It’s parent/teacher conference day; only here it is parent/teacher/student conference day. There is something new in the air and it is causing excitement in some Shorewood classrooms. These meetings are not parent sit across from teacher who talks for half and hour conferences. These are student led, and the teacher stays out of it. Students engaging in this type of meeting have been preparing to sit down with their parents and go over work samples they have declared their best work for a reason they state during the meeting. Children have portfolios that hold some work they were required to put in, much of it they chose to include. Some very young children may actually show their parents what they know as they move them from area to area in a classroom set up for the purpose of parents watching children do and discuss what was taught this trimester. If a picture is worth a thousand words, watching with your own eyes is priceless.
When you are looking at work samples and asking the right questions, you can learn more about what your child knows and how they think than you ever thought possible. Here’s an example. One child turned in a drawing of a house and family, beautifully drawn but covered with horizontal lines from one side to the other. The teacher was concerned about the cross outs suggesting anger or anxiety, possible problems at home or in class. She went up to the child, knelt down and gently asked why he ruined his beautiful picture by scribbling all over it. The boy glanced at his picture then looked up in bewilderment. “That’s not scribbling! That’s the wind!” I nodded and walked away, certain that a future in child psychology was not to be. He was probably shaking his head thinking wondering what dope his teacher is.
If you have your child with you at conferences, as how they got answers they did less on the answers themselves. You will learn much about their thinking process. Ask a lot of why questions and you’ll know if they are thinking deeply about things or just memorizing. For example: Children learn all 50 states in 3rd grade. Ask them why there are states at all, then look at their faces. If they look at you like you’re nuts, they may have never had that discussion and it holds the bigger idea.
When you look at your child’s writing, you can tell if there is an understanding of what a word or sentence is. If all the letters run together, your child may not be able to answer the question, “What is a word?” If there are no periods, or sentence endings but a great number of “then” or “and then” connectors, your child probably doesn’t know what a complete sentence is and instead of putting the period in the wrong place, they just continuously write the world’s longest sentences. You may want to address that as you read or write with your child at home.
If your child is sticking capital letters in where they don’t belong there are a couple reasons why; either s/he doesn’t know how to physically make the lower case letter, or there is confusion about when to capitalize letters. One child started each line on the left side of the paper with an upper case letter thinking that that was where sentences began. Another capitalized the word “birthday” all the way through a piece because it is the name of a day. These are things you can only know by seeing the evidence and talking with your child about it. Learning how they think is fascinating and they usually come out looking like geniuses.
If you don’t have student led conferences, ask your child’s teacher to see work samples and ask questions about what it is you are looking at. Sometimes writing is primitive and sloppy because they were doing it five minutes before recess or writing about a topic they can’t stand writing about. Passive aggression. Kids are great at it.
No matter what kind of conference you have, use physical specimens as jump off points to discuss your child’s progress. Ask to compare work from earlier in the year to the work produced now. Even though today’s work may not be great, you may find that your child has come extremely far considering the starting point. Resist the urge to talk in terms of how your child is doing compared to other people’s kids. It does no one any good. Believe in the end that children want to do well. They want to learn and will, if we figure out how they think. This takes a conversation that includes them, not one that leaves them home or sitting out in the hall.
Just a little tip: When conferences run for two consecutive 12 hour days, try not to get the last conference on the second day. I’m just sayin’…