The following is the rough draft of an article and presentation I plan to do at TechForum 2008 on November 7, 2008 to highlight the power of free, open source tools. I’d love constructive criticism. I plan to use REACH as a framework for introducing free software use to enhance parental involvement…does it work?


Ask any principal, district administrator what it is that they want the most, and one of the responses is bound to include increased parental involvement. As a teacher, one of my most common complaints was, “Parents just do not seem to care about what is happening at school.” As I grew wiser, I realized it wasn’t that they failed to care–sometimes, when one is a young educator, it is easy to get fixated on assigning “F”–but that they were no more engaged than their children by schools. Imagine that parents, like their children who masquerade as our students during the day, have to be authentically engaged.

A national report recently highlighted this lack of engagement in schools:

Parents wish to be more engaged by schools, but need better tools and information
Parents across America share high hopes for their children’s academic success and many know their involvement is vital. But parents with students in low-performing high schools say their schools don’t give them the tools and information they need to be more effective in helping their students succeed, according to a national report released today.
Read More

While it is easy to assign blame–or fixate on the failure of one or the other–the truth is we need to R.E.A.C.H. out more. REACH is not about a type of toothbrush, but rather, a way of using free, open source software to engage parents, of providing them with the tools and information they need to be more effective in helping their students succeed.

I suggest that R.E.A.C.H. is one way to help schools engage parents, as well as students, in achieving success. For me, R.E.A.C.H. might represent the following:

  1. R – Reflect
  2. E – Engage with
  3. A – Authenticity,
  4. C – Collaboration, and
  5. H – Heart.

As a parenting coordinator in a school district in East Texas–it supplemented my income as a third grade teacher–I was thrilled to participate in Cara y Corazon, a family strengthening program for parents. It was wonderful engaging with parents who showed up to the meetings, but a part of me always wondered, what about those who didn’t show?

As an educational technologist, I like the idea of using technology to R.E.A.C.H. out to parents and facilitate conversations.

“How can I find out about my child’s grades?” is a common question that parents ask, but it is only the beginning of the conversation, if there is a conversation at all. When I walked into my 4th grader’s classroom to meet with the teacher, I had already done more than many parents i my experience as a teacher. One of the first questions I asked is, “What will it take for my son to be successful in class?” As a transfer from another school, my son was unaware of the culture, the way things are done, and even concepts taught in previous grades that were part of the culture of the school. Simply, my son was not acculturated to the new learning environment he was in…what tips could be shared, how could I ask questions–and get answers–about that new learning environment?

How can any child’s school create opportunities where parents can play an active role in their children’s academic success? R.E.A.C.H. is about using free, open source software to create opportunities. It’s powerful because the technologies involved ARE free, although there is certainly a cost for the infrastructure components (such as an inexpensive server, Internet bandwidth) but many districts already have the power to create REACH opportunities.

Here are a few ways that I see school districts able to R.E.A.C.H. out with free, open source software:

Ask an administrator what they wish they could do, and they might share something along these lines, which may remind you of Bruce Wilkinson’s work.

Please let me expand my opportunities to authentically engage parents and my impact in such a way that parents understand how to help their children, my students, be and do more in life.

Often, principals–like the teachers they lead–are caught up in the daily maelstrom of the mundane. Yet, setting aside 30 minutes to blog and share ideas can make a difference. Free, open source software–such as b2Evolution, WordPress–can be setup on a server to facilitate blogging by campus leaders and teachers, enabling them to engage parents with student stories, audio and video. There is nothing sweeter than hearing your child’s voice as they sharing a story about learning. This kind of activity empowers reflection when the leader shares a story then asks a few questions of parents:

  • Would you like to be involved in your child’s education? Here’s how to participate in future student activities.
  • Would you leave a comment about your child’s project online? Here’s how you can do it from home, from the local library, or during open lab hours.

Engage with Authenticity
In the previously cited report, it was shared that one teenager drops out of school every 26 seconds and 7,000 each school day. While it’s easy to equate technology use at home by a parent with engagement, it’s the type of engagement that matters. When I click through long lists of assignments, events, calendars, teacher introduction of herself on the school web site, I am not engaged. Instead, I am being showered with information that I neither want or need. In fact, all the information gets in the way of what I truly want–to be engaged by what my children are doing.

Many school districts are now using “parent portals” to facilitate access to grades, enable you to pay your child’s cafeteria bill online, but this is a low-level engagement that doesn’t get at the power of story. Teachers can be wonderful storytellers, and sharing stories about what is happening, creating a narrative where my child feels comfortable moving forward is critical. When I go to school to talk to a teacher, I am looking for this narrative of what children are learning, and how my child is involved–or not–in the action. You have to feel sorry for the teacher, though. How can they ever tell the story of every child?

Perhaps the question needs to be, how can teachers get out of the way and enable children to show their own stories?

