With perilous uncertainty plaguing our education system at this time, we must do all we can to inform and include students as we make major decisions about their learning. It should begin with a radical overhaul of the way that educators interact with students — one that is rooted in texting.
I run the texting campaign for a network of public schools, and I assure you that students and families have critical questions around navigating their education, ones they desperately want answered. Are buildings open or closed? Will fully remote learning end? When can I apply to high school?
It’s time for the Department of Education to step up to the plate and implement a texting campaign so that we can untether timely information from the power structures that bind it, and in so doing, help us talk to and hear from our public school students in authentic ways. Only then can we finally begin to educate all students in New York City.
Surveys show teens text. More than half of them text either a few times an hour or “almost constantly.” In fact, they text more than they check social media. Black and Hispanic teens prefer texting to in-person communication, as do teens from lower- and middle-income households.
Teenagers learn and grow relationships through this seemingly trite and transactional medium because no matter what we older generations think, it’s not trite. It’s not transactional. It is transformative. And if we truly want to support and educate all students, it’s time we learned about and leaned into who they are.
Instead, our public schools are stuck in embarrassingly old means of communication. They’re emailing surveys to parents. Reading Gen X and Boomer picket signs. They’re making anachronistic guesses about what students need, not informed decisions. Educators should know better.
When Black and Brown lives are at stake, anachronistic guesses are dangerous. They’re also symptomatic of a system overridden with racial inequities.
New York City public schools have had a longstanding problem in effectively disseminating information to families, and this pandemic has only made it worse. This system was not set up with Black and Brown students in mind, yet they make up the majority of New York City’s public school system.
Texting can address these inequities because it enables students to voice their needs and helps them remember that they do matter.
Imagine period, daily polls directly to students on their phones. Who do you trust most? What device do you use to complete work? Where do you study? When do you feel most productive? How quickly can you type? Why are you consistently late? Simple questions can provide quick answers that lead to transformative change.
I bet you didn’t know that most Black and Brown students don’t ask for help because they fear being perceived as needy. Or that many write their essays on phones because they don’t have functional computers, and even if they did, no one ever taught them how to type anyhow. We at the Urban Assembly know this and so much more because we’ve been texting thousands of students for years.
Rather than leaning on our assumptions, we need information — data — that can help us raze the old and fashion the new. That information lives inside a student’s head. Texting can get it out.
Texting campaigns are cost-effective and importantly, they’re neither complicated nor risky. A group of program managers design scripts catered to various groups: middle schoolers, high schoolers, students with more than two suspensions, students who are chronically tardy, etc. You can group them however you want.
The scripts are then loaded into a texting platform that automatically pushes them out at scheduled times about twice a month. September texts might ask students what technology they have in the home. October ones remind them about exams and link to a study resource.
These are two-way communications — they’re designed to encourage a response. In the winter when students are tired, you ramp up emojis and gifs to make them smile and to see how they’re doing. Maybe you ask if they learn better with teachers who look like them. And just as importantly, you ask them why, and then actually listen to and learn from the answer.
Texting is not shallow or silly or some passing fad. It is a valuable education tool that’s deeply entrenched in the lives of millions of kids. And it’s about time we started using it.
To begin, we have to admit that this world has changed so drastically in one generation that we just don’t know what 21st-century students need. Let’s fold ourselves into their lives and see the world from their point of view. It’s time to affect systemic change in our public schools: authentically, from the inside out.
Fiorelli is deputy director of alumni success at The Urban Assembly.