The Gift

14 April 2010

Over the weekend, I was hanging out at an area watering hole enjoying a late lunch and the opportunity to do some people-watching. While ensconced with my book and some chicken strips, a couple came in to talk to the staff person. They wanted a gift certificate for a football coach, as their son was just awarded a full-ride scholarship (worth $20K/year for 4 years). The parents wanted to thank the coach. They did their business and afterward, I listened to the cook and bar man talk about this noble gesture.

I sat there thinking about this little scene while I pretended to read my book. It was a wonderful gesture on the part of the parents. As teachers, we often get gifts from families (although not $75 worth of steak and wine). Genuine appreciation is such a rarity and all the more meaningful when you receive it as an educator.

But I was also bothered by the reaction of the restaurant staff that this student's success all belonged with the coach. When this student goes off to college, he won't major in football. He'll choose business or history or science or theatre or something else. What about all of the teachers in his K-12 career who taught him to read, write, and think critically---skills that will serve him in the decades of his life after his scholarship is gone? What about the teachers who inspired a passion for a particular area of learning?

I'm not treading new territory by suggesting that high quality teachers are under appreciated. And I don't want to suggest that this coach doesn't deserve a wonderful thank you dinner for his part in developing the athleticism of this student (or that the student shouldn't have a chance at college). I just hope these parents help their son to remember that he received a lot of support and gifts along the way.

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Dinosaurs in Our Midst

11 October 2009

I've been thinking a lot about a recent WaPo article on a district's choice to disband its Parent-Teacher Association (PTA).

From a high mark of 12 million in the 1960s, national PTA membership has dropped to a little more than 5 million. Although school enrollments have ballooned, the PTA lost a million members in the past decade alone. Through the years, Washington's inner suburbs have been high-profile exceptions to the general decline. More than 90 percent of the schools in Fairfax, Arlington and Montgomery counties have PTAs, for instance, compared with about 25 percent nationally.

But even here, there are worrisome signs for the future of the PTA.

"I think it's time we join the nation," Catherine Potter, Woodson High PTSA's past president, told the assembled parents and a few jersey-clad students last week. She argued that the national group is too bureaucratic and less relevant in the Internet age, when parents have access to education-related news from Richmond or Washington and can get involved politically in other ways.

While I'm not so sure that "the rest of the nation is jumping off a bridge, so we should, too" argument is the best reasons for disbandment, I do think one of the key pieces here is the "Internet age."

In an era of email, Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts for schools, blog-savvy parents with an axe to grind, and any other number of options, is a brick and mortar organization (like the PTA) still relevant? I believe so. Schools are still places where people meet and learn---virtual support isn't going to be enough when it comes to doing the best we can for all kids (not just the ones whose parents have a special interest wheel to squeak). That being said, organizations like the PTA are only as relevant as they choose to be.

PTA leaders say they are struggling to communicate their message to a new generation of parents.

"The question is, 'What have you done for me lately?' " said Michele Menapace, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. "And we need to do a better job telling them" that the PTA is involved in issues they care about...

Nehrbass, of the Virginia PTA, said it's getting harder to convince parents that it matters to be involved in issues affecting more than their children or their school.

Working alone, for instance, parents can raise money for a computer their school cannot afford because of budget cuts, she said. Working together, they can fill a boardroom to fight for more education funding.

To reverse the decline in membership, the national PTA is trying to redraw the face of children's advocacy. It's reaching out to fathers and training minority leaders to organize growing numbers of immigrant parents. It is also appealing to younger parents through social networking sites.

The elementary school I was a part of two years ago had a terrible time trying to sustain its PTA. Whether it was the dues (a "luxury" for a family living in poverty), the meetings (when parents were working two jobs and/or relying on public transportation and/or had no one to watch the children), or just an aversion to being in a school, I don't know. I do know that those students, more than any, needed a group advocating for them. There needed to be something different with the structure and purpose.

If the PTA is going to evade a dinosaur-like ending to its existence, it is going to have to adapt to the changing form of the American family, as well as the shifting landscape of how people organize and communicate.

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(R)evolutionary Parenting

06 October 2009

When I started my career, there was an animal known as the "stage mother." It was not a new discovery. The species had been cataloged long before I picked up a piece of chalk and cranked a mimeograph, but it represented only a small subpopulation of parents (both male and female). I rarely observed this type of parent in my science classroom; however, it was not uncommon to make field observations in performing arts classes and at athletics events. These were the parents who advocated for their children beyond what might be considered normal...almost to the point of embarrassing both themselves and their children. Teachers, coaches, and administrators received many a pitying glance after coming in contact with the stage mother in his/her native habitat.

And then, sometime in the 90's, a curious thing happened: The stage mother evolved. There was radiation akin to the Cambrian Explosion. Stage mothers were now "Helicopter Parents," and they had developed into a variety of subspecies, adapting to every niche within a school. An invasive species, they even began to occupy college and university habitats.

We've more or less been at this eyerolling state of things ever since.

Schools, however, need to face a cold hard truth in this scenario. After all, the population of Stage Mothers were more or less at equilibrium for decades. What was it about the environment which changed to allow them to become so pervasive? What happened in school settings that allowed them to use their opportunistic behaviors in new ways? You may have your own answer, but I think it has everything to do with the self-esteem movement. This is not to say that I approve of crushing students---ragging on them within an inch of their young lives. But we have started to tell kids that appearance is more important than substance. Your test scores are more important than what you learn. The number of events you can list on your college application is more important than who you are as a person. Being told you're smart is better than actually being smart.

To be sure, we cannot weed out helicopter parents. Stage Mothers will never become extinct, but perhaps we can discourage their growth and abundance. We can prune. We can encourage alternatives. Po Bronson thinks that native parenting types may be making a comeback---A Return of Tough Love. (You can listen to an NPR interview with Bronson and read the first chapter of his book here.) I don't think this will be a simple or quick reclamation project. It means caring about our kids enough to allow them to make mistakes. It means that while parents should continue to want the best for their children, they have to realize that advocacy does not mean your child gets each and every thing you want. It means that while high expectations and positive thinking are wonderful things, it is more important that the child have an internal representation of those...not just external ones. If we try, we can bring back a balance to the ecosystems that are our classrooms.

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Parents, Teachers, and Peers

13 April 2009

The provocatively titled article "Do Parents Matter?" caught my eye last week. The snippet available in my Reader feed suggested that when it comes to child behaviour, peers (and teachers) have a larger impact than parents. After reading the interview, I have to say that the comments by readers are far more interesting than the article itself; however, I have still enjoyed the "What if's..." generated for me.

Here's the final piece of the interview printed by SciAm:

LEHRER: You emphasize the importance of teachers in shaping a child's development. How can we apply this new theory of child development to public policy?

