In Praise of Spare Grown-ups

Decades ago, I was the one and only parent driver for a field trip from central Massachusetts to the Museum of Fine Arts in New York City. The class consisted of four girls–Touchstone Community School’s first graduating class. My daughter Sarah was one of those pioneers. We rode the subway, explored the Temple of Dendur, ate Korean food, and had a blast.

A few years later, inspired by that experience and others, I began work toward a masters in Middle School Education–and almost immediately found myself teaching at Touchstone. Full of wild ideas, brave intentions, and ardent admiration for the teachers I’d been observing and helping, I entered my mid-adulthood virgin experience as a classroom teacher, feeling exhilarated, terrified–and immensely grateful to have Kate Keller as co-conspirator in those first years.

Not all our ideas and intentions could bear fruit. But here’s one that stuck: we knew from the beginning that we wanted to welcome parent volunteers and other visitors into our classroom, as often and as thoroughly as possible.

Good things happen when kids get to know their classmates’ parents and grandparents as fellow learners. I figured that the adults should know their children’s classvolunteers helping Sam sewmates that same way. But I knew how tricky this could be in a school drawing its population from a whole region, not just a neighborhood. We needed to build the neighborhood feeling at school, every chance we could get. To the left, Amy Bouman works with one of her daughter’s classmates, Sam Winalski, to create special clothing for that year’s Alhambra Banquet.

Below, a visiting grandmother helps students observe and classify macroinvertebrates in compost from the school’s compost bins.

volunteers visiting gram 2

Here, kids clown around with some of the parents who joined a day-long adventure learning about transportation. We aimed to use as many types of public transportation as possible–commuter rail, subway, harbor ferry, and bus–and got to observe others, such as taxis. We talked with people who challenged us to think about transportation’s effect on the environment. Our T-shirts helped spread our message (“learning to make good transportation choices”), and made it easier to keep track of each other in the unfamiliar density of Boston.

volunteers transportation field trip

volunteers canal family field tripIn another fall when we used transportation as a way to focus on economics, the environment, and individual choices, Beckley Gaudette volunteered to set up a Sunday afternoon family bike ride, on a section of the Blackstone River Bikeway. Here, a mother, her student in the class, and a younger sister look at the remnants of the Blackstone Canal. This is a great example of the way parents can help to deepen and enrich place-based education, by contributing their knowledge of local resources, and by contributing their own zest for knowing more about the place where they live.

On field trips, but also in the ordinary work of the classroom, parents and grandparents and other community adults shared the students’ learning, modeling enthusiasm and curiosity and flexible ways to organize information and approach problems. Beyond that, visiting and volunteer adults often took on significant teaching roles that were especially valuable in a self-contained class.

volunteers Phil with Kaitlin In self-contained classrooms, one or two teachers share all the core curriculum: reading, writing, math, history, geography, science–everything but arts and physical education and foreign languages. This has many benefits. Teachers serve individuals and the whole group more effectively when they know students in all their strengths and challenges, subject to subject. Rich interdisciplinary experiences are easier to schedule and develop, and ring truer to life itself, which doesn’t have subject boundaries.

volunteers phil visiting Still, young adolescents need meaningful contact with lots of other adults besides those one or two steady teachers. They need lots of chances to be seen and known by different kinds of people, and lots of ways to imagine themselves as grown-ups. In the photographs above and to the left, Phil Iantosca, the father of a student in another class, explains scuba gear and the nitty gritty of underwater engineering, to students who’ve been learning about the role of scuba in underwater archaeology.

Across cultures and across the centuries, people have known that young adolescents are most engaged when working with their hands, or even better their whole bodies. If there’s a small group pursuing a real challenge, so much the better. For the kinds of learning-through-engagement that evolved in my classroom, parent volunteers were worth their weight in gold. Below, Rick Mlcak, Violet’s dad, guides kids in acting out the different states of matter, by way of thinking about water as a liquid, solid, or gas.volunteers Rich MlcakReaders who are teachers themselves, and friends who know that I have to work extra hard to manage and organize inspiration, will suspect that I could never organize all these spare grown-up contributions on my own. It’s true! Every year I recruited a parent volunteer coordinator, beginning with Cathy Rao, very long ago, who helped me figure out the coordinator role. Some parents, like Cathy, were able to serve as coordinator and also come into the classroom as steady volunteers themselves. Some served as coordinators through multiple years with the same child in the class, and some kept going, or came back, with younger children. (If I ever get to award sainthood, there are several candidates, including Terry Lunt, who probably logged more hours in my room than any other parent over the years.)

Below, Lisa Hennin, coordinator and volunteer, works with her own son, Seth, and his small group, to create food for the Alhambra Banquet. volunteers Lisa helping Seth cookI’ve lost count of how many parent volunteers, over the years, followed my own path and wound up becoming teachers themselves.

Jacqui Goodman–teacher-in-charge riding shotgun with me on the way to New York City–gave me a priceless gift when she invited me into the class to teach, not just watch or drive. Grateful to her, and to others of my own kids’ teachers, when I became a teacher I wanted to share the wealth. I wanted as many adults as possible to be exposed to this other version of school, and help to build it.

In fact, of course, I wanted the revolution, one classroom at a time. Still do.

I have to say we’re not quite there. Every time we empower the defensiveness of legislators and administrators over the direct experience and earned wisdom of teachers–every time we do anything that creates us-them tension between parents and teachers–every time we make the stakes of one-shot tests more lethal to kids’ long-term thriving–we make it more dangerous, and less likely, for teachers to give parents significant roles in the classroom.

That’s assuming any parents are available.  The increasingly crazy demands on workers everywhere, and at every level, leave fewer and fewer parents time to be a part of their child’s school experience. Even several decades ago, I knew that some parents could only show up once for a special visit and demonstration, and that I should welcome and honor them. Some needed to give their support behind the scenes, making phone calls or cooking fabulous food. I was grateful, beyond words, to all of them.

A few words of advice to teachers: Make it real. Get to know what you can expect from individual parents or grandparents. Trust them, as soon and as often as you can, with real responsibility for sharing meaningful content. Find ways to help volunteer adults celebrate and support variation among students’ learning styles and approaches. Welcome the stories volunteers can tell you about learning moments or interactions you missed. Empower parents to say, “Please stop elbowing [or whatever] until I can check with the teacher what’s okay.” (Or, even better, to ask a group, “What are your rules about that?”) Thank and praise parents, grandparents, and any other helpful people who wander in. Help students understand how unfair it is to take advantage of a grown-up who has come out of the goodness of his or her heart, in order to offer more freedom, more choice, more interesting possibilities to the whole class. It really helps for students to grasp what’s happening.

volunteers Mrs WeedSpeaking of other adults wandering in: here’s another photo of Marjorie Weed, retired high school art teacher and astonishingly persistent and brilliant volunteer arts teacher at Touchstone, after a session making gelatin prints with my class.

Some advice to parents: know that you’re in a privileged position. Be cautious about judging unfamiliar children or a teacher having a rough day. Ask questions when you’re confused. Expect to do a lot of learning, no matter how much you may have available to teach. Bottom line: the world is a fascinating place, and nothing is more fun than sharing that with kids. If you have the opportunity, rejoice and enjoy!

Circles come round. Years later, my daughter, pioneer Touchstone graduate, gladdens my heart when she makes a special effort to get into her children’s classrooms, or gives huge priority to conversations with their teachers. Cheering her on, I feel hope that our education systems, no matter what philosophy they follow, will find more and more ways to share the joy of children’s learning with other adults in their lives–and reap the benefits.

 

 

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