Homeroom Thoughts: Supporting Your Child’s Education

Recently, a neighbor of mine asked a simple question on our neighborhood social media forum: “What are your thoughts on Common Core Curriculum?”  

He had just read an article titled “Massachusetts Dumps Common Core” and wanted to find out more.  He is a parent of small children who will not enter the public school system for a few years yet, but I think his question was really this:  “How do I start preparing my children to succeed in school?”  He was asking his neighbors, and several of us are teachers.  We weighed in:

  • One neighbor teaches fourth grade in our public school, and she spoke in favor of the standards; she felt that the approach to math gave a more realistic education that will better prepare students for real-world problem-solving.  She says she was initially against it, but with training and practice, she now backs it. 
  • Another neighbor teaches second grade in a nearby parochial school and spoke against the new movement.  She feels that, like other “new methods” of the recent past, this too will be deemed ineffectual.
  • I teach in a private school, so we don’t have to deal with Common Core. And, we choose not to. We have a similar but simpler concept, but even that has been problematic. Creating a baseline of uniformity is a practical idea when you are manufacturing ‘stuff,’ like cars or computers; it’s quite a bit trickier when dealing with people.

My Take

My current role is in a high school, working in a learning support capacity. We offer individual tutoring, test for learning disabilities, mentor students on how to use their own strengths to balance their weaknesses, and run professional development on how to differentiate instruction.

I do agree that one theory or another has attempted to “baseline” education. I’m a child of the 80’s; back then the theory was E.D. Hirsch’s “Core Knowledge”. By the time I got to grad school, my education program essentially ripped that theory to shreds. During my first job on the South Side of Chicago, the “No Child Left Behind” legislation ruled, and “ACT readiness standards” was the catchphrase. We all agreed as teachers that the program did not have a desirable result.

I do agree with my pro-Core neighbor that there is a better way to approach education than what we do now. The number one thing I hear from students is: “Why do I ever need to know this in real life?” To some extent, it’s just students complaining and it’s easily mitigated. We require all students to be in athletics, so I use a sports analogy: Your basketball coach requires you to do some weight training; are you ever going to be lifting weights in an actual game? No. Your coach is training your muscles; we are training your brain. The bigger issue, though, is if that basketball coach never had students set foot on an actual court before a game.  The fact that students draw such a distinct line between school and reality is, in and of itself, somewhat troubling to me.  I believe we do need more “court-time” in our classroom.

The Politics of Education

Like any “science,” the theories are constantly evolving. In that vein, change is good. To some extent, however, reform risks becoming a platform that serves political agendas more than it does children.

As a teacher and a parent, I would say the best thing you can do is trust your teachers; I promise, none of us are in this for the money. While I hope we follow Massachusetts’ lead and jump ship sooner rather than later, I believe that if Common Core does weather the storm of educational politics, it will be because of your teachers, not your politicians.

What Can Parents Do To Support Their Students’ Learning?

IMAG8053_BURST015For parents, I think what we need to do is the same regardless of the popular rhetoric of the time. Teachers will handle Common Core, or whatever may come next, and hopefully will have the support and training to do so in the ways that best serves our students. 

This is what I told my neighbor:

