Today in my class, we talked about the variety of ways that our lens of what school is has changed (or not) dependent on generations. For instance, I never had technology to distract me at my desk – but that just meant that I was distracted by the writing and passing of notes folded into football or star shapes. It didn’t mean I wasn’t distracted. A student talked about hating the laptop in middle school so much that it ended up broken because all it was used for was typing papers, but then in talking about how technology was used in a high school physics class, the sentiment was totally different. Our views change as we see things used, and see things done in new and different ways. The seed for the conversation was from one of our texts, the Connected Educator, where the author talks about being a homeschooling parent who was mystified as to why other homeschoolers just ‘did school’ in a traditional way, only at home. (Desks in rows, books of worksheets, etc.)
As an educator, I have some strong opinions about education. As a parent, I have some strong opinions about my family. As an educator/parent, it can he hard to know where the line is, so I wanted to write up a wishlist of what I would like to see happening in the schools that my kids will attend, and what I hope my current students will take with them when they begin their professional practice. I actually discussed with my own students today that this post was brewing, and then when I scanned through my Feedly, there was a fantastic post at Edutopia that hit on a lot of the things I would add to my wishlist. What Parents Want You (Teachers) to Know. Go ahead and read. I’ll wait.
First, this was generated by asking parents directly “what do you want teachers to know?” Start there! Start with that! Schools should ask their families what they need to know. The concept of school is one of great authority, because of the lens most parents grew up with. And yes, we want children to respect their teachers and their classmates, but I do strongly believe that it is okay to advocate for your families needs. I don’t mean “My precious snowflake doesn’t like sauce on her pizza, so please carefully remove any traces of red from school pizza she is served,” but that it is okay to ask if you think that something is amiss, or if you want more information.
The key points in this article that made me jump up and down were these:
Please plan for us
I am active in the PTO, and the drum I find myself beating often is “but what about the working parents?” This has improved a LOT in the few years I’ve been involved in PTO, but so often an event would be held and the only notice would be “we’ll post it in the lobby and make an announcement!” But I am never in the lobby, except maybe once every two weeks when picking up after a club meeting, so I would never see those notices or hear those announcements. Several times, I would find a note in the backpack that says “Event tonight!” and, well, I’m a working parent, so that note would usually be found in the morning, by my husband who makes and packs the lunches. If the only notice of an event is a sign posted where some parents will never see it, or a same day backpack note, you cannot expect to have good turnout or participation. A great way to help with this is by thinking about “Meet us where we are,” below.
Homework must be meaningful — if given at all
I haven’t had to advocate about this yet, but I’m sure I will, eventually, based on conversations with others that have older kids. I read The Case Against Homework when I was in grad school, and used it to back up my own no-homework policies, and wish that it could be read by more educators. Similar to the “please plan for us,” with two working parents, we have limited time that is spent together as a family. Basically, I have about 2.5-4 hours between the end of the work day and my girls’ bedtime, and that will include dinner, special activities (and I am NOT an overscheduler – my 7 year old does one activity that meets once a week, and another that meets once every two weeks) playing outside (when we have the light to) reading, playing LEGO, eating dinner, asking (SO MANY) questions, bathtime (on bath nights), bedtime stories, errands, etc. And we are very lucky that we ARE a two parent family in a stable home, with jobs that align to the school day, for the most part (as opposed to shift workers that might not even be available in the evening). For kids who deal with two homes (or no homes) or have situations at home that are not conducive to learning, the challenges are even greater. Challenge Success (from a little place called Stanford University) has a great whitepaper on homework as well. I am also not fond of any decision being backed up with “but we have great test scores!” That’s great, great test scores, but at what cost? I am fortunate that my kids have recess in their schools (when I have colleagues in other states where recess has been totally eliminated, from K on up) and I would hate to see test scores trump recess and free play and opportunities for critical thinking and exploration and expressing creativity. See also: Race to Nowhere. I love their Healthy Homework guidelines, and this video (about 5minutes) basically sums up my own feelings about homework.)
