“In a Million Words or Less, Tell Me about Your Child…”
A MiddleWeb Classic
A Million Words:
A Wonderful Activity to Connect with Parents
(Updated August 2021)
The Million Words activity basically works this way: In the first month or so of school, the teacher asks parents to tell you about their child, in “a million words or less.”
Sounds simple – and it can be very powerful – but as you’ll see in a MiddleWeb Classic conversation from 2003, there are many permutations. Fortunately for all of us who want to try this idea, this particular MiddleWeb listserv chat was populated by a group of insightful folks, many of whom had tried the Million Words tool — and in a variety of different school settings and contexts.
We’ve captured the conversation in this MiddleWeb Million Words Resource (PDF). Feel free to download it, check out the links, look at the sample teacher letter at the end, and visit the Education World page where our chat and other related activities are considered.
The teacher-parent-child relationship is an “evergreen” topic. See, for example, this 2012 article at the New York Times blog Motherlode: “When to Brief the Teacher, and When to Bite Your Tongue.” And this 2015 article by teacher (and Million Words user) Cheryl Mizerny, who shares many tips for strengthening the classroom/home connection.
In 2021, the Edutopia website made a Million Words video sourcing our background materials and featuring middle school teacher Cathleen Beachboard who highlights her use of the strategy and the payoffs she’s experienced. Cathleen is also the co-author of 10 Keys to Student Empowerment (Routledge, 2019).
Our take-away is this: Many parents want to tell teachers about the things that make their children unique. This activity can open that door for them! While the original Million Words concept was conceived prior to the rise of social media and virtual platforms for parent communication, it’s easily adapted to contemporary modes of engagement.
Love this! We started school last week, and I gave my parents a homework assignment as well! My parents had to email me back with 5 adjectives that described their child. They love to brag, and had a hard time stopping at 5! I wish I had seen this first.. although I learned a fair bit in 5 adjectivesl! :)
I’ve seen this idea before and have always found it both fascinating and a bit scary at the same time.
Has anyone got a copy of the letter they send out to the parents that has worked well within their school that you’d be willing to share?
There’s one sample letter in the PDF file, at the very end. And in the conversation transcript, several folks talk about what they put in the letter. There’s also some thoughtful discussion about what not to say and how to keep this activity positive and sensitive to the many situations that students live in.
We also highly recommend the Education World article that’s based in part on our MW conversation:
We’d love to hear about other letters – please post here in the comments or share a link to your own blog or file. Just paste the link in and we’ll make it active (or you can code it if you know how!).
Here is one I give to kids http://goo.gl/4lJK7 and one for parents http://goo.gl/PXiaU, and their answer does not always have to be written http://goo.gl/AZImCY
We spotted several tweets about this activity when we mentioned it (as an ‘oldie but a goodie’) on Twitter yesterday. Julie Bauer (@jbteachr) said that “I’ve been using this for YEARS! I save them and review periodically throughout the year. Each submission is a treasure!” And Rhonda Deighton (@mardieteach) wrote: “Maybe an oldie, but I just heard about this a couple of years ago, & have used it since. I learn so much & parents love it 2.”
I have done this for about 6 years now — I teach Middle School English.
The responses are incredible. Parents, guardians, or grandparents either email, write, or dictate to me what they want to say. The love, concern, caring that this letter evokes regardless who is writing is overwhelming. I learn so much about the child, adult, family situation that it may be the single best thing I do for a child when I request this. Children are so excited when they bring the letters in. I actually shared the last year’s letters with students’ next year teacher this time to thread the understanding that I achieved to the new teacher.
No parent really wants homework!!! Their lives are busy enough!!!
true, but how nice and how rare to be asked about your child as if you and your child matter so so much!
Read Rick Wormeli’s views on “smart homework” here at MiddleWeb. Teachers should both respect parents’ time and respect the role parents have in supporting their child’s education at school and at home.