In all the excitement over our neverending assessments, I realized I never wrote about parent-teacher conferences back in November. Out of my 50 students, I saw 32 (sets of) parents (plus additional guardians, siblings and translators). I think I saw the most parents out of all our AIS providers, and I was pretty pleased with the turnout. My fiance had encouraged me to make up some kind of handout to give them, so I quickly put together some tips on "How to Help Your Child Succeed in Reading" -- read with them at home, ask them questions about what they're reading, etc.
A few things really stood out while I was talking with parents. First of all, even though I am constantly stressed out by my administration, by my students' agonizing lack of progress in reading, and by the little day-to-day behavior issues that can make Readers' Workshop a frustrating experience (i.e., when I'm working with a small group of readers and from the corner of my eye can tell that no one else in my group is actually reading independently as they are supposed to be doing), for the most part I have really great kids. For the vast majority of parents with whom I spoke, I was able to say things like, "He is a pleasure to have in my reading group, she always takes the strategies I teach and tries to apply them, sometimes he has a little trouble focusing but I can tell that he really cares about his progress," etc. Just recently I was discussing with one of my colleagues the enormous difference between last year's second graders and this year's; sure, this year's has their moments where they're immature and disruptive, but I will take immature and disruptive any day over defiant and disruptive, which is what I dealt with last year.
The second thing was how much these parents really want their children to succeed, but don't have the tools to help them do so. Sure, I do have a few parents who have the attitude that their child's education is entirely in my hands and it's not their problem (probably these are the parents who didn't bother coming to see me in the first place). But most of the parents seemed genuinely concerned about their children...but at the same time they were at a loss about what to do. First of all, a lot of the parents who came to see me didn't speak English all that well, and although they listened and asked questions, I got the sense that they didn't entirely understand. With some of my kids who are really far below grade level, I was trying gently to infuse a sense of urgency into our conference -- I showed the parents a Junie B. Jones chapter book and said, "This is an M book, where we would like your child to be reading at the end of second grade," and compared it with, say, Harry Goes to Day Camp, which is a level F. (And level F is pretty good for my readers -- I would say the majority of my students are in the F/G/H range, but I do have some students stuck at C and D who have been there for ages that I am very concerned about.) And one of the mothers nodded at me and said, in broken English, "Okay, teacher. We do what you say."
It was a little heartbreaking, because I know she wants her son to do well, but it's obvious that she can't help him with his homework or read with him in English. Which is why (tangent alert!) I was so ticked off to read an obnoxious letter in Time magazine today that said the only reason teachers are against merit pay is that they are "painfully aware of their collective ineptitude." Just for kicks, let's compare a student at my school (we'll call him Student A) with a student at a middle- or upper-class school (we'll call him Student B). When Student A goes home, his parents can't help him with his homework, because they don't read English. They don't have the money to get him a tutor. They don't have a lot of books in their home, other than the ones that Student A brings home from school. And they both work, so they don't sit around quizzing him about what he's reading. Now, when Student B goes home, his parents are around to make sure that he's doing his homework. Maybe if he falls behind, they get him a tutor. And they speak to him in the language that educators use, so that he's used to hearing all these comprehension questions.
I don't want to get caught up in a trap that says my students can't succeed because of their backgrounds. But I do believe that they are already at a disadvantage -- not because they have "bad" parents, but because there is a cultural gap between their backgrounds and the backgrounds of those of us who are in positions of power in the educational system. And I do believe that it's deep-seated and informs so much of how we measure our students' success and knowledge. For example, just recently I was reading a D level book with my students that was taking place around the house -- a garage, a garden, etc. I had to spend a long time just talking with them about what a garden is and what a garage is because none of our students live in actual houses and none of them has a garage or a garden. Yet it would be so easy on a comprehension test to ask a question like, "Which of the following belongs in a garage?" and score them wrong if they didn't choose the car. And that's why merit pay for teachers makes me a little suspicious -- not because I don't want to work hard to improve my students' scores, but because there's only so much I can do before I send them home and whoops! -- nobody at home can get on top of them and make sure they're doing what they're supposed to. I spoke with one father of a girl whose major problem is comprehension -- she'll read a story and then sort of invent her own retelling of it. I suggested that they ask her questions at home to monitor her comprehension. He told me that the problem with this is that he works at night, so he isn't at home, and his wife does not speak English, so if she asks her questions, "whatever Noelle says is right!" So many of my kids already speak better English than their parents do, and it was their siblings who did the translating. I think the parents have a sense of this and it translates into some kind of a power difference between us. I definitely met parents who were a little embarrassed that they didn't speak English that well, and therefore they didn't advocate for their students the way a native English speaker would. And the kids know it, too -- my obnoxious second graders from last year would use that when I told them I would have to send a note home or call home: "No one at home speaks English," they would say tauntingly.
So, even though I meant this to be a post about parent-teacher conferences, it ended up being a post about the broader problems with our educational system, of which there are many, and which I am sorry to say cannot be fixed by offering me more money to educate my students. I mean, let's say I worked in the financial sector and I could earn more money by staying really late at the office to work long hours. Would I put in the extra time? Sure. But I can (and do) spend long hours working before and after school, only the kids aren't there. Does that benefit them? That's why I'm coming around to the concept of longer school days and/or year-round schooling. I don't know if I would want to be the teacher who works over the summer, but there is no doubt that my students' reading levels dropped dramatically over the summer and it took months just to get them back to where they were in May. I just read Malcolm Gladwell's new book, The Outliers, and after I finished I buried my head miserably in my hands and moaned, "He's right, they need to be in school more." They need tobe in school because they aren't getting it at home, and no amount of merit pay can make up the difference.