Questions When You Join a PTA Board #TeacherMom

I decided to sign up to help with our local school’s PTA this year as secretary. Especially because I only have a few years left before I return to the classroom, I am excited to dig deeper into the parent side of school.

I’m hoping that because it’s an entirely new board, my continual question-asking will be seen as constructive rather than just annoying. But even as I have started to consider my role, I felt that writing a post might help me synthesize my thinking, as well as to share ideas for others.

  • What makes your school unique? What challenges does the community face, and what are some advantages it possesses? How can you find out more first-hand?
  • What are ways the school already fosters relationships between teachers, parents, and students? What are ways the PTA can facilitate even stronger connections?
  • How might inventorying past and potential events/programs benefit your school?
  • What are the ways parents prefer communication? How might you find out?
  • In what ways can you convey to parents that all their voices matter, even if they can’t attend meetings?
  • In what ways might you be responsive to the needs of parents, teachers, admin, and students as a PTA?
  • How might the PTA collaborate with the administration?

I am hopeful that we can find opportunities to strengthen connections among parents, teachers, and students!

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On Taking Their Learning Autonomy Seriously #TeacherMom

I watched him eagerly build. Forget that parking garage we’d given him; his backdrop for his car pretend play needed to be a magnificent double castle. It was clear that for him, his make-believe was thoroughly real and satisfying and rich.

And I wondered how often I have not recognized such pretend play for what it really is: self-constructed learning experiences.

Now, as I watch my kids play and explore and learn, I am filled with questions.

Do we recognize their fantastical play of equal or greater value than “real world” play?

Children use fantasy not to get out of, but to get into, the real world. ~John Holt

Do we see a child at play or a person constructing meaning for themselves?

Do we believe that play has its place, but that that place is still below drilling shapes, colors, and counting if the child has reached a certain age?

“Children naturally resist being taught because it undermines their independence and their confidence in their own abilities to figure things out and to ask for help, themselves, when they need it.” ~Peter Gray

Do we allow panic of “readiness lists” (for any grade or age) to override our child’s autonomy over what they’ve indicated they are ready for? 

And most personally relevant: will I avoid the same mistake I made with my oldest (from which her own stubbornness saved us both), assuming that unless I assert my agenda and timetables and learning, my preschooler will fail?

Even as I work to provide a learning environment, I will try to remember an equally, if not more, important role: to trust them enough that I take their own learning autonomy seriously.

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Turning Around “Family as Appendages of an Abstraction”

This phrase, “family as appendages of an abstraction,” leaped from the page as I read John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down. While there were several points in the book with which I disagree, this one stands out to me, because it is a harrowing reminder of the ways that once viewed family as an appendage of school, rather than the other way around. This included:

  • Insisting that reading logs be signed by a parent each night, even when a parent told me she knows her daughter reads for hours each day & indicated that the log would not have any value for their situation.
  • Questioning why on earth a parent was opting out of homework so her daughter could focus on her rigorous gymnastics practice/competition schedule.
  • Feeling frustrated when some families expressed dismay when we discontinued math worksheets for homework in favor of what we viewed as a more relevant, choice-based approach (“Can’t they see this is better for their kid than some worksheet?”)
  • Any time I viewed myself as a greater authority on a child’s needs than the parent.

I cringe at these memories. Families are a child’s most lasting community, and parents their most lasting teachers. Gatto writes,

“The deepest purposes of these gigantic networks [like schools] is to regulate and make uniform. Since the logic of family and community is to give scope to variety around a central theme, whenever institutions make a major intervention into personal affairs they cause much damage. By displacing the direction of life from families and communities to institutions and networks we, in effect, anoint a machine our King.”

It’s why I appreciate teachers like Taryn Bond-Clegg who realized that on the homework issue, rather than making mandates for or against, she could ascertain from parents and students themselves what would be most helpful for their families.

It’s why I recently wrote about ways we can truly form partnerships with parents.