HARRIS: I’ve put together a lot of evidence showing that children learn at home how to behave at home (that’s where parents do have power!), and they learn outside the home how to behave outside the home. So if you want to improve the way children behave in school—for instance, by making them more diligent and less disruptive in the classroom—then improving their home environment is not the way to do it. What you need is a school-based intervention. That’s where teachers have power. A talented teacher can influence a whole group of kids.

The teacher’s biggest challenge is to keep this group of kids from splitting up into two opposing factions: one pro-school and pro-learning, the other anti-school and anti-learning. When that happens, the differences between the groups widen: the pro-school group does well, but the anti-school group falls further and further behind. A classroom with 40 kids is more likely to split up into opposing groups than one with 20, which may explain why students tend to do better in smaller classes. But regardless of class size, some teachers have a knack for keeping their classrooms united. Teachers in Asian countries seem to be better at this than Americans, and I suspect this is one of the reasons why Asian kids learn more in school. No doubt there’s a difference in cultures, but maybe we could study how they do it and apply their methods here.

The tendency of kids to split up spontaneously into subgroups also explains the uneven success rate of programs that put children from disadvantaged homes into private or parochial schools. The success of these programs hinges on numbers. If a classroom contains one or two kids who come from a different background, they assimilate and take on the behaviors and attitudes of the others. But if there are five or six, they form a group of their own and retain the behaviors and attitudes they came in with.

I don't know how "true" the statements are---I haven't looked at the research. It does echo some of the things I've been reading about student motivation. What I'm seeing in the research literature is a general trend toward stating that classroom environment matters most (out of all possible factors). Students will adapt their behaviors to be in line with whatever the teacher emphasizes: valuing learning...or valuing grades.

It would appear that "assimilating" a couple of students would be easier than several kids. However, I'm left wondering about those classes I had where it really was one bad apple spoiling the rest---how incredible it was that the presence or absence of one student could have so much impact on the tenor of the class as a whole. Does that make me a bad teacher? Or was it a weak peer group? Perhaps something else made the difference in the dynamic?

I do think that parental expectations and support do have an enormous bearing on overall child development (as do genetics). But the classroom is a different sort of place: whatever baggage each of us brings from our homes has to some how fuse and meld into a larger social contract. This may be why teachers and peers can have such an enormous influence.

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The Kindergarchy

03 July 2008

One of the things I like best about the internet is the diversity of readily available source material. I look at lots of information everyday from blogs to news items to Flickr pools. And while there is an author behind each piece who is trying to make some sense of a particular idea, from my "user" state, I get the fun part of seeing connections between the disparate pieces. And this week, it was an article in Newsweek (US) and the London Times (UK) that had the nice jive. In this case, both are about children and how adults (at least in western cultures) are reacting to them.

Newsweek poses the question Does Having Children Make You Happy? And the answer, which is likely not a surprise to anyone, is No. In fact, one study found that "no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It's such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they're not."
Is it possible that American parents have always been this disillusioned? Anecdotal evidence says no. In pre-industrial America, parents certainly loved their children, but their offspring also served a purpose—to work the farm, contribute to the household. Children were a necessity. Today, we have kids more for emotional reasons, but an increasingly complicated work and social environment has made finding satisfaction far more difficult. A key study by University of Wisconsin-Madison's Sara McLanahan and Julia Adams, conducted some 20 years ago, found that parenthood was perceived as significantly more stressful in the 1970s than in the 1950s; the researchers attribute part of that change to major shifts in employment patterns. The majority of American parents now work outside the home, have less support from extended family and face a deteriorating education and health-care system, so raising children has not only become more complicated—it has become more expensive.
It is not a far stretch to assume that parenting itself has changed, as well as how we view children. We don't look at toddlers now and wonder how soon we can get them out doing chores. But the London Times thinks that we are treating our children too much like Little Emperors. Perhaps children are too much seen and heard these days. Now, there is a "backlash against the all-must-have-prizes culture that has produced children used to getting their own way. As parents, we are encouraged to nurture our children’s sense of 'self,' but are we unwittingly doing them more harm than good?"
It’s a wonder more teachers aren’t driven out of the profession by parents bombarding them with e-mails, phone calls and requests for meetings. “Students told me what they ‘felt’ about a novel,” he recalled. “I tried, ever so gently, to tell them no one cared what they felt. In essay courses, many of these same students turned in papers upon which I wished to – but did not – write, ‘Too much love in the home’.”
Both articles are focused on home and family, but I wonder what the lessons are for schools. There are some examples of schools going overboard on self-esteem concerns (certificates for toddlers who sit still, school plays where everyone gets to be Snow White and no one has to be the witch, nursing schools which offer counseling in case it is stressful for students to come in contact with sick patients), but I have to think that these are few and far between. One hears or reads the odd story in the edusphere which supports this. Those are mostly limited to the rare helicopter parent or the awards assembly where everyone gets something. Kindergarchy tactics do not seem to have deeply infiltrated public schools. At least not yet. I'm not sure that in a standards-based environment that they will. No matter how much praise you give a child, if they can't read or do math, they're not going to graduate from high school...even if it hurts their feelings. Still, I have to think that educators---especially at the elementary level where most examples seem to be---need to be vigilant about what is reasonable for developing children.

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Mom and Dad Like You Best

01 April 2008

Are you not the firstborn child in your family? Did you always have a sneaking suspicion that the eldest child received more attention and privilege than you? You may very well have been right.

A new study by Joseph Price of BYU has concluded that on average, firstborn children between the ages of 4 and 13 get more than 3000 "quality" hours of time with their parents than do their siblings. Quality time with parents includes minutes spent together on such activities as homework, meals, reading, playtime, sports, teaching, arts, religion and conversation.

Why parents spend less time with children as a family ages was not studied, but Price offered some reasons, including fatigue, age and a waning novelty. Another factor is that as the firstborn ages and has more "appointments" (school, soccer, playdates...), that tends to drive the family schedule.

As a classroom teacher, it is often obvious where kids fall in the birth order, especially the youngest. More than once, I've watched my attention-seekers and said, "I'll bet you're the baby of the family, aren't you?" Kids are always surprised. "How could you tell?" I suppose now I could use the graphic on the right to point out the number of minutes a day they've lost out on...and how they're trying to make up for it in my classroom.
There's much more to read and ponder in the article in the Washington Post on how Quality Time Seems Stacked in Favor of Firstborns.

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He Who Has the Gold, Makes the Rules

24 March 2008

Where do we draw the lines in learning? Can it be determined exactly what the responsibilities of child, parent, and teacher are? And if those of us within education cannot, is it possible that the courts can?

This is what some parents are hoping. In The New Golden Rule, a reporter from Canada's National Post describes several court cases where teachers are being sued either for damage to a child's self-esteem or for failure of a student to learn. Some of the cases, if based on fact, may well show some lack of responsibility at the school level (especially those involving bullying and harassment). What about these kinds of claims?

