As most of you know very well, the day-to-day (not to mention hour-to-hour) tasks of a teacher can be hectic and time-consuming. In addition to actually teaching the warm little bodies in our classes, we have to grade papers, attend meetings, participate in school leadership committees, create bulletin boards, set up for labs, meet with students, plan future lessons, prepare for and administer tests…the list seems endless. As if that isn’t enough, we’re also faced with the critical task of communicating with parents about their students and the classroom in general. Thankfully, the internet has made this task a little less time-consuming for teachers and parents. This article will discuss the many tools that can help you design a website to keep parents in the loop.
What do parents really want?
Through an informal poll of some of my students’ parents, I assessed what parents might like to see on a teacher website. The top answer I received was “nightly homework assignments.” In addition, parents liked seeing long-term calendars, a way to provide feedback to the teacher, and educational links to use with their children at home. Parents also want the websites to be easily navigable and well-organized so that it’s easy to find what they need quickly. Nearly all the parents I surveyed emphasized the importance of keeping teacher websites up to date. Indeed, this may be the number one thing that parents need, since all of the above features would be essentially useless if they were two weeks out of date.
Giving parents what they want — The basics
Now that we have a general sense of what parents want, how do we give it to them? The first thing to do is to select a hosting website on which to create your teacher website. Unless your school has a specified protocol for this, there are several options for hosting your classroom website. Some of the most popular and easy to use include blogs, wikis, Google sites, and paid hosting websites.
Chances are if you’re reading this article, you’re already familiar with blogs as online journals in which the author writes about a particular topic, like cooking or educational technology. You may not know, however, that blogging software can also provide an effective means of communicating electronically with students and parents. Blogs offer several advantages.
First of all, if you choose to start a blog, you can make a pretty slick-looking website with no special technological skills. You can even embed your own pictures and videos to enhance your site. Also, blogs have built-in interactive features that allow readers to respond via comments to information posted on the blog. The comments feature is a huge plus, given parents’ desire to be able to interact and give feedback. Finally — and perhaps most importantly — blogs are free!
For all these advantages, though, there are potential drawbacks to using a blog for your classroom website. Privacy, for example, can be a concern: If you use a blog for your classroom website, won’t it be accessible to the whole world? And while the commenting feature is great, what if someone uses it to write something inappropriate?
Fortunately, many blog-hosting sites offer features that address these concerns. Some of the most popular blog-hosting sites are WordPress, Weebly and Blogger — each of which has its own range of features.
I use WordPress for my classroom blog, partially because it has security options that make me feel like my blog is a safe place for my online classroom presence. While my blog is technically available to the public, WordPress allows me to block it from being found by a standard Google search. This setting minimizes the chances that someone will just stumble across it without knowing the URL. In addition, I’ve adjusted the comments setting so that I have to approve any comments before they appear on the blog. When a reader makes a comment, it’s sent to my email inbox and I have the option to approve it, delete it, or mark it as spam.
As an experiment, I used Weebly to create this sample site, which took about 15 minutes. I found the Weebly site easy to use, with prompts that make the site-building process very intuitive. One of its other great features is the ability to create both a traditional site and a blog that are linked to each other. This feature allows you to combine the interactivity of a blog with the easy navigation of a website.
Like WordPress, Weebly offers the ability to approve or delete comments before they appear on the blog. And while I didn’t see an option to keep your site from a Google search, you can keep it private by enabling password protection. That may not be a practical option for a classroom website, however, as it relies on your students’ parents to remember the password. Weebly also offers a Weebly for Education service that includes features specifically designed for teachers. One of the most exciting is bulk account creation for your students to create their own websites. A Weebly for Education account includes up to 40 student accounts for free.
Blogger is a Google application, which is a plus if you already have a Google account and use other Google Apps. Like most Google Apps, Blogger’s editing options are simple — so once your site is set up, it won’t take much time to update it every day.
As with WordPress and Weebly, Blogger allows you to moderate any comments before they appear on your blog. Blogger also includes privacy features to allow you to control who can access your blog. By default, your blog is public, but you have the option to specify the particular users to whom you want to grant access. This is a bit more stringent than password protection, because you specify viewers by listing their email addresses. If a user has a Google account, she can view your blog any time she’s logged in to her account. A user without a Google account can log in as a guest, but will need a new invitation every two weeks. As you can imagine, this set-up has the potential to get pretty clunky when you’re dealing with the parents of every student in your class. Another drawback to this approach, from a teacher standpoint, is that you must do the work of manually inviting every person who might be interested in your blog. In addition to parents, that list may also include siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. To serve as the gatekeeper for all these potentially interested parties may be more than you’re willing to take on.
One other drawback to using Blogger is its very simple format and template. Unlike some other blog-hosting sites, which offer a variety of templates, a Blogger site will have a very basic look — unless you’re willing to play around with the HTML editing options.
