Teaching children to be literate is a complex undertaking. It requires hours of study, observational work, critical analysis, and ongoing practice. That is the truth, and Jill and I are just teachers working in a school. Sure, we are engaged, we are educational writers, and we are in constant search of ways to better our practices. Since we really are educators working in public schools, we know full well that when it comes to teaching nothing remains static.
We prefer to stay out of the fray of political pundits who advocate for reform. Jill and I both know that when it comes to teaching children how to read, how to write, there is a process. Teaching into a process requires many different approaches. Some children need to increase their volume, others need specific skill work, while others could benefit from short term strategy use. Learning how to be a strong teacher requires a lot of time. So, we would much rather put our energy into learning more about instructional practice than participating in divisive discourse that feels tribal and unproductive. However, after Jill and I read a recent NY Times Opinion piece, we thought we would lend some practical wisdom.
We agree that phonics instruction and language learning are important; however, it is our experience that they are not the only two pieces for comprehension. Readers make meaning from what they already know and using their unique perspectives. There is not only one way to learn. This is why Balanced Literacy works. It is a flexible framework that accommodates students’ needs in a variety of settings. This approach underscores the thinking that when teachers draw from a wide repertoire of strategies, they will be more responsive.
We just finished a round of parent-teacher conferences. Our hallways were full of smiling families who were there to support their children. It was a beautiful thing! Caring adults who stopped to read pieces of writing, or who took some extra time to pay a visit to the school librarian, leave us feeling so very inspired and hopeful. Conferences went well, and as meaningful conversations tend to do, we were left to wonder about how we may better enlist the support of parents for the academic, social, and emotional demands for the classroom of today.
Reminiscing about an idyllic past
Parents send their children off to school and as they do they are reenacting deep rituals that feel so familiar. Lunch boxes, library books, and sneakers on Wednesday revives old scripts – this is how we do school. Yes, that is school. However, problems arise when we think all school is identical to what it once was because that’s not true. The world is not the same and as the world changes the demands of schooling change too. Academic, social, and emotional expectations are entirely different than they once were. So it might be disorienting to parents when they expect to repeat academic scripts, meaning they expect to see worksheets, spelling tests, and book reports. These are basic tasks that yield neat and tidy results. They are either right or wrong with smiley faces or red checks. We think of those traditional practices as reminients of schooling from the past. In a changing and uncertain world it can be very tempting to embrace those old expectations and to resist the new.
It is hard to (really) remember the day-to-day work of school. Instead parents tend to remember special moments like Halloween parades, guest readers, Valentine’s boxes and other fond traditions. Yes, of course we still make room for these types of experiences but this is not the true goal of learning. Another layer to consider, if you had a great school experience then you may want the same experiences for your children. On the flip side, if you had a bad experience with school, you may want a totally different experience for them. Many parents have memories and expectations of the kinds of places school should be. All of these varied expectations influence conferences, and sometimes when we meet with some parents, there may be a disconnect between what was school and what is school. For example, math is no longer about getting the right answer but instead about showing a variety of ways to solve problems. Writing is no longer the beautifully rewritten product we used to produce but instead the writing process is more visible, that means writing may look messy because we are attempting to reveal a students’ process.
Getting on the same page
Current day expectations for students are wrapped up in words like flexible, creative, and plurality. There is no one “right way”; instead there are many possibilities. Children are learning how to open multiple perspectives for problem solving. They are learning how to collaborate and grow their thinking collectively. We are teachers, and it is our professional charge to enlighten and inspire parents to embrace a hopeful view of their child’s future. We do that work as we assure these caring adults who show up for conferences that their child is remarkable, and has something unique to offer the world. We educate and inform about current standards and best practice. Why do we have children learn a variety of ways to solve problems? We do this so that students get a deeper understanding of number sense and are not just following a step by step procedure that they don’t truly understand. Why does the writing look that way? We have children use different color markers so we can see their process. When we see black we know this is their original writing, blue shows their revisions, and red shows their ability to edit their work. We tell our parents this so they gain new insights as to why we do the things we do in the classroom. All the while these conversations are happening, parents are getting an estimation of who we are, and how we regard their children.