The Essential Conversation

Parents and schools (teachers, administrators, staff, etc.) are members of the same team – partners – striving together for the same goal. The goal, I hope and trust, is to collaboratively guide and support our children/student-learners as they grow, develop, learn, fail, rise after failure, succeed, question, figure out life (as we do, too), and be and become themselves. I am thankful for the partnership that exists at Westminster. I know it is not this way at some schools, but we do work together here. Today, I hosted the third of three “Junior High Parents Parleys with the Principal.” We don’t always all agree – nor should we…what fun or challenge would that be – but we do listen to each other and value the other. Good conversation and team work happens.

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, in 2003, published The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other. The title and the author alone are good motivation to read the wonderful piece. My purpose here today is not to pontificate on the book, but I wanted to use the title for this post and to recommend the read, so I include it here. My purpose is more to share about the parley today. About 120-140 parents attended the 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. event (we have a JH student population of 559, for reference). I am so appreciative of the parents who choose to attend and can attend. I realize that many cannot attend a middle-of-the-day event, and I imagine that many more want to be involved in the ongoing discussions about their children, school, and the intersection and spectra of the two.

My objective today (I am a teacher): facilitate conversation amongst parents about things on their hearts and minds concerning school. Usually, I spend a lot of time prepping a presentation – a Prezi, PowerPoint, videos, etc. Today, partly because of my recent sabbatical absence, I simply used a Q & A format. But I tried to model a “21st century way” of doing so.

  • People could raise hands and ask questions (or shout out, for that matter, if they preferred).
  • People could write a question or a topic on a notecard provided at the door (I am not sure anyone actually did this…I failed to collect any, although I did reference them twice and received no cards).
  • People could tweet if they wanted. The pre-decided hashtag was #jhparley (click on the hashtag at left if you want to see the tweets).
  • People could contribute to a Poll Everywhere web-doc if they wanted – by phone (text), (smart phone or other mobile technology), or tweet to poll. (Here is a screenshot example, and the full transcript can be accessed with the link beneath the screenshot.)

Full “live text wall” of poll everywhere results

After I did a short explanation of how people could use the Twitter hashtag and Poll Everywhere if they wanted, someone immediately asked if they could just raise their hand and ask aloud. “Of course,” I said, “but some people might not be as comfortable asking their question in a room of 130 people. Some know how to use Twitter and some don’t. People can use the cards and/or the Poll Everywhere. This is just like a classroom – we can enhance the conversation if more people have a way to join the conversation. We are all different, just like our kids. And on Twitter, if you wanted, you could continue the conversation after this is over. Some of you might want to try a ‘new’ way so that you can experiment in a safe place with the tools at your disposal and your children’s disposal. There are many ways to get a rich conversation happening for as many people as possible – people in the room and not in the room. We should leverage the tools we have so that more people can get involved. For those who could not come today, perhaps they might like to read the tweets of attendees. Or they could read the Poll Everywhere transcript later when I post it on my blog.” [Okay, this was not a direct quote, but it is what I tried to communicate, and what I hope to be communicating here and now.]

For parents just tuning in to today’s parley by way of this blog, here are a few samples of questions from the floor:

  • Is Synergy 8 a semester class or a year-long class? It was not clear on the registration card handed out Tuesday.
  • Do some students and teachers run to lunch?
  • Can we have a formal chess team in the JH?
  • Have you read the recent article about boys? Do you think that there is a negative trend for development of “good boys?”
  • What’s the real difference between regular math and honors math? If a student decides not to act on recommendation for honors, do they have a harder time getting into honors later?
  • Can we talk more about the changes in honors and awards at the end of the year? Here’s what I think about the changes…
  • Have the netbooks been a successful addition this year?

There were many more questions, and I answered most with additional input and thought from other parents in the room. The hope was for me not just to talk and parents to listen. And we took most questions from the poll, as well. An audience member tweeted some of the resources discussed in the meeting – an article in a newspaper, a link to a documentary film about schools, etc. I was so appreciative of this tweeter! I have tweet-messaged her to thank her! I wished for more tweeters, but perhaps people forgot to use the hashtag, or perhaps not many people are comfortable using that particular tool. It was ” a start” though. Just like a good conference has a hashtag, so did we! And two people – one other than me – used it! That’s a start.

The various technologies were NOT the point.

The CONVERSATION and DISCUSSION were the point…the objective!

In my opinion, though, the “21st century way” to facilitate this discussion was to provide and/or introduce ways for people to participate – so more people could participate and potentially connect with each other…and potentially use each other for resources so that we can collaboratively help and guide our children to grow and develop and learn. It’s about learning! Thanks parents for your partnership.

