Cross-posted to blog of proximal development

Yesterday, we had our first parent-teacher interviews for the current academic year. Some of my colleagues don’t like them. I do.

I enjoy parent-teacher interviews because I always see them as an opportunity to reflect on what I’ve accomplished with each individual child. Getting ready for parent-teacher interviews is an opportunity for reflection and self-assessment. It’s an opportunity to look beyond the province-sanctioned learning outcomes that often define my work and focus on the individuals in my classroom, on individual human beings and their strengths, weaknesses, and the quality of the learning journey that they’re on. It is a great opportunity not only to ask what the student has accomplished, how she or he is progressing in my class, but also to ask myself “What have I done for this child? How has this student benefited from being in my classroom?

I’ve always thought that the only weakness of parent-teacher interviews, at least at all the schools where I’ve taught over the years, is the fact that the student never participates. Parent-teacher interviews are conversations about the learner that, in most places I know, purposely exclude the learner.

Imagine my surprise when, yesterday, one of our new parents (her daughter came to our school only a month ago) arrived with her daughter!

As soon as the mom introduced herself and they both sat down, I thought, “Fantastic! Finally, an opportunity to experience a parent-teacher interview with the student.” I was so impressed and thankful for this opportunity that I actually wanted to congratulate the mom for taking this bold step and bringing her daughter to talk to her teachers. Now, looking back, I know that I should have.

It was a fascinating learning experience. My biggest fear, throughout the interview, was that I would spend too much time addressing the parent and discuss her daughter in the third person. I don’t think the mom would have been upset by that, but it just did not seem right. So, I spoke to both. My comments about the daughter’s progress and the curriculum were interspersed with questions addressed to both mom and the daughter. We talked about specific assignments and tests, I summarized my plans for the rest of this term, and ,throughout this conversation, both the parent and the child were actively engaged. It was not easy and, occasionally, I did revert back to the familiar third person when discussing my student’s progress. But, overall, this was a conversation about learning that included the three key figures in the child’s academic progress - the parent, the teacher, and the student herself.

On my way home, I kept thinking about what I had said and how both the mom and the daughter participated in the interview. I still remember the look of empowerment and confidence in the daughter’s eyes when I told her, in front of her mom, that she performed very well on an important assignment last week. I still remember how often the mom glanced at her daughter to make sure that she was listening intently to my comments about her habits, skills, accomplishments to date, and the upcoming assignments.

Of course, one could argue that the interview went well because the student in question is a hard-working and dedicated individual. I’m sure skeptics will say that things would have been very different if I had to deliver bad news and comment on the student’s lack of effort or some failing grades. I disagree. The interview would certainly have been different, but the impact on the student would have been just as valuable. The interview would have provided an excellent platform to openly discuss challenges, past difficulties, and develop a plan for the future. How can such a plan be developed if the student is not there? How can we ensure that the student is involved in her learning if the conversation about learning takes place without her? How can we have a meaningful conversation about learning, if the student herself is not considered important enough to attend the meeting about her own achievements, challenges, and goals for the future?

The educational blogosphere is filled with posts and conversations about the participatory nature of learning in the 21st century. We all write about making our classrooms more democratic, about the importance of empowering the learner and suppressing the autocratic teacherly voice. We discuss how blogs, wikis, and many other participatory educational tools have the power to transform learning into a process of discovery, knowledge-building, and personal meaning-making. Yet, when it comes to talking to students and their parents about learning, we rely on the traditional and outdated model that excludes the learner.

And so, as I was driving home, it occurred to me that we often reduce teaching in the 21st century to a handful of digital tools that, in our opinion, should drive learning in our classrooms. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t. I’m not saying that these tools are not valuable. Many of us have done a lot of work with blogs, for example, to know that they can have a significant impact on student engagement, motivation, and achievement. But, in our rush to implement these 21st century tools, we shouldn’t forget about other school practices that tend to alienate the learner. Learning today is also about transforming outdated institutional practices that no longer work - that cannot work - in this new paradigm. My blogging community, no matter how participatory and engaging, will have a limited impact if, outside my classroom, the school as institution insists on treating the students as recipients of knowledge rather than participants and meaning-makers.

It’s time to insist on conversations, not just in our classrooms, but also in our schools and communities. It’s time to remind everyone involved that we are not here to dispense but to converse and engage. We cannot do that if the doors to our classrooms are closed to our students when their teachers and their parents meet to talk about their learning and the plans and strategies for the future.

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