'More Than Help With Homework'
No sensible person can disagree with the notion that increasing parent involvement in our schools will help achieve the primary aim of those schools--the education of our children.
As a classroom teacher, however, I must recognize another, sadder truth: Most of the contacts I have had with the parents of my students have been of an unpleasant nature. When a parent calls me, it is usually with a concern about a grade, or a project, or an expectation I have communicated to his or her child. When I call a parent, it is often to discuss a problem--with discipline, attendance, or academic performance.
We're left with a damning paradox: More parent involvement would be good, but much of the parent involvement we currently have is essentially negative and unproductive. Who needs more of the same?
It doesn't have to be that way. However, making interactions between parents and teachers positive and productive will require a change in perspective on the part of educators.
I do an autobiographical writing unit in my creative-writing class. One of the assignments requires parent involvement. My students have to go home and ask their parents questions--about family histories, traditions, childhood events, their own births, and so forth. The questionnaire invariably triggers interest in the assignment. Many of the eight-chapter autobiographies end up being collaborative efforts, with accompanying photos, memorabilia, and artistic flourishes.
I know an English teacher who teaches a unit on family relationships. One of her assignments is reading a young-adult novel with a family-oriented theme, and she offers her students extra credit if they can get a parent to read the novel with them. She has certain activities designed to incorporate the parent's involvement.
Behind each of these examples lies a simple principle--parents can be more useful in the educational process than they are in the educational outcome. As teachers, we tend to forget that, long before we showed up, most of our students had "instructors"--Mom and Dad. In many cases, the channel of educational information between parent and student has become clogged over the years. If we can help reopen those lines of communication, our educational impact will soar.
Naturally, involving the parents in the process means more than requiring their help with homework. We cannot present our curriculum simply as foreign matter to be digested. It must become real and practical and part of our students' everyday lives. That becomes our creative challenge.
As with all sound educational practices, there's a risk involved. A parent who has helped in the preparation of a project or assignment is going to be more zealously concerned with the grade. Chances are, however, that the product will have benefited from the parent's input, and the grade will reflect that. Anyway, a grade is usually an arbitrary attempt to measure -- ah, but that's another topic!