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Overview and key findings: Texting for Rapid Youth Support

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Teachers and students analyzing texting in June 2011

Written by Mica Pollock (2009-11 work), Uche Amaechi, Maureen Robichaux, and Ted O'Brien for the texting project, with input from students piloting texting at Full Circle/Next Wave

Click here for the Summary on this project; click here for the Expanded story on this project.

Contents

Communication we hoped to improve

What aspect of existing communication did we try to improve, so that more people in Somerville could collaborate in young people's success? How’d it go?

(Who was involved in the project and how was time together spent? What did the project accomplish?)

In the texting pilot, Somerville students, teachers, and local researchers all set forth to learn how texting might enable youth and supporters to communicate rapidly to support students' personal and academic progress.

Students and teachers analyzing (anonymized) examples of student-teacher texts: Research Day at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, April 2011

Of the various technologies in our lives, it is cell phones that are with us all day, and keep us most connected and available. Texting (often called “SMS”) and other mobile text based communications (like instant messaging) give people particular control over when and where they communicate. In theory, people can review and respond to texts at their leisure--in the evening from home, or over the weekend/after sports practice. But a text is particularly hard to ignore, and responses to texts often arrive in seconds -- which is why in summer 2010, Somerville students told us to try texting for rapid youth support (see the full story here.)

They were on to something: texting has been shown to be a particularly used channel for youth communication today. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center study on teenage use of mobile phones, teen use of texting has increased dramatically since 2006 (Campbell et al, 2010). Between 2006 and 2010, the percentage of all teens that used text messaging doubled from 27% to 54%. The only other communication medium that increased during those dates showed more muted gains: cell phone calls increased from 34-38% and the use of social networking sites increased from 21-25%. While calls remained a “critically important function” for teens, especially when communicating with parents, teens were clearly taking to texting in a much more dramatic way than any other communication medium. By 2009, the use of texting had increased among young people between the ages of 12 and 17: on average, older teens were even more likely to text than younger ones (Campbell et al, 2010). Furthermore, the Pew Polls have found that 70% of teens use texting to do "things related to school work," and a smaller but more dedicated 23% of teens use texting for school at least daily. Texting seems to be used more for general school-related communications than for detailed discussions of assignments and homework: 30% of all students and 45% of poor students specifically report never texting about school assignments (see Campbell, S., Lenhart, A., Ling, R., Purcell, K., 2010. Teens and Mobile Phones. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Teens-and-Mobile-Phones.aspx).

In its small character capacity, texting may not be an obvious choice for discussions of the details of homework. But we thought that as a channel for anytime sharing of basic information and typically informal, individualized information about life and school experiences, texting might be able to support the sort of ongoing personalized attention we know is necessary for supporting young people in schools (http://studentsatthecenter.org/papers/personalization-schools).

Still, do a Google search for student-teacher texting and most of what you will find is fear: districts considering bans on texting or teachers quietly posting updates about their own personal experiences with trying it. Many view texting as an inappropriate mode of communication between teachers and students, for several main reasons. To many adults, texting feels like a “youth”-owned medium. Texting also extends the boundaries of potential communication with students outside the school day and into teachers’ own afterschool lives. Also, because texting really feels like a private “tube” between two people, the sort of support texting can offer immediately seems particularly personal. That privacy is exactly what scares some people about misuse: teachers and students somehow seem more “alone together” while texting (even though in some ways, private classroom conversations after school are even more “alone” -- texting records actually record interactions between youth and teachers, for review and safety).

Instead of just fearing texting, we decided to learn together what it could offer public school communities. So, we – teachers, researchers, and students -- rolled out a texting pilot with 40 students across multiple classrooms. As we describe in more detail in the Expanded story, although some teachers in Somerville weren’t ready to try texting for reaching their students, these students and teachers were. They really were pioneers in testing how a communication tool already in the hands of most young people in the building could be pulled in for everyday student support.

