It is curriculum night, and I am sweating. Not the subtle, sheeny glow the beautiful people have after running a 5K, but large raindrop-size plops of sweat rolling down my back. I cannot possibly raise my arms, because the light blue shirt I am wearing probably looks navy in certain places. But I am not sweating because of nerves; I am sweating because our district recently enacted a policy that the air conditioner in every building shuts down at 4:00 p.m. to reduce energy costs. And when 30 adults fill a second-story classroom with no air circulation, things tend to get a little warm.
Years ago I would have been sweating during curriculum night even if I were hosting one in a meat freezer. I worried excessively about my first interaction with most parents. Could I articulate the depth and breadth of a year in fourth grade in less than 30 minutes? Could I fully explain my passion for reading in such a short time? What if I forgot to talk about the peanut allergies that might dictate the kind of birthday treats sent into school? I spent hours constructing curriculum night presentations. One year I even used Prezi. Which, by the way, is not a good tool to use, unless you want your parents to be a little nauseated by the 30-minute mark. I practiced what I was going to say over and over again. I was a wreck.
Now, even though budget cuts will cause me to need to shower immediately after, I know that the message I send to parents is one that will be well received and will help us build meaningful relationships to support their children faster. The change in my planning and speaking to parents on curriculum nights started with a very simple question: What if the focus of curriculum night was not curriculum, but my passion for kids and their learning?
I asked this question because after years of going to my own children’s teachers’ curriculum nights I realized that I really don’t care what the curriculum actually is. What I really wanted to know is, Will my child’s teacher love him and help him love learning? When I think about my own son and daughter, the best years/classes they have had were directly related to the connection made between them and the teacher. Some years my daughter loved math; most, she dreaded it. My son had both exceptional and dreadful experiences in science and language arts. Regardless of the experience with the teachers, my children learned during the course of the year. The difference between the years in which they loved their teachers and the years that connection didn’t happen was that they also got fired up about the content. Hank once thanked one of his teachers by saying, “Mrs. T., I learned a ton in social studies this year because you made it social, not studies!”
What’s Curriculum Night About If Not About Curriculum?
Though my focus has changed, I still take time to plan my curriculum night. However, instead of bullets pointing to all the units in math or genres in reading, my slides are filled with images of children from previous classes learning. Rather than a slide with the dates of our standardized testing, I have a slide that says, “Of course I want your child to do well on the Ohio Achievement Assessment, but that goal does not define the work we will do in our classroom.” I even let go of the slide that showcases our combination letter-grade/standards-based grading system altogether. Which, to be honest, is not easy to explain. Most of what used to be in my curriculum night is sent home in newsletters or emails before curriculum night.
The results of this switching the focus of curriculum night have been fabulous. Parents look more at ease from my point of view in the front of the room. I feel much better about the time I spend with parents because I have shared my love for their children and my goal to ensure they love learning. And the previous two ideas are the foundation for better home-school communication for the rest of the year.
The first five to six minutes of my curriculum night, I tell my story. It changes a little each year, but the point to telling my story is that children and learning are the most important things to me. While I tell my story, the slides behind me on the screen are just pictures of my loves: my family, books, and, most important for my audience, their children in our classroom with giant smiles or a look of deep concentration on their faces.
The next chunk of my presentation focuses on the idea that I work incredibly hard to build relationships with the children I teach. I explain the concept that to be a great teacher for their children, I have to invest the time to learn what they need to be better readers or writers. If I don’t know a student, how can I possibly know what the next step as a learner is for her? During this stretch of the presentation, there are more pictures from past classes, which help me share some stories of relationship building. There are also a few quotes sprinkled between the pictures. My favorite one is from the motivational speaker/author Brian Tracy: “The value of a relationship is in direct proportion to the time that you invest in the relationship.”
I do plan a brief interlude from the nontraditional curriculum night ideas by sharing a very simple slide that looks like this:
After the curricular interlude, more pictures of previous classes help me tell the story of powerful community building. These stories narrate why I believe thoughtful, productive students are nurtured best in a classroom community that values collaboration, empathy, kindness, humor, and respect along with learning. Learning will be more powerful and deeper if we are supporting each other while pushing ourselves.
Then I close with one more very simple slide:
When I open the floor for questions, I realize that even my socks are damp. However, because of all the smiles and nodding heads I witnessed in the last 30 minutes or so, I feel surprisingly refreshed. My intention to spend time on curriculum night focusing on children and not curriculum struck a chord with the parents in the room. And why wouldn’t it? The investment in their children is not measured by what their children will study in social studies, what math skills are needed in their grade level, or what writing projects they will complete. The investment is based on unconditional love and the desire for their children to be happy.