A wiki is a collaborative website in which multiple users can contribute to the content of the site. If you’ve never seen one, Common Craft offers a simple but thorough explanation of wikis in plain English.
Wikis, like blogs, allow you to embed videos and pictures relatively easily. One of the advantages of wikis over blogs is that wikis allow you to more easily collaborate with students, colleagues, and/or parents on the creation of the website. On the other hand, wikis generally don’t look as slick as blogs do, because blogs typically come with pre-designed templates.
Because blogs and wikis offer different opportunities for electronic communication, I have a classroom wiki — hosted by PBworks — in addition to my class blog. And while I use my blog as my primary means of sharing information with parents, a wiki could easily serve this purpose.
You can start a free wiki that has reasonable security and privacy controls. However, for the best security and privacy controls, you probably will have to pay. For example, as an educator, I pay $99 a year at PBworks in order to get page-level editing controls, which allow me to create pages on my wiki that only certain users can edit or even access. Since any user can theoretically change any page on a wiki, having this kind of control is critical in a classroom setting — especially if you plan on using the wiki as your parent communication venue. Otherwise you’re just asking for a crafty student to log in and change the due dates on your homework page.
Another option for getting started is to create a simple website using Google Sites. Through Google sites, you can create a website with access controls. Your site can include multiple pages and embedded video and pictures. Like other Google Apps, Google Sites is easy to use to create a website — and like other Google Apps, it’s free.
As an advantage over some wikis, Google sites provides several ready-to-use templates to make your page look more attractive and professional. The intuitive process of site creation also helps you effectively organize your site. And, as with a wiki, you can allow others to collaborate with you on creating and editing the site. Unfortunately, though, Google Sites doesn’t offer a commenting feature for people who visit your site.
Paid hosting websites
In addition to the free options I’ve mentioned, there are a number of website-hosting services specifically designed for teachers that require payment. Fortunately, none of them are very expensive — the two I will mention here only cost $39 a year — but, when there are free options, you might be reluctant to select a paid site.
There are advantages of using a paid hosting service: For one, using a paid service will generally result in a more professional-looking website. In addition, the work you’d need to do to set it up should be pretty minimal. Essentially, you would just plug in your personal classroom information and be done. This is obviously good for the time-strapped educator who isn’t interested in learning how to use one of the free tools I’ve mentioned.
No matter which type of site you decide to build, you do have to put some thought into how you want to organize it before you create it. Over and over again, parents mentioned the desire for an easily navigable website. Websites should clearly categorize and delineate information so that parents can find what they need quickly. Here are some suggestions:
Make sure everything is available from the front page or homepage of your website, and make the links obvious. Make sure every navigation link is mutually exclusive — e.g. don’t have a category called “homework” and another called “assignments.” The content of your site will obviously depend upon your particular class (or classes), but navigation links might include teacher biography, classroom rules/procedures, long-term calendar, nightly homework, Standard Course of Study for your course, and references or educational links such as an online textbook if one is available for your course.
I’ve now said this so many times I probably sound like a nagging mother, but it’s an important enough point that it bears repeating: If you decide to venture into the world of communicating with parents via a website, it is absolutely critical that you make time to update the website on a daily basis. If you’re going to give parents this tool and expect them to use it, it has to be useful to them. Seeing the homework posted for March 5 on April 27 is not useful.
I may be too organized for my own good, but I keep a daily to-do list on my computer. “Update homework page” automatically appears on this list every day. I have found that this is effective in reminding me to check my website on a daily basis and ensure its usefulness. We all know teachers are extremely busy, but if you set up your website carefully, it shouldn’t take you more than five minutes each day to update your nightly homework.
Giving parents what they want: The elements of a useful website
Calendars and homework
Now that we’ve looked at some of the basics, let’s address some specifics. One of the features my students’ parents value most is the long-term calendar and the fact that nightly homework is posted. Because I use a blog, I just make a daily post that states that night’s homework for science.
My team uses a shared calendar to coordinate long-term assignments such as tests, quizzes, projects, and special events. I use Google Calendar for this task because it provides an easy way to create and share a calendar. When you sign up for Google calendars, a personal calendar is automatically created, but you can add as many additional calendars as you want. For instance, if, in addition to teaching 6th-grade science, you also coach the softball team, you can create separate calendars for your science class and for the softball team. It is very easy to add events to a Google calendar: You simply click on the day and time of the event, type in the event name, and save it.
Here is an example of my team’s academic calendar, which is linked to my website. One of the other benefits of Google Calendars is that they are sharable, with different levels of access. If you work on a team or in a department, you can share one calendar among all of the teachers, which allows you to provide only one calendar for parents to access in order to find all future calendar events.
Because Google Calendars are very easy to embed within another website, blog, or wiki, parents can access the class calendar by just visiting your website. You can also give parents a direct link to the calendar on its own. Regardless of whether you embed the calendar in your site or share the calendar link, parents do not need a Google account to view it.
