Thursday, April 21, 2011

Parental involvement

I'm a mom. I'm a teacher. The lines are rarely that clear.

As a teacher, when parents ask me about parental involvement in homework, I advise that the parents help make sure that there is a physical space that works well for that child's homework - whether it's a desk or a cleared off corner of the kitchen counter, they need some kind of nest to work, to spread out, to store things they don't need to use every day. I recommend that the parents help look at the child's schedule with the child and allow the child to be a part of deciding whether homework is done right after the child gets off the bus or before dinner or even after dinner. I advise that the parents make sure there are some cleared off parts of each day that allow homework to be accomplished. I tell parents that the work itself is the child's responsibility and that I want to see what the child can do with the work, not what the parent can do with the work. If the child tries his/her hardest and comes back with little to show, we'll work on it in school. If the child doesn't try at all, we'll talk about it in school. The parent need not take on the role of correcting the homework, doing the homework, or teaching the child how to do the homework.

Then, I switch hats. I'm home with my girls and they have homework. They're in high school and their work is quite challenging, so I'm delighted that it's not my job to do the homework. No issue there. I couldn't do the calculus homework to save my life and I have no time to read the volumes of books needed to write the papers assigned to them. I have no artistic talents, so when they were young and projects were assigned which other parents DID for their children, my children brought in wonderfully lopsided creations which were entirely their own. I don't do their homework.

We recently moved to a bigger house, so, at last, there is actually enough space for them to keep their extra piles of books and papers on a shelf where they have a reasonable shot at finding them again. The girls don't have desks, but we all love to work at the counter or table and we don't drip too much food on the computer or papers. Okay, I've provided physical space for them.

The schedule: well, we do our best with that one. When the dance classes and rehearsals are an hour away and last for three to four hours on a school night, we have a late night and sectioning off the homework part of the day is challenging. Solution: drop some dance classes, so this only hits twice a week and we all do the best we can with that.

Things go along pretty smoothly, until they don't. When there are extra commitments, whether it's extra rehearsals, performances, an occasional desire to see a friend, a sick animal who has to go to the vet, huge house chores such as leaf raking or lawn mowing, big holidays to clean and cook for, a family member in crisis who needs extra care or loving, or when there is a big piece of homework and it hits on the wrong day and there's no human way possible to get it done before 2am. . .

Mostly, I just let my children navigate those difficult times. These are the normal challenges of life. The girls stay up late or they hand the work in late and it's up to them to manage. Once in awhile, and always after a big internal debate, as well as an external debate with the mortified child who doesn't want to need my help in the exchange, I jump in to the conversation with their teachers. I call or write an email.

Getting involved is a very difficult decision because it's so ingrained in me that homework is the child's responsibility. Any step I take over that boundary feels quite shaky. Also, I know that their teachers don't necessarily want to hear from me; they'd rather hear from the child. I am torn, by their pain and by the contradictions of my two jobs.

As a teacher and as a parent, I understand the importance and value of a child's learning to communicate and stand up for herself. As a parent, I see the child during all those hours that the school does not. It can be painful to watch and sometimes I have to take action. I think teachers should know when the homework puts an unreasonable strain on a child. When, no matter how conscientious or diligent or eager to do her best she is, a child is unable to meet a deadline.

And, once in a while, the snags are bigger.

Last Thursday night, my sister-in-law passed away. All of our homework lives came to a grinding halt as we contemplated our loss and comforted each other with stories and memories of a woman I didn't expect to lose for at least another forty years or so. She was a remarkable person. When I joined her family, we decided that the "in-law" part of our connection wasn't needed; we'd just be sisters. She was honest (often beyond what anyone could take), loyal, loving, funny, talkative, generous and very troubled by mental and physical issues that took her away from us too often and ultimately, too early. Never expecting to lose her, I had in recent years avoided spending the time it would take to keep in close connection with her. I took for granted that we would have time "later" when life was calmer. I do regret that and, while trying to make amends, will keep that lesson in my mind as I think about other people and relationships I take for granted.

