Dear Mother, Dear Teacher

Dear Mother,
I wanted to update you on your son’s grades for biology per your request in the last email.  He could really use someone quizzing him the night before a test on the vocabulary.  I give flashcards out so it makes studying a little easier, along with a review sheet and practice problems for each test. If Zach is studying he is doing it passively, like reading through his notes, but what he needs to do is actively write down or perform practice problems, with the notes put away, so that he sees exactly where his weaknesses are and study those topics.
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I think Zach tends to coast along and he could do with some more study time at home.  It is hard for soph boys to see how mediocre grades can affect their future track in life.  I think expecting B’s from Zach is reasonable and he could do it, if he gets a little more organized and motivated.  I also wanted to tell you that I update powerschool at least once a week, so you can always log in and check on his progress there.  You can also check on his attendance record and number of tardies for the year.   It is a great tool for Zach to monitor himself and for you to feel like you know what is happening while letting him remain autonomous.  You can set it up to send you emails once a month or biweekly, so you don’t even have to remember to do it. I also have a moodle site that has all of the homework assignments and upcoming test dates, so that you can help Zach become more organized and prepared. My moodle site has guest access so you don’t have to log in, but you will need to login to Powerschool with a username and password.
If Zach could get his homework done well and on time and spend a little more time studying for tests, I think you would see a drastic increase in his grades in class and on tests. Zach is always polite in class and has a smile on his face, so his personality will get him far and with good grades he would have even more opportunities. Please contact me if you have any questions or comments, Teacher
Dear Teacher,
Thank you for getting back to me.
As I read your report on Zachary I am reminded of an article I read recently.
I hope you will read it and read it with an open mind.  It talks about how kids these days are different in terms of their technological savvy.
Here it is!!
We are teaching a new generation and while flashcards may or may not have worked for us, this is  a new generation of  thinkers!  As a fellow educator I feel it is our job to figure out where they are and to meet them there…at least half way.
Zach’s lack of engagement is often labeled as “lazy” or as you stated that he does not “study well”.  What exactly does it mean to study well and who has ever taught any of our kids to actually “study well”?   What if flash cards don’t work for all students?  Haven’t we come further than flash cards and rote memorization? Or could those flashcards perhaps at least be digital and interactive somehow?
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I just want to ask that you read this article and consider that I am in schools all over the state where  I am seeing first grade classrooms with smart boards where kids are constantly using and engaging with technology and even Skyping with their penpals out in California!  In a 3rd grade classroom teachers are using Edmodo to allow their students to ask questions in on online community where they can feel safe to explore subjects of their own choosing.  Fourth graders are blogging, 8th graders are a part of Good Reads and the list goes on.  Unfortunately, short of power point, I cannot think of even one technologically driven assignment that Zachary has done and our High School was built completely outfitted for such advancements.  Have you seen that television recording studio?  Why aren’t students creating TV shows that talk about the impact of biology in their community…just a thought!
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I would expect A’s of Zachary and beyond because he is smart and he gets things easily.  You would only expect B’s.  How sad.  Shouldn’t we expect A’s from all of our students and help them get to A’s if they are not there??  The problem lies on many levels though.  He IS motivated and organized when he is invested in something.  School is out of touch for him and for many around him.  And while the prospect of learning biology through a video game might seem outlandish, I can tell you that when there is even the slightest hint of using technology in an assignment Zachary is all over it.  He spends hours taking and editing his own videos.  What if he could “create” something to show his learning to replace an assign and test kind of teaching?  Can you imagine the possibilities and all we could learn from these Digital Natives?
I teach in classrooms from first grade through the graduate level and my question to myself is always the same…if they (my students) are not getting something then what can I do to help them to come to a fuller understanding?  I want thinking…not just memorization for a test that is gone the next day.  I want my students to connect and interact with what they are learning  and how what they are learning might impact who and how they are in the world.  Biology has so many implications for this kind of thinking…but right now I don’t think Zachary thinks biology has anything to do with him.
My daughter went to Phillips Exeter and she LOVED biology because they sat around and discussed biology!  She is now at Kenyon college as  a Biology major.  I wish that Zachary had an opportunity within the public schools to learn in a socratic method…but for some reason we rule that out as impossible and we stay with what we know.  Assign and test.  Assign and test.
The irony is that the technology that teachers have been given, powerschool, is one that only encourages the mentality of assign and test to get the grade.  Emphasis is SO heavily  weighted on  grades and not what is being learned.  So many of our kids are not motivated by grades anymore.   And the stories I could tell you about parents fighting with their kids over homework EVERY day!  I did that all last year.  It nearly killed me and my relationship with my son. Powerschool only added to the anxiety as we would look at the grades and he would talk about the things that had not yet been posted…the homework that he did pass in and every teacher is incredibly different in their use of Powerschool.  I stopped looking at Powerschool and am now looking at my son.
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This kind of constant helicopter parent monitoring is not only ruining parent child relationships, but it is also sad that it is the part of technology that teachers have been offered in a world of SO much more to be offered.  I can tell you there are parents who check powerschool hourly.  How is that creating responsible and independent learners to go out into the world?  They need to fail in order to learn, but there is very little room for risk-taking and failure of any kind for our kids.  I feel sad for them as the greatest things I ever learned in life often came from failures.  Are we afraid to let our kids fail?
And your final paragraph speaks of opportunities….and the lack of opportunities Zachary will have because the opportunities offered to him right now are so narrow.  THAT is the greatest rub of all.  It says conform to or your chances in life are well…less than stellar!  The system as is, is designed, particularly with Powerschool, to work against students.
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If Zach gets a 0 on a homework it takes 5 A’s for him to make that up.  The scale is heavily weighted towards failure…NOT success!  In my mind an A and an F should average to a C?  Right?  No.  In this point system it averages to an F.  There is very little room for risk taking and even less room for less than perfection.  It is a tough world for these kids to thrive in when their other worlds are so rich with color, light, movement, flexibility, technology and a fast paced life where they are connected.  Zach is unplugged at school…I only wish you could see him “plugged in” in the worlds that matter to him and that together we could find a way to light up the hallways of our schools where classrooms were interactive and students were truly engaged and not just  “getting through” this period to get to the next.
But I am a dreamer.
Please do take a moment to read this article and consider it’s implications as well as the fact that it was written in 2001….and perhaps consider dreaming alongside me and leaving the flash cards behind.
Thanks for “listening”.
Tomasen

