image by JohnsCreekGaGov
by W. Harrison Little
What parent would not want to visit their child’s kindergarten classroom? The rooms brim with colors and textures, building blocks, and bubble letters. The area rugs, embroidered with the alphabet, draw you in. The play kitchens and life-sized plaster animals convince you to stay. And the students who inhabit these spaces are even more inviting than the spaces themselves. By merely standing taller than 36 inches, you are the object of unfettered adulation and affection. Now contrast this environment with the pimples and hormones, the voice cracks and mood swings typical of your middle school classroom; no wonder parent participation in our schools diminishes as our children age (Association for Middle Level Education, 2010).
Seeing a child interacting with his or her peers in a familiar place can be incredibly informative.
And yet, the need for parental involvement during the middle-level years may very well be more important than parental involvement throughout elementary school. Middle school students are highly malleable and impressionable. Without even intending to, they seek answers to questions that they previously lacked the capacity to ponder. And they find the answers they seek from whatever source is most readily available, regardless of the source’s merit. Parents must therefore continue to be a consistent presence in their children’s lives. To do so, they must understand and appreciate the lives their children lead. And for most children, life is school. Many parents know their children from the dinner table or the living room sofa. Many parents become acquainted with a handful of their children’s friends and are able to watch the way they interact. But few parents get to know their children in their “natural habitat.” Seeing a child interacting with his or her peers in a familiar place can be incredibly informative.
With this in mind, I sought a way to get parents back into a middle school classroom—my middle school classroom. I was well aware of the challenges I faced. For starters, most parents tend to work full-time jobs that coincide with school hours. I needed to entice them with something meaningful to make it worth each parent’s time. But whatever I came up with also needed to be finite, so as not to demand too much time from any one parent. Some sort of culminating presentation seemed to be a viable option, but I wanted parents to get a sense of their child’s true day-to-day, not pomp and circumstance. I also wanted parents to be able to visit on an individual basis, so as not to have the classroom dynamics altered and parents’ experience tainted by the presence of many visiting adults. I was also concerned about the wide range of educational and socioeconomic backgrounds of my students’ parents. I was well aware that some parents are not comfortable in schools, that some do not know how to be a presence there. I needed an activity that would be stimulating and engaging for those parents with stronger educational backgrounds, but also safe for those parents who may have developed an aversion to schools throughout their own educational career.
This gave rise to Coffee Table. The concept was relatively simple: Every other week my students would read the local newspaper. Parents would be given the opportunity to sign up ahead of time to “sponsor” a particular day. They would then visit school with a small snack for each student in the class, and they would stay for the duration of the period. Each child would be given their own copy of the paper and was expected to read independently so parents could engage in whatever way and to whatever degree they were comfortable.
Increased parental involvement aside, there were many anticipated benefits to this program. Most obviously, Coffee Table would expose students to print news sources. With society increasingly turning to digital media, students should be aware of the physical resources still available to them. I also hoped that the program would help students become more intimately connected with the local community. Like any other local news source, the “hometown” paper I selected for the program raises real issues pertinent to the people within its area of distribution. And, finally, the program would offer us a brand-new class set of “informational texts” every other week. With the advent of the Common Core State Standards and increased emphasis on nonliterary texts, a stack of newspapers would be an invaluable resource. Ever changing, ever relevant to the lives of my students, inexpensive, and disposable—I found it difficult to believe just how long I overlooked the newspaper’s potential in my classroom.
The one concern that was raised during the planning stages of this program had to do with the content of the newspaper. A couple of my colleagues were apprehensive about my exposing students to stories and events beyond their years. I briefly entertained the idea of preselecting “appropriate” stories from the paper for my classes. I was convinced, however, that attempting to censor the paper might backfire, given that children tend to be drawn to things they’re warned to steer clear of. Furthermore, I struggled with the idea of sheltering students from the realities of the world, especially when the realities of the world are realities of their lives. I hoped a handful of students might actually find solace in reading about a bad situation that they could relate to. It did occur to me that something close to home and truly unfortunate could hit the front page of the newspaper. But I would rather have students get the facts than learn of local happenings through the tinted lens of the rumor mill. And I would rather students learn about unfortunate happenings in a safe, structured environment than be forced to muddle through such difficulties on their own. Ultimately, I decided not to censor the paper. I made clear to my colleagues, however, that I would not compel any student to read an article they found unsettling. I wanted students to be free to explore on their own and pursue whatever piqued their interest.
Without intending to, I was forcing myself to reflect on and improve my practice.