We spent the weekend and the first couple of days and nights of Passover reeling from and dealing with our loss and with the extra complications involved because their are some very difficult relationships within this larger family. We gathered with the rest of the family at her funeral and burial. We camped with them on the floor of a tiny apartment and breathed together all night long. Today we're going to plant flowers and vegetables in honor of my "sister", the girl's aunt. Meanwhile, while we grieve, we fall further behind in our obligations.

How can we ever catch up? Life goes on, and we'll jump back into our schedules and responsibilities, but somewhere along the way, we'll all be grateful to anyone who can make room for us to be late with a few things. The girls may need a lot more time to finish all the papers and work assigned, I may not have everything as prepared as I should.

Perhaps the first people we need to get permission and acceptance from is ourselves. Perhaps my job as a teaching mom is really to help my children relax their high standards at times like these. Then, they'll know inside themselves that if their teachers extend their deadlines fine, and if not, it's not the end of the world to get a disappointing report when the circumstances were way beyond their control. However, I still want their teachers to know that this has been an unusually rough time. . . Maybe they'll read my blog?!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

It's a balancing act

Thanks to the fact that I now spend some time each day on Twitter, I have much more exposure to articles and videos promoting technology in the classroom than I ever realized existed. It's new, it's exciting, it's cutting edge, and it should be continually examined for it's educational implications.

I just watched about a nine minute PBS news video about a school in North Carolina which provides a laptop to every student from grades 4 to 12. I saw children engaged with their screens - listening, looking, "interacting"; teachers explaining that making a video or podcast is the same as writing a paper, kids saying that school is a lot more fun now. The principal sent a message to a child who was playing a game instead of doing his work. The school no longer buys textbooks and they save money on paper. They feel that the old kind of school was preparing kids to drive a car by teaching them to ride a horse. They feel that now they're preparing kids for the world they'll be living in.

Then I read an article about the obstacles to using technology in the classroom. In brief, it says that administrations don't take advantage of the number of mobile devices that kids already own which could be used as learning tools, such as smart phones and that schools think they're using technology well, but kids don't agree.

At one point in my childhood, I ate meat three meals a day, if it was available. Then I became a vegetarian for eleven years. I know plenty about all or nothing thinking! When it comes to technology in the classroom or home, I don't want to see all or nothing thinking going on. For kids to spend many hours of their school day on mobile learning devices, whether cell phones or computers, and then go home to relax and go on Facebook, play video games, share music, etc. is not the diet I would want for my children or my students. Nor would I banish the 21st century technology. Balance. That's where we need to keep aiming.

Making a video is a fabulous project which can certainly incorporate any educational goals, from acquiring knowledge to analyzing and interpreting it and applying it to new situations, critical and creative thinking, opportunities to write and revise and edit. I just don't agree with the teacher on the PBS news show who says it takes the place of writing a paper. There are excellent movies and excellent books. Why say that one medium could take the place of another? We need to be able to use written and spoken language to describe, analyze, interpret, respond to the world around us. Words have the power to incite, to destroy, to create, to organize, to promote change - whether we speak them, text them or write them, we need to continually improve our ability to use them.

And when all those children are facing screens all day long, what about the discussions? People say computers are interactive, but it's a different meaning of interactive than the one I value in our classroom.

My 4th-5th grade class recently finished reading The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Discussing it in small and large groupings, sharing humorous quotes, looking for ways that the author built tension, summarizing, predicting, visioning, analyzing, agonizing when one character didn't share her concerns with another character which endangered them all. . . No digital "interaction" could ever replace any of those discussions.

Then there's the issue of censorship. Our school blocks certain searches, but, since we are a small, private school, students can ask permission to have the block removed. In these larger districts, that's unwieldy. According to the PBS report, a student in this North Carolina school district can't research topics the district has declared off-limits. They block youtube, facebook and any access to information they feel is dangerous, such as sites accessed by the key words, "hate crimes" or "terrorism" or "gun control." Does that sound too much like the Chinese approach and not much like American education?

Of course technology has allowed us access to information in unprecedented ways - and we need to provide safe ways for our students and children to enjoy that access. It has also allowed teachers and students opportunities to collaborate beyond our school walls in ways that no horse and buggy world ever allowed. Let's just remember that our face to face interactions, sharings, discussions, even arguments all have enormous value as do our many uses of written language. Let's go for balance!