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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Setting the Foundation

Just around the corner is our School's open house. After a long Summer, many of my new class of 6th graders will peeking into Room 216 for the first time.

Open house night starts with sack lunches prepared by our amazing kitchen staff and a picnic of sorts as people spread out across the playground. It is a great time for family members to get together and tour the school together. It's the first glimpse I have into the home life of my students. I can observe the interactions between the parents and their kids. I can get an idea of how large their families are, where do they fit in with their siblings and how well do they seem to get along. I might see the structure of the house (a two parent household, are there other caregivers involved, etc). The night doesn't give me a complete picture, but gives me enough information to start to understand the kids that I will be spending the next 10 months with.

The evening's positive energy is high. The kids are excited as they make there way around the halls, then into our new room. The teachers have typically spent the last week or so getting their rooms ready for those all important first few days of the new school year. The educational infrastructure has been created and put in place so that the next morning when the first bell rings, our kids can start learning. Kids always want to find their desks and see who is in their collaboration cluster. Many of the kids are anxious, a little nervous, because of the unknown. So am I. A new start can be scary when you're 12 or ....well.

It is interesting to see which kids introduce themselves and those that are introduced by their home partners. Which students are already comfortable in their home away from home. The students already at ease are usually the ones who I've had in science fair,  coached or rooted for on various teams, or just a frequent high-five recipient. Other students move about the edges. Maybe they are trying not to be noticed or are just a little shy this early in the relationship.

Invariably there is one or a few home partners who want to provide me with a breakdown of their student's weaknesses. I politely listen, but to be honest I'm not storing much of the conversation in my long term memory. I will get to know their child's strengths and weaknesses soon enough, and it takes a lot longer than a passing conversation with warm cookies in our hands. (my wife is awesome by the way)

On this occasion, I'm more interested in the home partner. I want to get a sense of what school was like for them, because their attitude and interests have certainly impacted their student's attitude. Does the home partner contribute to an us vs. them attitude with their child? Questions I try and slip into the quick conversation:
  • What was your favorite subject? Why? (grades or the learning)
  • What books have you read recently? 
  • Who was your favorite teacher? Why?
  • What do you do for fun? What are your interests? 
  • Did your family have the chance to do something fun or exciting this summer.
The questions aren't meant to define, but to gauge how high the home partner's wall is. In other words, do they have a negative predisposition to school? Do they like learning? What expertise can I leverage for our classroom? What kind of support can they or are willing to give to their student? 

I need to capture the natural energy of the event and start to build the relationships that will contribute to a vibrant learning environment. The last thing I'm going to do is put another brick in the wall between them and their own learning experience by handing out a bunch of classroom rules and expectations. I want them to walk away knowing that our student is going to learn and grow in Room 216. I can't communicate that with a handout or permission slip. 

I want them to know that the learning might look a little different than when they went to school. It will not be in a straight line and might look a little messy. Their child's proof of learning won't be demonstrated by properly filling in a standardized bubble sheet. Their child will have choices. Their child's work will be published, displayed and shared. They won't have homework.

I want them to trust in their student and in me. I try and get them to help me to lay the foundation for the year and not build higher walls. We're going to do great things and I want them along for the ride.

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above photo by Eric Johnson