And it’s why I loved this response from Chris Tuttell on Bill Ferriter’s “5 Lessons for the Student Teachers In Your Lives:”

“18 years in and I still feel like I have so much to learn. As a beginning teacher I had such an idealistic view – I always knew I wanted to teach in schools that served lower socioeconomic students and I thought I would change their world – I watched ALL the teacher movies – “Dangerous Minds”, ‘Stand and Deliver”, “Lean on Me”, “Freedom Writers”, etc. I thought and said, more times than I care to remember, “Education is your ticket out.”

Can you imagine hearing that as a kid? What was I thinking? Was I really suggesting being educated was more important than the connections the kids had with their family, friends, community? Or worse, that being educated meant you had to leave behind the life and people that matter most? It’s really horrifying isn’t it? I was so ignorant.

Now, all these years later, I focus my efforts on connecting with the families, visiting the community – entering as a learner – seeking to understand by asking questions and truly listening. I try to live by Maya Angelou’s words “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I don’t succeed everyday but I am trying.”

I, too, am trying to learn & reflect as much as I can & come to know better so that once I return to the classroom, I can do better.

Of course, all this isn’t to suggest that all our kids’ home situations are ideal; far from it. But the point is that every family benefits when we focus on learning how we might support them, “seeking to understand by asking questions and truly listening.”

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10 Ways for Partnering With Parents #TeacherMom

A friend in my PLN, Aviva Dunsinger, recently wrote about the re-framing of her thinking regarding student vacations during the school year.

“…I think that we have a choice here: we can focus on what children lose due to their absence, or we can look at what they might gain. My thinking is that the stronger the home/school connection, the better the chance that educators, parents, and children can work together to get the most fzrom this away time.”

Her suggestions for offering resources to parents as they take their children on vacation included ideas like offering prompts to elicit discussions. What I appreciate most about these kinds of suggestions is that it sets aside the tone that we know what’s best for their children.

Particularly when we’re facing hostility, this can be an especially difficult task — after all, we are the professionals here. But when we work to view parents through a lens of partnership (and work to walk the talk), we actually preempt those power struggles we fear.

Here are some ideas that might help!

1. Harness social media (that your students’ parents use). Instagram, class Facebook accounts, Twitter — these can all give parents a window into your classroom, which will boost trust via transparency.

2. Share reminders via text to keep parents in the loop on events. Remind is a quality app for this purpose, sending group texts without exchanging actual phone numbers.

3. Seek their input on homework. Taryn Bond-Clegg wrote some time ago about how her approach to homework shifted:

“This year I was planning on having a zero homework policy. Then I realized that it doesn’t have to be an either or… it can be a both and. If I as the teacher mandate homework for all my students, I am neglecting the perspectives of the families who value their time after school for other activities and wish not to have homework. If I as the teacher outlaw homework I am neglecting the perspectives of the families who value extended practice of the academic skills we explore in class.”

Check out the inquiry her class conducted with regards to ascertaining their homework needs.

4. Leverage their expertise. Invite them into the classroom as experts. Assign students to collect data based on parent experiences for various units.

5. Consider getting rid of reading logs. I remember a conversation with a parent of a bookworm student. She asked if she could just pre-sign all their reading logs on the year because her child definitely exceeded the daily minute requirement. Today, I can’t help but wonder if it’s really necessary to put parents (and their children) through this kind of hoop-jumping. It also seems like a good opportunity to build trust, even as we continue to encourage at-home reading. (see Thinking about Those Reading Minutes & Logs)

6. Stay curious. We may have “seen it all.” But families continue to be incredibly diverse with varying needs. Is there one assumption we can drop in favor of asking what resources we might help provide? For instance, we may love our tech-savvy homework assignment, but if you have families that are quite worried about excessive screen time, how might you use it as an opportunity to meet needs?

7. Catch ’em being good. Work to ensure that you communicate more regularly about what their children are doing well than what they are struggling with. This starts by emailing early in the school year if at all possible.

8. Write positive notes to their children. Conveying to their children that we see and appreciate them as individuals is one of the best ways to build relationships with their parents.

9. Organize volunteering. My child’s teacher has a handy sheet-protected class list with boxes you can check as we come in to read with the children. Simple yet efficient way to maximize the time I spend in the classroom.

10. Try to attend the occasional extracurricular event. If anyone understands time constraints, I sure do! But I can attest that when it comes to particularly tricky relationships, attending that game or performance outside of school can do wonders for your rapport.