The teacher hindered the student's learning by...
  • failing to make the child record his first journal entry until two months into the school year.
  • failing to make the child complete a handwriting workbook for the first three months of the school year.
  • failing to provide more challenging work in spelling, reading and comprehension.
  • failing to make the child finish a one-page poem and subsequently displaying the unfinished poem in the school hallway.
  • failing to send a daily homework list home with the student for three weeks, thereby knowingly setting up the son for failure.
Do these kinds of things become a slippery slope type of argument? Is each party in this always responsible for the same amount of effort toward student learning?

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No Mother Left Behind

09 March 2008

Science Daily had a recap of an interesting piece of research that linked low maternal education and increased intellectual disabilities in their children (emphasis added).

By applying a public health approach, researchers at three universities have discovered a key indicator for increased risk of mental retardation in the general population. The study assessed population-level risk factors by linking birth records of 12-14-year-old children in Florida with their respective public school records, over the course of a school year.

Using the rationale that high-prevalence risk factors can have a substantial impact at the population level, even if the risk to the individual is low, the researchers found that low maternal education resulted in the highest risk of intellectual disability to offspring compared with other factors such as maternal illness, delivery complications, gestational age at birth, and even very low birth weight.

Extremely low birth weight infants (less than 2.2 lbs) were 9.1 times more likely to have a mild intellectual disability compared to normal birth weight infants (5.5 lbs), yet were only associated with 2.1% of cases in the population. Women with an education below the high school level were 8.9 times more likely to have a child with mild intellectual disability compared with women who had more than 12 years of education, but were associated with 50.9% of cases.

Significant socioeconomic effects were found across all levels of intellectual disabilities, with higher income and education dramatically attenuating risk associated with biologic factors such as low birth weight, indicating a range of opportunities for population-based prevention and early intervention services.

The study's corresponding author, Derek Chapman, explained, "This approach to the study of disabilities is critical because an exclusive focus on prevention via medical interventions ignores the tremendous impact we can have by addressing social factors for which low education is a marker. If infants born to women with a high school education or less had the same risk as those born to college-educated women, there would be a 75% reduction in mild intellectual disabilities. Although genetic and biologic factors clearly play a role, their risk can be attenuated and there is a greater potential impact by addressing social factors such as maternal stress, birth spacing, preconception care, the child-rearing environment, and access to early and comprehensive intervention for at-risk infants and children."


As I think about all of this, I wonder what role schools might play, because there are two different considerations here. One is the preventative end---what can we do as a society to raise the educational status for all (and is NCLB already aimed to do that) before children are born? Secondly, what can we do for mothers and children who are already in this situation? It looks like intensive pre-school programs might help the kids. Should schools also offer continuing education to parents? At first, I wondered whether or not this should really be the responsibility of the schools. It isn't, and yet we are held accountable for getting every child to meet the standards. If fewer of them came to us with learning disabilities, our job would be a lot easier. Perhaps the answer lies in partnering with other community services. While the school could provide a location for parenting classes or other outreach programs, another agency could do the training. How far should schools go in order to ensure that every child has the best possible opportunity to achieve?

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Field Guide to Helicopter Parents

04 January 2008

The Guardian, a UK publication, recently described some new territory in which helicopter parents are being found: the college graduate job market. Yes, it wasn't odd enough that some parents flocked to university campus with their snowflakes, now they're trying to negotiate benefits and deal with potential employers. Jeez, people, cut the cord already! The whole article is worth reading, should you have a spare moment this weekend, but my favourite part was the delineation of five subspecies of helicopter parents:

The Agent

Operates like a footballer's agent: fixing deals, arranging contracts, smoothing out local difficulties. It's the Agent's job to represent his or her client at events which, for whatever reason, the client feels are simply too tedious to attend. Having an Agent helicopter parent is like having Max Clifford working for you round the clock. For free.

The Banker

Accessible online, face to face or via personal hotline, the Banker is unique in the world of financial services for charging no APR, asking few if any questions, expecting no collateral, and being psychologically inclined to say 'yes' no matter how illogical or poorly articulated the request. The Banker is also resigned to never seeing loans repaid.

The White Knight

Imbued with an almost semi-mythical status, the White Knight parent appears at little to no notice to resolve awkward situations. Once resolved, the White Knight will fade anonymously into the background. Intervention is accomplished silently and with minimum fuss.

The Bodyguard

The primary function of the Bodyguard is to protect the client from a range of embarrassing social situations - such as cancelling appointments and soaking up complaints on behalf of their client. Particularly skilled in constructing elaborate excuses. When not protecting life, limb and reputation, doubles up as a chauffeur and personal assistant.

The Black Hawk

Named after the military helicopter, and dreaded by teachers and educational administrators, the Black Hawk is unique among helicopter parents due to their willingness to go to any lengths - legal or illegal - to give their offspring a positional advantage over any competition. Particularly lethal when elected to parent-teacher associations.

Can you think of any others we should make note of?

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Hot Potato Parents

15 November 2007

The term "helicopter parent" appears to be pretty mainstream these days. In case you haven't seen this term before, it refers to the kind of parent who likes to hover over their offspring---well into adolescence and young adulthood. This is a parent who becomes overinvolved, monitoring every moment of the precious snowflake's life, often to the misery of the snowflake's teachers.

I'd like to throw another log on the fire and put forward the concept of a "hot potato parent." This is a parent that no one in the school wants to deal with anymore---a parent the school is forewarned about by the previous school. "Just wait until you meet Mrs. Such-and-So!" It isn't long before the secretaries are tired of the parent calling. Admins don't want to return the phone calls anymore. Teachers hate the sight of a light indicating there's a voicemail waiting (let alone the thought of the 20 minutes it will take for the hot tater to bluster over the phone). Counselors may be stuck with trying to negotiate among all of the parties---but even then, the parent may try a different ear.

And what of the young spuds? Ah, this is what separates the helicopter from the hot potato. The offspring of a helicopter parent are your straight-A, student council, star child type. The hot potato kids are suffering from their own lack of attention from the parents. In order to get some, they tell stories or misrepresent what happens in school because then mom/dad will give them some time.

The kids have learned this game pretty well from their parents---who also have a need from attention---but also for empowerment. There are all kinds of reasons and situations that generate this reaction. It makes these people bitter and angry and there's little they like more than unleashing that upon school staff. These are parents for whom no answer from no person will ever suffice. Every single person involved with the educational system is wrong about their child. They never seem to ask themselves if it's possible that there might be another explanation for things.

I admit that I am not a parent---I don't know the ferocity with which I would protect my child. I would hope that I would also recognize that a parent's role is to guide and support. All of us make mistakes along the way, but isn't the goal to learn from those and become able to make good choices independently? Why would a parent think that by yelling at and alienating other adults that they're setting a good example for their children? Isn't better to model responsibility than excuse-making?

