Learning Conversations

Come sit with me. Well talk, well ask big questions

Category: Parent Involvement

The Best Parent-Teacher Interactions

As the president of my district’s parent group (DPAC), my biggest goal is to support better parent-teacher relationships.

At our orientation meeting at the beginning of the 2008/09 school year, one of our amazing District staff development experts came to present about the importance of initiating conversations with your children’s teachers.

And as part of that presentation, she guided us through an “appreciative inquiry” exercise to help us connect with the best parent-teacher interactions we’ve had.

The exercise went like this:
– on an index card, write down you name, your children’s ages and the school(s) that they attend.
– write about a time that you had a great interaction with a teacher
– take your index card, introduce yourself to someone you don’t know, and describe your story to that person (and vice versa)
– trade cards with that person
– find another person you don’t know and tell them the story of the person whose card you’re now holding (and vice versa)
– trade cards with the second person
– find a third person you don’t know and tell them the story of the person whose card you’re now holding (and vice versa)
– choose three words that describe the stories that you heard

What would happen if every parent-teacher conversation, conference or disagreement was conducted with caring, support, encouragement and respect?  What would our chances of finding successful solutions for our children be if we could remember to co-operate, be open, understand and appreciate each other?

At one of our DPAC meetings, we talked about this graphic and the kinds of interactions that produced results.  We talked about the things that get in the way of these kinds of interactions why don’t we do this all the time??  And we talked about ways of increasing the likelihood of each interaction including all of these qualities.

What if we all, in our learning communities, talked about the kinds of interactions parents want to have with teachers and how we can help each other create those situations? I think Ill raise this discussion again at the beginning of the new school year approaching, to get everyone thinking about the positive interactions possible for us.

We’re all human and it’s hard to remember to focus on the big picture all the time.  In my opinion, if we’re all talking about the same questions and have the same goals, then we’ve just tripled the probability that one of us (parent, teacher or administrator) will REMEMBER to pull us all back to our real goal to have caring, positive interactions that help find solutions for our children!

And isn’t that what really matters?

A Trifecta for Change

Keeping student learning at the center of all we do in the education system is absolutely critical – I have no doubt of this! In fact, as parents, we have exceptionally high standards and expect schools to have a 100% success rate. Our District talks proudly of its graduation rate – up in the high nineties (percentile), it’s pretty impressive. And I still say “not good enough!” Ask any parent if they want their child to be the kid that falls through the cracks? I doubt you’ll get any takers!

So that means one thing to me – we all need to be part of the education “system.” We all need to work together: students, parents, teachers, staff, leaders, politicians, communities.

These are things we all know. And we talk about them a lot – what to change, what we want, what we dream of, what we value, etc

The hard part is figuring out how to DO all these things? How to embed these beliefs into every thought, word and deed? How do we shift a system? How do we change the world? These are, indeed, big questions…

David Truss, Dave Sands and I have had many “big” talks about educational change over the last few years. We keep coming back to three core components to change – and that all three need to work together for success. We’ve talked about them as leadership, systems (technology, policies and procedures, administrative requirements, etc…), and shared learning (or Pro-D). Projects undertaken in only one of the three areas without considering/incorporating the other two areas inevitably fail or, at a minimum, underperform and lack sustainability.

I’ve come to think of the three areas that David, Dave and I talk about as a trifecta, of sorts. All three are needed to support innovative, systemic change. All three need to be considered and embedded into all we do in order to “win this race” for 100% success. As I reflected on Elisa Carlson’s post about Engaging Digital Natives, I got thinking again about change – the “engrossed” learning that she describes, I want for my children. For ALL children – and all adults too!

So, what will move us forward? How will we spread change and all the great things happening in pockets further and further, until we have a system we no longer recognize?

Here are my thoughts:

1) Relationships for Learning

(what David, Dave and I originally called “shared learning”)

I bet on relationships first. If there were only one thing I could focus my time on, it would be on building trust and relationships between all involved in our education system. Because if we have solid relationships, then we communicate with each other, we share our challenges and our ideas, and we learn together. And that, alone, changes my child’s learning experience in a classroom, even if all other challenges stay the same.