Another key point for parents is to have a way to give feedback to the teacher, ask a question, or contact the teacher for further information. One of the easiest ways for a parent to contact you for specific information is via email. On my website, I provide a link with my email address. Unfortunately, when you provide your email address on a website, you can be setting yourself up to receive spam. This article from Digital Inspiration shares some suggestions for preventing SpamBots from discovering your email address on your website.
If you operate your site via a blog, you can also take advantage of the commenting feature to encourage parents to send feedback. Once you’ve approved a parent’s comment, it will be viewable by all parents — and so will your response. This can be both good and bad: One the plus side, if a parent asks a question that many other parents have, that information is recorded on the blog for the good of all. On the other hand, a parent may not realize that comments are public and might ask a question specifically about his child. This is one case in which it’s particularly important to set up your blog so that you must approve all comments before they’re publicly available. If you do, you have the option of replying to the parent via email.
As you may have noticed on my sample Weebly site, I included a contact form. This is another way to receive feedback that minimizes the risk of spam or the chance of a parent posting a private comment or question.
Parents also like having access to important handouts you distribute in class — especially when these don’t make it home with students. I use a tool called Box.net in order to store handouts I want students and parents to be able to access from my website. When you sign up for an account with Box.net, you create a box. Then Box.net gives you a code to include the box on your website. The code (and thus the box) can be embedded on a blog, wiki, or Google site. Once you have established your Box.net account, uploading and downloading files takes just a couple of clicks.
Some of the other hosting sites I mentioned also provide easy ways to store documents. For example, on both Weebly and Google sites, you can upload documents directly to your website, where students or parents can download them via a link. This takes out the “middle man” step of the box.
Educational websites and outside content
Several of my students’ parents mentioned that they want to see links for educational websites that can be used with their children. And if your school uses a program with an online component, such as Accelerated Math or Accelerated Reading, parents may want easy access to that website through yours. Providing links to online textbooks or other references can also be helpful.
My website includes a list of interesting or educationally valuable websites that I know my students would enjoy exploring, even if the topics are not necessarily part of our course content. My students have to use these websites for class projects on occasion, but I have students who choose to explore some of them on their own. Additionally, these lists of valuable content are extremely useful when you’re doing a lesson in the computer lab and you have students finish early. You’ll already have a large selection of approved educational websites from which they can choose to enrich their extra time.
This article presents a number of important points to keep in mind when creating a classroom website, but there are an infinite number of ways to do this effectively. I’d like to share some examples of websites that fulfill the desires of parents.
First, my class website. As mentioned, I use WordPress blogging software to manage my website. My students’ parents have mentioned that they like the fact that the information is organized into easily understood categories and that there is one place to look for homework. The posts on the main page tend to be class assignments and other announcements particularly for students. Despite the fact that these are designed for students, parents have told me that they enjoy seeing some of the classroom assignments via this tool. One of my colleagues uses a different format for his website. His site was created using a Microsoft software program called Front Page. Our county has a license to use Front Page, and it was the original way that many teachers created their websites. Unless you have Front Page at your school and at home, I would not recommend using it to create your website. It is not very intuitive to use, and you have to have the software on the computer you are using in order to edit your site. Using the web tools I discussed above, you can edit your site from anywhere with an internet connection. I’ve included this website as a design example because it is clearly organized with obvious links, categories, and homework information. Finally, this example shows a site created using Blogger.com. One of the great things about this blog is that the teacher uses it both for providing information and class news to parents, as well as for providing a forum for student work. Near the top of her website, you can see the important links as well as a class message. If you scroll down, you can see an embedded Google homework calendar created by this teacher and her team of colleagues. Below that is the portion where the teacher uses it to highlight her students’ work on a project called “Explore North Carolina.”
In all of these examples, you’ll notice many of the elements I’ve mentioned — organization, timeliness, nightly homework, long-term calendars, and feedback options. Despite the fact that all of these teachers work at the same school, you can see that each website shows the individual teacher’s personal style and flair. Whether the site is very simple and straightforward or looks more elaborate, the important elements for parents are present.
Setting up a website can be an intimidating experience for someone not experienced with the internet and some of the newer tools. However, if you’re a beginner who’s ready to try this on your own, a number of the tools I’ve mentioned here are very easy to use. Weebly, in particular, is quite intuitive — plus it offers the advantage of allowing you to create both a traditional website as well as an interactive blog component. If you are a little more advanced, you might try one of the other blogging websites to get started with your classroom website.
In any case, it might be a good idea to seek out a colleague at your school who can help guide you through the process. This person may be your school’s technology facilitator or media coordinator, or you may just find some teacher who is the “unofficial tech guru.” Using the tips in this article and assistance from an experienced mentor for the “techie” stuff will lead you to develop a fantastic website for parents. You will find that your communication with parents will improve — and, therefore, so will the success of your students!