Tag Archives: Parents

There Is Always Room For Improvement. Right?

Yesterday, we had our parent teacher conferences. And while like most teachers I find the exercise exhausting, yes sometimes even commiserating with other teachers in the spirit of camaraderie, I actually like the process. For the most part I enjoy meeting parents and telling them how great their kids are. I like to see my students with their parents to get a sense of what kinds of relationships they have with each other. Are they nervous, or timid, or funny, or courageous around their parents? A teacher can learn a lot about a kid by how they act around their parents. I like to watch moms and dads and the banter and tensions they bring to the table.

After every marathon stretch, eight hours yesterday, I am always left thinking about learning. And school. And grades. And a whole slew of other thoughts I can’t seem to capture at the moment. After last night, I haven’t been able to get over a certain phrase.

Yes, I know she is doing fine, but there is always room for improvement. Right? What else can she do? How can she do better?

I must have heard these words from the mouths of every parent I met. Irregardless of their grades or their skills. Didn’t matter if they were high pressure parents or easy going ones, they all wanted to know how their child could do better. This got me thinking.

Our students, for the most part, work hard. Really hard! I am often in awe that these twelve to fourteen year olds sit in class all day, do homework, participate in services an activities, and hang-out with their friends. They are engaged with the school material, they ask about  rubrics and articulate their learning. They reflect, make portfolios, and ask for help. They are simply amazing young people. They do all of this all whilst dealing with hormones, growing up, balancing countless relationships with their friends, teachers and yes parents. They are online and offline and everywhere in between.

So what must it feel like, to work this hard, to do the best you can for twelve years and to constantly be told, no matter how or what you do that there is always room for improvement! It must be devastating. By the end of the night, I was no longer hearing how can my child do better, but I was hearing how can my child be better. I could read it on the face of every kid while they listen to their parents praise their work and talk about how proud they were, only to hear that big but at the end of the conference.  I could see them smile and sit up straight and beam with pride and confidence only to watch them deflate, when after the praise every parent ended with, “But how can she do better? How can she improve?”

Is this what we want? A learning environment where feedback and growth and improvement have trumped simply saying, “Job well done! I am proud of you. Now take a break! Enjoy your learning.” Are we so fixated on our kids “succeeding” and remaining competitive, that we cannot simply let them bask in the glow of their accomplishments with out constantly raising the bar? How can kids feel successful if every time they do, we tell them to do better?

I want to formally challenge the notion of constant improvement as a motivator for learning. So many parents also told me that their kid is working under potential. “He is actually really talented, but he just needs a push. He won’t do much unless you force him to do it.” Am I wrong in thinking that this doesn’t sound like learning?

I would hope that when a child is self-motivated and passionate and self-aware of their needs and strengths and weakness, that they can and will push themselves to improve. And if they don’t perhaps they are not ready to commit to their learning. This same kid, also should know that sometimes they just need a time-out. A break.  Constant growth and improvement is not sustainable and should not be the perpetual expectation.

Parents, if you are reading this–  I get it. I am a parent too. Every time I see my daughter slacking off or not working to her potential, or not achieving some unrealistic expectation of mine, I too want to remind her that she should work harder, slower, smarter. Even when she does well, I too catch myself saying, “How can this be better?” It must be natural to want our kids to be their (the) best. I too want to tell her teacher not to let her lose focus, but I think I could honor her independence more and feed her confidence more, if I were to sometimes just let what she does be enough.

I want to say to her, “I am proud of you honey. I cannot believe how hard you worked and how much you have grown. I am so impressed by how much you have learned. You really seem be aware of what you are doing. I trust you and know that you are doing your best. Take some time to relax and enjoy what you have done and all that you have learned. Thank you for being such a great learner.”

Nothing more! I keep the, “There is always room for improvement,” and the “What could you do better,” to myself this time. I am curious how this would affect our kids. I am willing to bet that kids would leave parent teacher night a bit more confident. A bit more proud. They would nod their heads knowingly and smile, because they know that their parents do not expect any more from them. At least for now?

What do you think? How can we find ways to talk to kids in way that motivates them to want to improve, while honoring the work they have done? How do we move away from this trap of demanding never-ending improvement?”


Blogs from the Mouths of Babes

As we continue to explore the rich world of authentic student blogging, it is important to stop and listen to feedback and criticism from time to time. It is important to understand the apprehension that some stakeholders may have when it comes to open online publishing.