We have to remember that not only student-teacher relationships are critical to learning, but an entire community of healthy relationships are needed. Andy Hargreaves talks about the need for active trust to support systemic excellence and change, because we need learners to take risks. So we need supportive relationships between parents and teachers, teachers and students, all peer groups (students with students, teachers with teachers, etc), principals and teachers, etc

There are so many approaches, ideas, methodologies and projects – so many great things I see happening all over the place! But there is only one FIRST step in education change: we have to start by knowing each other. We have to encourage each other to remember that we’re all human and we all care about the same, fundamental things – children growing up to be happy, healthy, self aware and contributing citizens. We have to keep trying to remember not to assume or judge each other (and ourselves). We have to move beyond the old system and find ways to work together instead of fight against each other.

I never underestimate the power of the “system” (see #3 below). Barry Oshry writes about organizational behavior and how systems have personalities that inevitably influence us. We’re so used to doing things the way we always have and operating by habit. And particularly when under the influence of busy lives, it’s only natural to fall into old  habits – in this case, the old habits of treating parents as “clients” or the outsiders, doing “to” instead of doing “with” and falling back to assumptions about each other because it’s easier than the uncomfortable and vulnerable work of revealing yourself as an individual (with all the human foibles we all wish we could hide).

It’s easy to get frustrated with people – it’s much more effective to get curious. Ask questions. Don’t assume. Listen with an open mind. Don’t judge. Let yourself and those around you be whole, imperfect and amazing human beings. Open doors and take first steps in getting to know each other. Start by sharing something about yourself – you have a dog, you like snowboarding, you want to travel to Paris some day. Something that let’s people see you as an individual. Connect. It’s the foundation!

Parents need professionals. Professionals need parents.
The children need us both.

-Federation of Invisible Disabilities

2) Creating a Space for Learning

(Originally “Leadership)

I bet on the leadership needed for building communities in second place because we need those relationships to move beyond one-on-one interactions. We need support and modeling to learn how to trust that we can take risks (and won’t be made fun of or reprimanded), to come together as groups that collaborate and share, to decide that it’s safe in this space to be vulnerable and uncomfortable.

We all need leaders/mentors who encourage us without judging, who ask questions instead of give answers, who inspire us and who motivate us to believe in ourselves. Sometimes, we need the wisdom of an expert learner to help us keep going when we’ve lost hope and to walk beside us without taking over.

This could be a principal working with her staff, a teacher working with students, a student leader working with peers, a parent who advocates for greater involvement, etc We are all leaders in different ways and at different times.

Ultimately, creating a “safe space” for learning has to do (first and foremost) with who we are, not simply what we say or do. It takes silence, self reflective practices and conscious effort to be able to “show up” for those around you in a whole, healthy and supportive way. Without baggage. This is where Gandhi’s “be the change you want to see in the world” becomes the core guiding principle!

We cannot force someone to learn. We cannot mandate or legislate change. Ultimately, we can’t even motivate people to make the changes we want them to make. Goodness knows, I’ve tried! My daughter is a beautiful, smart, sensitive young lady. She is also disorganized, quick to anger or frustration, anxious and vulnerable. She’s quick to beat up on herself (afraid I’ve modeled that for her all too well…) and hates to hear feedback (because it all feels like criticism to her). Knowing that, in a way, I’ve “done” this to her through modeling my own insecurities and reactions, I sometimes feel like I have to also “fix” this.

It may be obvious to anyone from the outside that I can’t “fix” her, but fear and overwhelming love for our children isn’t always conducive to logical parenting choices… No surprise, then, that my dear daughter always fought harder when I tried to “teach” her – because every time I started some mini-lecture on the need for self control or having to clean her room, all she heard was “mom thinks there’s something wrong with me and I’m going to be a failure…” That led to nothing but more fights and more self doubt – the exact OPPOSITE of what I wanted for her!

Instead, I had to deal with my own fears FIRST. Only then could I start to learn to “hold a space” for her – to start every conversation by thinking “I love this child so much, how can I say what I want to say with that love at the core, so that she’ll hear me?” I don’t tell her what she’s done “wrong” anymore – she knows it (and desperately fears it) already. I ask questions instead. “How did it feel to be so upset? Did you like that? What do you want to do differently?” I ask her “How can I help?” or “Does that seem reasonable?” or “Can you think of a similar time when you found a solution?” I say “I love you” and offer her a hug (more and more, she asks for hugs now).

