Stressful Excitement: When Families of our Students Visit the Classroom

When I was a student, the last thing in the whole entire world that I wanted, was for my parents to come to school with me.  That would have been a nightmare come true.  Thank goodness, in my public school, parents rarely attended classes or visited the classroom other than to drop off cupcakes when it was their child’s birthday.  Why was I so dead set against my parents visiting my classes, you ask.  Well, the embarrassment factor for one.  I didn’t want my mom to say something mom-like in front of my peers.  That would have been mortifying.  Things were different back in the 1980s and 1990s.  Parents were generally hands off when it came to the education of their children.  Families trusted the schools to do a good job educating their children.  It wasn’t until the twenty-first century that we saw a shift in the other direction.  Parents started taking note of what was happening in their children’s school.  Parents began visiting classes, frequently contacting teachers, and advocating for their children.  This shift in parent involvement in schools around the country made a huge difference in education: Schools and teachers were being held accountable, ineffective schools were being forced to change, charter schools were popping up everywhere, and students were more engaged in their learning than ever before.  Because parents began to get involved in the education of their children, students began to take their own education more seriously.  This change in how involved parents are in the education of their children has continued into 2018.  Parents are showing schools, teachers, and the government just how important education is to them and their children, and it shows as schools are continuing to grow and develop into places for learning and play as teachers are finding new and engaging ways to challenge and support all students.

As an educator, I love this change in parent involvement.  While I grew up in a very different time and would have hated if my parents were as involved as many parents are in the education of their children now, I have seen the benefits and positive side of this shift.  As I work at a boarding school, it is difficult for parents and families to attend classes or visit the school frequently, and so, I try to bridge this gap by keeping the families of our students constantly connected to what is going on in the sixth grade classroom.  I use the Remind application to send out updates on what is happening, daily, in each of our core classes.  I also have a class website, which I use to post pictures and weekly newsletters, informing parents of big happenings in the sixth grade and important dates to keep in mind.  Even though the families of most of my students are thousands of miles away, I want them to feel as though they are right in the thick of it all with us in the classroom.  I want the parents and guardians of my students to feel like members of our extended sixth grade family.  From all of the feedback I received over the years from parents and families, they absolutely love this constant communication and do feel closely connected to what is happening in the sixth grade classroom.

Although I do love having the parents and families of my students involved in our sixth grade program, when they come to visit classes during our Family Weekend events that take place three times a year, I find myself getting very anxious and nervous.  What if I mess up while parents are observing me?  What if I provide their children with false information?  What if I can’t remember what to do or say?  What if they think my class is boring?  Numerous negative thoughts enter my brain as these big weekends approach.  While I never have anything to fear because the parents already love how we are supporting and challenging their children, I find it hard to suppress these thoughts.

This past weekend was host to the Winter Family Weekend at my school.  Many families and parents descended upon our school Friday morning to attend classes and their sons’ parent/teacher conferences.  We had a slew of families visiting the sixth grade classroom Friday morning.  Although I had a solid class plan in place and knew exactly what I was going to say, butterflies seemed to fly around my stomach as if it was time to migrate south.  Why?  I’m an experienced educator and have been observed on numerous occasions by colleagues and parents.  Why do I still get so nervous and anxious when other people are in the room while I’m teaching?  Who knows, but it really does freak me out.  This time around, I tried taking some mindful breaths prior to teaching my class.  That seemed to help a bit, but I was still nervous for the entire double-block class.  The thing is, the class went great, as they usually do when I’m being observed.  The lesson was a big hit.  The parents loved what they saw and raved about my teaching and the class during their son’s student-led conference.  They feel lucky and honored to have their sons attending a school with such skilled and energized teachers.  So, I had and still have nothing to worry about when I’m being observed.  I know what effective teaching is, and so, as long as I keep challenging myself to grow and develop as an educator, all will be fine in my sixth grade classroom.

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The Power of Parents’ Weekend in the Classroom

When I was in school, I would have hated a day like my school had today.  My parents visiting classes and watching me?  That would have been horrible.  What if they said something?  What if I didn’t do the right thing?  That would have been one of the worst experiences of my life.  That being said, if parents visiting our classes was a part of my school’s culture back then, I would have accepted it as the norm.  It would have been okay with me.  Because it wasn’t a part of how my school did things, I didn’t have the kind of opportunities that my students have.  My parents didn’t have the chance to see me in action.  In retrospect, I wish my school had a Parents’ Day like the school at which I currently teach.  I wish my parents had a chance to see me work in school.  While I earned good grades, they never got to see me in the classroom.  Perhaps this would have helped.  Maybe they would have stopped bugging me to work harder in the classroom if they had been able to see that I was, usually, working hard in the classroom.