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Drawing the Line

16 August 2007

In a couple of weeks, many students in this school district will be at new schools. Some are changing due to moving up in grade level; but many children will be in unfamiliar territory due to the closure of two schools and subsequent boundary changes. Families were allowed to "appeal" any changes, but I'm not sure how many were accommodated. My understanding is that the majority of people who asked for reconsideration of placement were those with two or more elementary school aged children. This is because parents wanted their sixth grade students to finish at the school where they started and it was easiest to have the younger ones still assigned to that school. It's understandable, and yet, if you accommodate the eldest child, can you ever defend drawing a line and not following the same course of action for the younger ones? Does a district ever "force" a family to accept the boundary change?

In one district, the answer appears to be "yes." In the Williamsburg-James City area, "a single mom hopes a third appeal is a charm in her effort to persuade school district officials to let her two teenage daughters attend the same high school for just one year." Things aren't looking to be in the mother's favour. The school board has yet to overturn any administrative recommendation in this regard. (You can read the full article here.)

"I'm a single mother," she said. "My ex-husband lives in Texas. One hundred percent of my family lives in California. We've got one car in our household. "I can't express enough the difficulties that taking my children to two high schools will cause."

Her family's circumstances, she said, distinguish her from many other parents, including board member Ron Vaught, whose children will attend separate high schools. Vaught, who couldn't be reached for comment, will have one child at Warhill and another at Lafayette.


"I have no problem academically with her being at Lafayette," Allen said of her daughter Julia, "but it's just - for this one year while I have one still at Jamestown - the challenges I have of parenting them both, the extracurriculars, being involved in two PTAs. I can't do it.

"I'm trying to get them to (prove) that point: What harm does it cause everyone else to honor my request? Yet, I can prove that it's causing me harm and limiting opportunities for my children if they split us up."

I understand the need for consistency. I can also see why the school board might feel that in honoring one appeal, they might have to honor them all. But I also wonder if this situation might not merit a case-by-case examination of some sort. Is there some way to balance the needs of the individual within the global needs of the school district? We'll know in a few weeks how the realities of boundary changes are shaking out here. I hope that things run more smoothly for our families than they appear to be for the Virginia district.

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The Dreaded School Project

20 November 2006

An Op-Ed piece in the Christian Science Monitor is "A Mom's Plea: Don't Make Me Do School Projects." I admit that I was a bit put off by the title. My initial reaction was "Who asked you to?" As a teacher, I've seen more than enough projects that were obviously not done by students. At least one elementary school in my district has a policy that kids can bring the "stuff" for their projects, but work must be done at school. It has kept the parental interference to a minimum.

Delving further into the Monitor article, it appears that the mom is upset by a few different things. One is the sheer diversity of projects ("What ever happened to the written word?"). I support the need for differentiation, but at some point, teachers need to offer some options. Not everyone needs to make a puppet. Another complaint is the tendency for teachers to give group grades. I fully support her here. It is not fair to a student to be held accountable for the learning of others. If you must, give a part of the grade for how well kids work as a group. Outcomes need to be individual.

Mom's biggest rant however, is firmly in her own backyard to solve. This woman is a serious enabler. If the kid waits until 10:30 on a Sunday night to tell you that they need a Big Mac box to take to school in the morning, you know what? It doesn't mean that you need to drive over to Mickey D's right that minute. You need to go to Walgreens at the last moment to pick up a box of sugar cubes? Why didn't you look at your child's planner when s/he got home from school...or check the teacher's letter or website...to see what the upcoming assignments were? Is there no real communication expected on the part of the student to the parent. Granted, no parent wants to see their kid fail, but at some point, you need to put the problem-solving back on the student's shoulders. "You need a small box for tomorrow? What can you do about that?"

I don't begrudge the frustrated mom that projects take time and that there can be quite a few over the course of the year and across the curriculum. Teachers and schools would do well to think about that. However, most teachers provide extended timelines for these assignments. Maybe there would be a lot less frustration at home if time management and personal responsibility played a larger role in completing homework.

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The Parental Piece of the Puzzle

12 November 2006

I write about parents here from time to time. It's such a vital piece of the educational jigsaw and yet they are not visibly involved with discussions about the kinds of things impacting students: NCLB, state requirements, School Improvement Plans, and so on. This is not to say that they don't care about their kids or do things at home to help things along on an individual basis, but I wonder if it appears that school is something done to their kids rather than with kids and parents.

The coffee clutch I visit on Friday mornings is made entirely of elementary teachers. I listen to their stories of frustrations with students and parents. They often turn to me and ask if high school teachers have the same problems of students not turning work or parents in denial about student behavior (or even helicopter parents). For some reason, the teachers thought that these problems go away. On the other end of things, most high school teachers don't realize that their elementary counterparts have these issues. They don't magically appear or disappear with puberty. The elementary gang said that phone calls about classroom issues begin in kindergarten and continue on. As a classroom teacher, you might think that you are calling a parent about a problem for the first time. A parent might have already had that phone call multiple times over the years.

This observation begs a few questions. How many parents have had call after call, year after year, about their child's behaviour or lack of work ethic? At what point do you (as a parent) just start shutting out what teachers are saying to you? Do you try for awhile to help correct behaviors...or do you just give up around second grade? Were you this sort of student, too, and does that impact your view of the school?

Schools---not parents---are held acountable for student achievement. I don't think that many parents out there realize this and that it is the reason that they neglect to support their children's learning to the fullest. I realize that the feds think we can get all kids to standard without parents helping along the way, but I don't know an educator out there who thinks that's realistic. So, what do we as schools do? We need all parents to shoulder their piece of the puzzle, not just some. Do we log parent contacts over the years? How do we make those calls more positive and draw in the parents we need?

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Cause for Alarm?

08 July 2006

Our Summer Seminar program begins in earnest on Monday. We'll add Reading and Writing classes to the mix. So far, we've just had kids coming for help with math. Two parent phone calls this week left me scratching my head.

In the first case, the parent was frenzied because her child "was learning new things." Yes, you read that correctly. I wasn't aware that this would be a bone of contention about the program, but I have been duly served notice of it. I admit that there isn't anything I can really do about this...and even if I could, I'm not sure that I would make an effort. I believe that new learning is beneficial.

Secondly, I had a parent who couldn't believe that her son would ditch class. "He said he's been going." Um, okay. I'm sure he's been going somewhere during the day---but he hasn't been with us. Was I sure I checked all of the classrooms? Yes, all two of them. I'm not sure what direction things took at home Friday evening or if this conversation will continue. It seemed to me that the parent could ask the kid for samples of the work completed as evidence of attendance...but what do I know? I'm only there to actually see the kids.

There's certain to be more interesting exchanges with parents over the next few days and weeks. En garde!

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TMI

18 June 2006

My additional duties over the summer include managing a summer program for our sophs who didn't meet the standards on the state tests in April...and making sure the retakes in August run smoothly. School isn't out yet (3 more days!), but I've already been getting the program components in place.