In some ways, our site -- Full Circle/Next Wave, Somerville’s alternative high/middle school -- is a special school: all teachers work in what our participating high school teacher Ted called “teacher-counselor mode” and expect personal support relationships as part of their job. Each teacher has a co-counseling group that meets twice a week, where he/she gets to know more about young people’s personal struggles. Teachers work in a “triangle” with clinicians and students’ other counselors. But really, teachers at FC/NW simply are encouraged by their school to build teacher-student support relationships, something every teacher has to do but may not have the time or the administrative support to do. And to Ted and Mo, texting seemed like a possible way to supplement that student support effort.

In 2010-11 and again in 2011-12, we have been testing one-to-one (private) texting between teachers and students; and secondarily, between students and graduate student mentors from the Harvard Graduate School of Education who helped us connect to the students to check in. We’ve used Google Voice, a free service that records all of the texts in teachers’ inboxes. This setup allowed two academic researchers in the group (Uche and Mica) to review the texts along with co-researcher teachers Mo and Ted, to see if they were helpful -- with students’ advance, overall permission. (GoogleVoice also gives teachers a separate phone number, so they’re not using their personal phone.)

Since starting, we’ve seen student-teacher texting after and before school take off successfully with middle and high school youth.

Our work, and our ¡Ahas!

What was the basic groundwork needed to support the current work? How did the project change and grow over time? At this point, what are our main ¡Ahas! about improving communications in public education? What communication and implementation ¡Ahas! and turning points did we have over time?


Mo and Ted, texting teacher pioneers, with Uche and Mica. . .and donuts

Design based research is usually about proceeding in very clear “stages” to test something. As stated earlier, we originally wanted to test rapid support communications among a “team” of youths’ chosen supporters (see the Expanded story for details). We began in 2009-2010 with testing a school-based online social network and eventually moved toward testing one-to-one texting between students and teachers instead in 2010-11, with the vision of testing out “team” texting next by adding one youth supporter at a time. We found student-teacher texting so fruitful that we focused primarily on it for the next two years!

So, our work proceeded in stages and also in a rolling manner over several years, based on ongoing reactions to Somerville students’ and teachers’ insights and interests re. support communications that might assist youth.

Throughout, we kept our core questions constant. Who needs to share which information with whom, to support a young person? What are the barriers to that communication, and how might those be overcome? And, we came to ask: how might texting enable (or not enable) the rapid, personalized exchanges of information and caring often so needed to support young people?

Note: Unlike in our Eportfolio pilot, where the goal was to create ePortfolios that would succeed and stick at Somerville High School, we decided in this case not to “make sure texting works, by doing whatever is necessary to make it work.” Instead, we wanted to explore how teachers and students would use (or NOT use) texting in youth support, if they were just explicitly invited to text for school-related communication. We also wanted to know if some type or series of communications could help make a young person more connected to school or more successful academically.

So, in a nutshell, we offered the channel and waited to see what everyone would do with it. We didn’t push any particular use of the texting, but instead kept talking actual uses. Mo, Ted, and the students became a research team with Uche, Mica, and the HGSE students, together exploring the use of texting in rapid youth support. We put our Ford support resources into stipending teachers $25/hr (2 hrs/week) for their extra time piloting the tool and analyzing data, paying kids back with food and $25/each for a formal “research day,” and supporting Uche to coordinate the pilot. (We felt it was important not to pay students or teachers TO text, because then we would have had no idea if texting was a natural thing to do. Instead, we stipended participants as researchers of texting data.) For course credit, HGSE students checked in on the students and acted as anytime mentors for young people who wanted to share questions or thoughts via texts. We also agreed to line up tutors or mentors for anyone who wanted one and did for several students—though as we mention in the the Expanded story, logistics and low youth interest later fizzled that plan.

We held regular focus group conversations with students and teachers to analyze how the texting was going for them. HGSE students also informally interviewed the FC/NW students a few times a month, over donuts at the school. Uche and Mica talked with Ted and Mo, Uche texted regularly with Ted and Mo himself, and Mica took on a “team” of students as a texting partner. Everyone was invited to analyze anonymized transcripts of the texting conversations together in two Research Day events, the first held at Harvard and the second held at the FC/NW building. In 2011-12, new teachers entered the texting pilot, and youth and HGSE graduate students co-ran a Media class further exploring youths' use of texting and other media.