Yes, we’re professionals. But we’re more likely to have parents respect our expertise when we demonstrate that we respect theirs as their children’s first and longest teachers.

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When We’re Tired Of Coming Up With It All Ourselves #TeacherMom #IMMOOC

In season 4, episode 2 of the current #IMMOOC running, Angela Watson stressed the importance of not trying to come up with some beautiful, perfect lesson every day:

“[There’s] this self-imposed pressure to reinvent the wheel. It goes back to the notion that ‘kids these days have a short attention span, and they’re so different so they need all these different things, so therefore I need to have the most exciting lesson in the world.’ I can’t possibly do the same thing with them twice or else they’ll be bored and they won’t pay attention. One of the best things we can do as teachers is to develop this core group of activities that are open-ended and naturally differentiated that you can plug into your lessons over and over. So instead of constantly trying to find something new, have a tried-and-true repertoire of maybe 5-6 things as a new teacher, and slowly you add to that over time. Things that kids really enjoy and learn from.”

When I listened to this, it was an instant “aha moment” both as a teacher and as a parent. Sometimes I think Pinterest has warped our views of success to make us think that if there aren’t rainbow sparkles emitting from our pursuits as teachers and parents every day, we’re doing it wrong.

Instead, we can think of what works, and then how we can make that more accessible to kids. And, best of all, we can invite kids in on the discussion every step of the way.

As a teacher example, when I reflect on that repertoire of 5-6 activities that usually worked really well, I think of visible learning. Protocols like:

Once we find protocols that seem to work well in generating quality thinking, sharing, and stretching, the next step is to make sure they are well known enough that when you invite students to help plan, they can easily pick out which ones would be appropriate for upcoming concepts/content. This might come in the form of putting up posters with a summary of what each one involves, or it might simply mean posting a list in your “planning corner” where students can be reminded that they are ready to be put to use.

When I think of my parenting 5-6 go-to’s for my small kids, I think of:

  • Our sensory box (bin full of pinto beans)
  • Playdough
  • Kitchen play
  • Read Alongs
  • Outdoor play
  • Puzzles

Just as with the teacher items, the real magic happens when we let kids in on the planning, ensuring kids remember what activities are within reach. Ownership is shared, energy is multiplied, and fervor is rekindled. I’ve seen this happen when I’ve worked to set the environment so my kids can better plan their own daily activities.

You see, there’s just no need for us to come up with it all ourselves. Maybe those burnt-out feelings are just a good reminder that we can look to the kids we serve to find the very energy we’re looking for!

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Preschool, Kinder-Prep & 3 Things Kids Need Most #TeacherMom

It’s January and I have a 3 year-old that will be 4 by September. Translation (according to modern society): I should be in a panic because preschool application deadlines are upon us. And of course, after preschool comes kindergarten, and we’re told that academic success in kindergarten corresponds with future earnings.

No pressure.

Yet, when it comes to all that kinder-prep frenzy, I learned the hard way that that pressure does very little to produce a desirable effect, and I have no wish to repeat the experience.

For the sake of my friends and acquaintances in the same stressful boat who feel their sanity hangs by a thread, I want to share a few thoughts once more on this kinder-prep phenomenon.

First, recognize that as a loving, involved parent, you are enough. The scarcity mindset comes from a place of fear — fear that there’s something out there that we don’t have enough of, and it is the deal-breaker between success and failure (for us and our children). But as Brene Brown wrote,

I thought of this same principle when I saw this lovely post from Kristina Kuzmic:

Of course, this NOT intended to be mean preschool isn’t valuable and even necessary for many families. Programs like Head Start play a particularly valuable role, providing support for children that may not have as many advantages.

What this does mean is that we should never underestimate the impact of a loving and involved parent. As I’ve shared before from one of our local university preschools,

“You parents are already doing a great deal to insure success in kindergarten for your youngster. You read to your children, you go on family outings, you model a love for learning, but most of all you are very involved in the lives of your children. This will make kindergarten a wonderful time for your child, and start him/her on the road to a good education.”

Second, recognize that excessive focus on the future robs us of today’s opportunities.