[Note: I decided to use these tools this morning. I set up the hashtag and Poll Everywhere at about 9:00 a.m. after a brainstorm on my way walking to work. I was thinking about how best to get more folks into the conversation, and I was wishing I could provide some sense of the meeting to people who could not attend. Then, I thought of Twitter and Poll Everywhere. Maybe next time, I will wear a mic and webcast for those interested! I love trying something new to provide more potential for learning and growth – mine and others’.]

13 thoughts on “The Essential Conversation

  1. Hi Bo: One of my daughters teacher’s regular homework assignments consists of requiring the students to re-copy notes taken during class, a technique he apparently believes helps them “learn” (memorize?) the material. I was surprised to learn of this technique practiced at Westminster. I was curious if you were aware of this and what your point of view is? I am sure it’s difficult to influence teachers to modify their methods, but rote memorization would seem counter-intuitive to the concepts of learning that you endorse.

    • John, I appreciate the question. In short, I believe there are many ways to learn. I see repetition as one of myriad ways to deepen understanding; I think repetition is the foundation for instrument practice and athletics drills. Based on my understanding and perception of the vast majority of former students in the teacher’s class whom you reference, most of those past students found great value in the regular note-drill exercise. And they regard the teacher as a “favorite” partly due to the fact that they remember the facts (or at least human recounting of the facts as history!). Still, don’t get me wrong – I think you ask a good question.

  2. I was unable to attend the Parley today. I am glad to hear that everyone could participate via so many different forms of media. The use of such media provides wonderful opportunities to expand not only the number of voices involved in the discussion, but also the manner in which we all learn to listen and communicate. Back-channeling doesn’t work well for me because it distracts from my focus on the other folks in the room and the coversation that is taking place in my physical presence. My junior high daughter is wired as I am and has similar difficulty dividing her attention.

    As a teacher in the high school, a former grade chair (400 boys over a 12-year period), a current boys basketball coach, a current homeroom advisor to 10th grade boys, and the father of two girls at Westminster, I am deeply committed to the conversation about boys. We need to take a much deeper look at what’s happening in their school lives, even as early as their application for admission or before. Many boys express feelings of alienation and detachment from their intellectual lives. Many feel school to be a procrustean experience, a place where it’s just easier to keep quiet in class and wait for the afternoon when they get to go to practice, whether for the arts or for academic or sports teams. The trend of the disappearing male continues in higher education. I hope we will continue and intensify our commitment to this conversation. I have been seeking answers in this area for a long time, and I have discovered that I haven’t even asked all the right questions yet.

    Homework. The Race to Nowhere. Time for life outside of school. I think we need to be careful how we point the finger at homework when we start discussing the issue of our students’ busy lives outside of school. We are dangerously close to creating a false dichotomy between fun and work. My students and my own children already lean this way. In my conversations with them at school, in school vans on the way to games, in shuttle line, I hear a constant refrain about what “they are making me do.” Yet, the most contented, centered students I have worked with over the years don’t talk much about the nefarioius third person plural that forces them into mulitple extra-curriculars and the hardest classes. Instead. these students have reframed and redefined their busy-ness as personally meaningful, as opportunities to learn, to compete, to enjoy stuff they have loved to do since childhood. I think of it in terms of basketball practice, no big shock. My players don’t like drills because they are not nearly as “fun” as scrimmaging, yet they have no “fun” when they cannot compete with an opponent who takes advantage of weaknesses that the “work” of drills would have remediated. In addition, in retrospect, when they know they have “worked,” they actually play better, even if they have not significantly improved any aspect of their games. This phenomenon surprises them initially, but as the conversation continues, most seem to come to a pretty solid understanding of what psychological factors underly it. As with the discussion about boys, I am still trying to ask the right questions, and what I don’t know far outweighs what I do given the complexity of life in 2011. Nonetheless, I do think the key to keeping our kids emotionally healthy lies in teaching them to define what they choose to do as meaningful, more than fun. Meaningful seems to be a much more sustainable goal than fun. There is nothing new here. Frankl, Peck, Seligman and many others both before and after have said the same thing.

    As always, thanks to Bo for creating both the physical and emotional space for us to make this an ongoing conversation.

    • Jack, thank you for your blog within a blog. I really loved reading your thinking. What a contribution to the discussion, despite the fact that you could not attend the actual event. Your comment and the comments of others illustrate a “21st century” communication paradigm shift. The conversations did not end just because the event ended, and those who could not attend now have another way to participate in some form of the conversations. While I know that face to face follow up has always existed, this forum takes silo-like dialogues and opens them up for more readers, commenters, and contemplators. Thank you.