6 thoughts on “Dear Mother, Dear Teacher

  1. Oh. My. Gosh. There is so much to address/discuss/ponder in this (thanks for posting such a rich entry!). I am constantly referencing that Marc Prensky article. It’s amazing how long ago it was written and how little we have progressed in the way of making school relevant and engaging for our “digital natives.” The worst part about PowerSchool (and other programs/”initiatives”–Common Core, anyone?) is the sheer number of minutes educators will talk about it, discuss its advantages/disadvantages, argue about whether it should be implemented or not, collaboratively draft a parent user’s guide, etc….and my question would be, What AREN’T we talking about when we are spending so many hours talking about baloney like that???? We sure as heck aren’t talking about how to engage students, how to make learning relevant and useful, how to propel our own learning forward so that we can become more adept at using and incorporating technology…and I am speaking from experience when I write this.

    P.S. My favorite line of this particular blog entry: “I stopped looking at Powerschool and am now looking at my son.” Love.

  2. Thank you, Thomasen, for this very important post. I have not read the article yet, but will. My husband is a PEA grad. I know about the Harkness table. One of my favorite former 3rd graders is graduating this year. Lucky. Have you read Seymour Sarason’s The Culture of School and the Problem of Change? It affected me though I haven’t looked at in ages, but would still recommend it. Progress is slow. I so get the “what are we NOT doing” while we investigate, discuss, haggle, figure out, adjust, attempt to implement, reassess, etc. which has been going on over and over since I began teaching way back when. (Long ago.) I was a cognitive theorist at heart from the beginning thanks to my wonderful education. I was also very affected by How Children Fail by John Holt because he got me thinking about what we do as teachers and how individual children don’t “get it” in large groups…… Luckily there are great ideas and great teachers, great strategies and programs and thinkers in the field. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to pull together a think tank of the visionary classroom teachers and others who “get it” and talk about our favorite ideas…..And don’t get me talking about how long it actually takes an individual to feel truly competent as a teacher. It is not a fast track proposition for most, I would contend. Especially if you are reflective. More later.

    Wonder how many current teachers have read Thought and Language in its entirety? I was shocked to meet some undergrads in teacher training for secondary English. They hadn’t heard of In the Middle and Nancie Atwell. I stopped asking questions after that……I wonder if there is any “list” for teachers in training ie books they really should read, sort of a menu approach: 3 from column A and 2 from column B etc. there are so many incredible books now that were not available to me…..since the CCSS are getting the kids ready for college, has anyone really looked at what is expected in the colleges especially for teachers? I bet that would be very interesting and quite varied. I also think that we should have teacher book groups that read great professional books and then share. Maybe there is something already set up for that on the internet, I don’t know, but I think there should be some incentive for teachers to keep reading professionally and sharing/discussing with others. Back to reading your post and link. Thanks!
    Janet F.

  3. I think this is a terribly interesting and important fact of Education that is often overlooked when pedagogy is discussed.before reading this article I had just thought of conducting an experiment in my class where I tell the kids that I am going to treat them like they know how they learn best, I know a crazy idea, and allow them to have their laptops open and I will assume that they are paying attention I will give them that benefit of the doubt.

    I know that for myself as a student I often have a screen open in front of me often times I’m engaging with the lessons material on a deeper level because as the speaker is speaking with the discussion is happening I am online on tangents or finding more information about what’s happening that I can then bring to the attention of the class or group.

    I think it’s really easy to fear technology, to become overwhelmed by it. I also think it’s very easy to because depending on it. But technology is today what desks and chairs and pencils and pens and paper and chalkboards were in the past- it is a necessity for the successful educator to incorporate technology into the teaching just as it is a necessity for students to be able to use technology both in their learning and in have a show their learning.

    Thanks for bringing this up I share the Prensky article with my colleagues.

  4. Thank you for this post, and for all the articles as resources. We are in the midst of rethinking our homework and grading policies…and you have given me much for thought.

  5. This is just so rich… I’m so concerned that we are still teaching like we are living in the ’60’s instead of the present and the future. Action and change only happens when parents rise up and question the status quo. Your district is blessed with a television studio? There needs to be accountability for tools that our in our schools. My concern is teachers using Smart Boards just to create their own lectures and project them just like an overhead…again…can we use them in smart, creative and interactive ways? Welcome to the slice !

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