Meet us where we are
This one? This one is huge. I teach my students how to connect with their students, and their students families, using technology, but I have gotten push back when I look for it from my own neighborhood school. There is a fear to use blogs “we can’t put up student pictures!” because there is a poor understanding of what blogs are. (I teach my students how to comply with fair use and FERPA when blogging, from the basic “don’t take pictures of kids” to “here’s how to blur a kid/identifying info out of a photo.”) I am envious when I see teachers/schools using 21st century tools to communicate with their community and families. I have had teachers that are very proactive in replying to email, and that is so appreciated, especially by the parent who is not able to take a call (but can scan an email quickly) or who doesn’t want to send sensitive info back and forth in a school folder with a kid who is both curious and a strong reader. In this part of the post, I thought it was interesting that the “Hard Copy Parent” was considered the one to be sure to accommodate, where I find that the HCP is the default setting for many schools. Pew Internet (a FABULOUS resource for all kinds of stats like this) just released a report yesterday that 15% of adults do not use the email or internet. But that ALSO means that 85% DO, and to default to the 15% is leaving out so many people. I’ve also heard “well, not everyone has a computer.” But technologies now mean that you don’t need A Computer to access internet resources. In fact, 1/3 of my students this semester do not own a computer, but rely on a mobile device to do most of their class work (in ALL classes, not mine) and then access a lab or a friend’s computer when they have to. Pew has some info on this, too. Asking someone if they have a computer does not answer the question “do you have access.” Again, defaulting to the lowest common denominator is easy, but I feel strongly that it’s not RIGHT.
One of the things I really stress in my own teaching is that teaching is about relationships. You need to have strong relationships with your students, their families, other teachers, and the community. Teaching can be SO isolating, and embracing the concepts of becoming a Connected Educator have an impact in all of those areas. And YES, teaching also takes a lot of time and energy and thinking about adding ONE MORE THING to someone’s plate may seem daunting, but the benefits are there. If you have connected with the families of your students, you don’t have to spend a parent teacher conference catching up on the basics, you can focus on expanding on what they already know is happening in your classroom. (When I have nontraditional students, I ask them – what does your kid say to the question “What did you do in school today?” and I swear, you could have had an assembly, a field trip to the Magic Kingdom, and ice cream sundaes for lunch and most kids will just say “Nothin’.” The parents I have taught always laugh at this, because it’s true.) When you can share the great things that are happening in your classroom, the bad days aren’t as bad. With classroom access limited more and more due to security concerns and academic concerns, parents still want to know what their child is doing in school. (And again, remember that there are many families that will never see the classroom because they work, and aren’t in the schools.) Blogging is such a great way to do that. With more classrooms/teachers being equipped with mobile devices, it’s easier than ever to do that! When we went to the Common Ground Fair, there must have been fifty school busses, and I saw several middle schoolers using their MLTI iPads to take pictures and video of the various events and exhibits. Imagine the blog post a teacher could make about their day or week!
October is Connected Educator month, and their (TOTALLY FREE!) Connected Educator Kit is a PDF that helps get educators started. (It almost reads like a crash course of the one that I teach – a lot of the resources they use are ones I use with my students, and in my own work.) If you need inspiration on teachers who blog, Kathy Cassidy is a terrific one. Not only does SHE blog, she has her first graders blogging.
I am fortunate that I have kids who love to learn, who love books and exploring and creating, and I am SO fortunate that my kids have low student-teacher ratios, access to art, music, PE, library, and recess, and a sense of community that comes from having a neighborhood school, where their friends are just around the corner or down the street. I see my friends in other states, California, Florida, etc, who have kids having much different experiences – a classroom of 30 kindergarteners with no para supports, for instance, or the Florida schools that have cut recess in favor of more seat time, and I almost don’t want to add to my wishlist. The largest class size we’ve experienced is 18, and that wasn’t til the end of the year when several kids moved into the school’s zone, for most of the year, she was one of 14. But I am also one who will always strive for more, and is always looking to improve on what already exists. I am still pretty early in my journey as an educator/parent, and I am hopeful that the next 15ish years in that role will see a continuing evolution of how our schools foster a spirit of learning and community. I hope that the lens of “this is how it’s always been done, so this is how we will always do it” will be adjusted, and that we aren’t just “doing school” they way we remember it, but embracing change and taking risks and connecting schools and families.