I suppose it would be more interesting if I said that the first few months of the program were a little rocky but, in all honesty, quite the opposite was true. I had an early surge of parents interested in participating in the program. I will admit that I was a little anxious when it came time for our first couple visitors, though. Educators, myself included, get used to working in isolation. Some teachers will go for months, even years, without having another adult set foot in their classroom. And when another adult does visit, the visit tends to be a mandated accountability measure. If I were to invite so many adults into my classroom with such frequency, my proverbial ducks would need to be in a row. I would have to exercise good classroom management and demonstrate control of my class. I would have to know my students and exhibit good relations with each. And I would have to convey real purpose for our time together. Without intending to, I was forcing myself to reflect on and improve my practice.
The early surge of volunteers also helped me develop rapport with the parents of my students. A great deal of correspondence went into planning each iteration of Coffee Table. This helped me get to know the parents of my students, which helped me better understand my students themselves. The time spent with each parent in the classroom also led to stronger rapport, and a foundation of trust was established. That foundation of trust proved to be invaluable over the course of the school year.
As the weeks wore on, I began to recognize benefits of the program that I hadn’t anticipated. By scheduling the newspaper delivery for every other Wednesday, I inadvertently forced us to take a break from the “grind” of our current course of study. I have high expectations for my students and hold them to rigorous standards. Coffee Table offered variety and reprieve. The program also allowed us to use our instructional space in a different way. Students are all too often expected to sit in seats, oriented toward a whiteboard. On the days that we read the newspaper, I allowed my students to sprawl about the room, comfortably propped in every nook and cranny.
Coffee Table also offered us an opportunity to translate the skills we were working on in literature to a different medium. After spending a week identifying different types of conflict in a collection of short stories, we would spend a day looking for those same types of conflict in various news articles. After strengthening our abilities to gather evidence in support of an inference in a novel, we would spend a day generating inferences and evidence in the newspaper. Any skill acquired and practiced in a vacuum, after all, is of little to no use (Meier, Sizer, & Faust Sizer, 2004). Students must be able to translate skills into other settings and situations in order to achieve true mastery. The newspaper allowed us to gauge our level of mastery.
Meeting the parents whom I hadn’t expected to see, working with them, laughing with them—misperceptions peeled away and fell by the wayside.
Halfway through the first year of the program, there was a lull in parent participation. Interest died down after we worked our way through the more active parent base, and I wanted to increase the percentage of parents involved rather than rely on “repeat customers.” I continued to encourage students to invite their parents to class, and I asked parents who had already participated to encourage other parents to do the same. It was only then that parents whom I had hoped to see but hadn’t necessarily expected to see began to sign up. (It’s unfortunate but true that there exists a “natural antagonism between parents and teachers—an equal measure of distrust and misunderstanding” [Meier et al., 2004, p. 72].) Teachers can be quick to judge parents for perceived neglect or ambivalence, not fully understanding the parents’ perspective. Parents can be quick to judge teachers as well, mistaking firm boundaries for callousness or high expectations for inflexibility. Meeting the parents whom I hadn’t expected to see, working with them, laughing with them—misperceptions peeled away and fell by the wayside. This phenomenon was far and away the most enlightening and rewarding aspect of all the good that came from Coffee Table that first year.
I found far more success through this program than I anticipated I would, and I intend to continue with it in the years ahead. That being said, my purpose in sharing this story is not to persuade other educators to adopt this particular practice. Coffee Table worked for my students, their parents, and me. Every educator has their own unique style, though. Every community has its own unique desires and needs. What I hope to impress upon other teachers, however, is the need to get parents back into our schools and the reassurance that this goal is achievable.
With standardized test scores and federal accountability measures gaining greater momentum, with private stakeholders looking to dip their hands deeper and deeper into taxpayers’ pockets, and with the rise of charter schools and the erosion of public education (Ravitch, 2010), we need now more than ever to strengthen the bond between parents and public schools. I invited parents into my classroom so they could see firsthand the work I was doing with their children. Without such experience, what do parents have to inform their perception of school? The answer: abstract data that tells only a small portion of a complicated story. The parents of my students may not know the entire story, but they certainly know more of it than they did prior to visiting my classroom. Our public system of education has worked, does work, and will continue to work, but only if we keep all interested parties working together toward the same ends.
Harrison Little is a 6th grade reading teacher and athletic/co-curricular director at Lebanon Middle School in Lebanon, NH.
Association for Middle Level Education. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. (2010). Westerville, OH: Author.
Meier, D., Sizer, T. R., & Faust Sizer, N. (2004). Keeping school: Letters to families from principals of two small schools. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Ravitch, D. (2010). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.