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Back-to-School Night has always been one of my favorite nights of the year.  Everyone–educators, families, and students alike–are bright-eyed and excited for a new year.  Parents buzz in, practically bursting with questions, admiring work on the walls, wanting to see more of what their child’s day actually is like.  Ironically enough, on too many Back-to-School nights, parents leave with just the opposite.  They don’t learn in the way that we want our children to learn. Instead, they sit, they listen, and they have little opportunity to actually interact with their child’s environment.

Fortunately, my team and I did something to change that last night.

Sure, we had 25 minutes of obligatory logistics.  There are many things that parents need to know going into the school year, including communication norms and expectations, curriculum, and the general approach for the year.  But this doesn’t have to be incredibly detailed or arduously long.  Instead, it needs to be visually engaging, concise, and help parents to leave with a sense of confidence, excitement, and wonder about their child’s upcoming year in the classroom.

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Our most exciting experience, though, was the part when the parents were actually able to step into the shoes of their children.  Part of the AltSchool experience is the playlist–the set of activities that students are able to access on their own.  In lower elementary, specifically, when starting the school year, this looks mostly like student-driven documentation, as students with their little fingers and developing minds, need a lot of guidance on how to simply turn the device on and take pictures.  My team and I wanted to help provide this experience to parents first-hand, and so last night, we gave them the job of documenting their child’s work.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 6.59.20 AMEach family opened up their child’s playlist, found the activity entitled “Explore Our Learning Space,” and proceeded to take pictures of student work and key areas of our classroom.  Not only did this help families to construct their own mental model of our classroom, but it allowed them to see exactly what it’s like to be in their child’s shoes, to document their own work, and to learn in within the four walls of our classroom.

Even after the families were long gone from our classroom last night, a quiet energy still hung in the air, slowly dying with the twilight of the evening sky.  Parents’ voices, bubbling with excitement as they left, still rang in my ears.  And while I’m proud of our curriculum, our strong communication procedures, and exciting technology, I don’t think that’s why the families left so excited.

They left excited because they had context, they understood, and they could empathize with their child’s experience more than they ever possibly could before.  With this new context, and with this reimagined Back-to-School Night, we set our classroom, our students, and our families up for an embodied experience–one that breaks down the barriers between home and school, one that increases common understanding of what learning should be, and one that helps them to understand their child and his or her experience, even better.

In my opinion, that’s what Back-to-School Night should feel like.  And I’m proud to say… last night did.

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