So, we have tried texting between teachers and individual students; next wishes include trying mobile messaging to support communication among a “team” of supporters of students’ choice.

In our pilot of one-to-one student-teacher texting, our main ¡Ahas! over time have been these:

  • ¡Aha! Texting can provide anytime, anywhere, rapid youth support and also glue together student-teacher relationships regarding academics and school. The practical benefits of being able to reach people for check-ins and questions go hand in hand with the ability to build relationships outside the school day.
  • ¡Aha! Texting is a “common-denominator” tool that allows more students to communicate with teachers. People can use regular phones, smart phones, and computers to communicate via text message. And for youth, text based communications are often preferable to phone calls.
  • ¡Aha! Texting also supports personalized, two-way communication between youth and their supporters, about a range of school-related and life topics.
  • Main ¡Aha! To students, texts demonstrated caring because they demonstrated effort by both students and teachers to respond to the other. And as texting partners actively "cared" about the person on the other end of the line, texts could also make both partners care more about student success. As students and teachers both noted, texting allowed students and teachers to support each other as well as "bond," in ways crucial for solidifying students' commitment to both teachers and school. Students made it clear that the more they felt teachers cared about them and their success, the more they wanted to succeed in school -- and that texting helped solidify this confidence.
  • ¡Aha! All texts sent between school personnel and students are school "records," meaning they can be reviewed for safety and accountability as needed. At the same time, we're seeing that the feeling of quiet privacy that texting affords can jumpstart personalized support for students less likely to articulate their needs publicly in school.
  • ¡Aha! Articulating joint norms for safe and supportive texting is crucial. We brainstormed norms for safe and supportive texting together with teachers and students each time before starting our texting pilots in 2010-11 and 11-12. For example, we brainstormed rules for when texts could be sent, when responses could be expected, and what information should be "shared" by whom. In our pilots, both students and teachers were impressed with the level of "politeness while texting" that occurred. No one felt that inappropriate texts were sent.
  • ¡Aha! Go with those who are excited. In terms of motivation, it’s crucial to work with people who really want to communicate in a particular way! They are most likely to innovate the new piece of communication infrastructure. Starting with Mo and Ted in 2010-11 as teachers excited to try texting was crucial; other teachers later saw the potential for texting to reach students and joined in for 2011-12.

Most of the actual texts that prove these points can be found in the Expanded story, but we wanted to tempt you by showing you a few more examples of what supportive teacher-student texting can look like:

Teacher: Everything ok? 9:30 AM
Student: Ted? 10:39 AM
Teacher: Yup 11:02 AM
Student: Everythings alright I guess im gonna b in tm .. Is there anything I can do to put my grade up for your class 11:05 AM
Teacher: Be on time tomorrow, we'll talk then. 11:06 AM
Student: Alright 11:09 AM


Teacher: [Student,] do you still have the math book I gave you for homework? If you do let me know and [teacher] too 2:38 PM
Student: Ya I do 2:59 PM
Teacher: Use it! 3:27 PM
Student: Ok. I will 3:31 PM


Student: I just left my house right now so I'm going to b late 7:47 AM
Teacher: And I need to know this? 7:48 AM
Teacher: Hurry up! 7:49 AM
Student: Because I don't want you to worry 7:49 AM
Teacher: You miss school regularly silly goose 7:51 AM
Student: I came in all this week and collected points 7:54 AM
Teacher: Get here, we can celebrate 7:55 AM
Student: Hahaha okk I'm on cross street now 7:58 AM


Teacher: Like I said, you need to get it from him. Be on time for school today 7:00 AM
Teacher: You’re doing great 7:00 AM
Student: I will and u woke me up .thanks 7:01 AM
Teacher: You’re welcome 7:03 AM


Want to see more texts? See the Expanded story.


