February 4, 2010

What Parents Can Learn from Teachers

Five Educators Share Their Insights Into How Kids Learn And How Parents Can Help

By Laura Zingmond and Helen Zelon

In the near-constant debate about education in New York City, parents often find themselves with unanswered questions. From the first parent-teacher conference of kindergarten—the tiny chairs, the spindly capital letters in your child’s earliest attempts at a story—to the physics teacher’s beaker-lined lab in high school, parents look to their child’s teachers for information and guidance, for knowledge and insight. Too often, there’s precious little opportunity to really explore the bedrock basics: what helps children learn and how families can best support their kids. 

The Blackboard Awards, an annual event hosted by New York Family’s parent company, Manhattan Media, honoring some of the city’s best educators, invited a panel of New York City teachers to a freewheeling conversation, starting with these fundamentals. Our panel is drawn from public and independent schools, from early-elementary education, middle school, and high school. Together, they have nearly 80 years of in-the-trenches classroom experience. We are grateful they’ve shared their time and thoughts with all of us.  

What makes a child teachable?

Lynn Bernstein: Two things: curiosity and the ability to tolerate frustration.

Nancy Arcieri: I think it has everything to do with the teacher. Every kid is teachable if the teacher creates the environment that’s needed.

Caroline Gaynor: Imagine asking what makes a child walk, or talk. It’s just understood. You’re going to read, you’re going to write, you’re going to think. That is a promise teachers need to give to parents. You will learn, just like you walked.

Jon Goldman: I agree absolutely; it’s a given: water is wet, the sky is blue, kids are going to learn. How and what they learn is up to the environment and the people they are exposed to. 

David Lebson: I believe that a child’s education rests on a tripod of teacher, child, and parent. If any one of those legs is missing, it’s going to be a challenge. If two are gone, the kid’s not going to succeed. It’ll be a miracle. 

What can we say to parents who worry that their child hates to read. Is it really that bad?

Caroline: I don’t believe that a child can hate to read. Where it breaks down is that the right book has not been put into that child’s hand. The child may have never felt that success. The most important thing is lap time—putting your child on your lap and making reading an everyday part of your life. 

Lynn: Don’t force a child to try to read; you want to inspire her desire to read on her own. It’s got to be cuddly, cozy love time at home so that when the child comes to school and goes to get her just-right book, it’s filled with associations of snuggling with mommy or daddy or a loved person.

Let’s talk about how the role of reading changes from the early years to middle school, when kids need to be able to synthesize information from texts.

Nancy: Many of our parents do not speak English. They do not read what the kids are reading. So that means that of the three prongs, the teachers have to be that much stronger. For kids who say, “I don’t like this or that,” it’s just another way of saying, “I don’t understand this and no one’s listened to help me with it.” 

David: Reading for pleasure and being able to decode the science textbook are two very different things. For a kid who can’t process a science textbook, that’s something a teacher can help with. 

Jon: The idea of sitting down with a good book—not necessarily defined by teachers as important, but one that can take you away—is the key. That’s what summer reading should be. If your child wants to spend an afternoon reading a pile of comic books, let him. Make reading less of a job. 

David: How many of us have picked up a book and read three chapters and put it down? It’s important to remind children that it’s OK to say, “This isn’t the right book for me.”

Nancy: I’m for more structure. Reading has such stiff competition. If I’m 12 and I’ve got an hour free, the Internet is far too tempting to sit down with a book.   

Do children learn differently today? They’re multitasking in a tech-saturated environment, yet there are things they can get online that we couldn’t put our hands on as students. Is a tech-dense life a boon or a bust to teaching?

Jon: There’s both a boon and a downside. The boon is they can do incredible amounts of research online. The downside is plagiarism. At first, students didn’t understand that they were engaging in intellectual and academic theft. Then, they started getting better and better, so we eventually had to subscribe to [the anti-plagiarism website] turnitin.com.

Caroline: It’s not that children learn differently, but that what is being imposed on us may hinder how we teach. Teachers now have to teach only to the test. That is what scares me the most. 