Educators can engage with authenticity when they take advantage of tools like blogs to share children’s stories, but also, use discussion boards like phpBB and course management systems like Moodle to facilitate children sharing their own stories, their own learning. Whether it be online literature circles, podcasting, online class discussions, learning has become more and more transparent. We must set aside our fear of sharing children’s work online–thereby reaching that parent audience that can seldom make it to the school bulletin board where their child’s work is displayed for all to see, flaws and all–and embrace the boldness of transparent learning.

Engaging with authenticity means allowing parents to see what is happening in the classroom, using any variety of tools to achieve that, whether it be a blog, a Moodle, or whatever tool happens to be handy.

Often, collaboration between parent and teacher occurs only after something has gone wrong. With transparent learning opportunities–which create opportunities for parents to learn what they need to know to help their child be successful at school–teachers can allow more insights into what goes on in the classroom. This goes beyond just using the technology for a mere listing of what students will learn, but an open invitation to parents to participate, perhaps by creating and offering engaging questions for parents to offer ideas and suggestions.

Moodle can help with basic functions such as classroom management, or more complex tasks such as complete eLearning or “blended instruction”–eLearning that extends into on-site classroom instruction. As of last fall, the report says, Moodle claimed to have more than 14 million users, with more than 35,000 sites in 195 countries. In the appendix, the report describes how Moodle is being implemented in five schools and school districts across the country.
Source: eSchoolnews

What parents sometimes fear is that they will ask questions they SHOULD know the answers to; and teachers, having to answer questions that everyone should already know. However, without the dialogue that comes with open communications available through transparent learning, it’s impossible to ever move beyond our idealization of parent-teacher communication to conversation and collaboration. Collaboration also involves MORE than sharing ideas just for the sake of sharing them to satisfy the masses of parents.

Mr. Rezac, a teacher, sees a trend in the use of Read/Write Web (e.g. blogs, discussion boards and more) technology use in education. Although you are encouraged to read his entire blog entry, this quote captures some of the main points for me:

Collaboration involves working together toward a common goal…how do you get students who live in other states, countries and continents to actually work together to create something together?

The process of creating the project is really what is important and where the learning takes place. By making the collaboration happen after the process is over, really loses the value of the experience. The collaboration is in the process, it is the process, not in the end product. . .With open source software gaining popularity, companies sharing trade secrets, and social networking [is] gaining huge popularity. But the question is, are we still trying to serve ourselves, or are we trying to serve or students and our community?
Read More about Drop Box Collaboration

As a parent, when I visit a classroom web site and see lists of content, or introductions by teachers, I’m struck by this idea that what we’re using technology for isn’t about collaboration. As Mr. Rezac points out, parents have to be involved in the process of educating their own children for this to be “collaboration.” I can hear the howls of anguish from teachers already–are parents REALLY ready to be a part of the collaboration that is possible? If teachers build it, will parents come? Well, maybe we need to change that question a bit to reflect Mr. Rezac’s point–if we build it, aren’t we already collaborating?

How can we help educate parents so that they can be the kinds of parents every principal and teacher dreams of having? Since we are so limited during the work day, as are parents, providing access to transparent learning opportunities that educate parents, facilitate dialogue that invites parents to learn the culture of a school and collaboratively add their distinctiveness.

The final letter of the REACH strategy is heart. Although tenderness, love, and concern are what I usually associate with “heart,” I am moved more by small actions over time can have a tremendous impact. Consider these facts about the human heart:

The average heart beats about 75 times per minute, which is about five liters of blood per minute. Although this isn’t much, it enables the heart to complete a tremendous amount of work in a person’s lifetime. The human heart beats about 40 million times a year, which adds up to more than 2.5 billion times in a 70-year lifetime. This results in approximately 2 to 3 billion joules of work in a lifetime, which is a huge amount.
Source: HyperTextbook – Power of a Human Heart

Our hearts do a little work each day, work that is essential to life and have a tremendous impact over a lifetime, enabling us to reflect on what we do, reach out and engage others, collaborate and more. Free software amplifies the power of the human heart to accomplish these actions, at home, work, school and on the go.

Here is a short list of some of that software that amplifies what we can do in schools to reach out to parents:

  • Read/Write Web Tools: Online discussions and sharing that make learning transparent, that enable us to archive student learning to create multimedia portfolios:
    1-Blogging Platforms like b2evolution and wordpress.
    2-Electronic discussion areas like phpBB and Moodle course management system
    3-Image galleries that facilitate community sharing of students images and work like Gallery2
  • Information Management Tools: Information management and productivity tools that enhance our ability to amplify our work as individuals at no additional cost:
    1-Office Suites like OpenOffice that enable parents, students and teachers home access to word processing, spreadsheets, presentation, and database software.
    2-Graphic organizers that enable students and parents to visually organize concepts; those organizers include tools like Cmap Tools (no cost), Visually Understanding Environment (VUE), and others available online.
    3-Image/Video/audio viewing, editing and conversion including VLC Media Player, Audacity sound editor, THE GIMP for graphics and more.

(need to add more here)

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