In discussions throughout the year and in focused data analysis meetings, student and teacher participants argued that texting had two key benefits: individualized, timely student support and the ability to strengthen student-teacher relationships. Students argued that supportive texts from teachers were giving them the motivation or information necessary to come to school on time, complete homework, remain aware of requirements, and participate in afterschool activities. Over the semester, we also saw texting teachers and students having more frequent, and deepening, conversations about school commitments and life struggles, both via text and then in person. In reviewing texts between students and university mentors, we began to see that afterschool supporters can also use texting to build stronger relationships with students and to communicate regularly about careers, jobs, and school persistence.

Overall, in Research Days and throughout the pilot, students and teachers argued that the main thing possible via texting was increased caring for the person on the other end of the line. Students and teachers pointed out that each flurry of texts between teacher and student was already evidence of “caring,” because each partner was taking the time to respond to the other. In their commentary on the teacher-student "bond" created through texting, they noted that texting also made the texters care more about one another.

In sum: most school districts are out to regulate and restrict texting and fear student-teacher texting as somehow inappropriate. We’ve seen that texting can simply extend relationship-building and student support outside of school hours. But this raises several overall questions for public schools. One: adults’ time. If gluing a relationship together outside of the school day helps young people do better in school, is it “worth” teachers’ time? Two: Where do the school walls end? If a teacher supports young people’s school success through wakeup texts or afterschool reminders, is this an appropriate reach into the home or out of the classroom? What if these small efforts improve the student-teacher interactions that then occur during the school day? While one-to-one communications seem particularly time-consuming in an era of limited resources, counterintuitively, the speed at which relationships can be built over this channel could counteract the “extra” time utilized to text. Three: appropriate student-teacher relationships. If good teaching requires strengthening relationships between students and teachers, how can students and teachers communicate via today’s most “friendly” media but still within age- and role-appropriate bounds of partnership? Might the relationships made possible via the extended communications of texting, enable the true holy grail of successful relationships inside the classroom? It may be that we need to actively define “appropriate” student-teacher relationships in the digital age. As Shelia, age 17, put it in this pilot, texting definitely put students and teachers more “on the same level,” but Mo noted that “the relationship” could also then snap back almost like a “rubber band” to teacher-student hierarchy in the classroom. Also, texting was definitely a “youth medium” when we started, but it may not be for long!

Communication and implementation ¡Ahas!, and turning points!

We had many ¡Ahas! in sequence on this project over three years. To read the full story of the efforts that gave us these ¡Ahas!, see the Expanded story.

Our ¡Ahas! about texting included the following.

¡Aha! Texting works when you can’t reach young people any other way for time-sensitive information.

¡Aha! Texting helps when students don’t have home phones or literally aren’t in school.

¡Aha! Texting can support communication about a wide variety of school issues. Texting can provide a conduit for private or sensitive youth-support conversations that could not be had in a more public sphere such as a classroom. Students can share private or sensitive information that they did not feel comfortable discussing a) in school b) around their classmates and c) around their friends. These issues can range the spectrum between purely academic to purely personal.

¡Aha! We began to see that students and teachers can build personal relationships via text that then support more successful school-based interactions.

¡Aha! Fundamental academic support, personal support, and light banter can occur in the same texting conversation.

¡Aha! Texting can build a relationship for school even if you are not talking about school.

¡Aha! Texting didn’t supplant face to face conversation. Often, the text was really just a portal to more informed face to face conversation.

¡Aha! As relationships grow, they are documented in texts!

¡Aha! Normalizing texting as something students and teachers can do makes it easier to strike up a supportive relationship with a young person, jumping over barriers of limited time.

¡Aha! The style of texts can put students and teachers “on the same level,” even as teachers remain teachers.

¡Aha! The many emotions possible via text can give students and teachers a range of ways to share their feelings.

¡Aha! Texting can provide students with more control over how they manage their emotions in conversations.

¡Aha! Concerns about students being “inappropriate” with the channel may be overblown.