You can read more about how we have been blogging with our middle school students by reading some of these post, but let me give a very brief synopsis of what our program looks like up to know. (Before I start, let me clarify that when I say we, I am referring to myself and Paula Guinto who is my teaching partner in grade 7 & 8. We both teach English; I blog here with my students and Paula writes at Meta.)

The basic manifesto as it stands, looks something like this:

I want my students to feel confident about who they are through critical and artistic exploration of their identity. I want them to learn how to clearly articulate this voice in a variety of media in order to find a network of like-minded people in order to create a community of learners that will help them learn during and beyond school.

We hope that blogging will help our students achieve this goal. The system we have set up is pretty simple: We coached every student in our class to set up a blog through blogger, explained basic etiquette and gave them freedom to own the space. We are not formally assessing anything that goes on the blog, and there is no obligation to blog at all. We are hoping to see what kids write when they are given a space and freedom to write.

Like any process at a school, there have been mixed feelings from students, teachers and parents. There have been some accurate criticism and others based on misunderstandings. As a community, we are in the process of figuring out what blogging looks like for us. We are looking to make sure that there is a clear understanding of the what and the why and the how by all the stakeholders involved.

As part of this process, I asked my students to write a short paragraph agreeing or disagreeing with this statement:

Blogging is an important part of an English classroom.

I was floored by the results. You can read all of the answers here, but let me give you some highlights:

The freedom to express ourselves is important; providing a medium and nurturing the usage of that medium improves our skills as writers and removes some of our inhibitions of writing.

Blogging is a fun way to write. It can be used for educational purposes and it also helps the student to think when they are writing “who is my audience.” Sometimes having students writing on a blog will increase a students motivation to write.

Blogging is useful. No scratch that out, Blogging is necessary. With teenagers [us] being young minds full of innovative ideas, thoughts and views, our generation needs to share them to audience and blogging enables us to do that.

It wasn’t all positive, many students had valid concerns:

Some people don’t like having their personal thoughts online because it is a public space.

The notion of writing online to a worldwide audience was not quite thrilling.

Expecting a bunch of insecure teenagers who aren’t quite sure who they can trust in the constantly moving sands of social media to write about whatever comes to their mind is asking for a lot.

Sometimes people are not able to get the time to read the blog posts with all the homework we are currently getting.

I hope you get a chance to read all of the response and maybe add some thoughts in the comments on our class page. But what does this all mean? What did I learn?

The fact that we have chosen not to force students to blog has been invaluable, however, there is still a pressure to share and this is making some kids uncomfortable. There is a lot involved in this process:  from self-esteem, to trust, to community. The notion of sharing publicly is still a major hurdle for many students and their parents. What is the point? What are the benefits?  What are the problems and the issues? I am not sure if this post is designed to answer questions. I was hoping to ask some and have you, dear reader, answer a them. What are the benefits of public sharing for students? Why go global?

I also noticed that many of the students might be blogging more if there was more structure. The total freedom, seems to have frozen some kids into inaction. They simply don’t know what to write, when they are told they can write about anything. This has me thinking of designing lessons or activities that guide students to come up with ideas. Which is interesting, because one of the questions that comes up repeatedly during reading conferences is, “How does the writer come up with ideas for his/her stories.” It is clear that middle school kids need a pool of ideas and/or prompts to get them started. Sites like this and this are great, but perhaps kids need more of a push toward them. How do you help students find things to write about? How can we foster creativity and imagination?

Ironically, many of the students who are not blogging, said they are not writing because it is not graded or part of school, so they don’t have time to waste on it. Which makes me wonder if they would write more if I forced them and graded it, which leads us back to square one that school writing is not always authentic. Or is it? How do we find this balance of what is expected and graded and what is free of choice? Still struggling with that one. How much of this is explicitly for school and how much is bigger than school? Hoping to have a good conversation about this idea of academic relevance in the comments. It is a major talking point at our school at the moment? How do we assess this stuff? Should we?

It was great to see so many students make the connections between Voice, Trust, Writing and Community, because these themes are at the heart of what we do. This is the culture we are trying to create; one where students feel comfortable and safe enough with their peers to be able to share their ideas regardless of their writing “level.” 

We have a long way to go, but I feel pretty good about where we are after only six months. Cultures take time to build, and we  need to be cognizant of the people they affect. We have to stop and ask stakeholders what they are thinking, how they are feeling.

Next step for us, is to ask parents to articulate what they know about blogging. Ask them what they value and what they fear. It is an intimidating conversation to have, but an important one. Perhaps, showing them what their kids are saying would be a good first  step.