The school at which I teach has several days set aside for parents to visit the classes in order to see their sons in action.  While the classes are shorter on those days, they are great opportunities for the parents to see what we are doing in the classroom, how we do what we do in the classroom, and how their son works and behaves in the classroom.  While the students do sometimes tend to act slightly better when their parents are in the classroom, those students who struggle to stay focused or behave appropriately generally act that same way even when their parents are in the classroom.  These visitation days allow the parents a chance to see what we, as the teachers, see on a daily basis.

Today, marked the beginning of my school’s winter Parents’ Weekend.  The parents were invited to visit classes today.  Despite the shortened class periods, 25 minutes instead of the normal 40 minutes, the parents were able to see their sons in action.  It also allowed the parents the opportunity to see our methods as teachers in action.  Sometimes parents wonder why and how we cover the curriculum and question what we do in the classroom.  Days like today allow the parents to catch a glimpse of the magic that is our sixth grade program.  We wanted the boys to showcase their ability to think critically about the world around them while also displaying their fine ability to discuss a topic in an appropriate and meaningful manner.  So, today we had the students participate in a current events discussion during Humanities class.  After introducing and explaining a current event affecting Africa and other parts of the world, we had the students break into two small groups to discuss the guiding question: What can Botswana and other countries in Africa do to protect elephants from poachers?  The boys did a stellar job building on what their peers had said, using examples from the current event article, as well as sharing their own thoughts and opinions on the matter.  The students brainstormed some very cool solutions to the problem impacting the regions in Africa that have a large elephant population.  One of the students suggested putting a surveillance system in use to catch poachers in the act while also trying to protect the elephants.  Another student mentioned how those affected African countries could collect donations to build a fence or protected area for the elephants within their borders.  The students were thinking critically about the topic and guiding question while also trying to be appropriate with how they contributed to the discussion.  I was so amazed at the level of the discussion and the comments they made.  One student blew me away when he said, “Why do we, in the US, seem to care more about this issue than the people in those countries?”  Wow!  What an interesting perspective.  It was so great for the parents to be able to see of what their children are capable.  I do wonder sometimes, if parents only look at the grades and not what the students are actually doing.  We have an amazing group of sixth graders in our classroom.  They remind us of this fact on an almost daily basis.  And now, because the parents came to class today, they can see what we see too.

This fodder is then built upon during the student-led conferences, during which the students share their class progress with their parents via their eportfolios.  They talk about how they are doing in each of their classes, explain what they need to do to improve, and show samples of their work.  These conferences allow the students to truly own their learning.  Our students know exactly how they are doing in each of their classes and what they need to work on to improve.  It’s impressive.  While the students run the show during these conferences, we as the teachers do take the opportunity to talk about how proud we are of the progress the students have made since the start of the academic year.  We gloat about the boys.  It’s excellent.  It makes the students feel good and then the parents, again, get to see what we see from their sons on a daily basis.  In several conferences, the parents talked about how amazed they were by what their son had said in the current events discussion they had watched during our Humanities class.  They were so impressed by the level of discussion.  This allows great conversations to happen and feedback to be provided to the boys.  These conferences also have a hidden curriculum.  They help foster connections and discussions between the students and their parents.  While so many families struggle to communicate about school and the academic progress of their children, we in the sixth grade are trying to help build strong, healthy conversations about academic growth and progress amongst our families.  We want our students to talk to their parents about school and their progress in the classroom.  By starting these discussions in the classroom during the student-led conferences, they will hopefully continue long after the boys depart campus with their parents for the upcoming break.  As teachers, we are not spoon feeding information to our students and so why should we do that with the parents?  The students need to own their learning and take responsibility for it.  Student-led conferences allow for just that to happen.

While much work and preparation goes into days like we had today, they are so beneficial for the school, parents, and students.  The students get to show off their prowess as thoughtful thinkers, creative problem solvers, and great collaborators while the parents are able to talk to their children about school and their growth and development as students.  As teachers, we get to share our fine teaching practices and knowledge of effective pedagogy with the parents as well.  Days like today are win-win situations for all parties involved.  Every school needs to have Parents’ Days or Parents’ Weekends as they are fantastic opportunities filled with great power.