¡Aha! Over and over, students noted that texts demonstrated caring because they demonstrated effort by both students and teachers to respond to the other. Texts also made both partners care more!

¡Aha! According to students, texting’s time commitment (for teachers) shows caring and builds relationship. But it also -- takes time.

¡Aha! Of course, if your support network uses your phone to reach you, you need a phone.

¡Aha! In our brief test of texting between HGSE students and the FC/NW students, we began to see that texting can support ongoing career mentoring, too.

¡Aha! Finally, face to face mentoring meetings can be really hard to schedule, making texting even more sensible.

Our products: Concrete communication improvements and next steps

We have successfully supported a pilot of student-teacher texting at Full Circle/Next Wave and have dozens of students and four new teachers now engaged in the work. The principal became interested in expanding uses of texting to include other current and former teachers within the school. While many teachers still didn’t know how to use a cell phone in fall 2011, some newly started to text. We joked in 2011 that maybe the principal himself would start using our texting “blast” to message his entire staff, but now the idea actually seems pretty sensible.

Both students and teachers say that we’ve all demonstrated that texting is a possible tool for communication with young people that mixes personal support, academic support, and everyday banter. We have realized so far that texting is a very natural and important channel not only for check-ins and updates not possible during the school day, but for a key, perhaps ultimate support: building a supportive relationship between student and teacher or adult mentor.

At our April Research Day at Harvard in 2011, Obens, one of the students, summed it up, arguing for “continuing” the texting the following year: “it shows connection. It’s really helpful --- it gets you like focused in school. It puts your mind on something and gets you focused. I’m passing (Ted’s) class – it gets you focused on this schoolwork. Like when Ted told me [via text] that I gotta come to school on time, get some reading credits – I started pushing myself, getting credits. That really helps.”

Later in the school year, Obens would point out that texting helped him focus overall on school, but couldn’t keep him focused during class – that was his next frontier for self-improvement. Many students also made clear that while improving student-teacher communication was key, linking in other people in their lives was crucial too. As Mica wrote to herself in February 2011 after a group conversation that followed texts with several individual girls, “note: several times in this conversation I felt the need to tell others in the school, things that I was texting about w/ an individual student, so that others could be pulled in for the collective support.” But which "supporters" should be pulled in, to discuss what, via texting or otherwise?

So, our next hope for 2011-12 was to see how texting could work with new student supporters -- to test texting “teams.” As we discussed with students how or whether to add next supporters to a texting conversation, we approached the issue with the following questions: Is the private and personal nature of communication via one-to-one text a key to its use for rapid student support? If so, can a group text together for youth support, or not? Throughout the pilot, one-to-one texting continued to feel particularly private (even while texts were reviewable by teachers and admnistrators, or by request, by parents)-- which was, perhaps, why so much relationship-building was possible over it. So, could a “team” use texting to communicate rapidly about student support, or would the “group” communication make texting less desirable? Which communications should be private, which public to a “team”? And who should be on a texting “team”? As one student said, she was now up for texting teachers but not for having her mom aware of her school related “business.” As Ted put it, to “honor the kids’ sense of privacy,” “which communications should go to parents? Which to kids? which to both?”

In fall 2011, Uche and teachers continued one-to-one teacher-student texting with additional teachers and youth and started teacher-full class texting. The group discussed how to best incorporate parents into the texting discussions. However, because of student resistance to the notion of including parents, and a general disagreement to agree on which adults in the students' lives to incorporate on texting "teams," we did not yet add next adult supporters to the texting conversation.

Resistance to including parents in texting was particularly heated for these middle- and high school students: in the media class we held together at FC/NW during the spring of the 2011/12 school year, students were quite clear that they would find it particularly weird if their teachers texted their parents. Texting was something that kids do, they argued at first. But texting with teachers was feeling more normal; beyond the "weirdness", students voiced several practical reasons why they felt teachers should focus on phone calls with their parents, not texts (although they expressed personal misgivings about this channel also, indicating that the ultimate issue may have been that for many of these students, parents simply were not optimal “support team” members). Most of the students felt that their parents were not tech savvy enough to use texting and would not read or engage deeply via texting. They also suggested that parents "wouldn't have enough time to text back." Students argued that voice communication could provide more flexibility for teacher-parent communication. Once the call is started, one student argued, parents and teachers are engaged in the conversation and "parents can just get to the point" faster through voice communication.