      I appreciate all you say in the homework section. However, I think the homework is not really analogous to practice drills. Rather homework is more like a coach saying, “After our two hour practice, I want you to go home and spend another hour shooting free throws or swinging your racquet in the mirror.” Students may enjoy the activity, but it comes with an opportunity cost for family time, pursuit of other interests and passions, etc. An interesting discussion, for sure. Thanks again for participating.

  3. I wasn’t able to attend the meeting today. I don’t tweet or blog so I’m not certain that I’m even doing this right. I just want to know if the school waits until final grades are calculated for the 2nd semester before determining eligibility for award levels such as cum laude. I expect that the answer is a certain yes but just want to confirm that this is so. Thank you.

    • You are doing this right! Currently, the honors are determined by the first three grading periods. However, we have never not had exams at the end of school. This year, due to “snowcation” we are using an alternative schedule instead of exams, and we will pay attention to how this might affect end-of-year honors.

  4. Thought this video might be relevant as we explore these new ways of communicating and educating ourselves and our young people –
    I was unable to attend today as I was learning to ‘back channel’ – which was a very cool experience – and as I learned about new digital media content that are in development for teachers and students. Purpose driven digital media content – highlighted by the linear v. nonlinear approach as the video portrays from partners like NASA, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and others. Thanks for holding the Parlays – sorry I missed this one.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed my first ‘parley’ today. When speaking with a fellow parent of a Trinity 5th grader who applied her child out, she commented that Westminster feels like ‘an old computer’ compared to some of the other schools in town. I wish she could have attended the parley today…clearly, technology and the connections that it can make, the novel ways in which students and teachers can learn in the 21st century are alive and well at Westminster.

    I was particularly intrigued with the Synergy class. When I picked my daughter up, I asked which classes she was considering, and to my dismay she was leaning against Synergy. Perhaps it is the fear of the unknown that you mentioned. To me, an intense writing class that focuses on the powers of observation through real life group exercises sounds like the perfect way to begin to develop a quick, nimble, and adaptable mental mindset that is essential to life in the 21st century. I only wish there were a Synergy class for parents!

    • Holly,

      As a parent of a child who did Synergy, I can tell you that it was a great learning experience for our daughter. After her positive experiences, she (and others that I am aware of) would have liked to have done it for the entire year. They continue to work on some projects, even though the class is over.

      As you mention, it will help build the skills that our kids really need for the future. So encourage your daughter to take the class.

      I know four students went to the 7th grade home rooms yesterday to tell them more about the course. May be she could speak to one of them to learn more about it.


  6. Was there discussion regarding the recent screening of a Race to Nowhere, which was hosted at Mount Paran Church? I spotted several teachers from our JHS and lower school, as well as President Clarkson.

    I’m interested to learn if Westminster is considering reducing or eliminating homework, and/or having teachers better coordinate the scheduling of assignments, projects, quizzes and tests.

    • A number of Westminster faculty and administration have seen Race to Nowhere, and we have been discussing “life balance” for years. Several years ago, we hosted Alfie Kohn, and we made significant adjustments in homework then. We try to pay attention to homework so that students do essential things, but not “too much” that they miss out on life after school in the afternoons. There is considerable coordination of work by the teachers at the sixth grade level, and the grade chairs support such at all three grade levels. Of course, we are always trying to think how we can improve.

      • As a Westminster language teacher, I would like to say that I have decreased significantly the amount of homework that I give to my students after hearing Alfie Kohn speak several years ago. Although I still give some homework, I try to offer as many opportunities as possible to complete the homework in class for multiple reasons, the two main reasons being: 1) I am there to help if there are questions, and 2) I want my students to have time to lead a balanced life, spend time with friends and family, pursue their passions, and sleep.

      • Many thanks for your response. I’m pleased to learn that you and your staff are thinking of ways to improve on your successes. I’d respectfully encourage you and your colleagues to revisit the accomplishments that were achieved several years ago. I believe many parents are finding that it is extremely difficult to ensure that their children maintain a balanced life.

        There’s a danger equating the word “fun” with something nefarious that, to others, lacks merit, value or purpose. My daughter swims competitively year-round. On average, she swims four days per week. She has two hours in the water and one hour of dry-land each training day. It’s “work” but she actually finds it fun. Many times she’s forced to miss practice in order to complete her homework assignments and study her class-notes. To maintain her grades and meet her swimming commitments, she has absolutely no time for any other meaningful activities (e.g., church, reading for pleasure, photography, or playing a board game with friends or family). Except for the evening news, television time is limited to one-hour on Saturday and, perhaps, one hour on Sunday.

        I’d like to believe that the majority of our kids at Westminster understand fully the meaning of “work.” While the definition of “fun” can take on many forms, ultimately, it’s the parents’ job to define in their household what does and does not constitute fun.

        Many thanks, again, for making this blog available to share thoughts and ideas.

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