I’ve waited a few days to post the details of our parent teacher conference for Braeden because I needed to make sure that I could articulate this moment in a way that is both reflective yet informing. Braeden is my nephew and although I’ve been through conferences as both a teacher and a parent before, my new set of connected eyes almost certainly guaranteed a new experience.
Our meeting was scheduled for 5:15 pm, a time that would give me the space needed for the hour long trek from my place of employment. When I arrived about 10 minutes in, my sister immediately turned to me and asked me to express my concerns to his teacher. What came out can only be described as a 5 minute “Kanye West-like” rant encompassing 6 weeks of frustration with meaningless work.
Looking back, I wish that I would have taken a moment to gather my thoughts and breathe before walking into that room. At the same time, I’m glad that I didn’t and not because she needed to hear my rant of frustration but because I was able to see myself in the same way that I viewed other parents in similar situations. I was also able to see this teacher in a new way. Looking into her eyes, feeling her defeat, I saw the marks of a teacher living in her reality…one in which she has no control.
It was at that moment that I knew that this meeting would have a minimum of two outcomes.
- Braeden’s 3rd grade year will be 100% STAAR test prep…end of story.
- Homework would remain as is, unless I could help her to see some alternatives.
Meaningless yet Necessary to Them
In the state of Texas, 3rd grade is the first year that students take state exams. Having never sat through a 4 hour test, the consensus of the teachers that planned his curriculum is that they need to front load basic skills. What this means is that Braeden and all of his peers will complete “drops in the bucket” every morning as well as “excel math“. They will read countless mandatory passages and answer blooms level 1 questions while making sure to implement their newly acquired reading strategies. Every now and then, they will color a map or complete a science worksheet. When school ends, all students will go home to follow their weekly homework schedule. The next day, the cycle of test prep begins again.
Braeden’s school is one that is considered highly successful. There is not another school in town that has higher scores. There’s a formula which begins with basic skills knowledge before segueing into the more “rigorous” test prep books. These books will be intermixed with worksheets boasting a copyright date older than my college-aged daughter and simple in their subject matter. However, after looking at the state’s released exams, I have to wonder if their “formula” still holds true.
When I inquired about critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity, the response was a simple blank stare. She had no idea what I was referring to. I gave her examples of the basic work that Braeden brought home and provided samples of what we did instead to build understanding. I shared his stages of matter minecraft worlds, vocabulary haiku decks, zondle games and his hands-on math explorations. I even shared his art, something that he loves but has little to no time to explore.
In her defeat, Braeden’s teacher’s face and words spoke volumes.
She said that there was no time nor resources in order to do things like “that” in class. She is provided what to teach and must continue the pattern. There is no deviating because when she tried, it was met with pushback from parents, teachers and her administrator. The disconnected people of my small town want nothing more than more of the same…period. I was putting her in “the middle”, and she was powerless. Those were her words.
My Connected Parental Point of View
As much as I understand the position in which Braeden’s teacher sits, I am first and foremost a parent. As difficult as this conversation was, it was important that Braeden’s voice and needs were heard. She needed to know that he was miserable and bored. She needed to know that three hours of homework was overkill and she needed to understand the inner spirit that Braeden has. She needed to know that Braeden does not respond well to public ridicule and prefers private corrective conversations. Then again, what person does not?
I agree with her in that she is in a difficult position. She, like many other educators, has zero support…zero. There is a district level curriculum person as well as technology. Neither of which have a clue as to how to support teachers nor are they connected beyond regional meetings with their peers who are also more than likely disconnected.
The school where Braeden attends, in my hometown, is stuck in a cycle of “we’ve always done it this way” and there is no end in sight.
The only path to break the cycle is if there is major shift in community leadership, school leadership, teacher leadership and an increase in the number of informed parents willing to speak up and advocate for “different”.
Our meeting ended with Braeden’s teacher agreeing to allow us to continue our “alternative” learning methods at home where applicable substitutions can be made. In my opinion, this was a positive start and one that we can live with. In a world where this testing year will determine his advancement to the next grade, we have no choice but to deal.
What we can do is make sure that in the middle of all of his test prep, Braeden continues to have some resemblance of a love of learning.
In the end, there is nothing more important than that.