We did not work directly with FC/NW parents this year, but we will begin talking to middle/high school parents about their general tech use, as well as how they might envision interacting with teachers and school beyond the typical occasional phone conversations or automated voice mails (and robocalls); we engaged these issues with multilingual parents of elementary school students in the Parent Connector Network effort, and at that level, connecting regularly to parents via any media was a normalized idea. However, it must be noted that there was one minority report at the high school level: one High School student suggested that texting could potentially be preferable to some parents because they would be left with a written record of their conversations with teachers about their children. This last point is identical to a strength identified by teachers.

These questions of "team" support for middle and high school students via text (or other media) remain a next frontier for work.

Questions to Ask Yourself if You’re Tackling Similar Things Where You Live

What big issues would we recommend others think about in their own attempts to improve communications in public schools? Contact us to talk more!

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you want to tackle similar things in your school:

➢ In your school, when students have personal questions or needs, are there ways for them to privately and/or rapidly reach their supporters?
➢ How do teachers supplement their often-limited interactions with students during the school day?
➢ How much do teachers communicate with students and families outside of the classroom?
➢ What type of relationships and interactions do teachers have with their students, both in and outside of the classroom?
➢ What policies, structures, and norms do teachers and students have for interacting outside of class?
➢ Could texting help with rapid and/or more personalized/private youth support? What are your reservations about texting, and how might these be addressed?

If You'd Like To Try Texting In Your School--A Guide to Setting Up a Texting Pilot

Watch a video of one of our teachers discussion her experience with the project: [Teacher Testimonial]

by Uche Amaechi, Ted O'Brien, and Maureen Robichaux

This mini-Guide is designed to support teachers who might like to try texting in their student support efforts. We discuss some ways of creating classroom and school contexts for piloting texting as one tool for rapid, personalized youth support.

In the "Technological How-Tos" section at the end, this brief Guide also explains the rationale for using Google Voice or some other similar web or app based service for teachers, and explains how to set up and manage the service.

  • Note: This project is about how to incorporate text messaging into student/teacher communication outside of school. That is, we don’t discuss ways of using texting inside the classroom during the school day. We use the term text messaging and mobile messaging interrelatedly to refer to communication that is sent “on the go”, and that is short and text-based but not done via email. This kind of communication can be done through traditional phone based text messaging as well as through apps and the internet on phones and computers.
  • We also aren’t offering a formula for successful texting for youth support. We’re just offering a set of recommended points to consider when attempting to implement texting. Just as different construction projects might require different sets of tools to, say build a cabin vs. building an apartment building, different youth support or school contexts require different communication tools and strategies.
  • We suggest texting in an effort to meet the students where they are. Most students already have mobile phones and are good at using them to communicate with each other over text. Moreover, the students we worked with in this project explicitly prefer text based communication over phone based communication in most cases. Many students told us that they rarely talked on the phone or checked their voice mail. They felt that talking on the phone was often too confining--it was difficult to multitask while on the phone--and could be “boring” as people on the other end of the line “go on and on.” Texting, they said, allows them to read and respond at their leisure, when they want and how they want -- which is pretty frequently!
  • In our discussions with middle school and high school students, we have heard repeatedly from both groups that the general idea of texting with teachers sounds “weird.” Students describe texting as something they do with their friends, in their own language (i.e. jargon such as LOL, IDK etc.) and in their own space. However, after engaging in regular conversations with teachers via text in this pilot, many of the same students found the texting useful because it made them feel closer to the teachers -- it showed that the “teachers cared.” See the rest of the texting documentation for more on our findings on the potential for texting to help improve youth support communications and strengthen student/teacher relationships.