Parent Teacher Conferences

I just finished another round of parent teacher conferences. For two days and approximately 13 hours, I met with the parents of nearly one hundred students. They came in one after another every seven minutes. After the fortieth or fiftieth conference, I had fallen into a routine. I was working with a manageable and effective script:

Rather than tell you a bunch of information you may not read or want to hear, I would love if you would tell me a little about your child in these three fields:

  • Have you heard anything from him/her that would be cause for celebration? How are they feeling overall about our class and his/her progress?
  • Are there any concerns or questions you have about his/her attainment or skills?
  • Is there anything about the curriculum which you might need more clarity?

While our model was far from ideal, it worked. Most parents found an area on which they wanted to focus, and I tailored my comments based on what they wanted to hear. Some parents were excited by the work we are doing at The Table. Some were proud of their kids for publicly sharing their voices on their blogs. Some parents were concerned that we weren’t reading enough classics. Some were concerned that we weren’t reading enough. Full stop. Some where concerned with our approach to teaching English. Overall, I felt very positive about our conversations. I felt that most parents were happy with our progress as a class, most parents were happy with their child’s progress and grades. Most parents were satisfied.

Later that night, on Twitter, I bemoaned the stress of grades and skills and attainment when it comes to schooling and wished that I had had different conversations. I was having the wrong conversations. What made it worse was that I realized that I had framed the conversations myself, because that is what I felt parents wanted.

After the conferences, we sat as a department for a quick debrief, and I excitedly shared my script, mentioned the positive feedback, while we absorbed the negative feedback.  I felt quite pleased with myself.  I had had great conferences, even though they may not have been the ones I wanted.

Then Ian, our Fearless Leader, mentioned a conversation he had with a mother who had not been concerned about grades at all, or skills or classics, but wanted to ask Ian about his values. She was a former UWC graduate, and for her the most important thing was whether or not her child’s teacher had values that matched the UWC ethos. She wanted to know what kind of person was sitting in front of her child and what types of qualities and understanding he valued.

I got to thinking–So many parents asked me what their child can do to improve. No matter how they were doing, no matter the grade, no matter the comments– nearly everyone asked me how their child could improve. Where does this need to achieve and compete and become perfect come from. Is improvement the same as growth, do either correlate with learning? Does improvement in a skill lead to understanding? Does improvement in skills lead to values? Do attainment and grades, skills and improvement always indicate learning in terms of values. What is the purpose of school? Skills or values? Both? How do we balance the two? When do we talk about how or when students are being concerned or committed, principled, resilient, self-aware? Communicators? Collaborators? Thinkers, Problem Solvers, Creative or Self-Mangers? Do their attainment grades in single subjects reflect their learning in terms of Service, Outdoor Ed, Activities, Personal and Social Education? What I am trying to say is that we all tend to focus on the Academic?

I framed my entire conversation around the things I value least in hopes that I would satisfy what parents wanted, but is that really what they wanted? I hope parents who are reading this will contribute in the comments below, so we can extend the conversation. I hope we can find better ways to talk about what is happening at school in regards to their kids. The conversations can be, should be much deeper, than a seven minute discourse on why he/she received a number or whether or not they can use a comma.

I am purposely being a tad flippant, of course I understand that each conference is based on what happens in that single subject. I also realize that teachers are ultimately responsible for conveying a set of understandings and developing a skill set. We are accountable for a set of standards and benchmarks and our assessments should reflect improvement in these skills. I also know that parents want to be informed and included on talks about choices we make about curriculum, but like Jeff Plaman said, can’t these conversations happen as a group, in public, on blogs like this one?

My qualm is the amount of focus, time and energy we spend solely on attainment and academic grades. Skills and grades are a reality. They are based on rubrics, but no matter how we try to justify how they come to be, they can often be arbitrary and subjective.  A grade tends to  a very ineffective method to share student learning.

So what is the answer? What are the conversations we could be having? How do you do parent conferences at your school? (Before you say Student Led conference, yes that is option, but I know of few schools who have perfected that model either. They still tend to be parents looking over the shoulders, looking for the teacher to talk about that pesky math grade. We will have SLC at the end of the year, but most schools still feel a need to have parent conferences in addition to SLC) As a parent, what are your thoughts? What would you like to see? How do you feel after a talk with teachers? What is important to you?

I hope this post generates some fruitful conversations and possible ideas for future conferences.