This was the week that student enrollment began. I had lots of parent phone calls, many of which provided me with "too much information." For example...
  • My husband and I are having a fight. Ht thinks that our daughter take the class this summer and retake the test in August, but I think she should just continue her math sequence in the fall and retake in the Spring. Which one of us is right?
  • It's ridiculous that kids have to explain their reasoning on the test. No one has to do that in the real world. You just call someone and get an answer. That's all that matters. Why should my kid have to write out answers on the test?

Not to mention the number of families who didn't read their letters properly, seem to have been living in a bubble over the last 5+ years and claim to never heard of graduation requirements, or are under a delusion that their kid is going to make up several grade levels in reading during a 16-session prep course. How about moms who are more worried about how their sons are going to be able to go to weight training for football with this pesky math class interfering? (Keep in mind that the tutorial options are free and not mandatory.)

I have quite the call log going. Part of the reason for it is that we actually get money from the state for all of this "academic counseling" I'm doing. But the other part is simply a way to document all of this in case these same parents want to sue the school district for not helping their children to graduate.

There is a job posting right now for someone to do this job full-time. I've been asked to sit in on the interviews. It will be really good to pass along all of this (especially the TMI tidbits) to someone else...especially the phone calls.

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Role Reversal

28 February 2006

I have a situation in my AP class that is completely new to me: a kid wants to stay in the class...and his parents want him to drop. I'm used to the other situation---where a kid wants to get out of a class and his/her parents think they should keep at it. I don't know quite what to do this time, because the student is in a very awkward position: to stay in the class means defying his parents.

I talked with his mother. I explained that I had offered for her son to take the class "Pass/Fail." That way, he would still have credit, it would show up on his transcript, but it wouldn't impact his GPA. This would relieve some pressure on the kid and yet allow him to stay in the class. Her stance is that if he isn't earning a grade, what's the point in taking a class?

The kid would be happy to stay in and take the class Pass/Fail. With only two months to go until The Test (not that he's planning on taking it), we are very nearly done with our curriculum. Why "quit" now?

We'll see what happens. I talked to his counselor so that she would know the situation the kid is in and I guess we'll go from there. I'm hoping that this will be the first and last time I run across this sort of dilemma.

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Uphill Through the Snow Both Ways

08 February 2006

A recent AP-AOL poll suggests that parents and kids disagree about what the "right" amount of homework looks like.

"Parents polled said their children spend an average of 90 minutes a night on homework. The workload grows as the students do — 78 minutes of homework a night in elementary school, 99 minutes in middle school and 105 in high school." However, "most children aged 9, 13 and 17 years say they spend less than an hour a night on homework, according to a long-term federal study. That load has held steady, if not dropped, over the past 20 years. Plenty of students say they are not assigned any homework at all."

I wonder sometimes if parents, students, and teachers are in agreement about what homework "looks like." Does it have to involve a paper and pencil task? Could it be reviewing notes or reading in the text? Is homework something that is completed alone by the student or might it involve a study group or some parental help?

Several studies have aimed to find a relationship between homework and student achievement. Some of these point to the amount assigned. Others have been focused on the quality of the assignments. I do think that practice is important for any of us faced with learning new information. Different kinds of assignments can help make new neural connections and strengthen old ones.

I admit that I don't assign a lot of homework to my students. However, I do expect them to read and revise notes on an ongoing basis. I didn't have an opportunity to take an AP class in high school, so I really don't know how my expectations compare with the real experience. I remember spending about 45 minutes a day (on average) on homework in high school. I don't think 90 minutes is such a terrible expectation---that's about 15 minutes per class per day for a student. I'd bet that many students out there would disagree.

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I Heard a Rumor That It's Friday

14 October 2005

...and I'm really hoping it's true. Been a long week here.

Yesterday was busy, but I had lots of nice compliments on my school board presentation---including ones from the superintendent and one of the board members. There are also some other comments starting to bubble up: If kids take more science, what classes will they not be taking? We knew these would come. Jobs are at stake.

I went to represent the school district (along with a few others) at an event for parents last night. The event was specifically targeting parents of minority children---giving them an opportunity to find out how to connect with the schools and get more involved with their childrens' education. There were lots of tables in the "fair": local banks, girl scouts, school districts, support agencies, etc. A free dinner was prepared.

Four families showed up.

I had been warned that when events like this had been planned, that parents were scarce. That was certainly no lie. I felt rather embarrassed for the organizers of the event.

There was some good coversation with others in my district about what "good" parent involvement looks like. This is someting I've blogged about before. Last night, the Boss Lady mentioned that to her, good parent involvement means getting your kids off to school in the morning---cleaned, dressed, and fed---and checking in with them about assignments and school events in the evenings. Maybe it's not about having parents come to the school to volunteer. Maybe it's not about Open House or other events that try to lure parents to the buildings. Maybe it's just a matter of providing a good environment so that kids can come to school, ready to learn. And we'll take things from there.

After two sixteen-hour days in a row, I'm ready for a break. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's glad to see Friday on the calendar. Welcome back, old friend.

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Open House

31 August 2005

My school will hold its annual "Open House" tomorrow evening. This consists of a general assembly for parents followed by a period-by-period meeting with each teacher. Each "period" is ten minutes in length.

Here are my best tips (not that you asked) for a successful meeting with a group of parents in your classroom:

  • Tell them some things about your personal life. You don't have to go into nitty gritty details, but both they and students are curious as to who you are (not just "what" you are in terms of a teacher). These bits of information help them connect with things in their own lives.

  • Talk about what homework "looks like" for your class. Is it reading? Practice problems? Journaling/Blogging? Many parents have the impression that homework means there is a worksheet. Sometimes this is an accurate reflection. Also share how often homework may be assigned and some estimates about the completion time.

  • Give parents some suggestions about how to talk to their kid about your class in order to keep the communication lines open. What should they ask about? Are there topics upon which students could elaborate? Give parents some gentle questions to use in order to gauge kids in conversation and reflection about their learning so that it doesn't have to look like the "third degree."

  • Provide a handout with your contact information---including the best times to reach you and your preferred means of communication (phone? e-mail?). Gather the same things from them.

  • Take a moment to talk about your most important classroom procedures, but don't spend the bulk of your time here. Hand them a syllabus. They can read it later.

  • Share ideas for parental involvement. Are there events where you need chaperones? Can they spare a box of Kleenex? Would you mind if they sat in on a class or lab? (Their child might!)

I'm hoping for another successful introduction to parents this year. Only some will attend the event, I realize, but at least it is a start to knowing these families. We'll have the next ten months to fill in the details.

