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The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other
12-26-2011, 09:57 PM
Post: #1
The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other
The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other
Source: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertain...10-15.html

Excerpt: "...one of my colleagues who's a social historian, Joseph Featherstone, describes school as society's theater, the place where we see most visibly and transparently the larger social forces that are going on. How is democracy enacted, how is immigration enacted, how is multiculturalism enacted and taking that as a broader metaphor I see this tiny drama of the parent/teacher conference a place where the larger dynamics of race and class and culture and gender and educational background and immigrant status get mirrored and reflected so, in lots of ways, if we look at this tiny drama, we see saturated in it these extraordinary other forces in our society. It's a great place to look."


Summary: This week, as millions of American families prepare for their annual parent-teacher conferences, Jeffrey Brown gets some advice on what they should ask from Harvard education professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who recently wrote "The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other."




JEFFREY BROWN: Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot is a sociologist at Harvard's School of Education, a Macarthur Genius Award winner, and author of eight books about American cultural life. Her new book the essential conversation takes us into the heart of the classroom. With a look at the significance of the parent teacher conference. We talked recently at the Lyle's Crouch Traditional Academy, a public elementary school in Virginia.

Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot welcome.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Thank you, glad to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: We're in a second grade class parent and teacher sit down on chairs like we're sitting on, little chairs, they get together; they start talking about their child and some kind of important drama happens. What is it?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Right. Well, parents are sitting here deeply anxious, very worried, very passionate about their own child wanting to advocate the best that they can for their child. The teacher is feeling a little inhibited, a little defensive, worried about the fact that the parents may judge her professionalism and competence as a teacher and come at this very, very tense, but there is this language about the parent/teacher conference which says that they should be benign and pleasant, collaborative alliances.

JEFFREY BROWN: We're all in this together.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: We're all in this together, and we're here to support the child. Another thing that happens is that the parents sitting in these little tiny chairs are thrown back to the time when they were in second grade and when they experienced this. So they may be feeling sort of powerless. This may feel like an infantilizing experience to them. And that throws them off as well, because in their other lives they're adult and they're mature.

JEFFREY BROWN: You call this the ghosts in the classroom. So I am the parent I come in and I bring in everything, all of the baggage from when I was perhaps in second grade in a class like this.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Exactly. And those ghosts hover all around and there has to be a way to remove that distraction and to focus on the child who you have come to talk about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you call this "The Essential Conversation." so what is essential about it, what's at stake?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Well, the achievement and development and learning of our children. That's what's at stake. We know that what's most important for a child, even more important than the parents' educational background, is how the parent engages with the teaching and learning of their child in school.

So that matters more than the social, cultural, racial, class background of the parent to the achievement of the child. It's also essential because it's ubiquitous, it happens 100 million times a year, actually in grades pre-kindergarten through high school, and so we need to make these meaningful and productive occasions.

JEFFREY BROWN: You use a very striking term in one of your chapters where you talk about how parents and teachers are in a sense natural enemies.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is a lot of tension there, don't you think?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: There is a lot of drama there, but it's not my term. I confess. It was a term used by Willard Waller, who was a sociologist, a truth teller, a terrific scholar who wrote in the middle 1930s and he talked about teacher and parents as being inevitably adversarial because parents come what he called a particularistic orientation, that is, their orientation toward their child, it's subjective, it's intimate, it's protective, very loving, so they say, I want you to be fair to Susie, my daughter, Susie and what they mean by is that is I want you to see her special gifts and what an extraordinary child she is.

JEFFREY BROWN: That strikes home. You wrote that you were using your personal experience. Let me bring you mine. I walk into the room and I say, who is this person who is spending so much time with my child, --

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: -- who has so much power over my child, does she or he see my child amidst all these others?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: It's very important that the parent/teacher conference not be a generic experience, that is the conference for Susie can't look like the conference for Jeffery. They have to be very different. They have to really describe in very specific idiosyncratic, individual terms who your child is so you as parents recognize oh, yeah, that's my kid. I know that person and that perspective really strikes home to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, one of the important things you bring out is that the focal point of this meeting between the parent and teacher if course the child; typically the child is not there. Do you think that's wrong?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I think it's stunning, absolutely, that the person who knows the most, the child, is not present at a parent/teacher conference. Here's the only person who knows both the home school... the home scene and the school scene and walks this path every single day. Children can be wonderful authorities, very wise, very honest, very candid, very insightful about what their experience is. And that's a valuable perspective to have in a parent/teacher conference.

JEFFREY BROWN: There must be...

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Parent/teacher/child conference.

JEFFREY BROWN: There must be sometimes when it would be inappropriate for a child to be there.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Absolutely. I mean, parents and teachers have to make this adult judgment something scary, threatening, confusing, something that children shouldn't hear, then the child shouldn't there will be but I think as a rule children should be present. And I saw conferences where six-year-olds held their own with such amazing insight and discernment about themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you also right that the little drama that happens here stands for something bigger in our society, tells us about our educational system and even beyond.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you mean by that?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Well one of my colleagues who's a social historian Joseph Featherstone describes school as society's theater, the place where we see most visibly and transparently the larger social forces that are going on.

How is democracy enacted, how is immigration enacted, how is multiculturalism enacted and taking that as a broader metaphor I see this tiny drama of the parent/teacher conference a place where the larger dynamics of race and class and culture and gender and educational background and immigrant status get mirrored and reflected so, in lots of ways, if we look at this tiny drama, we see saturated in it these extraordinary other forces in our society. It's a great place to look.

JEFFREY BROWN: So even more is at stake?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Even more is at stake, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know that because you write that for you this is not only a professional interest but of course personal interest because you have two children of your own.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that what brought you to this?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Absolutely. I experienced what owe most parents across this country experienced: the dread, anxiety, the terror, the fear as I approach parent/teacher conferences and I really very much wanted to understand what that feeling of being off balance and uneasy was, because in my ordinary life I typically feel sort of adult and put together. And why was I suddenly coming to the classroom sitting in these tiny chairs and feeling impotent and feeling worried and feeling defensive not only about my children but about my own parenting. So this is a deeply personal investigation.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it's early fall and most of us are now just about to go to a parent/teacher conference, what should we do; what do you leave us with?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Well, a good teacher is going to want to know from you who your child is, because this is very early in the year. A good teacher is going to want to listen to who you think your child is and know that you have a much more complex, holistic view of your child. So I would go in with wonderful anecdote stories, illustrations of who your child is. They don't have to be all positive. You can talk about the challenges as well but we very, very vivid in your story telling.

I would also go in ready to ask very specific questions, that is so much of what passes for parent/teacher conferences is just full of these abstractions and generalities; to get under those we have to be willing to ask specific and penetrating questions and then we have to be willing as parents and this is the hard part, to hear the truth come back at us; you know, we have to be ready not to be defensive but be engaged in an experience of problem solving and experience in which we come together as we, not you and me in opposition, but we working collectively and together on behalf of the child.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. We'll try.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yes. It's all we can do.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book is The Essential Conversation. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, thank you for having this conversation with us.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Glad to be here.
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