How do we support students developing as efficacious self-directed, social learners and involve parents as partners in that journey?
This is a question I ask myself daily. While I work in a progressive environment, there are certain methods that are not. There are thematic units, individual studies, and differentiated instruction, but there are also cookie cutter lessons. I try to conceive every day of how to build structures which support students in being effective, self-directed learners who utilize their social environment to catalyze their learning. Sometimes I am able to craft something within my classroom, and sometimes the agreement needed to make larger changes can’t be reached either due to time or other reasons.
One of the first steps to developing these structures of support has to be to build the consensus that this is in fact what we are doing with our time in school. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students all need to agree that this is our aim.
Once this is established the magic doors of the curriculum open and the hard work begins. Rather than work in the classroom like a crew team (I say “row,” and everyone better row at the same time!) to quickly reach a pre-determined destination (e.g. a test score), it becomes more like a reconnoissance team. Each student is charged with a mission—one that is meaningful to them—and given specific instructions as to how they either find the information necessary to their mission or share it.
Then like excellent spies, students go out on their missions, which includes finding information, synthesizing it, and communicating it effectively. Not coincidentally it is these skills that are instrumental to success in the “real world” today, not test scores or memorization. Their informants may include books, on-line social networks such as twitter, blogs, PLN’s, or interviews with community members. Students then report to one another through multiple means-blogs, wiki’s, conversations, and presentations (which can be uploaded to a YouTube channel). These reports then become part of the network of information available to students and the community and are used for on-going assessment and feedback to students.
While there is movement in education to incorporate the tools technology is affording us, including in social media, this is something that must be broached thoughtfully with parents so that they understand how their children will be learning through these experiences, and how their identity will be protected. Students must also receive instruction, yes instruction, on how to use social media for learning as compared to venting the gas out of what appears to be an empty head.
Students create their own best guess of a work plan before they start their mission, to be approved by their field officers, i.e. teachers. I say best guess, because inevitably our plans change as we find new information and leads. Teachers then act as a resource to help provide initial information, ask questions, suggest resources, and collaborate with the student to ensure quality work.
Parents can be included in this journey by clearly communicating with them what we are doing throughout the school year and why we are doing it. A common language and regular dialogue must be held. Parents must know that we value them as partners and that to work well together we need clear expectations of one another’s roles. We also need to be able to call one another out, respectfully, when it seems one of us is not upholding our part of the deal.
Part of this dialogue needs to be hearing the parents’ stories about their experiences in school, positive and negative. We need to let them know we hear them and explain how their child’s experience will be different than their negative experiences. We need to tell parents that we see their child as a whole child (and first we must get to know the student as such).
We need to tell parents how we want them to help their children learn, and how we don’t. We all know how some parents can’t help themselves but to get involved in their child’s work (and perhaps this a better problem to have vs. parents that never get involved). This is natural and good in the right time and place. However, students need to be build the strength to work through tough problems on their own. We also need to provide opportunities for parents to be involved in school and their child’s learning that is meaningful to them.
Can we facilitate conversations where parents can share their stories of passion with their children? Can we share our own stories about joyous learning? And here’s a zinger can we allow students to share theirs? I mean what if it doesn’t directly address the content we are dealing with in class today? Can we allow for such a digression? *gasp* (please note that this was an attempt at sarcasm) Seriously, when these moments do arise, can we aid students to make connections between what they are passionate about and larger ideas? Can we help build scaffolding so that their interests can be the driving force in their school day?
I think I may be grabbing for the low hanging fruit, because we all know there are very difficult situations out there. How do we involve parents with addictions? Have mental illnesses? Those who did not finish school themselves or don’t outwardly value education? These situations are far more difficult. As for addictions and mental illness, teachers need to either collaborate with social workers or get trained themselves to at least recognize the presence of these conditions. Then partnerships must be made with providers and the parents themselves to get them the assistance they need and hopefully want. Just like an IEP, the parents must clearly understand their strengths and weaknesses as related to supporting their child in school, and have clear goals that they, their children, and teachers all understand.
Reaching those who haven’t finished high school, or don’t value education, consists of open dialogue. Allowing time for conversations to ripen as defenses fall. Engaging thoughtfully and authentically, we will forge a healing relationship with them. As they come to experience us as the archetypal teacher, we can begin to repair the harm done to them by previous teachers. If they hear that we believe in them still today, and that we have sympathy for the harms done to them in the past (although it was not us who committed them), new possibilities arise.
Conclusively, it boils down to authentic relationships, where we are able to be seen for who we are and who we want to be. Where open, honest, and respectful conversations are had, and we acknowledge our power not only as teachers but as healers.
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. -Howard Thurman