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Wanted: Goldilocks Style Parenting

29 August 2005

Last week, I wrote about an article describing all of the efforts to get parents more involved with school. This seems to be the most common problem. But what about the other end of the spectrum? The "helicopter parents" who hover over their child's every move? Ah, today we have an article about the "too much" parent group and the impact they're having on colleges.

Some parents have been complaining to college administrators about the issues such as student grades, roommates, and even plumbing issues while overseas. The idea that they're paying $40,000 for their child's education somehow gives them a sense of entitlement to complain about anything they don't like. It makes me wonder about a couple of things. One---what is their purpose in sending the kid to college? Is it only to obtain a piece of paper saying that a degree was earned? And secondly, when do they plan to teach the child that the answer to every problem isn't "call mommy and daddy"? How old were these parents, I wonder, when their parents made them fight their own battles?

I like the fact that the college mentioned in the article is starting to be proactive about this issue. "At Colgate, parents used to receive a sheet listing administrators' phone numbers. This year, they got a statement about Colgate's philosophy of self-reliance — a message that was hammered home repeatedly in talks by administrators. Next year, the school may assign parents summer reading on the transition to college. The approach will continue throughout the year, part of a larger emphasis at Colgate on 'teachable moments' outside the classroom. A memo sent to departments ranging from residential life to counseling to public safety reminds employees: 'We will not solve problems for students because it robs students of an opportunity to learn.'"

I have to ask myself what the "just right" mode of parental involvement is. I know all too well what the "not enough" looks like...and I have had a couple of experiences with the "too much" variety. Certainly, parents should take an active interest in what the child is doing (or not doing) in the classroom. Parents are expected to be strong advocates for their children. I can understand that parents don't want their kids to hurt---physically or emotionally. I suppose the Goldilocks style of parenting means that you do these things in a realistic way: keep in contact with the others who are involved in your child's life without coming from the stance that your child can do no wrong nor have Life do wrong to them.

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Meet the Parents

22 August 2005

My school is now doing its "Open House" night before the start of the school year. We started this last year and there seem to be several advantages to this format. New students have a chance to follow their schedule before the first day of school. Teachers get to talk with parents about classroom expectations.

The parents who attend, that is.

We usually get about 15 - 20% of our target population. This seems rather paltry when you consider that we have 1200 families who are part of our school. I know that evenings can be a struggle for a family's schedule. Parents can be tired after a day of work. Perhaps there are little ones still at home. There may be other commitments already on the calendar. But does that account for 80 - 85% "no shows"?

We are not the only school struggling with ways to get more parents involved with our school. (This would include more than just Open House.) According to a recent article in the Orlando Sentinel, "Increasingly, public schools are turning to the wacky and whimsical -- and anything else they can dream up -- to push parents into getting more involved in schools and their kids' lives. The reason: Children whose parents do everything from simply talking to their kids to showing up for school meetings have better grades, improved attendance and less chance of dropping out, among other things."

Why are so few parents participating in the school at a time when the stakes have never been higher? I have a hard time believing that it is because they don't care about their children. So, what are the barriers---and what can we do about them?

I believe that mistrust on both sides is part of the problem. "Eighty-two percent of teachers surveyed in 2004 by Public Agenda, a nonprofit group that conducts public-policy research, said parents' failure to teach their children discipline is a major problem and more than half said teachers often go easy on students because they don't feel supported by parents." Meanwhile, "Parents are strapped for time, and they often feel unwelcome or intimidated by their own lack of education..." So, they're worried that we're going to make them feel stupid...and we're worried that they won't take our role in their childrens' lives seriously. If we took the time to really talk about this, we'd likely find that we've all had a bad experience: either as a student or as a teacher calling a parent for support. But somehow, many of us have extended that experience to our further interactions. It's stifling our ability to reach out to one another.

I also think that too often we expect parents to come to the schoolhouse door---and yet we don't make an effort to come to them. Maybe we should think about holding meetings in apartment complexes or subdivisions once in awhile. I have also heard of districts which make a second bus run on certain days of the year in order to pick up parents and bring them to school...supposedly with grand results.

The article in the Sentinel has an interesting tidbit: a school which used "door prizes and pizza" to lure parents in for a meeting had a turnout rate of 75% of the families. If 75% can show up for meetings, pizza, and door prizes (even those who have been at work all day, have young children, etc.)...why can only 15% show up if there's no extra incentives? Why isn't helping your child in their education enough of a motivation?

The bottom line is simply that we need parents as an integral part of our schools. NCLB may have laid student achievement at the footsteps of educators, but we can't do it alone. Every year, my principal shakes his head and asks for ideas to help increase parental involvement with our school. We provide various ideas (like moving Open House to an earlier date) and see if it works. But it's not enough. We need to rebuild our connections with families and reach out in various ways. I really hope that we find a way for them to reach back to us.

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What's in a Name?

02 June 2005

Talk to any teacher, and I'd bet that s/he will tell you that there are some "bad" names. Names that send a chill up the spine. Names that when seen on your class roster at the beginning of the year make you want to beg the counselor to create a different schedule. And I'm not talking about the last names of kids---I'm talking about their first names.

One of my cohorts recently became an aunt. Her sister had the baby names all picked out...and if the kid was a girl, she would be named "Harley." My friend and her mother (who are both teachers) pleaded with the mom-to-be to use another name. Why? Too many bad experiences with students named "Harley." They just couldn't stand the idea of a family member with that name. (Luck was on their side. The baby was a boy.)

Some interesting research published recently seems to indicate that a student's name does play a role in the classroom in terms of teacher expectations. This Miami Herald article will give you the full details (id: bugmenot[at]123[dot]com; password: june2005). Some highlights include
  • Teachers have lower expectations for students with names like Da'Quan because they assume the parents who choose names with unusual letter combinations and apostrophes are poorly educated. But teachers did not have the same low expectations for siblings with more mainstream names.
  • The research goes beyond distinctly black names. In other papers also on track to being published, it is asserted that girls of all races with feminine-sounding names, such as Rebecca or Elizabeth, are less likely to enroll in high-level math and science classes.
  • Studies have also found 263 ways to spell Caitlin or Katelynn, mostly among white parents. The further away someone gets from the two most common spellings, the more likely the girl is to have trouble reading when she reaches third or fourth grade.

But why? There are all sorts of possibilities and the article does get at some of them. I really think it has a lot to do with the previous experiences of a teacher. If the first "Caitlynn" you have also happens to have some spelling problems, you may assume that Kaitlinn will, too. Did Du'Quan have a mother with little education or income? Maybe Shaniqua will have the same. And those Fry kids? Holy terrors, I tell you. I had two of them...and five more are coming up through the system. Better hope you don't get one of those. Better hope you get a "Phan" instead because all those kids are geniuses.

None of these are reasonable. As teachers, we shouldn't have a bias against a student because of their name---any more than we should for their gender, skin colour, or religious preference. But it's out there and I have certainly been guilty of the "name game." (Even a Science Goddess occasionally has some superstitions.) I think I will be far more aware of it in the future.

