Monday, November 4, 2013

Emails From the Front - Parent Conferences...Basically Russian Roulette

Because I teach a modeling workshop class over the summer (with my amazing teaching partner Laura Ritter from Troy Schools in Michigan) I get a lot of email from participants that encounter both everyday problems and unique problems in their classrooms and at their schools.  Normally I respond and the responses end their existence in my "sent items" folder.  But I've decided to put some of the questions and responses here so that they live on in infamy.

Joanna Demars from Grosse Isle high school who is a new modeler and a new SBGer asked for some advice in anticipation of a parent conference later this week.  

My response is below.

I think this conference is a great opportunity for you!  You get to test drive your conviction regarding SBG and probably modeling.  However, this conference is not about defending SBG and modeling.  Nothing you say will convince her that SBG is the best way to go for her daughter - even though we know that it probably is.  Someone recently told me that, "You're never going to persuade anyone of anything just by telling them."  Which is akin to "You're never going to teach anyone anything just by telling them."  So I wouldn't sway her with articles or research.

Mostly this is an opportunity to listen.  The mother is clearly frustrated because her daughter isn't succeeding using the student methodology that she has been using up until now.  It may be (and I don't know the student) that she is one of those "if I do all of my work I should get an A" kind of kids.  If so and she's been able to do this for her career.  Instead of adapting her student methods she is blaming the grading system (and probably the modeling too).  This information has gotten to the mother and she is concerned.  So the most important thing...LISTEN to the mother!  Try to get to the root of the problem.  The C- that the kid is getting is the surface feature of a larger problem.  What is really underlying it is what we have to find out.  It may be that this girl isn't very bright and the farther she gets in high school the tougher it is becoming for her to stay on top without learning anything.  I can only imagine that being that grade focused is going to (or has already) led to a pretty mediocre ACT score.  Is her insecurity in school causing her mother's questions?  

Or are they having a mismatch between expectations and achievement?  If this poor girl has been told all of her life, "You're going to Michigan" and she's no where close in GPA and ACT then no wonder she and her mother are freaking out!  So no matter how much you want to explain SBG in detail, listen first.

Don't get frustrated.  In the end, you both really want the same thing; for her daughter to succeed.  And although you might have different models of what that looks like you really are on the same team.   You want that her daughter learns physics, and is able to show that learning is a way that is meaningful which will lead to a good grade.  She just wants the grade.  I think she is working from a playbook that is written like this - if the grade is good my kid must be learning something.  And because my kid is awesome, if they are learning something the teaching must be good too.  Most of the previous sentence is false.  As we know, good grades aren't always an indicator of learning.  And no one would consider it good teaching in a class where every kid gets an A based solely on their effort.  

Her comments are pretty interesting.  I don't know why she wants the class average; probably her daughter has always been above the class average and if she is not, then she probably feels that the problem is not with her daughter but with you.  But share that information with her so that she knows that you're perfectly transparent about your process.  

We aren't about learn and dump teaching and learning here.  You really want the best for her daughter and that is meaningful long term learning.  But (and this is important) if she has a suggestion to help her daughter you're would welcome it!  Use this line and put her in the position to suggest stuff, no matter how wacky.

In the end you and the mother have to come up with a plan to get the student moving in the correct direction.  

Consider this - there really ins't a moral high ground here.  As a new(er) teacher you may be thinking that you have to "stick to your guns" on your grading system.  However, this isn't a my-way-or-the-highway kind of conversation.  You have to come up with a plan that everyone is happy with.  And if that means giving in a little (or a lot) to get the girl and mother on your side and moving in the right direction (that will both lead to better understanding and better grades) then do it!  Highlight the ides of reassessment and how important it is to both the learning and the grading.  We don't know how long it takes each kid to learn a concept and giving them only one opportunity seems a little antiquated.  If she reassesses then she studies more, learns more and ends up with a better grade.  Where is the down side. 

As for student motivation.  We expect that our students have the maturity to understand how school works.  If they choose not to do any work until the last graded assignment then they won't create deep and meaning full connections with all of the activities we do throughout the unit or quarter.  We are trying to help our students learn the value of giving your best effort at all times.  However, giving effort grades for just showing up or "completing" ones homework isn't a substitute for actually showing that they have learned anything.  

The girl has to reassess; plain and simple.  If necessary tell them that you're happy to schedule time just for her but the ball has to be in her court.
Host a physics study group session in your classroom so that she and her friends can come in and work together or with you to clear up their misconceptions.
Offer to let her drop the class.  If they aren't happy then maybe a different class would be best.
Offer to let her retake the tests (the same ones) that she did poorly on again.  This will let her and her mother know that she still has no clue or maybe she does!
Outline what it means to be a good student in your class; what does a good notebook look like, how much time is spent on homework, studying, reassessing, etc.  So that the mother knows why good students to well and why her daughter isn't.

OK enough rambling, I hope some of this helps.

The original email follows.
Hello Don and Laura! I hope you enjoyed your extra hour of sleep... although the buddies probably got you up, Don...

Anyway, I have parent-teacher conferences this week and I'm trying to gear up to talk about this new grading system. I have a parent email that I'd like some advice on how to respond. 

I know that I want to talk about how SBG promotes retention and deep understanding, but I know that this student in particular doesn't care whatsoever what she learns, but instead wants to just get her A. 

How should I approach this mother's email?

I welcome any advice you have!!


1 comment:

Ben Lampe said...

Thanks, Don! Your insight, positive attitude and willingness to share is a model for everyone. I have PT conferences next week, and it will be interesting with all of the changes I have implemented. However, I am looking forward to the conversation being more like the one you describe than a grade, or point-based, conversation.