Deeply understanding the learner is the foundation of personalization. Teachers and parents can develop a shared understanding of the child as a learner and a human when they work together in an authentic partnership. Through compassion, addressed in Part One, and curiosity, teachers can lay the foundation for respectful, productive work with parents.
Curiosity, the strong desire to learn something, drives humans to inquire, observe and seek the wisdom of experts. Parents are experts in what delights, motivates and challenges their child. Parental wisdom enhances our view of the child beyond academic accomplishments and can us better understand the complex interplay of factors that influence a student’s learning. Parents gain confidence in our commitment to their family when we demonstrate respectful curiosity about the child’s family roles and relationships, affinities, social-emotional development, and academic experiences. There are many ways to access invaluable parental knowledge before the child begins school and throughout the year. Parent interviews, home visits, and questionnaires are excellent tools for gathering parent insights, but any interaction with a parent or guardian is an opportunity to learn about the learner and the family. In each section below there are links to examples of questions that are useful in gathering information.
Family and Community Context
Last September I received several calls about a child who, over the summer, had been diagnosed with a serious, chronic illness. The entire family was experiencing predictable anxiety and grief, and the school was scrambling to ensure teachers were prepared to handle potential medical challenges. The beginning of the school year had been rocky, but everyone was shocked when the middle schooler, a trustworthy and cooperative leader who never seriously misbehaved, was suspended for a bad choice, made worse by a lie about it to the Head of School. The suspension increased the family’s anxiety and compounded the student’s sense of shame. Instead of viewing the situation holistically the Head of School had applied a cookie-cutter approach, instituted by a new district administrator. It was important to extinguish the behavior but the steps taken increased the potential for more problems in the future. The first step in repairing the unhappy situation was for the school to acknowledge the miscorrection. Then, by asking, “Why do you think this happened?” and “How can we help your child adjust to the diagnosis and new routines?” the Head of School and teachers gained a deeper understanding of the complex set of emotions impacting the student’s self-image and decision making. A back-to-school family interview would have given the parents an opportunity to share their child’s struggle to accept a new reality.
Awareness of the child’s experiences outside the classroom helps us relate content to the learner and shape expectations without lowering standards. Understanding the diverse cultures and nuanced family contexts of our students is an ongoing process that lasts an entire career, beginning all over again each year with a new set of students. A simple set of questions about the child’s family relationships, roles and, routines is a resource for understanding each learner and working respectfully with their parents.
An affinity is something that a person is eager to do or learn. The learner does not have to be good at something for it to be an affinity. Teachers can learn a lot about a student’s interests and strengths by asking parents (and students) about affinities. Often these can be incorporated into student choice for how to demonstrate what they have learned about an academic topic. They can also be leveraged to support a student in strengthening weak areas. For example, one of the students in the AltSchool beta classroom was a gifted artist, but she struggled to communicate her ideas in writing. Her exhibits of learning included a mural depicting the native peoples of the Bay Area and their habitats, a diorama of the water features of the San Francisco Bay area, a model of the Golden Gate Bridge and an illustrated recipe book of her favorite Filipino dishes. Improving her writing was always a goal supported through instruction, practice, and feedback, but written expression was not the best way for her to demonstrate the sophisticated ideas she had discovered and developed through our study of the history, geography, and culture of San Francisco.
Awareness of affinities is an invaluable resource for reaching the child and creating positive connections among students. Feel free to copy, customize and use this affinity checklist.
Social and Emotional Development
If, as teachers, we want to build partnerships that will educate, and empower families to actively and effectively support social and emotional strengths we must first learn from the parent’s insights about their child’s self-awareness, self-regulation, and resilience.
A few years ago a young teacher was besieging a Head of School to counsel out a young boy who was misbehaving each morning. His outbursts subsided mid-morning but were so intense upon arrival they disrupted the teacher’s schedule and the learning environment for the entire class. His parents, recently separated, were worried the school was going to expel him. As tensions grew his behavior deteriorated and everyone felt trapped in a vicious cycle. Curious to know if anxiety about school or something else triggered his behavior I asked the parents to describe their morning routines. Their answers revealed very different approaches to parenting. As the Mom and Dad listened to the variations in their mornings, they empathized with their son’s confusion and pledged to adopt identical routines and aligned expectations. It took time to find a rhythm that worked for both homes and the boy continued to struggle. Because the parents shared, the challenges family was experiencing each morning the teacher understood the root of his anxiety. She stopped expecting him to join the morning circle. Instead, she created a quiet space where he spent time alone. He ate a simple breakfast his parents provided. As he ate, he could put on headphones to listen to his favorite music and enjoy looking through books. At first, he needed almost half an hour to regulate before joining the group. Gradually the teacher decreased the amount of time allotted for transition and introduced a timer to signal when he had five minutes of quiet time left. He liked the timer so much he asked his parents to use it to help him with his morning routine. By mid-year his morning routines at home and school were smooth. The strong home-school partnership, formed to address a crisis, was helpful to the entire family as they navigated a year of tough changes.
Collaborative goal setting and identification of effective strategies is only possible when we listen with compassionate curiosity, deferring judgment. Behavioral challenges are always an opportunity to understand parental perspectives, but back-to-school surveys or interviews are good venues for launching shared work on social-emotional development. I ask parents and students the same questions about SEL, at different times, and always find it powerful to have parents and students to share their perspectives with one another.
Understanding the child as an academic learner requires much more than studying a transcript. It is critical to understand the parents’ insight, and that can be intimidating. Many will have strong views about the student’s ability and the levels of challenge or support the school has provided. When there is a lack of alignment of the parent’s perception and the school ’s, there is potential for discord, but it is essential to remain open to the family’s ideas and concerns. By inviting parental input early in the school year, teachers gain valuable insights to inform teaching and the timing and content of our communication.
When parents are skeptical of the curriculum, we must share why the school selected it, how teachers are trained to implement it and what the data show about its effectiveness. If we hear the child is working with a tutor or that a parent has succeeded in helping their child at home, we have an opportunity to learn new insights and strategies. Multiple or intense negative perceptions are a signal the need for collaboration with administrators and other colleagues. Asking a few questions about the child’s academic experience lays the foundation for productive home-school communication.
Seeing The Whole Elephant
The story of the blind men and the elephant is analogous to understanding the learner. In the tale, the blind men encountered an enormous obstacle. To understand what they had confronted, each touched one section. Although every man correctly described the piece of the elephant he experienced the group did not have a way of combining their perceptions. Consequently, their composite was a jumble of uncoordinated parts. When we are curious about the parent’s perspective and listen with compassion, we will build partnerships that enable us to combine insights and deeply understand the child. Personalization has the potential to improve learning radically, and the lynchpin of that transformation is such a partnership.