First Person

Ask an Expert: Get ready to meet the teacher

Ilana Spiegel, mom of four, former teacher and literacy coach, suggests questions to ask at back-to-school night.

Q. How can I make the most of back-to-school meetings with my daughter’s teacher? I don’t want to be pesky but I have a lot of questions about academic expectations and also how the teacher maintains a quality social climate.

A. Sometimes I think parents don’t know what to ask at these back-to-school nights.

I am about to engage in a back-to-school triathlon.  My oldest son Max is starting high school. My oldest daughter Charlotte is starting middle school. My younger son Jack will be in fourth grade. And Ruthie, my baby, is starting kindergarten. You would think with all the first days of school that have come and gone as a parent and literacy consultant, and before that as a classroom teacher, I would be a pro without a care or question. So why will I be attending four back to school nights, what kinds of questions will I be asking and how will I ask them?

For anyone starting in a new school, regardless of the grade, it is important to get the lay of the land: who’s who, what’s what and where on earth is the west cafeteria where you have to register?  A lot of back-to-school is logistics – figuring out how the system works and knowing who and where to go when questions pop up. It’s also important to know what my responsibilities are, what the teachers’ responsibilities are, what my children’s responsibilities are and how we can best support them.

Speaking of supporting our kids, there are plenty of pesky questions that are reasonable to ask if they are not addressed during the presentations:

Key questions to ask

  • How much homework should we expect?  There are lots of different schools of thought about homework and it’s nice to know that you and your child’s teacher are in the same building. Most people agree that 10 minutes per grade is reasonable. That means 10 minutes for a kindergartener or first-grader, 40 minutes for a fourth-grader, an hour for a sixth-grader and about two hours for a high school student. That said, most teachers and schools “require” a set amount of minutes to be read at home each night.  With my own children, I believe the minutes spent reading are in addition to the minutes spent doing other homework.
  • How will I know my child is growing academically and socially besides report cards and test scores? A grade on a test or report card tells me how my child is doing after the fact. In the education world, we call that “summative assessment,” or a summary of what was learned.  The problem with summative assessments is that if your child is struggling or has gaps in her understanding, waiting for a test or a report card is a little too late to do anything about it.  You want to know what kind of evidence of her learning along the way (in education-speak, it’s called “formative assessment”) the teacher will be looking for so she can adjust her instruction when your child needs it most, and so she can practice new skills correctly.
  • How do you help students negotiate the drama with peers both in the classroom and during recess? Use your words.  Know the difference between telling and tattling. You can work it out. Most of our kids are told to work out the social difficulties with little if any guidance in exactly what words to use, what to tell and how to work it out. You want to know that your child’s teacher and any support staff are trained in helping to coach your child and her friends to navigate the social land mines of independent work time and recess. By and large, when your child is engaged in a rigorous, in-depth and practical curriculum, many of the social issues become much easier to address, as she can use many of the skills she is learning to make sense of the social landscape around her.

How to ask a question of the teacher

Speaking of addressing issues, now that you know what to ask, it’s important to know how to ask.

True confession:  I am that parent. I ask the hard questions. My husband likes to say that the good teachers love having me as a parent and the not-so-good ones, well, not so much. It really comes down to one word – collaboration. If you ask your questions in a way that lets the teacher know you are on the same side, that you know her intent is good, that it isn’t about her or you but about your child and the children in the class, many of the concerns about being pesky seem to evaporate.

Perhaps it comes down to the old adage: It’s not what you say but how you say it.  Most teachers welcome the opportunity to talk about what they know, what they are working on professionally and how they are going to make that work for your child. Just like every wedding has “that guy” at “that table,” every class has “that parent.”  Just like “that guy” can be an annoying embarrassment, “that guy” could be the happiest memory of an event and “that parent” could not only have the admiration and respect of teachers and parents, but really make a positive difference for her child and all the children in the class.

First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.