Right about now, most schools in my area are holding ‘Open House’ nights to give parents the opportunity to learn more about our children’s classrooms and schedules, to explore content and curriculum and to connect with teachers and faculty. Since I have children in multiple buildings, I had the chance to participate in two of these events. By the end of the second night, I was a bit frustrated. Yes, I enjoyed meeting my children’s new teachers. Yes, I was able to travel the building as if I were my child and get a feel for their schedules. Yes, I learned important information about the curriculum and assessments. But by the end of the second night, I was struck with one large, powerful ‘no’: I did not get a sense for the ultimate goal of each class and how it would change my child and their view of themselves or the world. Let me explain.
In each class, teachers were expected to pack everything parents needed to know about themselves and the class into a neat 10-minute package. With constraints like that, teachers focus on what parents NEED to know: the content they will cover, the ways students will be graded and how they will prepare our children for the state assessments. I get it. We need to know this. But, after sitting through eight of these presentations, I found myself asking why any of it mattered. I didn’t just want to know how my child’s homework would be graded or what the behavior expectations would be, I wanted to know why it was important. Sure, I wanted to know which classic texts they would read in English and how they would develop their analytical skills, but I really wanted to know why how and why doing this would teach my child lessons to help them navigate our modern world. Yes, I wanted to know which ancient civilizations would be studied and how the pop quizzes on this content would be graded, but I really wanted to know how teaching them important events in our history would help them make better, more informed decisions about their beliefs of the world today.
In my work with literacy coaches and teachers, I often follow a ‘What We Know, So’ framework. Together, we think about the content we teach, the standards we are held to and the skills we need to develop. But, so what? What does any of this mean? How will it help change teachers’ and students’ teaching and learning? Why does it matter? In my work with adults, these broader guiding questions about the work we do shape our learning. But based on what I learned in my Open House experience, the more discrete skills, strategies and tangible outcomes like writing responses and assessments, were privileged instead. Now I know teachers had only 10 minutes to share their entire course with parents, which impacted these presentations. But, we are always pressed for time, especially in the classroom with students. So, I began to wonder. When pressed for time or stressed from the demands of the curriculum or mandates from different stakeholders, do we focus on skills and strategies at the expense of the broader reason for engaging in such work? And if we do, what message does that send to our students? Faced with a constant diet of reading and writing to get things done, we can easily forget the potential power that reading and writing has to change our lives and our place in the world.
So, what do we do? I was reminded of a Heinemann podcast by Jess Lifshitz on this very topic. She shared how the standards are no longer her end point, the reason for teaching such skills is. She shares that by adding two little words to the end of our teaching statements, we can shift everything. What are those two words? Here they are: “so that”. Rather than saying ‘I will teach synthesizing’, we say “I will teach synthesizing so that we can understanding an important issue and problem-solve together”. Those two little words change everything.
So, what do I do? I must acknowledge my role in this. As a literacy teacher educator and coach, I teach my teachers to examine, analyze and use the standards to impact their teaching, but I can do better. Imagine if I introduced this ‘so that’ strategy in such an explicit and persistent way it became a habit for these new teachers to think with the broader picture in mind? I think two things could happen. First, teachers could see firsthand the power they have in changing the world through the work we do. Second, students would realize their potential for doing the same. And that is life-changing work.
I’ll be paying much closer attention to my work in this area starting now and perhaps, one day, this might shift the conversation at Open House meetings of the future. =)