I set expectations and hold her to them by reminding her that she is capable – because sometimes she’s afraid and has lost hope, so helping her remember that she has successfully handled such situations in the past helps her remember to trust or believe in herself. And only once she lets go of the fear does her mind open to all the solutions that were sitting in front of her all the time! I could have told her what to do until I was blue in the face and she wouldn’t have done anything – because a mind closed with fear is blind. But simply to say “I believe in you and here’s the proof I see” shifts her a little, makes her question her fears, and invites her to open up just a crack.

What does this mean in our schools? Well, how often do we berate teachers who “don’t get it” for not changing their teaching practices? Or when that perpetually tardy student shows up late again, how often do we pull him into the office for another “mini lecture” on the need for punctuality? When parents sit around complaining in the parking lot, does anyone go listen to their concerns and invite them into the school for discussion? Or do the staff stand at the windows thinking “there they go again. THOSE parents…” (insert rolled eyes here). Every day, every moment – are our actions supporting the change that we can’t to make? Are we creating that space and that safety needed for those around us to learn?

In other words, I’ve learned something critical about leadership and systemic change from my darling, high strung daughter. We can only create a space that is safe, caring and supportive – then invite people to join us in making the changes that matter to us all. And join us, they will. I have faith! NOTE: return to review importance of #1 now, in context of #2…

3) Systems for Learning

(originally and still “systems”)

Ahhh… The SYSTEM… We do, indeed, have a hard time shifting a system, don’t we? There are rules, policies, Provincial learning outcomes, legislation, administrative procedures, best practices, standardized tests, class sizes, reporting requirements, budgets and limited resources, Roberts Rules of Order, and (not least of these) “the way we’ve always done it.” There are computer systems, software programs, support structures, hiring practices, purchasing rules, and parents who “don’t get it.” There are innumerable reasons why we can’t change.

Right now, we have excellence that happens in spite of the system. Every day, I see educators, principals, parents, students – all doing amazing things! But too often, these great programs or projects are driven by the determination and persistence of individuals – fighting the system and moving mountains because they care about kids and want to make a difference.

Too often, we have to find ways around policies, we have to fight technology barriers, we are working alone (“reinventing the wheel”) or we have to ignore politics (with career risk involved) in order to make great things happen. And the problem with this kind of change is that it isn’t sustainable – eventually, you get tired of fighting, you doubt your effectiveness and life becomes overwhelming. So the great program ends and you move on to a new challenge, hoping that this time it will be different…

In order to move forward and truly achieve lasting change and 100% success, we need excellence that is supported by the system.

This is where we usually start. Perhaps because it’s the most obvious – the lack of computers, the wireless networks, the budgets we debate every year, the curriculum or standardized testing mandated by government, changing assessment and report cards, the pro-d days, the possible programs (i.e. project based learning, IB, Montessori, French Immersion).

But the projects we choose often lack the conscious inclusion and consideration of both leadership and relationships/trust. I’ve noticed that we carefully select our pilot sites for technology projects, considering who the Principal at the school is, what kind of pro-d culture they have, how the parent/community relationships are. And I don’t think we often list those considerations specifically – it’s more of a gut feeling or instinct based selection. We sit around a table and throw out suggestions for pilot schools – and certain ones immediately resonate. We know we can make change there. Why? Because the “right” people are there…

When we roll it out further, it often struggles. We still deploy the computers, but they get used by only certain people. Or they are used in much more adaptive (rather than transformative) ways.

Yes, we need to change the system – there’s no doubt of that! But we need to change it together. We need to pay attention to relationships and communities. We need a shared understanding of our ultimate goals – what Andy Hargreaves calls an inclusive and inspiring vision. And we need to constantly questions our assumptions along the way. Changing a system has as much to do with what we do as with what we choose NOT to do…

Life’s two most important questions are “Why?” and “Why not?”
The trick is knowing which one to ask.

