Morning Meeting is over and writing workshop is underway. The children are scattered around the room sketching and then writing about objects that “called out to them.” Erin’s dad is leaning against the file cabinet, absorbed as he sketches a ceramic rooster. Lauren’s mom is quietly bouncing baby Amy on her knee as she writes down her thoughts.
I ring the chime, signaling the group to come to the rug for group sharing. We go around the circle, and everyone who wants to reads a favorite line from his/her writing. Erin’s dad, Phil, says, “Thank you for inviting me to be part of this beautiful morning. Here’s something I wrote: ‘The rooster crows, its feathers glowing red, yellow, and blue against the alabaster egg.’ “
Phil, an artist, was never comfortable in school. Today, his relaxed and engaged participation in the sketching, writing, and sharing indicates a newfound easiness with school and hints at a beginning understanding of the power that such activities have in deepening his daughter’s learning.
For a number of years now I’ve invited parents into my classroom for these weekly or biweekly open houses, which we call Wonderful Wednesdays. I keep these days structured around workshop-type activities and ask parents to join us as full participants. They’re not there to be helpers or passive observers. They aren’t there to see a show or to be the show. Rather, the purpose is for parents to experience day-to-day life in our classroom in a safe and comfortable way.
Helping parents understand today’s classroom
Classrooms today are often so different from those of a generation ago. When most of my students’ parents think of reading, writing, spelling, and math, they probably don’t picture the workshop setting, or practice through games and fun, or choice in academic activities—all of which are routine parts of their children’s school day. An important goal of Wonderful Wednesdays, then, is to allow parents to understand these approaches by participating in them, by laughing with us and thinking hard with us, by experiencing that delicate balance of low stress and high rigor that we achieve at our best moments.
One Wednesday, Gretchen’s mom came. Gretchen is a precocious child with exceptional number sense. Her mother had said to me that she was sure our math program wasn’t challenging enough for her daughter. That day, the children brainstormed ideas for math choice and then set off to do their chosen activities. Gretchen, a classmate Katie, and their two moms were soon engrossed in a game of Target.
As they finished the game, Gretchen’s mom said, “I really had to think.” I believe she got a glimpse of how school is both fun and rigorous, and of how her daughter is allowed to work at the appropriate level of challenge for her.
A way for me to get to know parents
The school-home connection is a two-way street. It’s just as important for me to know parents as it is for parents to know our classroom and my teaching approach. I teach in a large school in a busy community where it can be hard to establish tight connections with families. Even so, I think that through Wonderful Wednesdays, I have been able to attain a measure of familiarity and rapport with many of them. This connection not only makes my work more enjoyable, but it is essential to my work, for in order to teach my students well, I need to know something of their life outside of school.
For example, Mike’s writing is full of creative ideas but equally full of spelling and punctuation mistakes. His older brother, Toby, who was in my class last year, worried over every detail of his writing and produced polished, clean pieces. As I watch their mother, Lynne, in our classroom, I see that she is more like Toby, something of a perfectionist. When Lynne responds to a letter that Mike writes to her by covering it with red marks, I am able to keep the family picture in mind and avoid becoming irritated with Lynne. I set up a conference with her to discuss ways that we can collaborate to help Mike develop his unique talents as well as help him meet minimum standards for clean writing.
Relaxed participation, realistic view
Since Wonderful Wednesdays go on for most of the year, and parents can come as few or as many times as they’d like, there’s usually only a small number of parents in the classroom on any given Wednesday.
Moreover, Wonderful Wednesdays are drop-in events. I don’t ask parents to tell me ahead of time when they’re coming. Some take the afternoon off from work or other commitments. Others stop by during their lunch hour. Some come by for Morning Meeting before they head off for their day. Whether or not we have parents join us, whether they stay for ten minutes or two hours, the class goes on with its day as usual, and any parents present simply join in the activities.
All this means that the parents, the children, and I can all get to know each other and learn with each other in a more relaxed way than at formal gatherings such as conferences or back-to-school night. Parents also get a more realistic feel for what it’s like to be a student in our classroom.
A foundation for further cooperation
The rewards of involving parents through Wonderful Wednesdays pay off all year long. Ray is a student who has trouble controlling his body. The other children avoid him, afraid that his rough movements will hurt them. When I discuss this with Ray’s mother, our conversation goes more smoothly because of a level of trust that we have built through our contact on several Wonderful Wednesdays. She knows that I like Ray and that our community is a safe place where Ray feels like he belongs. She tells me she’s eager to work with me to help Ray learn to control his body and be more accepted by his classmates.
Start small, then build
Teachers who want to try something like Wonderful Wednesdays might want to start small, maybe doing it just once. If the event is a success, do it again. Then add more days until having parents learning alongside their children becomes a regular feature of your classroom.
Tips for Success
- Wait until the classroom community feels solid before starting. This might be around October or November. The goal is for parents to feel the power of a caring and rigorous learning environment, a goal best achieved once the community is strong.
- Announce dates for the year in the initial invitation. The dates, even if they’re tentative, allow parents to plan ahead.
- Maintain a predictable schedule on Wonderful Wednesdays. For example, in our class, math academic choice is at 10:15 every Wonderful Wednesday, and the Cherry Pie spelling game is always at 12:45. I include the schedule in the initial invitation. Parents can then join us for a subject that they feel comfortable with.
- Plan activities that relate to building classroom community. Because a goal is to help parents understand our class’s emphasis on cooperative learning, I save math quizzes and even guided reading groups for another day.
- Clearly ask that parents participate. I say, “Join us as frequently or as infrequently as you please. All we ask is that you join us as a participant in our activities.”
- Explain that no parent has to perform. I’m careful to explain that participating is not the same as performing, and that no one is expected to perform. I tell parents, for example, that they might read their own book alongside their child, but they won’t be asked to read it aloud in front of the class.
- Don’t do Wonderful Wednesdays on days with “specials.” Wonderful Wednesdays don’t include music, PE, or other specials. It just doesn’t feel collegial to announce to my colleagues that some of my students’ parents will be joining their class every other Wednesday. Wonderful Wednesdays include time in our classroom only.
Caltha Crowe teaches third grade at Kings Highway School in Westport, Connecticut. She has taught elementary and preschool children as well as adults over the past thirty-plus years. She continues to grow and learn as a teacher and feels that the Responsive Classroom approach helps her to be the kind of teacher she has always wanted to be. Caltha is a Responsive Classroom certified consulting teacher. She also serves on the NEFC Board of Directors and the NEFC Editorial Advisory Board.
Tags: Family Connections, Working with Families