It’s wonderful to want to ensure our kids can face whatever their futures hold. But sometimes we should pause and ask ourselves: are we focusing so much on the future that we forget to focus on their current developmental needs?

In other words, is it about the developmental needs of a 3-4 year-old, or is it about fear for what they might not be ready for when they turn 5?

This fearful approach might include excessive academic drilling, worksheets, or other highly-marketed programs that guarantee hitting every “kindergarten readiness” checklist item. For the most part, rich social interactions are what preschoolers developmentally need most at this age — playing outside with other kids, helping out with siblings, etc. Incidentally, such interactions are the very things that will best prepare them for future success in school anyway.

Third, recognize the importance of letting your child take the lead. 

If your preschooler is indicating interest in learning to read, by all means, pursue that. But if she is resolute in her passion for dinosaurs, please don’t abandon that because you are stressed about kinder-prep checklists. Follow their curiosity, because that precious zeal for learning will serve them far longer than the ability to identify all 52 upper & lower-case letters on the first day of kindergarten (also, keep in mind that there are about a thousand ways to create rich learning experiences that revolve around dinosaurs).

Following our kids’ lead also involves a greater emphasis on self-regulation. Helping our kids develop skills in stress-management and expressing their feelings will also empower them to take ownership over their lives and learning.

One more disclaimer before closing. Speech delays and learning disabilities are absolutely real and parents should be on the look-out for signs and resources to provide their children the support they need. I just wonder if sometimes we start from a place of assuming there is something wrong if our kids are not yet interested in counting and shapes when they are 3.

As we look toward the beginning of formal education, let us do so in a manner that will cultivate curiosity, joy, and ownership.

Relevant posts related to this topic that might be of interest:

Recommended Books & Resources:

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Agency Is Not Just For School #TeacherMom

After sharing my post on employing read alongs to keep my kids from movie-zombie-land for the entirety of Christmas break, a friend in my PLN reminded me,

I immediately knew she was right; while the read-alongs are enjoyed by all, my initial attitude centered more on my own needs than on my kids’. Of course, self-care is essential as parents, but when we consistently turn first to “keeping them busy,” we may miss opportunities to help them develop greater awareness, ownership, and responsibility over their own time–both in and out of the classroom.

All that said, as I started to consider how to bring this kind of autonomous personal planning to life for my 7, 3, and 1 year-old children, doubts sprung up in abundance:

What if they choose to watch movies all. day. long?

We’re still dealing with quite a lot of underdeveloped temporal understanding here–how can I entrust them to planning a couple of weeks worth of time?

What about good healthy stretches of unplanned time/boredom

What if my 7 year old plans a beautiful day and then sickness or other unforeseen events cause it to fall flat?

Where am I going to find the time to help her plan her entire holiday time?

But as I continued to consider my desire to apply my learning in all areas of my life (synthesize over compartmentalize), I realized that desire outweighed my fears.

Interestingly enough, at that very moment of resolution, and without any prompting from me, my daughter told me that she was off to write a list of fun things she might do. I took it as a sign–I grabbed some paper to create a calendar as she worked on her list of activities (which, I should add, included our read-alongs). 🙂

As we worked, an idea occurred to me to address the issue of temporal understanding: what if I measured to scale each day based on the number of hours she is awake? I measured the height of a day-square and then divided that by 12, as my daughter is usually awake for 12 hours each day. Then I made a little time ruler for her, with each line representing one hour:

When I explained it to my daughter, it was a huge light-bulb moment; she was so excited to have a way to make her concept of time more tangible.

We filled in some scheduled events we already had planned, and then I let her go with the rest!

As with most authentic pursuits in student agency, its scope ended up far beyond the original project, including mathematics, writing, speaking/listening skills, and self-management. My fears turned out to be either unfounded or minimal; there were no fights about watching movies all day long, we actually got to build temporal awareness, and there wasn’t any fussing when things didn’t work out.

Moreover, whenever holiday boredom hit, I was able to ask my daughter what she had planned for herself that day, which was always a positive exchange.

Once again, I’m so grateful for my amazing PLN for pushing my thinking and helping me stay accountable! Thanks, Olwen!

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