– Gordon Livingston

Learning Through Play

My youngest one is starting Kindergarten this Fall and on Friday, we attended a PALS (Parents As Learning Supporters) session at his new school. I love that the school is bringing in parents/guardians to see what kids will be doing in their classrooms and talking about the approach to learning that we shouldn’t expect a highly academic focus, that children this age learn best by learning through play!

There will be four session in the PALS series this first one was focused around the alphabet. We used stamps to make name tags, then stamp whatever words the children wanted. We made letters out of playdough. We played a matching game of upper case to lower case letters. And then we used fishing rods (with magnets at the end) to pick up fish (letters/pictures with paper clips on them). My son loved it all!

Then the children were ushered off to the community kitchen while the adults got a short lesson on preparing children for Kindergarten and the importance of reading. The speaker told us about making a point of talking about the parts of a book, of pointing out the title page, and of showing that we read left to right, starting on the left page. We heard about the importance of letting kids see us reading and having books in the house, so that they know that its a valued activity in our lives. And that, no matter what the language at home, just keep reading aloud to our children so that they are exposed to the rhythms, vocabulary and ideas that come from a variety of books. All wonderful stuff!

And then the speaker started talking about the importance of limiting screen time for our children that good old fashioned books are critical for children.

I bit my tongue didn’t want to be that parent on the first day, I guess!

But as I reflected on the mornings experience, I put together some feedback via email to the Principal of the school (who I know quite well). I thought about learning through play and the role of technology in a primary classroom.

I completely agree with the importance of reading and also believe there needs to be a balance of appropriate screen time. But a recent post from Will Richardson (http://weblogg-ed.com/2010/no-actually-youre-out-of-balance/) got me thinking about what balance really means particularly that balance isn’t about excluding technology.

It made me thing about the fact that, to this generation, play includes technology and it should, because it is an important part of being a literate citizen. My children are not literate if they do not know how to read, write, communicate AND search for/assess the validity of information. That means that comfort with technology is just as important as comfort with writing instruments or any number of other tools that we equip our kids to use.

My point, to make a long story short, is that I believe its important to start shifting our attitudes to include technology as a part of play and learning, right from the beginning. Penny Lindballe tells the story of lingering societal prejudices against technology well in this post (http://web20parents.blogspot.com/2009/11/real-digital-divide.html) its worth a read too!

There’s a reason we don’t wait until middle school to introduce a pencil, isn’t there? Time to treat technology the same way.

Can you stand in the way of genius?

I was over at Kris Wandering Ink blog today, reading about her perspective on our school system and how it impedes the development of genius.

Its a powerful piece and definitely worth the read (if you haven’t already).

As I read through the comments, I noticed a few people saying (or implying) that genius will develop despite the system that its natural and will come out, no matter what the world is telling them.

While I agree to some extent I also think that were fooling ourselves if we think were not damaging these kids. Whats the matter with saying a child is intellectually gifted?  How can we possibly believe that our parenting and teaching doesn’t influence how these children develop into adults and use their talents?

When we don’t support and foster their talents, we send them the message that it isn’t good to excel in this way that they need to tone it down and fit in if they want to be liked and accepted. They end up feeling like there’s something WRONG with them!

Now, granted, not all kids react this way I’m sure there some that can brush it off and go on being themselves. But there are lots of kids that aren’t that secure with their own worth, that haven’t been raised to feel their own worth and value.

So, it follows quite easily, that those gifted kids who get ridiculed for knowing the answers, for using advanced vocabulary, for being particularly sensitive or for having an artistic flair well, they stop openly developing those talents to avoid further pain. And if they’re holding back in class, how are they really developing to their full potential??

Coincidentally, I meandered over to Tamara Fishers blog, Unwrapping the Gifted, and read her wonderful article (http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/unwrapping_the_gifted/2008/08/varsity_academics.html) about exactly this topic. She articulates it much more eloquently than I have go have a read!

The fact of the matter is that EVERY CHILD deserves to develop their talents whether that be academic, athletic, artistic, social-emotional, leadership, comedic, etc

Our children all have their unique gifts our job as adults is to help them find and value those gifts.

Honestly, I think its the most important thing we can do for this next generation!

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