One thing I have tried in the last few years is to have students turn in papers with a "code word" at the top, instead of their name. That way, when I mark them, I rarely know which kid wrote a paper. And it's a simple way to remove any expectations I have based on previous performance to a current assignment. (But now I wonder if I have some expectations based on the code word they choose!)

It's unreasonable to expect that every person be able to be unbiased in their approach to all relationships. We're human. We look for patterns and then apply them to try to make sense of the world. But if we can raise our awareness of some of the more unintentional biases (as with names), perhaps we can make a bit more of a difference.

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Please excuse...

21 April 2005

"...my son from May 19 - 25. We need to take a vacation that week because this is the only time his sister can get off."

Yes, I received that particular e-mail from the mother of one of my students this week. (I don’t know whether to giggle or feel sorry for the sister who can only get off once a year. Ahem.) The mother also went on to point out that her son will have completed all of his AP tests by that point...and implied that would mean he wouldn’t miss anything important by being gone. Yeah, lady, there will still be six weeks left in the school year, but we’re just going to sit around and twiddle our thumbs because The Test is over. What else could we possibly have to learn?

I have been fortunate this year to not have to deal with very many family vacations. I really struggle with whether or not these sorts of absences should be excused. I’m not talking about "long weekends." I’m not talking about kids who have experienced a death in the family and need to be out. I’m talking about kids that are gone anywhere from 1 - 5 weeks during the school year, purely for a holiday. (I have encountered many families in my tenure here who think nothing of taking their kids to the Philippines for a month or more during school time.)

Are there things a kid could learn through their travels—experiences that they could never have within the classroom? Absolutely. Are they valuable? Again, I couldn’t agree more. Are there sometimes reasons why families can only have a holiday during school time? Yes. And since I live in an area heavily populated with Navy families, I know that they sometimes have to take advantage of opportunities when their ship comes in (literally).

But I still feel like it’s a slap in the face when I’m told the kid will be out for a month to vacation elsewhere—and I’m expected to supply the student with assignments (including alternatives for labs...and including spending a great deal of my personal time either pulling together the work or marking it, for those kids that bother to complete it). Shouldn’t we (parents and teachers) be reinforcing with students that school is important? That attendance is important?

For those schools and districts with attendance policies (such as "miss more than 10 days and you lose credit for the course), I doubt they have to confront this issue very much. I must admit I’m a little jealous of that.

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Seeing Red

09 April 2005

Earlier in the school year, I saw a similar story to this one, where teachers were asked to mark papers using a colour other than red. Parents were complaining that the self-esteem of their children was being damaged because of papers marked in red. It's apparently too stressful for a student to see even positive comments written with a red pen.

Why is this even an issue, I wonder. Are there already generations of us who've been traumatized by red marks on our homework...and only now are adults shaking their fists at this convention? Mind you, I always picture these same parents after little Johnny grows into adulthood. I see them storming into the office of Johnny's boss at some big company and decrying some slur against Johnny's self-esteem at yesterday's sales meeting. I imagine them writing notes to Johnny's creditors asking that he be excused from payments and be allowed some time for make-up work (without penalty, of course).

What I hope for is that these parents will "get real" at some point. When a teacher gives a student feedback, it is not full of personal comments. (As much as I might like to make those comments from time to time, I don't.) Comments on papers are in the form of constructive criticism: here's what went well, here's how to improve the things that didn't work. They are not slurs against a kid and/or their self-esteem. It is a judgement of the work, not the student. Shouldn't we be focused on improving that?

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Cruel Schools

18 March 2005

What could drive a parent to these lengths?! "I sat down and I ate three Mr. Goodbars because I was so angry," she said. "You can't lump parents in one group."

I can imagine what lumping might cause three Mr. Goodbars' worth of consternation for myself. In Ms. Donaldson's case, it was because she hadn't been sending her grandson to school and the District Attorney in Knoxville, TN, was talking about holding her accountable.

As if the quote wasn't amusing enough, try this on for kicks and giggles: the DA sent out letters to 582 parents of consistently truant students...and 41% didn't show up for the meeting with him.

Attendance issues are the plague of most schools' existences. How the heck are we supposed to be teaching kids when they don't show up? I have already posted on this issue, but this most recent article brings it all back to mind again.

Granted, it sounds like the woman quoted in the article has a grandson with some health problems---but what has kept her from (at minimum) calling the school to at least tell them that he was ill? Multiple times? If you're too lazy to pick up the phone...might it be reasonable to assume that you might also not take a kid to school because you didn't feel like making the effort?

Do parents understand that every unexcused absence a child has gets reported to the feds...and that the more of these absences a school has, the greater the penalties placed upon the school? Do they even stop to think that by keeping a kid from the opportunity to attend school, they are risking the future resources a school may have available for all kids? I'm not talking about playing hooky once in awhile, I'm talking about kids who miss at least once a week. Out of the 35 days we've had this semester, I have a kid who's missed 30...and another sitting at 20. It's maddening.

From a classroom standpoint, an unexcused absence is no skin off my nose. If a kid has this sort of absence, I'm under no obligation to allow them an opportunity to make up the grade. But if the absence is excused...then I have to provide an opportunity and a reasonable time to complete it. Most teachers find this a real headache---especially if the assignment happened weeks beforehand. It takes a great deal of time to find old assignments (or make up a replacement) and then grade them if/when the kid completes them. Hours are added onto my workload each year by just a few students who want to do things at their convenience, as opposed to getting up in the morning and coming to school like the rest of us.

I hope that Knoxville, Tennessee, puts its penalties for parents where its mouth is. And, I hope that Ms. Donaldson realizes that there won't be Mr. Goodbars in jail. While she's there, perhaps someone will see to it that her grandson gets to school each day.

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The New Breed

04 March 2005

Tuesday night was our school's annual "Information Night" for parents of next year's students. The principals do a little dog and pony show in the gym. Then the parents wander down to the cafeteria where the various academic and vo-tech departments have displays and staff on hand to answer questions. And last of all, there are various breakout sessions for those parents interested in particular programs. It makes for a long evening, but usually, it's a piece of cake.

This year didn't quite go as planned. There was a whole new kind of parent that showed up for the evening's festivities. I really don't know how to describe them. What I will say is the parents of incoming sophomores have the first crop of kids who will multiple accountability measures factored into their graduation: Did they pass the state tests? All of them? Did they take the required credits? Did they complete their senior project? How about their "year plus" plan? Even parents who had children that had already passed through our hallowed halls were acting a bit odd on Wednesday night. They have this "deer in the headlights" look. And, boy, were they concerned about getting their kids into college.

I was tasked with leading the breakout sessions on our Sophomore Honors Program. I'm rather proud of this program and have been actively involved with developing it over the last 8 years. It's easy for me to gush about what all we offer. But when I opened up the floor for questions, all the parents were concerned with was the AP program. Should my 15-year old take a college level class next year? What if s/he doesn't---does it mean s/he can't get into college? What if (gasp!) they get a "B" in the course?

