Mommy Mayhem · School Talk

Back To School Night: The Best Parts and Why They Matter

While the start of the night wasn’t ideal as my only copy of my 7th grade son’s schedule was what he had scrawled onto a napkin with a highlighter, it ended up being really good and there is one simple reason: the teachers. Obviously I only got a snapshot of how they do things but their enthusiasm and effort were palpable and I certainly haven’t been able to say that every year. Sure their styles and personalities varied, but I left confident that each of them knows their stuff and enjoys what they do. Truth be told, I left wishing I could audit a couple classes myself.

I loved the enthusiasm in the science class. While the teacher talked about meaty science subjects and the importance of mixing hands-on learning with teacher directed learning, she was funny and loose and welcoming. She showed us a variety of ways students can study and prepare on their own time and she also had examples of projects for us to see from last year so we we will have half a clue when our kid suddenly springs it on us that they need a trifold poster board, lots of colored pictures of a random canyon in China, and some glitter. We also learned of cool incentives she uses around homework completion. Her safety goggle jokes were hilarious (and brought me back to my own chemistry teachers in both high school and college who used to spend all period reminding me to get my goggles off my head and onto my eyes. I really hated those things.) I can’t lie though, I’ve had the words “igneous rocks” in my head all day.

Social Studies left me wishing I could audit the class. The teacher shook every single parent’s hand and was unabashed in his discussion of academic standards and the many ways he provides for our children to show that they’ve met them. He talked of his “office hours” and how he is there every morning between 7:15 and 7:55 for students who need help (or for parents who would like to meet with him.) He also ensured that he doesn’t live far and if another time works better, he can always make it work. He had a quote on the wall (which he recited from memory) and he talked about how it may have little meaning to our kids now but, at the end of the year when they’ve learned about communism, socialism, and fascism from WWII to the present day, it will mean a lot more. He talked of textbook readings, primary source readings, mock trials, debates and three additional books the students will read during the year.  For those curious, the additional texts they’ll be reading are the The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I am Malala, and Tuesdays with MorrieI’m thinking I may just turn this class into my own little book club. He acknowledged that much of the work is new for 7th graders and assured parents that a low grade in Trimester 1 is likely not an indication of underperformance but rather further evidence that the skills needed for a robust and comprehensive history class need more time and more practice. He exuded a love for history too. I reflected a bit afterward on some of my own social studies classes and realized that while some were good, some were astonishingly boring. I’m positive that this class is not boring.

PE was also interesting and has certainly come a long way from the days of dodge ball and freeze tag. This class is focused on fitness and students learn about the muscles, bones, and joints over the course of three years. This year, they are learning the names of all the bones. The teacher stressed the importance of modification and adaptation; if you have a cast on your wrist, you’re not sitting out. There’s still plenty your body can do. She reminded us that people with prosthetics run the Boston Marathon and wants to be sure that our children know that health and wellness and fitness are all possible, regardless of one’s limitations. And if the Doctor says ‘No PE’, then she finds non physical ways for students to be engaged, including having them conduct a study of their own injury. She allows students to decide if they want their training to be more geared to an athlete or someone more focused on health and wellness. (So a student might have a goal of being able to pitch faster or they might have a goal of wanting to run their first 5K). I’m not gonna lie; I’m convinced I’d be in much better shape if I could take this class and there is no doubt that I’d benefit from having someone over my shoulder reminding me that yes, I can do it.

The ELA teacher shared a sad tale with us about how this year’s 7th grade class says they don’t like to read. Of course there are exceptions she added but she is  concerned about what seems to be an overall negative take on reading. She reminded us as parents how important it is for our kids to be readers and how there is value in any and all reading: newspapers, magazines, blogs. I have a kid (or two) who isn’t super keen on reading and her reminder was a valuable one. Get things in their hands that reflect their interests, their passions so that at least 20 minutes of each day (outside of school) is spent reading something. She keeps a cute little library in her classroom from which students can check books out and she is also working to get them more comfortable with poetry (which is no easy task with 7th graders but so far, it sounded like her strategy was working.) I was pleasantly surprised and grateful (especially in light of recent events) to see that they will be reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I think I may add that to my reading list too.

Math. I can’t lie, I don’t like it. Oddly enough, all of my boys like it a lot. But during math class last night, as a parent, I heard things I had never heard before. The teacher talked about the importance of student voice. And how he works to adapt the boring problems into more interesting exercises that teach the same concept. Why only read a word problem to calculate rate of speed when you can watch a video of a dog sprinting a certain distance? And he names his classes after cuts of steak which is kind of fun. Well, maybe not for the vegetarians but since steak is my son’s favorite food, he is jazzed to be in the section that bears the name “Ribeye.” One of the best things I heard in this class (and something I’d hope isn’t unique to just math) is that there are efforts to get all teachers of 7th grade math together to calibrate their grading and make sure that they are on the same page about what a 5 or a 4 or a 3 or a 2 or a 1 looks like. I remember my former colleagues did this (eek, more than 15 years ago now) to ensure that when we graded essays, we were being consistent in the grades we were giving. Obviously it’s impossible be 100 percent consistent but it’s important to get it as right as you can. The 7th grade math teachers are doing that. This teacher also expressed his availability outside of school hours to help students and/or talk to parents and he was explicit in his commitment to allowing students repeated chances to show that they have met the standard. He has a a thorough and accountable process for retakes (as he should) but here was no doubt that his goal is that his students are successful whether on the first try or the third.

I happen to be a person who believes that test scores absolutely matter and I consider the annual state tests my kids take to be a necessary piece of a large puzzle. All of the things I highlight here about my back to school night experience are also important pieces of that same puzzle. And so is my kid’s attendance. And attitude. And work ethic. And social emotional health. Last night left me feeling like this year’s teachers and I are rowing in the same direction and I headed home from the night feeling confident that if my son (or I) needed something, they’d be there to help us. No school is perfect. No human endeavor is. My own years as a teacher and dean of students were riddled with mistakes. But nothing beats a teacher who exudes passion for their subject, works hard to ensure students are engaged, and cares about the growth and success of those they teach.

So, it was a really good night. Napkin schedule and all.

What do you think?

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