The following piece is based on a conversation we recently had with Heejae Lim, Founder and Executive Director of TalkingPoints. As a Korean immigrant student, Heejae saw first-hand the difference between her friends with English-speaking parents who were deeply engaged in their education versus non-English speaking parents who struggled to be involved. Previously, Heejae worked for McKinsey in the areas of government and education reform. She began prototyping the idea for TalkingPoints while working at the New Schools Venture Fund. She is also a graduate of the Stanford School of Business and Oxford.
Currently, there are 5 million ELL students in the United States and that number could more than triple by 2030. Furthermore, many of these students are concentrated in low-income areas where studies suggest families are 50% less likely to receive communication from their schools. Every teacher knows the importance of family engagement (in fact, it’s twice as effective at predicting a student’s success as socioeconomic status), but it becomes a lot more difficult to achieve when teachers and parents are faced with language barriers.
And that’s why Heejae Lim created Talking Points! Given her own experiences as a Korean immigrant student, Heejae knows the importance of parental involvement in getting ELL students to succeed at school.
So what exactly is TalkingPoints? And how does it work?
TalkingPoints is a multilingual texting platform that elegantly connects teachers and families in more than 20 different languages. It allows teachers to communicate with a diverse set of families knowing that the messages they send will be converted to a parent’s preferred language and that parents can reply back in their native languages (knowing the message will be translated back into English for the teacher). Better yet, TalkingPoints’ easy-to-use platform allows teachers to manage these communications from their web browser or mobile devices just like you would an email box. And best of all, it's completely free for educators!
It’s also easy for teachers to quickly set up their class rosters – there’s two ways they can go about doing this. The first way is for teachers to manually input phone numbers for each parent, selecting a preferred language for each along the way. The second way is for parents to reply to an opt-in text message and designate their language through that process.
And it turns out TalkingPoints is being used by more than just teachers. Heejae told us that there are all kinds of school personnel who have regular interactions with families utilizing its platform – counselors, after-school program coordinators, parent engagement liaisons, coaches, and more!
The next item we asked Heejae about was how TalkingPoints actually completes its translations. And the answer she gave us was a bit surprising.
It turns out TalkingPoints uses several different systems to ensure its translations are accurate. For instance, it makes sense that TalkingPoints would employ publicly available translation services (like Google Translate). But the surprising part was that it also uses a few systems of its own, including a team of translators who work to verify and improve the accuracy of batches of messages.
Heejae went on to tell us that publicly available translation services still have significant accuracy issues. And that when you combine those with abbreviations, slang, and spelling mistakes, the existing technology has a really difficult time deciphering what’s being communicated. As a side note, one of the ways TalkingPoints measures the accuracy of its translations is to compare the difference in response rates from English and non-English texts. Turns out, they’re the same (which means TalkingPoints is working pretty darn well).
What are the other TalkingPoints features that you should be aware of?
The first one is the TalkingPoints scheduling tool. This really cool feature allows teachers or users to designate the time at which texts are sent out. For example, when a teacher completes their planning for the day (or week), they can schedule messages to go out to parents at the same time their students would arrive home with the day’s homework. In this way, teachers can complete their communication and planning tasks at the same time.
The platform also has a “Help Me Understand” feature. The way this works is that if a message is unclear or incomprehensible, a teacher can hit this button and the thread is sent off to the TalkingPoints human-translation team. This does mean that there will be a lag between the time the message is sent and received, but Heejae assured us that most messages are translated and delivered in under an hour. Furthermore, teachers have another option to “Send it Now” for any messages that are urgent.
To finish our conversation, we asked Heejae to share any unique or surprising stories from TalkingPoints users.
She shared with us a story from Kansas where a teacher had several students in class whose parents were farm workers. One day at school, there was a tornado warning and these students wanted to make sure their parents were aware of it (so they could seek a safe shelter). Knowing that their teacher had TalkingPoints, the students asked her to send their parents an urgent message. She did and shortly after the parents responded that they were on their way to find cover.
So not only does TalkingPoints solve one of the biggest problems in the world of parental engagement. But it might also be saving a few lives as well . . .
To illuminate the TalkingPoints platform, Heejae shared with us the following example of a text thread between a teacher and the parent of a Chinese student: