cutting edge in all of these areas, but if we don’t have that strong interpersonal foundation of face-to-face, eye contact, empathy, tone, and respect, then these technology-focused family engagement tools are really limited in what they can actually accomplish. It’s about plastic versus real.  We consider our e-FACE efforts an extension, or a complement, to that in-person relationship building.

Blog post: Social Media as a Collaborative Community Builder

We’ve seen big increases in how our families are engaging with us since we started using all these tools, but I always remind people that the real reason our family engagement has gone up is that we’ve continued to focus on relationship building and face-to-face interactions. If our families have a relationship with someone at the school, the families are more likely to look at the school-related tweets, and they’re more likely to pay attention to the Home & School 2.0 meetings. But you can’t create the relationship through the use of technology or a tool.

ENGAGING SCHOOL STAFF IN E-FACE EFFORTS

As principal, I can’t mandate that my staff engage in e-FACE efforts. Instead, I encourage it and share what works. And when a teacher posts a comment such as, “Our kids are learning about multiplication today in math,” and three or four parents tweet back to them, “Oh, my gosh, this is so great to know! When I get home tonight I can have a nice conversation with my child about this,” that really makes a difference. Teachers are getting the message from parents that these efforts matter and that they’re so glad to see the teachers reaching out in these ways. In addition, these communications make it easier for parents to continue their children’s learning at home, and that carry-over effect is not lost on the teachers.

INSPIRING OTHERS TO BECOME CONNECTED EDUCATORS

I believe that, to really advance your family engagement efforts as a principal, you need to become a connected educator. That means you don’t just get your professional development ideas out of a book or off of a web site, but rather by reaching out to the thousands of other educators in your role who are on Twitter and looking to share their skills or their ideas, or for you to bounce your ideas off of them. There’s a different professional development chat happening every day. I co-moderate2 a weekly parent–teacher chat on Twitter every Wednesday (#ptchat), where a group of parents and educators share ideas about engaging families. Being a connected educator has exposed me to so many more ideas than ever before, and it’s revitalized my career. Often, the principalship is an island, but if you can take yourself off of that island and put yourself into the global connectivity of the Internet and all that it offers, you no longer have to feel so alone.

Blog post: 12 Reasons to Get Your School District Tweeting This Summer

MAKING A MEANINGFUL COMMITMENT TO ENGAGING WITH FAMILIES

In addition to becoming a connected educator, another critical part of elevating your family engagement work is taking a look in the mirror and asking yourself whether you’re really, truly committed to partnering with your families. If that commitment isn’t deeply felt, then family engagement becomes just another initiative at your school. But if you’re really passionate about engaging families, if you can let go of your fear about opening the door to families and really invite their participation in the life of the school, then your family engagement work is much more likely to have an impact. I know that the kids in our school need all of us working hard for them. They don’t need just their principal and their teachers, they need their parents, too—they need everybody working and rowing as fast as possible for them. That belief is what drives my work, and why I will continue pushing to find innovative ways to blend technology tools with the all-important face-to-face interactions that help us build strong relationships with our families. 

1 The Knapp Elementary School family engagement team is composed of Joe Mazza (principal); Gwen Pescatore (Home & School president and parent); Laurie Spencer (parent); Cindy Hames (nurse); Nancy Kaufman, Ali Lee, Sue Rosenthal, Ann Kravitz, Sara Ozga, Sam Weitz, and Barb Kolb (teachers); Maria Shaw and Mary Mooney (secretaries).

2 Mazza’s #ptchat co-moderators are Zak Mal (student), Gwen Pescatore (parent), Dana Sirotiak (teacher), and Dr. Steve Constantino (superintendent).

 


This resource is part of the February 2013 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archive of past issues, please visit www.hfrp.org/FINENewsletter.

 

© 2014 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project