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Three ways to invite parents inside the black box of education - Lori McEwen Educational Consultant

3 ways to invite parents inside the black box of education

November 16, 2020

Three ways to invite parents inside the black box of education - Lori McEwen Educational ConsultantIn 2013, Cuban and Tyack wrote Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education. In the book, they assert that even significant educational policy changes have largely left classroom practices untouched.

Few educators would argue with that thesis. Part of the issue is that the practice of teaching is largely a solitary one. Even schools that have embraced collaborative practices such as Professional Learning Communities or Instructional Rounds still have rooms of 1 teacher to 25 students, with doors that shut out the rest of the world.

Enter Covid and the move to remote learning, however, and suddenly the doors were opened wide. In this case, though, it wasn’t other teachers peering in, but parents and caregivers.  And, as we know, that didn’t always go so well.  Parents were often frustrated by unfamiliar material and teaching practices and felt both overwhelmed and helpless.  Perhaps partly as a result of this, we saw a push from parents to get their children back in school as fully and quickly as possible.  One almost gets the sense that parents were thinking–”I don’t care what you do with them all day, just don’t make me do it.”

This is unfortunate and represents a consistently missed opportunity.  Of course, we should not expect parents to take on the role of teacher, but we’ve also done a disservice over the years by keeping instructional practices inside a black box–so much so that when it was forced open, many parents had a tough time deciphering the contents.

So what can we do to promote greater transparency (and with that, greater student engagement–the focus of an upcoming post).

Here are a few steps:

1. Every single course has a “course overview” to be shared with parents at the beginning of the year and referenced frequently.

As I’ve written in earlier posts, if we want to build student ownership of learning, school should be a series of surprises. Instead, we can let students know what they will learn, why they will learn it and how they might demonstrate their learning.  A Course Overview does this by listing the power standards for each course and describing the types of typical learning activities and assessments to be used in the course.  From there, teachers can invite student participation in co-creating the learning, but the overview provides a clear and coherent frame for the course.

Similarly, parents can review the overview and ask questions about it during discussions (perhaps during virtual open houses and/or during the events described below).

2. Schools run frequent, interactive “curriculum” or “teaching and learning” events for parents.

Because everyone went to school, most assume that they understand what’s happening. But both content and pedagogy have changed over time.   Math, in particular, is likely to be unfamiliar to many parents.

Not only does the Algebra course my son took in 2015 look very different from the Algebra I struggled through in 1984, but elementary math instruction has also changed considerably. For one thing, there is considerably more focus, from an early age, on real world problem-solving that goes beyond the word problems of yore. There’s also a recognition that we need to allow students to engage in “productive struggle” in order to deeply engage with mathematics.

But parent comments like  “The teacher doesn’t teach! My kids tell me they have to do all the work” tell me that we haven’t shared with parents the why behind any pedagogical changes.

We could use in-person or online “teaching and learning” events to showcase new approaches, perhaps using a shared text like Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets, for example. Parents, teachers and students could collaborate on rich problems together, gaining a mutual appreciation for new ways of learning.

3. Institute (student-led) digital conferences in place of the traditional parent/teacher conferences.

Covid has forced us to embrace new ways of communicating, and the move to online conferences might be one of the best changes worth sustaining.  Rather than rushed 20 minute sessions with adults sitting in student desks, we can move to a more relaxed online setting that allows for greater flexibility for teachers and for working parents.

Using the course overview and student artifacts as a guide, parents and teacher can engage in a deep discussion about the child’s strengths and opportunity areas.  If possible, having the student lead the conversation in terms of their own mastery of standards and competencies and explaining how they plan to proceed in the course is the best way to expand ownership. Then, if the parents and teachers feel the need for an adults-only conversation, they can arrange that as well.

Covid has broken down some of the walls between school and home. Let’s build upon that so that parents and teachers are true partners in the work of engaging and educating students.

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How to make your district’s portrait of a graduate even better

How to make your district’s portrait of a graduate even better

October 19, 2020

 

How to make your district’s portrait of a graduate even better

Whether it’s called a portrait, profile, or vision, districts across the country are collaboratively creating an aspirational model of their graduate.

What is a Portrait of a Graduate?

While these profiles often contain some unique local influences, they are largely very similar from district to district and include the following skills and/or attributes:

  1. Knowledge/Mastery of Core Academic Content
  2. Communication 
  3. Collaboration
  4. Creativity 
  5. Critical thinking
  6. Citizenship

Some districts limit their key characteristics to 4 or 5, others have as many as 10.  IN large part, they are built upon our understandings of what the world of college, career and civic life demand as illustrated in works like Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators, Hewlett’s Deeper Learning Competencies, the core competencies laid out by the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and others. 

How does a portrait help?

In virtually all cases, the Portrait represents a move toward the future and a realization that what (may have) worked in the past simply does not set our children up for success (measured in myriad ways).

These portraits are wonderful. They are usually the result of a lengthy process involving many stakeholders.  Each of the competencies is further broken down into sub-indicators or progressions that reflect our ideals. For example, we may see a focus on equity and cultural responsiveness in communication and collaborations, so that we prepare our students for a global world in which they are empathetic and curious co-creators of solutions to new and complex problems.

How does a portrait fall short?

However…on their own, the portraits aren’t enough.  Collaborative, creative, critical, communicative thinkers will not emerge from a non-collaborative, conforming, and  compliant status quo.

Most districts get this and consistently and explicitly reference the portrait of the graduate when making key decisions. Still, though, I wonder if we could do more to fully define the conditions necessary to fully realize the portrait in each student.

Portrait of an Educator

If we want our students to graduate with the identified skills and attributes, we need to cultivate them in our adult community as well.  Some districts have done this by reframing “graduate” as “learner” to be inclusive of all stakeholders.  Others, like the Mesa, AZ public schools offer progressions for learning facilitators and learning leaders as well as for students.  The Henrico County (VA) Public Schools Learner Profile does this as well via it’s through playlists

It’s important for us to remember that the competencies we wish to cultivate in our students were likely not the priorities we recall from our own educational experiences. Creative and innovative thinking, for example, may be prized today but few of us were encouraged to develop these skills in our early schooling,  teacher prep or in our early years of teaching.  Yet, the more we can say, “That’s a great skill to have and I’m working on it” the better models we can be for our students.

Thus, I might suggest that in addition the competencies mentioned above, we add “vulnerability” to the educators’ portrait. (With a nod, of course, to the great Brené Brown.) Teachers, leaders and other educators need to be able to self-assess their own comfort levels and move forward without shame.  

Portrait of a School System

Similarly, our school systems were not created with an eye toward the values espoused in our POGs.  We have literal and figurative separations between departments, offices, subject areas and grade levels, for example.  

School systems that are truly collaborative might include the finance department in instructional rounds, for example, or may create cross-functional ad hoc teams that utilize design thinking to solve complex  problems.

To our portrait of a school system, we might consider the essential conditions necessary throughout the district to bring the POG to life. Lake Travis Independent School District in TX provides one example.

Portrait of a Community

In our increasingly polarized society, this one may be most difficult and yet most necessary.  Many districts seek to instill a sense of informed citizenship in our students and yet we are witnessing levels of vitriol and partisan rhetoric that have rendered civilized debate all but obsolete.

And yet, we know that our communities –individually and collectively–care deeply about the success and well-being of our children.  

If our communities can coalesce around “open dialogue and constructive debate”, it is more likely that we can come together to support our students and future community leaders.

If there are districts and communities that have already made progress in these areas–or are beginning to do so–please connect and share!

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