Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Parent-Teacher Conferences FAQ

I have taught for 10 years, but my last 6 could (and should) be described as very untraditional. In that time, I have worked tirelessly to become both well read and well spoken on the topic of progressive education.

Here is a Frequently-Asked-Questions post based on the parent-teacher interviews I had recently:

How do I set up a conference?

At my school, parents book an interview with the office. I get a schedule and then it's up to me to make further arrangements for any parents who choose not to initiate an appointment.

The interviews are done in my classroom at one of the student's tables. I always encourage students to come with their parents, and their siblings are welcome too.

To begin the conference, I welcome everyone and ask them to take a seat. I then ask them "how do you think grade six has been so far?" I start with a question because I believe the direction of the conference should be set by the parents. Ten years of conferences have taught me to shut up and listen first. After all, I can only assume what the parents might like to talk about; however, assuming tends to lead to making an ass out of u (parent) and me. Once the parents identify for me the topics they wish to discuss, I can personalize the interview around their individual concerns.

Even though I want the parents to steer the discussion, I always make sure to encourage them to ask me challenging questions. I've often noticed parents can feel leery about asking me about my non-traditional methods, so I often break the ice by saying, "So, has little Johnny talked about how abnormal I am?" We usually chuckle over that (queue the breaking of the ice); thus leading them to feel comfortable asking what some may call challenging questions. For the most part, parents are intimidated by teachers, and it is my responsibility to remove that barrier of reluctance and fear. I go out of my way to ask them about their questions, comments or concerns.

Here are a number of Frequently-Asked-Questions:

Parent: "Johnny keeps coming home with no homework, and he says he doesn't have any all year. I told him we would find out about that."

Me: "My take on homework is that it is something that should be inspired rather than assigned. If you ask kids what they think about homework, 99.9% will say they hate it. And to be honest, you and I probably did too. I'm not prepared to do anything to kids that would jeopardize their desire to go on learning. On top of all that, we do more than enough here that I don't feel the need to send the kids home to do a second shift. On top of all this, there isn't a shred of evidence that homework before high school has any academic or non-academic benefit. How your family time is spent during the evening is not for me to determine; however, if you are interested in having your child do something productive with their time at home other than watch TV, play video games or Facebook with their friends, then I am willing to sit down with you and your child and sort out what they could do."

Parent: "Don't kids need practice? Doesn't repetition help them to improve their basic math skills?"

Me: "I have three responses: First, if a kid doesn't know how to multiply at school when I'm available to help him out, how does sending him home to do more help? And if a kid already understands the concept, how helpful will it be to go home and be forced to do 35 more? Secondly, I understand how you can practice a behavior, but how do you practice or reinforce an understanding? Real learning is constructed not reinforced. Thirdly, most parents like you and me were taught subjects like math in a way that does not properly support how we are learning in class. For example, many parents may help their children with their division problems by teaching them the algorithm they've been taught - but here at school, I want the kids to construct meaning for themselves before they dive into algorithms, short cuts and tricks. Often, I find myself unteaching what kids did at home before I can teach them how to think for themselves at school."

Parent: "My kid tells me that they are playing games all the time on the computers and the X-Box and they sit on the couches all day. Where's the learning?"

Me: "Play may be one of the most powerful ways to support real learning. Now don't get me wrong, not all games are born equal - some are very very thought-provoking while others border on mindless, so I work with kids to figure out which games have a longer or shorter intellectual shelf-life. Often when we are playing games the kids are having so much fun they don't even realize they are learning what they are learning. So when they say we are just playing games, they aren't being entirely accurate. For example, here is a Strategy Guide project that we did to integrate gaming with reading, writing, problem solving and computer skills. As for the couches, yes we do have two couches in the classroom, and unless the learning requires a different seating arrangement, we take turns on the couch."

Parent: "How is this preparing my child for next year? Will this kind of classroom environment set them up for failure in grade 7 or high school?"

Me: "I don't have a crystal ball, but if I were to make an educated guess, heres' what's going to happen. For this school year, your son is going to love school and learn a lot. He's going to go on to the next grade level, and at worst, he's going to be disappointed that he won't have the same opportunity to personalize his learning in a way that allows him to construct meaning for himself. The only suffering he will endure is that chances are he won't ever have the opportunity to learn as much as he will this year. As far as preparation for the future goes, I have two comments: firstly, there are two kinds of curriculum: one is vertical curriculum which means the kids need to learn stuff that may not pertain to them today, but will be valuable in the future; the second one is horizontal curriculum which is the stuff kids need to learn for themselves today. It's important to balance the two; however, I would say that our society has developed an unhealthy obsession with the vertical kind. Just as kindergarten is not preparation for college, grade six is not preparation for grade seven. My second comment is that if we are talking about preparing kids for poor pedagogy such as mountains of homework, multiple choice assessments and textbook-worksheet completion then I'm not prepared to do these bad things to students this year simply because someone might choose to do these bad things to them in the future. Often the largest obstacle to school reform are our memories."

