It happened. Both of my kids are out the door this morning and back in school five days a week with most of their classmates. (A shout-out here to those students who need to or have chosen to stay virtual for the time being--I am cheering for your strong start, too.)
What will make for a great first week for all of Arlington's students? What should parents expect and what can they do to support success for their children and their school?
Based on my experience working in education, recent reading and community conversations, here's what I am hoping to see this week:
1. Time for teachers and students to get to know each other. Students (and adults!) do their best work when they are in environments where they feel safe, understood and valued.
David Bromley, a school administrator in Philadelphia, shared with me a few years ago that his staff accomplishes this through substantive advisory periods: “You get to know your students in a way different from anywhere else… Building community comes back to intentional use of time and what message you are sending to kids about how their time is used each day. Saying it’s a priority and really making it a priority is key." Denise Funston, a principal working in Missouri, once told me: “I don’t care if you teach anything the first few weeks of school. I want you to get to know your students and their families. Every successful child has at least one supportive adult, and we take that on as our goal.”
To some readers, Denise Funston's comment "I don't care if you teach anything in the first few weeks of school" will sound alarming. Given what we know about students' unfinished learning from last year and their academic needs, it will feel like we should dive right into core content on Day One.
I am concerned about students' academic needs, too. It will be essential for schools to carefully assess what each student knows and needs during the first month of school and plan instruction that addresses their strengths and gaps. That said, I am suggesting two things for families' consideration.
First, student learning will be accelerated and deepened by building on a strong foundation of knowing each student well. This makes sense to me as a former teacher: if I know my students, I can design instruction that appeals to their interests, which will deepen their engagement. My son, for instance, loves golf and classic cars. After struggling in Algebra last year, he's going to need some help in math. I can guarantee you that he will be 100% more interested in math if we can show him how it relates to restoring a car or making a birdie on a golf course.
Second, we are not alone in seeing significant declines in standardized test scores in 2020-21. Take a look at our neighboring districts and the state average in math SOL scores, for example:
I'm not arguing that we shouldn't be concerned--rather, I'm arguing that we should keep in mind the context. Across the state and nationally, we are in the same boat. There is a gap between the system we designed--which assumes a certain type of instruction--and what we were able to actually provide during a prolonged, international emergency.
2. Identifying students' mental, emotional, and physical needs. We know that students (and adults) have trouble learning if they are affected by trauma, economic insecurity, food insecurity, or other significant stressors. School staff, and in particular our counselors, social workers and psychologists, will need to proactively check in with students individually and in small groups to understand what students have experienced and what they need. Universal screening for mental, emotional and social issues will be extremely helpful. Close collaboration and frequent communication with families will be helpful.
Joni Hall, a school principal in Tacoma, Washington, told me a few years ago about how each staff member at her school serves as a mentor to a small group of students: "The mentor knows and cares about each child in [their] group… if there’s a problem, the teacher will contact the mentor first, before administration. Mentors also help families navigate the system. They’ll go meet with parents at homes, McDonalds, wherever they are comfortable. We spend a lot of time on culture and community and personal life."
3. Creating classroom and school norms. I say "creating" instead of "reinforcing" or "teaching" here because it's my hope that schools will take this opportunity to engage students in some meaningful conversation about rules, norms and roles in school. What rules really matter, and why? What expectations ring hollow and could be discarded?
Over the summer I read a great article (which of course I can't find at the moment!) about a second grade teacher who creates a list of classroom "jobs" together with her students after they've had the benefit of about a week's worth of school. Students have the chance to observe and weigh in on the parts of the school day that are challenging for them and design roles that will help the day go more smoothly.
I think this is especially important this school year. I have joked with friends that my kids have turned sort of feral during COVID (only half-kidding) and have lost their grasp of some of the social norms that normally guide their relationships with peers and adults. I suspect they're not alone. We'll all need a little time to re-learn how to interact with each other.
4. The power of positive communication. This year more than ever, it will be important for families to hear from school staff with positive messages that their students are in good hands. We shouldn't underestimate the power of a positive phone call home to set a strong foundation for teachers and families working together to support students and troubleshoot problems that may arise.
This goes two ways: families can start the year by communicating positive feedback, instead of complaints, to school leaders and teachers. A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post outlining some ideas that parents (including myself) could use to communicate more constructively with school staff. I aim to do that this week.
Will problems come up? For sure. Do we sometimes need to advocate on behalf of our students? Yes we do. But I've found that it generally goes better when difficult conversations can be placed within a larger context of collaboration and respect. I don't always execute this well, but I'm working on it.
So: thank you, ACPD officer who untangled the traffic around Carlin Springs ES and Kenmore MS this morning. Thank you, school bus drivers and nurses and cafeteria workers and principals and parent volunteers, and everyone else who is working to get (and keep!) kids back in school.
Here's to a great school year.