Friday, October 12, 2007

How Should We Court Parents?

I’d love to tell you that I first read about Damian Frye during my careful daily reading of the New York Times or through my conscientious attention to my NCTE newsletter. However, I first met his story on the parenting site Babble.com when I read Madeline Holler’s “Hey, Teacher, Leave those Kids’ (Parents) Alone.” According to Tina Kelley in “Spreading Homework Out so even Parents have Some,” Frye teaches ninth grade in Essex County, NJ and asks parents to do things like “read and comment on a Franz Kafka story, Section 1 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and a speech given by Robert Kennedy in 1968.” Good stuff, eh? Here’s the kicker: “If the parents do not comply, Mr. Frye tells them, their child’s grade may suffer — a threat on which he has made good only once in the three years he has been making such assignments.”

He goes on to explain “that all the students’ parents had computer access and that only two had told him that they were not fluent in English; one posts on the blog anyway, one sends her responses to him privately, by e-mail. Another parent phones responses in to him. Tony Lopez, a corporate lawyer who posted a lengthy reaction to the Kennedy speech…said he was actually glad to do the weekly homework.” At this point, I’ve read Holler’s annoyed blog, Frye’s enthusiastic testimony, and a hundred or so of the comments posted to the New York Times article, and I’m still not sure what I think…

NCTE’s own Carol Jago praised elements of Frye’s assignments but also “cautioned against penalizing students for something that their parents cannot or refuse to do.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I purposely teach discouraged learners, so I’ve taught a higher proportion of kids whose parents might not be a resource. Computer and Internet access for parents, in fact computer literacy for parents, could not be assumed where I taught high school. I also taught in districts where instituting a policy that showcased one child’s socioeconomic differences against another’s was frowned upon. One county-mandated unit I taught required students to interview a family member, and even that benign requirement got dicey; some students ended up interviewing a close adult relationship within the school instead because of stories too sad and varied to record here. It upset those students for other kids to know they didn’t have a close relative…I’ve never taught honors, but some people commenting on the New York Times’ thread laughingly predict the competitive nature of parents coming to fisticuffs on Frye’s blog since “the parents probably write the students’ essays anyway.”

Suffice it to say, I cannot emulate Frye’s assignment in my classroom because I don’t think it would work for the kids I teach. However, I’m struck by his innovation; I haven’t spent much time thinking about how to involve my students’ parents in their learning. My relationship with parents has been more like teammates as we work their children’s I.E.P. plans into the mainstream classroom or (thankfully—less frequently) it’s been…um…I’ll confess…defensive on my part. The state I taught in required four years of only one subject—English—so the grades students earned in my class garnered lots of parental attention that sometimes devolved into bullying the teacher. (Gulp. It only happened once, but I’m not sure I’ve experienced many things as stressful as looking up into my doorway and seeing an angry parent in her coat, arms folded, expecting to meet with me unannounced because of a message I’d left about her child’s performance…) So, anyway, the idea of courting parents has not occurred to me. I thought about parent involvement with the kids who worked the literary magazine I sponsored; heck, they gave their resources often to our penniless endeavor, but it is a new idea for me to consider crafting assignments so that parents can have “intellectual conversation with teenagers who are normally less than communicative.” I hadn’t considered that part of my job as I drafted a unit. So now I’m wondering, is it part of my job?

When I really think about it, I like the idea that my assignments would enhance dinner table conversation for my students and their families. I often wrote the goal, “Students will foster an appreciation of literature” on the board after “Students will cooperate in groups” and “Students will punctuate full sentences correctly.” While I’m not comfortable with Frye’s policy of grading students in part by their parents’ performance, I will really think about inviting parents into the process, of using my lessons as a neutral gathering ground for parents and children to meet, because I believe that is part of the power of reading and discussing literature. I believe it has a curative power—why not let my students witness that in their own lives?

The discussions I’ve encountered online debate whether or not Frye should do as he does. I’d love to hear what my fellow English teachers think they could do instead…How can we take what works about his concept and adapt it to our own circumstances?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

1 comment:

Mary Ellen Dakin said...

Kate, I wish I had a solution to the issue of including parents. The usual habit of sending course policy forms and permission slips home for parental signatures doesn't begin to inform or include parents in the work we do with their children. I skim the New York Times almost every day and yes, Kelley's article about Frye caught my attention. I read it carefully and came away admiring him for his initiative but feeling more like you in that this would not work at my school. The poverty level in my district is now approaching 70% (each year it climbs a little higher), and this fact confirms what I know from experience -- that our parents are too busy working and struggling to make ends meet to also be expected to do homework, something too many of our students fail to do on a regular basis. There are also issues of equity regarding computers at home. The parents most involved in their students' academic lives at our school are the parents whose children take AP courses. I teach one section, AP English Language and Composition, and I actually will be meeting with an AP parent after school tomorrow, but the meeting will be tense, as they usually are, since the parent (who signed a course policy form I sent home in September regarding late work) is objecting to the fact that her child will not receive full credit for an essay submitted after the due date. Experience has taught me to arrange these meetings in the presence of a third party, and I never look forward to them.

That being said, you ask us what we think we could do instead of what Frye has done. I have one immediate idea that I actually began to put in place last week -- I'm working on setting up a weblog for my AP class and will do the same for my other classes, one step at a time (I'm an immigrant, not a native, to this brave new world!). I hope and believe that when parents can visit this site, they will come away with a fuller understanding of the context of our daily work. I also hope they will feel comfortable posting comments at the site. And then I have a dream, something to be enacted when there's more time in my days. I met an inspirational English teacher at an NCTE Convention many years ago who had just retired from three decades of teaching secondary English in Chicago. One day, she walked into the factories in the neighborhood of her school and posted signs that read, "Free Shakespeare classes!" She told me that she didn't expect to hear from anyone. But lo and behold, factory workers signed up for her course and they met in a library one night a week to read Shakespeare. Someday, I would love to offer a free class in something that I love -- Shakespeare, American literature, the list goes on -- and teach and learn it anew in the company of parents. This, I think, would work for at least a few of our parents. Mary Ellen