Parent: "So you don't give tests? How do you know if the kids are learning?"

Me: "There is absolutely no substitute for what a teacher sees and hears with my own eyes and ears while working with students while they are learning. We do projects that are in-a-context and for a purpose. I am privy to seeing the kids work on their projects everyday, and I get to see the finished product - after observing such a wealth of information about your daughter's learning, a test would seem redundant at best and wholly insufficient at worst. Because learning is messy and real learning is really messy it's simply doesn't make sense to conveniently dismiss the mess by reducing it all to a number."

Parent: "If you don't give grades, how do you come up with a grade on the report card?"

Me: "I have three sources of information for compiling a report card grade. Firstly, I look the students actual projects. We collect evidence of learning to create a learning portfolio which can take the shape of physical or online evidence. Secondly, I work 5 days a week for almost 7 hours a day for 10 months of the year and so my professional opinion, which is guided by my observations, lends itself well to accurately assessing kids. Thirdly, I bring the kids in on it. I ask them, all joking aside, to seriously ponder their self-assessment. I ask them to share with me what grade they think they should get and why. In my 6 years of teaching in this manner, I can count on one hand how often kids grossly inflate their own grade - and when it does happen, I guide them to a more accurate grade. Self-assessment is critical to the development of children - after all, the whole idea of assessing kids is so that they can later on properly assess themselves. I don't take this goal lightly."

Parent: "The kids have to write a Provincial Achievement Test at the end of the year. How will they do on this test if you don't teach in a way that tailors to the exam?"

Me: "How do you feel about the Provincial Achievement Test? (parents tend to say they don't like it) Honestly, it is one test, on one day that provides almost nothing of any value. The exams format tends to be multiple choice which is one of the worst ways you could ever use to find out what a person understands or can do. What's more is that there is some research that actually shows that high scores on standardized tests are actually something to be worried about as they tend to indicate shallow thinking. What I'm saying is that the real critical thinking students tend to over-think and become distracted by the question. Let me be clear, this is not an accident as the options that are incorrect are actually called 'distractors' by the test makers. When it comes to PATs, I work on two tracks: Firstly, I swear not to spend one more minute than is necessary to prepare kids to write such a horrible test, while at the same time, we will focus on real learning for the rest of our time (which will be almost 99% of the year). The last thing I would like to say about Provincial Achievement Tests is that as your child's parent, it is your democratic right to save your child from the harms of such assessment malpractice - in other words, it is up to you whether your daughter wastes her time writing a meaningless test or invests one more day on real learning."

Parent: "How do you feel about Johnny having his cell phone in class?"

Me: "Handheld devices such as Blackberries and iPads are likely the future versions of binders. Rather than abolishing these devices, I see this as an opportunity to teach children how to use them properly. Because schools still typically outright ban these devices, kids are left on their own to figure out how to use them properly, is there any surprise then that they grow up to be adults who use these devices inappropriately? I work with the kids to figure out the appropriateness around the use of these devices. Kids don't learn to make good choices by simply following instructions - they need the opportunity to actually make choices; and with my artful guidance, they will learn to make good decisions.

Parent: "You spend a lot of time on the computer, so do you teach the kids how to write by hand?"

Me: "While it is true that we are fortunate to have computer access most of the time, we are not on the computers all day, everyday. We do projects by hand, and we do incorporate a lot of art into our class. After we read a story, a poem or discuss a topic, we often do a creative response where kids offer a response of their liking on a piece of paper. Some draw while others write - there really aren't any rules other than they need to offer a response to whatever we just did. We often hang work on the wall. I do not teach handwriting in class - to be honest, I don't even know how to handwrite - but I do print and I can type very well.


I am always quite drained from a full day of teaching and an evening of parent-teacher conferences, but I always enjoy them. I see them as an opportunity to educate parents on how school can be better than we had it.

In the end, I find that when I am open and transparent about both what we are doing differently at school and why we are doing it that way, parents are more than willing to be open minded about it all.

And yet, I've often wondered why parents are so willing to be open minded for me. After all, we've all experienced the difficult parent...

I believe their willingness to be open minded comes mostly from seeing that their children are enjoying school. Time and time again, during these parent-teacher conferences, parents share with me how much their kid likes my class. Some of these parents have kids that have grown to hate school; their kids have no problem sharing their distaste for it all - yet, these parents share with me their shock and awe over how their children are coming home and saying they like school this year.

When the kids like school and are learning, it's hard for a parent to balk too much - after all, why would they balk?

Their kids are happy to be learning!


  1. Inspiring stuff, you must have a principle who shares your ideals, or at least has an open mind. How do your kids do on the multiple choice tests? I really admire your approach and wish more teachers had the courage to try it. Thank you.

  2. ...of course I meant principal, damn auto correct.


Follow by Email