The Benefits of the Student Led Conference Format

As a student, I was never privy to what went on behind the closed doors of my classroom.  Back then, students were not allowed to attend their teacher conferences.  In fact, they were aptly named Parent-Teacher Conferences to imply that they were reserved for the parents and teachers only.  But what about me?  Why didn’t I get a say in the conferences?  Why wasn’t I able to explain my learning or talk about what I was planning to do to improve?  Might I have cared more about school and my learning back then if I owned it?  Imagine if I was able to explain to my parents what I was learning in school, how I was progressing towards the expectations and objectives, and what I needed to do to improve?  I would have really owned my learning and understood what was going on.  I would have paid better attention in class so that I could grow and develop as a student since I suddenly started caring about school and learning.  If only I had a time machine…

Although I can’t change my past school experiences, as an educator, I can help support and empower my students.  I can help them care about their progress and own their learning.  I can challenge them to grow and develop.  All of this can be facilitated and fostered through the use of the Student Led Conference format to replace the outdated and unuseful Parent-Teacher Conference format for teacher conferences.

This process of ownership and reflection begins at the start of the year when we introduce and discuss our school’s Habits of Learning.  We want the students to understand why we do what we do in the sixth grade.  Every skill taught or activity covered is explained using our Habits of Learning.  We need the students to understand the purpose of what we do in the sixth grade.  Why do we teach our students to take notes in a particular manner?   Why do we want our students to read from a variety of genres?   As we explain every new skill, we are sure to cover the purpose and Habit of Learning used to foster that skill.  Once the students see the relevance in what they are learning and being asked to do, they are much more engaged in the classroom and genuine learning then takes place within them.  The next step in laying the foundation for the Student Led Conference format is reflection.  After every major assessment and unit, we have the students reflect in writing on their learning.  What went well?  What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?  The students then begin to see what is working for them and what they still need to work on to improve.  Purpose + Reflection = Ownership of the Learning Process, which is showcased through the creation of an eportfolio.

After the first five weeks of learning, reflecting, and growing as students, we then prepare them for their first formal Student Led Conferences with their families.  We explain the process used and then allow the boys to highlight their learning, challenges, and areas in need of improvement.  The students utilize their ePortfolio to guide their Student Led Conference.  They explain their class goals and what they are doing to work towards them.  They also display artifacts demonstrating their learning and growth as students.  They also, honestly, share challenges facing them in the classroom and what they are doing to overcome them.  The conference concludes with the parents asking the students questions regarding their learning and progress thus far in the academic year.  As the boys do such a thorough job owning their learning and explaining their progress, the parents generally have very few questions for their sons.  We do allow the parents, at the close of the conference, to ask us, the teachers, any questions they may have.  They sometimes have one or two intriguing questions about classes or their son’s progress; however, since the students provide such a clear picture of their academic prowess to date, the questions are usually about school life in general.  What is the next unit being covered in STEM class?  Will the number of students in my son’s class change as they matriculate through the grades at Cardigan?  I’m always so curious about the questions parents ask in the conferences.  They seem to be thinking so critically about their son’s academic future.  It’s quite amazing.

Here is just a sample of the feedback we received from parents through an online survey they completed following our most recent Parents’ Weekend:

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Through these Student Led Conferences, the students own their learning, share their progress, and create a game plan for how to move forward in a productive manner.  Following these conferences, we usually see changes in the classroom.  The students seem more motivated and excited to learn.  They will more frequently ask for help and try to exceed the graded objectives.  While the students were aware of their learning prior to their conferences, actually verbalizing it has a huge impact on them.  Hearing themselves say what they need to do to improve, truly motivates them; it makes a big difference in the classroom for the boys.  Their learning becomes a puzzle that they can now easily complete since they have found the missing pieces.  Although these missing pieces were there all along prior to the boys completing their Student Led Conferences, the students were unable to see them since they hadn’t verbalized their location.  Telling their parents about their academic progress in the sixth grade helps to shine a beam of light on the missing puzzle pieces: Asking for help, better utilizing their free time to complete work outside of class, and staying more focused in class.

Utilizing the Student Led Conference format in the classroom is not easy and requires a restructuring of the class and the way in which the curriculum is taught.  The students need to see the purpose of their learning and its relevance to them and have opportunities to reflect and think about what they would do differently next time so that they can add new tools to their academic toolbelt.  This requires fostering a student-centered classroom where the students are able to own their learning, choose their challenge, and solve problems encountered.  This can be a lot for teachers as it means giving up control, a bit.  But, which outcome do you wish for your students, 1 or 2?

