Parent Letter 2015-16

Hey there friends! I need advice from y’all: What would you say to parents in an introductory letter? My students are high school freshmen.

My pain: I won’t meet parents until Parent Rotation Night in September (about three weeks into school) at which time I get 10 minutes with an entire class’ set of parents. I’m supposed to give them a taste of class, not explain how I assign homework (etc, etc).

My solution: I’ll email a letter to the parents of all my students explaining how class works. I need to edit this down for length and am not convinced I’ve said everything that’s important.


Dear Parents,

Hello! I’m Megan Hayes-Golding and I’ll be teaching physics to your teenager this year. This letter will explain how class will work and answer the most frequently asked questions I hear in August.

About Me

This is my fourth year at [school] and I’ve taught college prep physics the entire time. In addition, I also help coach the robotics team, am a part-time outdoor ed faculty member, and I help sponsor the LGBTQA student affinity group. Before [school], I taught math and physics at [old school] High School in [other] County. Overall, this is my 12th year teaching.

My educational and professional background is in engineering and as such, I had a short career in industry before teaching, working for two Atlanta companies. The first was DVT, an engineering firm that made machine vision systems to perform quality control on manufacturing lines. After that, I worked at SecureWorks, an internet security service provider. Both gave me rich examples I draw on in class on a regular basis.

I’m highly active in several professional communities online. I blog and connect over Twitter with math and physics teachers around the world. For a peek into our classroom on a daily basis, I encourage you to check out https://mgolding180.wordpress.com/, which is written for other teachers as a forum for me to share ideas from my classroom.

The kids usually identify me by two things before they even know me: 1) I’m the one who rides the purple motorcycle in the parking lot and 2) I like comic book superheroes.

Pedagogy

My teaching philosophy can be summed up as “everyone can find something to love in learning physics.”

Everything we do is scaffolded so that each assignment ramps up the personal responsibility and the stakes. Allow me a few bullets to explain:

  • Labs: These collaborative events in class give students a chance to play around with their developing understanding of new material. Throughout the lab, students field my questions and adjust their write-ups accordingly. This is a low-stakes environment where students are encouraged to talk about their thinking. Perhaps you remember labs from your own school experience. Our labs are probably more open-ended where yours were more scripted. We are looking to develop an intuitive understanding of physics in the lab.
  • Homework: I give students multiple attempts at the online, graded homework assignments. Though homework accounts for only 5% of a student’s semester average, I’ve found a direct correlation between high homework scores and strong understanding of the material (and yes, by extension, high test scores). On average, assignments will take 30 minutes to 1.5 hours to complete. There is usually one homework assignment per week, which I encourage students to complete a little at a time. I encourage students to work together on homework. No two students have exactly the same set of questions, which encourages them to discuss big ideas rather than memorize a series of steps.
  • Quizzes: Like homework, students can retake quizzes. I count only the best score they achieve so there’s great incentive to keep working until the concept is mastered. My retake quizzes are different than the first attempt, so I can be relatively certain the student isn’t simply memorizing a set of answers. One layer of scaffolding drops away at this level – students complete quizzes independently while consulting their open notes.
  • Tests: Every unit has a final test at the end. Students may consult a formula sheet they’ve prepared for the event. The final layer of scaffolding that falls away here is that a test is a one-chance-only event. No retakes.

I’m including a copy of the syllabus your teenager received on the first day of class. You’ll see that we begin with a study of Sound Waves. In this unit, the students have a major project to build a musical instrument to demonstrate their understanding of the physics of musical instruments. This project will be due around the middle of September. As it’s the first big project in the class, many kids will surprise their parents the night before it’s due asking for a last-minute Home Depot run. Don’t be fooled! They’ll receive the details and due dates for the project the first week of school, so have plenty of time to ask nicely for that trip to the hardware store.

Getting in Touch

You’ll be at the Parent Rotation Night on September 8, right? I definitely look forward to meeting you then and giving you an in-person taste of how physics class runs. Additionally, I’m happy to field your questions through my school email address, [email redacted].

I encourage you to put the responsibility of approaching me about grades and assignments on your kid, though.

Finally

It’s going to be a great year!

Regards,

Megan Hayes-Golding

Physics Teacher

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6 thoughts on “Parent Letter 2015-16

  1. While I appreciate the in depth information in your letter, I really don’t think a lot of parents are going to read the entire thing. Can you try to summarize/shorten things up to the essentials? Maybe have a first page with the key info, something like this http://pinterest.com/pin/205547170468564455/, but tailored to your needs? Then you could still include the rest of the ether for parents who want to read further.

    • Thanks, Lindsay! You note the very issue I was most concerned about — the letter is too long. I’m going to absolutely see how I can pull important details into a more visually appealing one pager.

      Upon reflection, I think my intent here was to reassure parents that I have a big picture in mind, even if their kids can’t articulate it when they come home frustrated over a homework problem I haven’t shown them how to do.

  2. I liked the letter quite a bit. It shows a little of your personality and I came away (trying to read it as a parent of a 9th grader, which I was just last year) with a good understanding of your approach and what my kid would likely experience. I don’t think it was too long, especially since there are some broken up parts with bullet points and headers. I was recalling the letter I read from my son’s teacher last year. It was about as long but it didn’t have much about her. It was also more of a “watch out, this is tough and your son will have to work really hard” type of letter. I liked yours much more!

    • Thanks, Andy, for the feedback!

      It’s interesting you say the letter’s not too long. I think the Goldilocks tipping point depends on the parent doing the reading.

      My final check is to run this past the administration at my school. The last thing I want to do is set an expectation with parents that all teachers will communicate like this. I like my colleagues too much to have them pissed at me because *I* started the letter writing campaign.

  3. I like the letter. I didn’t seem too long at all. In fact, I’m not sure what you would remove to shorten it up… I think it would begin to feel abrupt/rushed… I teach high school seniors, mostly — just so you know where I’m coming from.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Trey! I’ll post an update here on what I decide to do (got to check with the colleagues who teach what I do) and with the final text of the letter.

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