I wouldn't want you to believe that we never had high-maintenance parents at school before. We've just never had them in such abundance. I wanted to tell these people to back off a bit. Yes, college entrance is becoming more competitive. Yes, it's wonderful to encourage kids to challenge themselves and make the most of their opportunities. But you know what---they're still 15 years old. I personally don't believe that most 15 year-olds are ready for a college level class. That's why there's this thing called "high school" sandwiched between junior high and university. There's nothing wrong with a kid who needs to take 1 honors class (instead of 3...or 2 + 1 AP) in order to build their "readiness" for the next step.

Anyway, I was caught off guard. And all of this happened after a dad came up and questioned me about evolution in the biology curriculum. "Do you teach it?" Yes, we do. It is mandated by the state. "Do you teach creationism and/or intelligent design?" No, we don't. We can be sued for doing that. "Do you teach evolution as fact?" No, it's a theory based on facts---just like atomic bonding and gravity. "Yeah, but do you teach it as fact?" I repeated my previous answer. "What if a kid wanted to bring in a paper with an opposing viewpoint?" There would be no opportunity for this type of assignment. "But what if they wanted to bring one in?" Oh, I went round and round with this guy.

When the last parent filed out at 8:30, I was grateful. Next year is already shaping up to be very interesting.

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Speaking of...

08 February 2005

Check out this story out of Detroit, where parents are being arrested for not sending their kids to school.

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In Absentia

07 February 2005

I really don't like to be out from work, although there are times (like now), where attending is unthinkable. Being gone from the classroom creates a host of problems---from trying to find a worthwhile sub to finding ways for the kids to keep moving forward without my guidance. I feel like I have this week covered. I'm still secretly, and perhaps foolishly, hoping to be back on Thursday.

Most jobs allot workers a particular "bank" of sick days. In NM, I was allotted 15 for my first year---as new teachers tend to catch every bug in the book---and 10 every year thereafter. Here in WA, I've been given 12 per year. Currently, I have enough to be gone for about 50 days. I have never been one to abuse my sick leave, although I do admit to taking the occasional "mental" health day when Life has just been too crazy.

I am always interested by colleagues and students who push the limit (and then some) with sick days. I have worked with several teachers over the years whose philosophy is something along the lines of "if the district has allotted these days off for us, use them up." And when these teachers get closer to retirement, it may mean that they take 2 or 3 days off each week throughout the school year. I find this irresponsible, but there isn't anything the district can do about it. There is no policy here (as there was in NM) for providing a written note from a physician if you are out more than 3 days in a row. I suppose I should be appreciative that the district trusts me enough to believe that when I say I need to be out more than 3 days, that I do.

We also have no policy in this district regarding the number of days students may be absent. In one class during this fall semester, I had students gone 57, 40, 36, and 17 days. Out of 89 possible school days. The "57" was primarily due to suspension---she was something of a bad hat at school, although she gave me no grief. As for the others? The "40" had a parent who liked her to stay home. And while I don't know the full story of what was happening with the family, I have to think that keeping your kid home when they aren't ill is another big case of irresponsibility.

For the most part, the school trusts parents as the district trusts teachers: if you say your kid can't come to school, then we'll assume it's because of some sort of personal emergency. Just give us a call or send a note with your kid the next day. And doesn't it seem the province of the parent to decide first what is in the best interests of the child? Is there a point where there are "too many" days? Who decides the magic number? And who enforces it?

We do have some recourse, for kids like my "40," but it is rarely pursued. What school will initiate legal action against families for keeping their kids home, even though the school should do its part to ensure the child has access to an education? None that I know of.

So, here I sit in the middle of the night, bothered because I am physically unable to do my part later today to help my kids...and yet we have a number of parents who won't be bothered if their kids take a 3-day (or more) weekend frequently throughout the year. There are so many areas of education today where we really need a stronger partnership with parents and yet we're having such trouble making connections. And it will be the schools who are blamed and penalized when students can't meet standards or fail to graduate. I'm not sure what the answer to all of this is, but for the 8 hours a day that schools are "in loco parentis," we have to do a better job of encouraging students to come and make the most of that time. I'm sorry I can't be there this week to do my part.

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Of Parents and Conventions

19 January 2005

Ah, the life of a Science Goddess. And, oh, the frustrations of Blogger when your post is eaten and you have to try to recapture your thoughts.

It's been an incredibly busy two days this week.

Last night, we held an information session for parents about how they could help their kids "Spank the Standards" on our state assessment. We have about 400 sophomore students at our school, all of whom will be taking the tests. We sent invitations via postcard to all of their families. We also invited parents of 9th graders who will be coming to our school. Passing the tests is more critical for them, because if they don't, they can't graduate. We also extended an invitation to Juniors and their families, as those students can elect to retake the tests for better scores. The scores appear on their transcripts, even if they aren't required for graduation. And, we even advertised the event in the local paper. So, let's say that 1000 families were invited to attend.

We had representatives from 4 of them.

I really could go off on a rant here...and perhaps will at some point in this merry blog...but I refuse to believe that parents aren't interested in the education of their children. I have to think that whatever we're doing to encourage parent participation just isn't cutting it. Why is it so hard to get parents of teens to engage more with the school? I know that kids don't always think it's "cool" to have mom and/or dad show up at school...but at a parent night, the kids need not even show up. Nobody has to know whose parents are whose.

Anyway, I got home about 9, had a few hours of sleep, and then took the bus to the ferry...across the sound to the big city for a 2-day conference. I went to three sessions today, one of which was wonderful. I slept through about half of the third one, but by that point, I already knew I wasn't going to miss anything.

Meanwhile, I've left my charges in the hands of a substitute (a/k/a "guest") teacher. That is always a real crapshoot. In this state, they have to be certificated teachers...people who are actually licensed to be in a classroom. But let me tell ya', in most cases, it's pretty easy to see why they don't get a permanent position. Most are unorganized...they don't follow the plan that is left...I've had several that don't like kids and are rude to my students. The one I usually get these days is a retired teacher from our building. He's deaf as a post and proceeds to fill the kids' heads with a lot of misinformation...because he doesn't bother to stay current. Ugh.

Due to my Science Goddess position, I'm out of the classroom a lot more than I would like to be. However, I try to never be gone during the first month of school while I entrain the kids. Being out a day here or there for the rest of the year is usually not too much of a problem. Two days? Not the best option (as I am doing this week), but with some preparation, it can be okay. And as for three? Don't even think about it. If you miss three days in a row, you'll never have the classes back as you would like them.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that tomorrow will be very worthwhile in terms of conference sessions. For now, I'm going to lie down on the cushy bed here in the hotel and try to relax.

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