Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Ch....Happy Ho...Have a Nice Day!

When I went to school, way back when, my music classes regularly sang Christmas carols, my art classes colored Santas and Christmas trees, my writing classes had us writing about our favorite Christmas present, my homeroom classes had us making Christmas presents for our parents. 

When I went to school, in a sort of diverse neighborhood on Long Island, in New York, I went to school as a Jewish child painfully aware of how different I was.  A kind teacher might say to me, "Lisa, you can make Hanukkah presents." But mostly, I was just ignored and told to do what everyone else was doing.  The whole school, the whole town, seemingly the whole world was celebrating a holiday I had nothing to do with.

Today, I work in a wildly diverse school district on Long Island, in New York.  My students celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Divali, Kwanzaa, sometimes nothing at all.  I spend most of my time in the classroom helping my children understand diversity and celebrating it, not fearing it.  I work to help children relate to others who are different, not copy them.  I encourage the children to share their cultures and feel proud of who they are.

In our country, we struggle with this amazing diversity.  Many places in the United States are not diverse.  In many places, everyone celebrates one holiday.  In most places, there are no issues with decorating the stores, the towns, the streets with Christmas decorations.  There is no question about playing Christmas music over loudspeakers in the local mall.  And teachers are free to color Santa and write about favorite Christmas presents.

But we need to begin to understand more of the big picture.  We are a diverse country and we have many, too many, instances of people not accepting of this diversity.  We have many people in our country who would be quite happy to "keep America white and Christian."  Thankfully, that view is not held by most but what do we teach our students when we focus on a religious holiday in a public school?  Are we letting our children know that even those with different beliefs are to be respected when we only see Christmas decorations at the public library or on the lawn of Town Hall?  How ridiculous do we make others seem when we "honor" them by sticking a menorah next to the nativity scene on the lawn?  "There," we can say to our young,"we care about everyone.  Look, we have covered all the holidays with the Christmas tree and the menorah."

My job, as an educator and as a parent, is to prepare my children for the future.  And I have the great opportunity to help mold that future.  I want a future that is better than today.  I want diversity to be recognized, revered, and accepted.  I want peace.  Peace will only come with understanding.  Understanding will only come with honest recognition.

So I don't say Merry Christmas, or even Happy Holidays, unless I know for sure what someone is celebrating.  I never assume anything.  If I want to know, I ask.  Otherwise, Happy New Year will work just fine.  Or even "Have a great vacation."  When we come back, I will ask the children about their vacations.  Many will have stories of holiday celebrations and we will share them with each other.  Many, like me, have already had their holiday and will just share our activities.  And some will not have holidays to share at all.  But we will share, learn, and enjoy.  And maybe, just maybe, my students will grow up not expecting everyone to believe what they do, practice the religion they do, and celebrate the holidays they do.  And that will be a wonderful way to live!

Peace to you all!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Parent/Teacher/Student Conferences - Why Bother?

It's that time of year again.  Time for me to meet with parents and let them know how their children are doing.  This year, just as I have done for the past ten years, I had the children in on the conferences.  The parents are always hesitant, concerned there will be something we need to discuss that they won't discuss in front of their child.  The kids are always nervous, worried that they won't know what to say or how to act.  I am always excited for the time to meet as a team. 

Each year, once it's over, teachers ask me if it was worth it.  Why would I do this anyway?  Just have the parents in and get it over with.  But I feel like it is important.  It is the child's education - not mine or mom's. The children need to know we are all there to help.  The parents need to see the children as responsible, capable learners.  This is something I would do starting in third grade, maybe even second.  Want more?  Here's what happened this year.  

Conference 1 - Parent with very little English skills
  • R.'s mom speaks English but not well.  She had many questions about the classroom, use of the internet in school, and how R was doing.  But she did not have enough English to ask me.  So she asked R., who, in turn, asked me.  My answer to R. - "Explain to your mom why we..."  Mom saw R. as a responsible mature learner for the first time.  She could have asked her all these questions at home.  But she didn't.  Maybe now she will.
Conference 2 - Parent who pushes for too much
  • E. is a struggling student who is making nice progress.  But he needs to improve his study habits and take more responsibility for his assignments.  If he did, his reading and writing skills, and all other academic areas would improve.  Mom kept telling him he needs to get all 4s next time (That is the equivalent of an A.).  I kept saying he needs to improve study habits.  She kept saying all 4s.  E. started to get upset.  I noticed, Mom did not.  I stopped Mom.  "E," I said, "what you can control is your behavior.  You cannot control whether or not your brain will learn everything quickly and easily but you can control how much effort you put into work, how much focus you have, and how responsible you are completing assignments.  Do all of that, and the academics will improve.  I don't care if you get 4s.  I want you to improve your learning strategies.  That's it."  And then I looked at Mom.  "That's what he can control right now."  He started to smile and Mom laid off.  I can't guarantee she didn't continue at home but she did hear me tell her son how well he has been doing.  And she heard her son talk about what he would change - like moving away from his friends during a lesson.
Conference 3 - Parent who believes everything the child says
  • D. is a strong student who does very little homework.  Dad wants to know why he got a low grade on homework, since he does it every night.  I ask D. to explain.  Dad says, "When I call home, you always tell me your homework is done."  D. says, "I mean my math homework."  Dad looks at me with his mouth hanging open.  D. and I begin a conversation about earning respect and being reliable.  D. explained to Dad what he would do from now on, Dad told D. he would be checking his work each night until he could count on him again to tell the truth.  I didn't have to play he said/she said without D. there.
Conference 4 - Making a Plan
  • T. is a struggling student who is overwhelmed by work.  His response to being overwhelmed is to quit.  Mom has not been helping him organize his work at home so he can complete it calmly and correctly.  She thought he was hopeless.  Together, T., Mom, and I came up with a plan to help T.  Mom is now part of the solution instead of leaving it all up to me.
Conference 5 - Getting More Attention
  • S. is a strong student, hard worker, and considerate of others.  Mom works hard and rarely has time for S.  S. wants to join my Global Awareness Club but Mom says she has no way to pick her up from the club.  I suggest a car pool.  S. looks at Mom with puppy dog eyes but says nothing.  She does not speak up for herself.  I keep pushing.  Mom finally looks at S. and says, "Do you really want to go?"  S.  nods her head furiously.  Mom says she will work from home on Wednesdays so S. can go.  I feel like S. got more from Mom with me there than she would have alone.
Conference 6 - Understanding Compliments
  • K. is a struggling student who has learned, this year, how to be an active learner.  As a result, her skills are improving and she is becoming a class leader.  Mom did not believe the progress report, thinking I was just being nice to her because the holidays were coming up.  So I had K. explain what she does when a lesson begins, how she makes sure she is in a good place to learn, and what kind of work she was doing.  It all came from K.  Mom was shocked, cried, and hugged K.  K. started to cry. I don't think she gets much praise but having Mom see how proud she was of her work changed a lot.
I have so many more examples of how having children in the conference is beneficial but I'm sure you get the idea.  I direct the conversation to the kids. I start by asking them what they are most proud of.  Then they talk about what they need to work on.  I ask how they will accomplish that task.  They talk, parents listen, I smile broadly.  I love parent/teacher/student conferences!