Lynn: The other thing about technology is, again, modeling at home. I have kids for whom technology means Gameboys, Wiis—pacifiers, stuff to keep the kids out of their parents’ hair. Other parents set up the computer for play, research, and games. That’s technology as a tool, not a pacifier.

Nancy: In our culture, the focus is, how busy are you? We think if you can do 10 great things at the same time, you’ve achieved something. That’s the measure of your success. I think there’s a level of distraction that kids have to deal with today that we didn’t have to. 

David: I agree, [but] we’re asking the wrong question. It’s not, are kids better at multitasking? But, what kind of tasks are we asking our kids to accomplish, and what pieces of equipment are in place to help them? 

Nancy: They don’t realize that their presentation of self is taken seriously. It’s a very, very dangerous world. They need to be taught that to present yourself in this virtual world is how the world is going to see you, whether you were kidding, or that picture was a mistake, or you weren’t taking yourself seriously.  

How do parents, even with the very best interests of their children at heart, undermine their kids’ success or unintentionally sabotage curiosity?

Lynn: Many young children don’t know what interests them. Parents need to present opportunities to try different things. When the child shows an interest, let her pursue it. Parents overwhelm their children with their own enthusiasms; they set expectations and goals and plans. Let the child be the leader. 

Jon: Many parents, at least at a high school level, begin to abrogate their responsibility as parents. A perfect example is summer curricula. Parents say, “What can you do to make sure that my child reads over the summer?” I’m very straightforward; the answer is “nothing.” It is completely up to you. I can’t go in and unplug the TV, turn off the iPod, disconnect the Internet, and say, “OK, we as a family are all going to read this book and, over dinner sometime, we’re going to sit and talk about it.”

Nancy: Parents need to see reality for what it is and to not focus on the negative. When a kid’s report card has eight As and then a C , for a parent to look at the C and say, “What is going on here? What is wrong with that?” it is just devastating. 

Lynn: The other thing is praise. It needs to be honest, tied to achievement, and not hyperbolic or false. And before parents say, “You’re wrong,” ask the child, “What are you thinking? Why do you think that?” There’s always a grain, a reason why they say what they do.

David: I remember learning something from an elementary school colleague. When a child shows you a piece of artwork or a story, rather than saying, “Oh, that’s beautiful!” ask him questions. “I see you used a lot of green. Tell me why?” It’s really almost magical. 

Caroline: Ask those open-ended questions. 

Jon: Parents forget that you don’t have to be great at everything. It’s OK to be average at some things. Some kids earn predominantly As and Bs, and then there’s that one C. The parent comments that this is unacceptable, why hasn’t the teacher noticed that my child is at risk? I say, at risk of what, of being on grade level? Because that’s what a C means. Kids have to feel free to make mistakes. We learn as much from mistakes and failure as we do from success, if not more. Accept it, own it, because that’s how you’re going to learn. 

Homework’s an issue from the early grades up. What should parents understand about it? How much should they get involved?

Caroline: Homework is an indicator for the teacher. Did the teacher teach what she had to teach today? Did the children understand it, or does she need to re-teach it? If a child is having so much difficulty, spending hours with her homework, just send a note into the teacher. Don’t have the child anguish over it. Don’t do it for him, just let the teacher know. 

Lynn: I have to say I have a slightly different take on it. I appreciate parents helping the children. Don’t do the homework for them, but it’s another adult explaining the math, or going over upper and lower case letters. 

Caroline: And just to clarify, all I want the parents of young children to do every night is read with their child.

Jon: Speaking at the high school level, helping is OK—much, much more important than helping is monitoring the fact that it’s being done. There’s nothing wrong with taking breaks from your time on task. Obviously, if the kid is working eight hours straight and having difficulty with it, there is a problem. 

Lynn: I think time management is something that begins in the early years, by third grade. Don’t tell your child that he or she has to do the homework right away. Maybe your child needs a half hour off. Talk to your child, agree on a schedule, check in, see if it’s working. Part of the agreement is if it’s not, we’re going to redo it, but children need to be part of the decision. 