The basic context needed for successful “texting” includes:

1) Student access to and basic facility with mobile phones, and teacher access to/basic facility with mobile phones or computers (phones make the process much easier),
2) Existing friendship or basic relationship between students and teachers
3) Comfort or acceptance with the idea of interacting with each other outside of school time and space, and
4) Agreement on behavior norms for these interactions. A shared understanding of how students and teachers can benefit from texting is also helpful, though this understanding can be built through experimentation during the process.

In addition to that basic context, teachers must be willing to experiment with how this new “tool” might be incorporated into their existing practices and communication patterns. Teachers should understand that the texting is a tool for communicating in new ways, and not a solution for all challenges of relationship or interaction with youth. Texting with students is simply one more way of communicating with and building relationships with students. Viewed in that light, teachers should review their student communication and engagement strategies and consider where and how texting might supplement current approaches to interacting with students.

Teachers considering texting can discuss these topics with other similarly minded teachers and consider the following items:

  • Current school and district-level policies on teacher-student communication and, texting specifically.
  • Teacher and Student Privacy. What will your expectations be about what to do with texts? Who gets to see them? When would student safety mean that you should and should not share texts? Note that administrators and parents can request to see texts at any point as a matter of student safety. Define, clarify and share your initial expectations.
  • The potential benefits and challenges of texting’s unique affordances:
    • Unusually rapid communication.
    • Anytime/anywhere access to students, and vice versa.
    • Texting can save time, but it can also multiply the time/attention teachers give students and vice versa. Teachers and students now have access to each other beyond school hours and can potentially connect with each other individually in ways that weren’t feasible during the crowded school day.
    • The fact that conversations are recorded in a running record on both users’ phones or computers.
  • Teachers should also consider what type of additional support they might need from school and district administration:
    • Clarity on district policies about communicating with students, via text or any social media, or, after school hours
    • Time for training, learning and sharing and discussing experiences with other teachers
    • Direction and/or support on where to integrate texting into larger school or district communication strategies.

After teachers have had a chance to discuss the topics above, they should then sit down with their students to discuss the texting plan. Why are they trying out texting? What will they text about? When? Teachers and students should create a set of norms and expectations to help build a good context for successful texting. While the primary goal of the meeting is to establish norms and expectations as mentioned above, a secondary if not more important goal of the meeting is to start building trust between the students and the teachers: Trust that each party is speaking the same language regarding expectations and norms, and trust that each party is looking out for the best interest of the other--that they care about supporting each other as students and as teachers. That is, the point of texting between students and teachers should never be just “talking more” or, connecting privately outside of school hours -- it is to build student-teacher relationships that help improve upon current youth support efforts. While it is extremely important that students understand this last fact, teachers must also believe in the potential of communications to eventually help students trust that teachers are there to support their school and life success. This sort of trust is essential to laying the foundation for successfully engaging students in the classroom, via texting or not.

To help establish norms for texting and support trust building, the group can discuss:

  • Students’ opinions on communicating with teachers outside of school (students have particular ideas about adults’ and teachers’ facility and awkwardness with texting).
  • Students' opinions on having teachers contact them outside of school; when might that be helpful, when harmful?
  • Students' thoughts on texting adults in general and teachers in particular.
  • Time: how early and how late can people text? What days of the week?
  • What language is or is not acceptable?
    • Be particularly thoughtful here, as this can have a huge impact on how close the students feel to the teacher, how comfortable they feel and how much they engage and share.
    • Grammar is key. Students have created their own texting language replete with acronyms, slang and symbols. Will you request students to use proper grammar--i.e. no acronyms or slang? What type of grammar and syntax will teachers use? See above rationale.
  • Privacy: Define and arrive at a shared understanding of privacy and discuss what each group expects.
    • Be sure to explain who else might have access to view their texts. Policies and laws will require certain people to have on-demand access to the texting record as needed to support student safety and well-being: parents/guardians, and administrators. Also agree on under what circumstances you will (have to) report conversations. For example,
      • Mention of illegal acts
      • Mention of dangerous situations
      • Make sure to consider school policies first before having this conversation.
  • Given the discussion so far, what potential use cases might call for texting? Which feel appropriate to the group? e.g.,
    • Information sharing and request, about something related to student support or academic success (teacher to student and vice versa)?
    • Wake up calls --OK to contact re. tardiness and attendance?
    • Reminders? when are reminders “babying,” when helpful?
    • Homework help?