  • Get lovingly and appropriately involved as early on as you can. Being involved certainly means different things at different grade levels, but I think the underlying ideas are the same.  Not sure how?  Ask your child’s teacher.  When I was in high school, my pre-calculus teacher told us that when people ask him what he teaches he doesn’t say ‘math’, he says ‘students’. Several of my other teachers saw me in a way that my parents never did.  At home, I was shy, quiet, reserved.  At school, my teachers encouraged me to push my comfort zone and lead. My mom actually told one teacher, “Nicole is not a leader.  It’s just not who she is.”  His response was, “We can wear different hats.  We just want her to try it on.”  
    • My neighbor who teaches 4th grade said this: I would love parents to support their kids at home- check their child’s agenda, online grade book, and do the best they can to stay in the loop. Ask questions, show up to conferences, be present and follow through with what you say at home.”  In high school, I think students who have seen this modeled learn to do it for themselves.  We have an online grade book as well; keep yourself informed, and if you see a grade that concerns you, ask your child about it before asking the teacher.  
  • Especially as your students get older, always keep them involved in their educational plans. The most successful parent meetings I’ve had are when the student is present and involved. There are special circumstances when this might not be appropriate, but for the most part, I think it’s important that students own their goals and not ever feel like there are separate sides between family and the school.
  • Help foster a sense of intellectual curiosity.  We’re still in the “Why” phase right now with my preschooler, and believe me — I know how tough it can be.  My husband had a resume come across his desk in which the person wrote under special skills: “Can successfully answer upwards of ten rounds of ‘Why’ with my three-year-old.”  He almost hired him on the spot!IMAG6604_BURST010
  • Take an interest in what your kids do in school. For example, read as a family. When your kids get old enough to read independently, continue to read with them (my sister just bought herself her 12 year old’s favorite book and he was so excited that she took his recommendation!). My son is in Pre-K and brings home weekly assignments that are meant to be completed together with parents.  I’m beyond embarrassed by the number of them we’ve buried underneath excuses.  The truth is, we’re busy.  We’re always going to be busy.  If we don’t make the time to do this now, I don’t see that changing as the stakes get higher.
  • Praise success as a product of their efforts, not their natural ability (see MindShift for great articles on “Growth Mindset” for students as young as pre-schoolers). I recently re-connected with a student who graduated several years ago.  He remembered with some embarrassment how difficult math was for him.  I recall his struggle, but I mostly remember how hard he worked.  “You put more hard work into something you hated than some people put into what they love,” I told him.  He is doing quite well now, and I have no doubt that he will continue to succeed.
  • Embrace failure as a learning opportunity. I know this is easier with a four-year-old; failure at this stage is mostly not making it to the potty in time, or getting beat in a game of Crazy 8s.  Our high-schoolers seem to have such a narrow view of success, as if any failure will result in a cacophony of slamming doors in their future.  They have a hard time seeing that there is more than one way to achieve a goal, and that what they learn from their mistakes might be the most valuable part of their education.
  • Be responsive when your children’s teacher contacts you.  I’ve heard many teachers talk about phone calls or emails that were never returned.  Again, I’m a parent, too, and I know we are beyond busy.  But we reach out because we care about your student and we want to work with you.
  • Foster Creativity.  The most disturbing aspect of any attempt to standardize education, to me, is the effect it has oIMAG8532n creativity.  I have read many articles on the importance of creativity in the classroom and commentary on our school’s inefficiencies in nurturing it in our children.  As an English teacher, it is both the trait I admire the most and the skill I feel least equipped to teach.  
    • First of all, there seems to be an inherent irony in any approach that attempts to instruct uniqueness (“Here, Junior, let me show you how to be original”).
    • Second, we have trained students to be point-based rubric-followers.  Did you follow the directions?  Have you answered the question?  Is this what we asked for? And, invariably, the biggest obstacles in diverging from these questions are the students themselves. On the whole, they want to be evaluated and assessed.  

I recently read an article on “Unschooling” in which a father justified his decision to homeschool based on the effect he felt school has on creativity.  While I don’t agree with the conclusion (that we need to pull our students out of school), I do appreciate his dedication to inspiring a sense of freedom and wonder in his children.  I recently took my son on an impromptu nature walk and allowed him to choose the directions at each fork in the road.  We got lost for hours.  I teach Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature,” and yet to actually experience it with a four-year-old is a totally different level of education.  As Emerson says, “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature.  Most persons do not see the sun.  At least they have a very superficial seeing.  The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child.”  

At the end of the day, today’s rhetoric of education might be totally different than tomorrow’s.  Regardless, your children will spend more time with you than any one teacher will ever have with them.  Teach them the things that can never be standardized.


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