Saturday, December 7, 2013

Taking the Parents Back to School

           For the past 12 Back to School Nights, I've presented in a very prescribed way. I introduce myself, my years in education, my in-district accomplishments, and my organizational affiliates. I focus on the textbooks we use, the subject matter we cover, and the goals of being a student in whichever grade I was teaching at the time.

            It was a dry, easy sell, and did not reflect the social curriculum I've tried to embed into everything we do as students and people in the classroom. I've always felt it was hard to explain to parents who were raised in an academically driven culture, who have attended big name schools of higher learning and have impressive job titles, that the research shows that a child needs to feel a sense of belonging, significance, and fun in order to do their best learning. That a handshake greeting from a peer and teacher each day may be the validating experience that drives their child to take a risk and apply a new strategy when approaching a multi-step math problem. That when we create the environment where students feel comfortable taking risks and making mistakes (because that's how people learn), then true learning will occur. I always wondered if parents would think I was 'soft' for this philosophical belief.

            So my ultimate goal of creating lifelong learners beginning in the elementary grades, who were driven not by the letter grade, but by the learning itself, was kept under wraps. We held daily Morning Meetings, infused Energizers during transition times, and met as a class during Closing Circle. These opportunities for collaborative and cooperative learning eliminated a lot of the little cliques I used to see form among students. The faces or body language students would use when I grouped them with other students they didn't connect with were slim and none. Students treated each other respectfully, fairly, and in many cases, patiently. These approaches to learning drove our academics, and allowed us to learn at a more rapid rate. The consistent reflections we conducted at the end of each lesson (what did you learn from working with Jake? what did Sam say during your conversation on the Civil War?) enabled us to see one another as peers, not people who happened to be in the same class.

            Parents, during conference time, would say to me, "Fred really likes those Morning Meetings," or, "Hillary can't stop talking about that 'Just Like Me' energizer." I would nod my head, smile, and simply state we do 'team building exercises.'

            However, this past Back to School Night was different. Perhaps it was the fact that I lost my PowerPoint presentation two hours before I was supposed to present. Or, maybe I was ready to model what I've told my students to believe about risk taking: you will learn more from the mistakes you make and the failures you have, than any success you achieve. Fail means a first attempt in learning, and if we're really open to new ideas, willing to think creatively, and trust our ability, we need to try new things and embrace our instincts.

            So, at Back to School Night I took the risk and left myself vulnerable. I presented a bare bones PowerPoint that focused on the philosophy, theory, and research behind how our classroom was organized and run. We modeled social skills because they aren't inherent. That my mini-lessons were no more than 15 minutes, because it wasn't about me as a 'sage on a stage', but as 'guide on the side'. Students would learn more from each other than they would ever learn from me. After all, there was only one me, and 20+ of them. That research in the business world proves that more people lose their job, not because of a lack of knowledge, but an inability to work with others. So, it was incumbent upon me as the children's teacher, to create a comfortable environment where soft skills like collaboration, cooperation, problem solving, perseverance, failure, and grit were celebrated as successes. Mistakes were looked at as learning opportunities. And students took ownership for their work, even when the grade wasn't what they wanted.

            An amazing thing happened as I got halfway through my presentation: parents began to nod their heads in agreement. Some wrote down notes. Others stared at me without yawning. And at the end, I made it clear we were all in this together. That our classroom community extended outside the classroom to their homes. We were only as strong as each other, and we were all 'pulling on the same rope, in the same direction, for the same thing' -- what was best for their children.  And, if they didn't understand something I did, call or e-mail me. I wouldn't take offense to it. If anything, I would appreciate their sharing their concerns, and we could work together to figure out solutions when issues arose. I just asked for the benefit of the doubt, as I would give them, so we adults could also best model the behavior and soft skills we were working on in the classroom.

            I shared my last slide, thanked parents for coming, and then ended stopped talking. Some parents came up to me and said hello. Others had a couple academic questions, or a general "How's my son doing in class?"

            As one parent walked out though, she turned around and said to me, "You should really have some kind of regular meeting with parents. Talk about topics in education. I felt like I needed to learn so much more." I told her it was a good idea and I'd think about it. First, I needed to digest what I just did.

            And learn from it.