  1. Your students memorize many facts and take copious notes while you talk at them, complete lots of homework, take many tests, and achieve good grades.
  2. Your students are excited to come to class each and every day because they want to learn, grow, and solve problems on their own.

I hope, you like me, want to bring about the second outcome in your classroom.  Relevance, purpose, ownership, and reflection are the key ingredients to making a delicious classroom filled with curious and thriving students.  Allow them to showcase their recipes and delightful treats through the Student Led Conference process.  Trust me when I say, you will never want to go back to the traditional model of Parent-Teacher conferences again.

Teachers Don’t Give Grades, Students Earn Them

In college, every paper I wrote, was returned to me with no more than a few words of feedback and a circled letter grade.  The many hours of hard work and effort I put into each essay I wrote was equivalent to a single letter and no more than a sentence of feedback.  That’s it?  What does a B- even mean?  On what criteria or objectives was my paper being assessed?  While I had no idea what the grade meant, I accepted it.  I never really understood how my teachers graded me back when I was in school.  Almost arbitrarily, it seemed, a grade appeared at the top of every assignment I had turned in.  No words or explanation, just a letter, circled.  What was the point of circling the letter?  Was I going to get confused by what I looked at?  There was only ever one red, scarlet letter at the top of my papers.  Why circle it?  The circling of the letter seemed to me to be as random as the grad I received for my work.

Despite all of these unknowns, my parents always reinforced the idea that grades are received and not given.  My work earned the strange circled letter I received.  Teachers don’t give grades, my mom used to say, you earn them.  Luckily, I learned this lesson at an early age.  I never blamed my teachers for giving me a grade I didn’t feel I earned.  I worked harder on the next assignment if I achieved a grade I didn’t feel as though I deserved.  I never complained.  Times were different twenty years ago when I was in school.

Currently, most students I teach seem entitled.  They feel as though they deserve a good grade despite  the quality of their work.  And I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “Why did you give me this grade?” in the classroom at the start of the year.  Many of our students come from schools that grade students like I was graded, randomly.  They feel as though they have the right to argue their way into a better grade.  This entitlement is ridiculous.  Perhaps it stems from the “Here’s your trophy for just showing up” attitude that our society has taken recently.  “Everybody is awesome!” seems to echo throughout public schools and athletic facilities across the world.  This has got to change or else the future of our world is in jeopardy.  Many students who I’ve taught over the years enter the sixth grade being unable to solve problems despite feeling as though they are the best people, thinkers, and athletes in the world.  If these students are our future leaders, we are in serious trouble.

This week, the parent of one of my students emailed my co-teacher and I wondering why his son was struggling so much in the sixth grade.  “In his last school, he only ever got As.”  This parent, seemed to imply that because his son had always gotten As, he should be given As again.  If I wanted to give things away I would have become a game show host.  I am a teacher because I want the future leaders of our world to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and team players.  I want the next generation of people to be better than the current generation.  My goal is to challenge and support students while equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to grow and develop into effective global citizens.  I don’t give them anything other than my time, energy, and care.  They have to work for everything in my classroom.  I will guide them to where they want to go, but they need to do the work.  Grades aren’t given, they are earned.  This parent, and many others like him, don’t seem to understand this nugget of truth.  It’s frustrating when the parents control how schools operate.

If this parent’s son put in the effort needed to complete work that demonstrated a mastery of the concepts and skills covered, he could be earning exceptional grades.  However, this student doesn’t ask for help, even when reminded and suggested or sometimes even provided without prompting.  He completes work which demonstrates his inability to meet the standards we have set as an institution.  He can turn in work that displays a strong understanding of the objectives, but he generally chooses not to.  He lacks effort and enthusiasm.  He doesn’t seem to care that his grades are low.  He is happy just being a student in our classroom.  This apathetic mindset is common amongst students in our world today.  They are content with being average.  However, their parents are not happy about the grades they receive.  They see their children as perfect in every way.  So, they feel as though their sons and daughters should be given high grades.  I’m not a merchant at a store.  I don’t sell grades.  Some parents need to manage their expectations while holding the bar higher for their children.

Grades should be a badge of honor.  If you put in the blood, sweat, and tears to master the skills and material covered, then you will earn the appropriate mark.  We need to treat school and grading like life.  If you just do the minimum to get by, you will most likely lose your job or not get a raise or promotion.  Our students need to learn the hard lessons in life early so that they don’t make the silly mistakes later on.  Life is an experience filled with challenges.  If you want the power up or extra life, you need to earn it.  There are no cheat codes in life, or the classroom.