During this conversation with students, teachers should also discuss whether and when they plan to review the usefulness and effectiveness of the texting experience. Will teachers have monthly meetings? What will be the goal of these meetings? Will they include students in analyzing the texting pilot’s effects? (We found this particularly effective.) Letting students know that their input will be requested will likely engage them more.

At this meeting, teachers should also begin to craft a notice to parents to inform them of the texting and give them the option to opt their children in or out of the process depending on your school or district's requirements. Send an explicit permission slip or note home. Our permission slip invited parents to explicitly refuse participation in the texting pilot if they wanted to. No parents refused.

Regardless of the specific norms teachers and students set up, create a structure and process to discuss on a regular basis the outcomes of the texting effort. Teachers need time to reflect with other teachers that are trying out the texting. But equally if not more importantly, teachers must communicate and share with administrators and other teachers that have not participated in the texting. How are youth support efforts at the school going, via texting and not? Even if these other teachers do not overlap with texting students, keeping them abreast of the progress with texting could yield useful suggestions and could pique their interest in trying out various new youth support efforts. At least, that’s what we found!

If you set up a formal research pilot of texting at your school, you might even do what we did -- anonymize the texts and share them with students, to jointly analyze texting’s effects on youth support efforts and student success. If you decide to review anonymized texts this way, write that potential use into your permission slip. Make certain that no texts identifying any student are ever inappropriately shared.

Technological how-tos

Here's where we describe "how to" use every tool we used, so that others could do the same. We also describe "how to" make every tool we made!

Google Voice

We chose to use Google Voice for a number of reasons: it was free for teachers, it recorded all texts in one place for ongoing or as-needed review and for student safety, and, it allowed teachers to use a new phone number for the texting pilot instead of their personal phone numbers.

Google Voice provides a virtual phone number that can be used for texting and calling. All texts received at this number can be forwarded to any phone or viewed on a computer or through a smartphone app. When viewed on a computer or a smart phone, no texting charges apply. Unless they’re using a smartphone app, the person receiving your texts from Google Voice will be charged based on their regular texting plan.

Teachers can sign up for the service by going to voice.google.com and following the instructions. There are tutorial videos to explain the various features. The web interface pictured below is very similar to any web email interface. Instead of entering students’ email addresses into your contacts, you create contacts with students’ phone numbers.


Google Voice image.jpeg


Like any email program, Google Voice allows users to easily send text messages to multiple students (now limited to 5 at a time). Conversations with individual students will be seen in threads as shown above. Each individual text message is time and date stamped and this information will show up on the web and smartphone app interfaces. Unlike regular text messages which are typically linked to specific phones, text messages received through Google Voice are tied to an account and are consequently stored indefinitely.

Texts sent and received through Google Voice are also accessible by anybody with the account information. This share-ability allows administrators, parents/guardians (if they actively request this), or other adult supporters (by students’ permission) to have access to the communications, providing a level of transparency that is essential for liability and safety purposes. School and district policy may also determine which administrators appropriately can view these private texts.

At the same time that it provides transparency, the account interface also lends a level of privacy to the teacher, by allowing him/her to separate personal communication from school based communications. Students need never see or know of the teacher’s real phone number, and he/she has full access to blocking any unwanted communication. Furthermore, if students are made aware that all texting communications are recorded and shareable if necessary for student safety, students will likely limit any untoward behavior. Indeed, the teachers we worked with in this two-year pilot reported that there were no major misbehavior from the students, and the students also remarked often on how polite everyone was via text!

Click here for the Summary on this project; click here for the Expanded story on this project.