Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Zen of Parent Conferencing

I will never forget the first parent conference of my teaching career. I was teaching in a junior high school in Orlando, Florida when I received a memo in my teacher mail box requesting my presence at a conference with the parent of one of my students. The memo was from the assistant principal and contained only the location and time of the conference and the order to bring along my grade book. My undergraduate course work had never mentioned how to interact with parents, so I didn’t really know what to expect from the upcoming meeting. When I arrived at the conference, I was joined by the assistant principal, five other teachers, (none of whom I knew), and one very intimidated mother.

The small room where the conference was held had no table. The participants sat in chairs placed around the perimeter of the room, reminiscent of the way Saudi sheiks greet their visitors. Each teacher opened their respective grade book and listed missing assignments and low test grades, and then offered the advice that “Johnny” needed to do his homework, study for tests, and pay attention in class. The mother, eyes lowered, purse clutched tightly in her lap, seemed to be bracing for a blow as each teacher delivered the news that her son wasn’t making the grade in any class. I’m ashamed to say that when my turn came, I followed the example of my colleagues. W
hen the conference ended I had the uneasy feeling that I had participated in a mugging.

Some version of this scenario was repeated in every conference I attended until I arrived at Brookside Middle School in Sarasota, Florida. I was assigned to a team of wonderful teachers led by Steve Batchelor. Steve had a totally different approach to parent conferences. He opened every conference by making introductions and assuring that the parents knew each teacher by name and subject area. He then asked parents to share what their concerns were and listened with sincerity to what the parents had to say. Although he had his grade book, it was never opened until the parent asked about grades or until the issue of grades became central to finding ways to help the child succeed. Most of the conferences I attended with Steve ended with smiles, laughter, handshakes, and a plan of action to help the student achieve success.

Over the years, I have sought to develop Steve’s sensitive approach to working with the families of the children I teach. Becoming a parent myself and attending a few unproductive conferences, (with my eyes lowered and my purse clutched tightly in my lap), helped crystallize the way I think about parent conferencing. I have come to believe that meeting with parents is an opportunity to fulfill my spiritual mission as a teacher. Through these meetings, I get a chance to connect with families and make a positive difference in the lives of the children I teach.

I open each conference with introductions, and never assume the parents know all the teachers. Then I ask the parent to begin the conference by sharing their concerns or observations. I’m sure to convey to the parent that as a teacher, I am working as their partner in helping to educate their child. I respect parents. I go into every conference believing that even the least advantaged parent loves their child and is trying to be the best parent they can be. I reserve any other judgment until I know otherwise. I acknowledge the parent’s role as their child’s first teacher, and communicate to the parent that I see them as the expert on their child.

So many parents come into parent/teacher conferences in a defensive mode. No doubt this comes from their previous experience or just the stirring up of old memories of their school days when they had little authority over their own lives. I want to disarm these parents. Sometimes it’s my error that’s causing the defensive attitude. If so, I’m not afraid to admit when I’ve made a mistake. Teachers make hundreds of decisions each day. Once in a while I’m bound to make a bad one. I admit this and look for ways to make corrections. This honesty has never failed to help build a positive relationship with parents.

Many times in middle school, students attend the conference. Whenever they do, I recognize their discomfort and make every effort to communicate to them how much they are valued by their parents and teachers. There is nothing more rewarding than watching a child who thought his teachers couldn’t “see” him suddenly recognize he is surrounded by adults who truly care about him and his success.

It is important that each conference concludes with a plan of action. What will each participant agree to do to bring about the changes needed? The plan everyone agrees to should be realistic. A few days after the conference, it’s a great idea to phone home or send an email to report on progress and show parents I'm are holding up my end of the bargain. The effort I show helps the parent and the child follow through at home.

In every parent conference, I attempt to reveal to the parent my sense of who their child is and who their child is trying to become. Each morning when parents send their son or daughter off to my classroom, they are sending me the most important part of their lives. I want parents to know that I get it, and I’m honored to be a part of their efforts to raise the best human being possible.

All of this insight into building successful relationships with my students and their families began in the early stages of my career with the fortuitous circumstance of working with an experienced and compassionate teacher like Steve. Just as I hope to have a positive impact on my students, Steve has had a lasting and very positive impact on my life as a teacher.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Is it Rigor? Or is it Something Else?

There’s a lot of talk in education circles today about rigor. Educators all over America are frantically waving copies of Thomas Friedman’s, The World is Flat, as they attempt to awaken their colleagues to the impending doom our nation faces if we do not deliver a rigorous and relevant education to every American child. Politicians talk about the need to return rigor to the classroom. Parents demand rigorous programs for their children. School administrators performing classroom walk-throughs look for signs of it, and teachers are resolutely attempting to prove their lessons are full of the stuff.

But what is rigor?

Let’s start with what it is not. Rigor is not fifty math problems for homework when fewer will achieve mastery. Rigor is not more worksheets for the student who finished the assignment early. Rigor is not using a seventh grade text book with your high performing sixth grade students. Rigor is not covering more material in a shorter period of time. Rigor is not cold or impersonal. And most of all, rigor is not just for a select group of students.

So, what is rigor? The most concise definition of rigor I’ve encountered is taken from Teaching What Matters Most: Standards and Strategies for Raising Student Achievement by Richard W. Strong, Harvey F. Silver and Matthew J. Perini, ASCD, 2001. According to Strong, Silver, and Perini, “Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous, provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.”

Isn’t it ironic that this definition of rigor presents the possibility that even an advanced placement course may not be full of rigor? While the curriculum may be complex, time may not be given to allow the content to reveal its ambiguous, provocative, or personally and emotionally challenging nature. And because of this, students are simply memorizing huge chunks of facts, regurgitating them onto an AP exam, and then forgetting them forever. How discouraging it must be for both the teacher and the student to expend so much time and energy and have so little to show for their efforts.

But do we really need all this rigor? Can we just set it aside for our gifted and high achieving students or as we say in Florida, our Level 4’s and 5’s? Strong, Silver, and Perini make clear that a rigorous learning environment is for every student. Their findings show “the decision to withhold rigor from some students is one of the most important reasons why schools fail.” (Strong, Silver, Perini, 2001)

What is the mind set that would consciously design a system where some students receive a rigorous education and others do not? I don’t want to think about the history of class distinction, prejudice, tradition, and countless other factors that might have lead us to such a system. But I do want to think about what it will take to ensure that every American classroom provides the kind of rigorous learning environment that will guarantee all our students’ ability to successfully compete in the flat world in which they live.

Think about what kind of teaching methods will allow teachers to deliver their curriculum in ways which meet the requirements of rigor set out by Strong and company. Then factor in the skills we must help our students acquire so they may successfully encounter curriculum on this level.

We’re talking about instructional delivery methods like project based instruction which use an inquiry model to empower students to seek their own answers to important issues, create models that represent their findings, and explore ways their discoveries can make a positive difference in the world. We’re talking about classrooms that find ways to be connected to the world, whether or not they use the latest technologies, to help create those personal and emotional synapses that motivate students to embrace challenging curriculum. We’re talking about classrooms where students are taught the strategies they need to attack challenging text, detect bias, gather relevant information, and decide how to put what they’ve learned to work in a useful way.

But we’d better do more than talk. It’s time, really past time, that we make the changes that create these wonderful classrooms. If you’ve got ideas on ensuring rigor for every student, I want to hear them. Our combined efforts can have a powerful positive influence on the future of American schools.