Jon: Stop at the playground on the way home.

David: The most important thing a parent can do is make sure the work is getting done. We have a supervised study hall that we’re trying to do with the sixth grade to help them with time management. At the beginning of the 45-minute period they write down what they think they can accomplish, and at the end they write down what they did accomplish. 

Lynn: It really is a human condition to underestimate the amount of time we think a task is going to take. So parents should never say, “Whatever made you think it’s going to only take 40 minutes?” This is normal; most people do this. Let’s give ourselves extra time and think how good it will feel if you finish before.

Nancy: Time spent wringing your hands is much better spent rolling up your sleeves. I always tell my kids to stop planning to plan. Get started.

Jon: It’s always reasonable for a child to ask, “Why am I doing this?” David: It’s absolutely reasonable for a parent to ask why. Parents should also understand there’s a difference between, “Can you help me understand why this is important?” and “Why is my daughter doing this crap?”

A lot of parents find that their child’s education, especially in the younger grades, doesn’t resemble how they were taught. There seems to be less emphasis on content than process. There’s less rote memorization and less emphasis on grammar and knowing all your historical facts by a certain age. Why the shift?

Lynn: There are so many facts and so much knowledge that there is no way that any human being can learn it all. What we’re trying to teach children to do is to ask questions and learn how to find the answers. 

Jon: It’s breadth versus depth. You don’t need to know the date of the Bay of Pigs invasion; that’s so readily available right now. I think kids should know the multiplication tables. You should know up to 12 x 12 by the time you’re in the 4th grade, because it makes your life that much easier. 

Nancy: There is catch-up that needs to be done, which means that we have to change the curriculum to fit the needs of our students. So we have kids with 144 IQ who cannot tell you what a noun is and what a verb is because they haven’t been taught. They don’t know math in many cases because they haven’t been taught. 

Jon: Kids should know by the time they’re in high school how to structure a paragraph and correctly use capitalization and punctuation. You have to know the rules before you can break the rules.

Caroline: If a child writes a beautiful essay, why is it important that he tells you exactly what the noun is? I’m playing devil’s advocate. If this child writes well, why is it important that the child learn this is the noun, this is the predicate?

Jon: If they communicate their idea, but they can’t tell me whether that’s the subject or the object, they know it innately, I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem with the kids who can’t write because they were either never gifted enough to pick it up on their own or were never getting the instruction. I find that I spend so much time hammering it home, the idea that you can’t just sit down and write your paper even if it’s a piece of creative writing.    

How do you know when a parent is helping his child too much or doing her homework for her?

Nancy: Just the voice of the writer. You have to know your kids well enough, you know how they write. When you’ve got vocabulary in there and you certainly know this is not a kid who experiments with words.

Lynn: Handwriting? First grade? Dead giveaway. Or a child who I know did not get that lesson today in math sends in perfect homework. 

Caroline: Or an artistic model, you see one kid who had this little messy model, but that’s the best he could do, and then the other kid has this gorgeous model and he doesn’t usually draw or create that way.

Jon: It’s not as much of a problem [in high school] that parents are doing the homework as it is them fixing things up.  Jon: There’s a difference between helping and doing.

Is there something we’re missing? Something we haven’t asked you about that we should know?

Caroline: I go back to what David said in the beginning about the three prongs. I like working with parents. It makes my job not just easier, it makes it better. Parents have a wealth of knowledge that I don’t have.

Nancy: Teachers grow to love your child. We are in the position of raising children; it’s just in a different space. And we care deeply about them. 

David: We want parents to trust us. Parents need to feel empowered. The school is responsible for doing something to make parents feel that they have a place in school. 

Jon: The most important thing is to be involved, especially if in the public sector, with not just the school but the bigger picture. They should be phoning, faxing. It’s unacceptable to have a $450 million budget cut in education when there’s a promise of the $600 million additional funding. It’s wonderful that some schools have the ability to be funded by PA associations. It is not right that other schools don’t have that same access. Public education means that the public has to get involved.

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