by Mona De Victoria, MSEd, VsM Group Teacher
Stories of Collaboration: Teaching With Families
At City and Country School, in the words of our founder, Caroline Pratt, we learn from children. The value of such a practice is immeasurable. As a Vs teacher at City and Country, I observe and listen to children in order to gain information and insight into their learning as well as my teaching. If children look engaged, and are animated, talking together and asking questions, I feel confident that I am providing them with a rich learning environment. If children seem disinterested in a book I am reading, or if they grow restless or distractible when I am introducing a math game, I know I need to readjust my approach, or try something new.
But what happens when children are sitting in 18 boxes on a screen, staring at me silently with microphones off? How is it possible to continue to gain feedback and determine my course of action when I am remote teaching on Zoom? This was one of the many challenges I navigated as I pivoted from teaching in person to a remote model in March of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Although these were uncharted waters, there was guidance in place. Caroline Pratt states in I Learn From Children, “From the earliest days, we knew that it was not possible to do good work with the little children without the help of their parents.” In order to adapt my teaching to this new format, I reached out to my Parent Reps and asked them to help me connect with families to gain feedback on what was working well for their children, and what adjustments might be made in areas in which there were struggles. As a result of doing so, I was better able to problem-solve and brainstorm how I could provide more entryways and continuity for both children and families.
When the new school year started, I again enlisted the support of Parent Reps in order to gather feedback and hear parents’ perspectives on how things were going from their side of the screen. By opening the conversation up and creating deeper partnerships with families, it felt as though we were collaborating in ways that had not been experienced before. I began to talk about these experiences with colleagues, and I asked if they were implementing new opportunities for partnership with families, or were interested in doing so. I listened to their stories of newfound collaboration and discovered many positive experiences that had emerged as a result of their efforts.
One recurring theme that emerged is that although families were not able to physically enter the building (with some exception), teachers were extending invitations that had not previously existed. Instituting standing weekly office hours is one way that teachers and parents have been able to connect and partner around making the home and school connection productive and meaningful. A teacher who has standing office hours remarked, “Having one-to-one calls is more effective than email; I talk to the parents so much that I was able to build trust with them a lot faster than in the regular school year. And they are giving me feedback about how their child is doing, because I am only seeing one part, and they’re seeing the other part because they are right next to them.“ Although occasional check in calls are a part of a typical year, when teachers set aside a weekly time during which parents know teachers are always available to talk, it clearly demonstrates an expectation and a commitment to the idea collaboration can and should take place.
Another example of collaboration between teachers and parents this year is the addition of a workshop for parents modeled after Art Maker’s Studio, a weekly art class for Vs. Led by our Lower School Art teacher and Shop teacher, this workshop was titled Reimagining Inspiration, and parents were invited to experience the joy of open-ended creative explorations, just as Vs do when they attend Art Maker’s Studio weekly. During a conversation about the experience, teachers shared that their intention was to create “a place to come together [for] open ended play. We were really trying to emerge [parents] in that experience that children have, and they started to enjoy it and feel how beneficial that is.“ Another outcome was that parents were able to have a window into their child’s school experience that they did not have before.
Finally, gathering specific feedback from parents by inviting them to take part in an anonymous survey is yet another way that teachers have been able to demonstrate their interest in the role that parent feedback can play as they plan remote instruction. How long of a break ought to exist between remote learning sessions? Is it helpful to have pre-recorded chapter books available online, or do children prefer to listen live? A teacher who tried this process noted, “It’s interesting to look at this feedback and think about where we started a year ago with our remote schedule. There have been so many iterations of our remote schedule and we’re getting close to something that works well for most [students].” Not only are teachers able to gain valuable information from these surveys, they are also indicating to parents how much they value their communication. This hopefully encourages parents to feel comfortable reaching out to teachers and asking questions or sharing personal observations of their child’s participation with the intention to strengthen their child’s learning experience at school.
As a result of creating opportunities for increased communication, collaboration, and partnership with families, there have been many positive developments. Primarily, teachers have made crucial adjustments in their remote instruction by listening to parents’ perspectives of their child’s learning process at home. Additionally, parents have been able to gain insight into the learning experiences their children participate in at school, and have, in the process, built new connections with others in the community. Finally, children have benefited from these collaborations and the subsequent introduction of adaptations that enrich their learning experiences at home. It stands to reason that If these components and practices are able to become part of our pedagogy moving forward, teachers and families will not only continue to learn from children, but from each other as well.