The Elephant in the Classroom

Things are not always dire or bleak, but looking for a positive after yesterday’s Parent Teacher conferences is fairly challenging. I have 22 students. Ten parents made appointments for a conference period yesterday; the conferences were held between 3 and 5 pm as an alternative to the 6 to 8 pm conferences held in the Fall.

Of those 10 parents, one canceled her appointment the day before. Of the other nine, 4 kept the appointment and 5 choose not to attend without the courtesy of a cancellation message. One parent was confused by the sign up method and came without an appointment — which as it turns out, was not a problem. Another parent was having day surgery during the day — we conferenced on the telephone Sunday afternoon.

I know that times have changed. People are busy. But common courtesy has not taken a header has it? I cannot imagine myself just not showing up when I had a conference appointment with my own child’s teacher. Both my husband and I have had recent reminiscences about our own elementary days — and our parents who would together attend conferences. Different times for certain. Since when do people just not show up to keep an appointment they made with a teaching professional? Notices on bright-colored paper, reminders in class, phone calls. Wouldn’t that have triggered something?

The parents I did see — the ones who made appointments and kept them — they are the positives in all of this. They are the ones who take a sincere interest in what their student is learning, how they can help. They came with questions, with requests, and I am gladly finding answers and responding to them.

But for those who just blew me off I want to ask, what was that about? Clearly, parents are disconnected here. So what can be done to engage them? It is a conversation that needs to take place – now.

Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy touts their success as a charter school amid the turmoil and needs of an inner city school system. I’ve read that their success is certainly influenced by the involvement of these students’ parents in the educational process. So how do they get parents to the table?  How do they get parents to participate in the monthly workshops, the parent nights? How do they deal with the elephant that is in our classrooms? Is it the extraordinary funding that the school uses to provide incentives? Or is there some other school culture that is engaging parents?

I would dearly love to know the answer.

Inviting Parents In

There is no magic bullet for creating partnerships between home and family. How I wish there was! However, once in a while I hear another teacher’s idea and borrow it to suit my own purpose.  Isn’t that something we all do?

In this case I borrowed my colleague Kim Bonfilio’s idea of seeking parent input on what they hope for their child in Third Grade. It’s a great one, built upon the Responsive Classroom activity of students’ Hopes and Dreams.

In my case, I sent a 6-item questionnaire to parents — remarkably I got about 75% of the questionnaires back the very next day. Many of them had thoughtful, introspective answers. The sheer number of returns was a pleasant surprise: conventional wisdom tells us that urban, high poverty parents are disengaged from their child’s school life.  In this case, conventional wisdom would be largely incorrect.

Hopes and Dreams for My Student

  1. What is your child’s strength in school? What is something he or she does well?
  2. Is there an academic area (math, reading, writing, etc.) in which you feel your child needs help?  Be as specific as you can be.
  3. What do you hope that your child will be able to do in Third Grade?
  4. What overall goal or dream do you have for your child?
  5. How do you see us – teacher, parent, and student – working together to reach this goal?
  6. Is there something else you feel it is important that I know?

In addition to the questionnaire, I am trying to contact parents of students who seem to be well-below grade level in reading – reading is my focus at this time because that is what we are benchmark testing at this moment. Many students seem to be about one and a half to two years below grade level and this is a place where a home-school connection is not only necessary, it is essential. We will need to work extremely hard – and smart – to start to close the gap.
How I wish I had the courage of Jonathan Kozol to make home visits. I need to get parents working with me pronto.
This survey is a step toward that partnership.