I frequently sit in on parent-teacher conferences, most often when a student is struggling in class or when a parent is particularly concerned about a child’s progress. In doing so, I have noticed that as teachers grow more and more comfortable with the workshop approach to instruction, they forget that it’s highly likely that parents have no idea what we’re talking about when we discuss our classroom instruction.
Why? Well, most of our parents were students themselves several years back, in a time of very structured classroom environments, with rows and rows of rigid wooden desks and stern reminders on chalkboards. Their teachers talked a lot during the day. Students who struggled simply got bad grades; if they really struggled, they were removed and sent way down the hall to the bowels of the school to wait it out, and they’d turn up some years later in a School-to-Work program.
So when we reassure our parents and we say, “I plan to differentiate my instruction so your son works with me during guided reading and then reinforces his learning during independent practice,” their eyes cross a little.
Often, they’re too embarrassed to say, “What are you talking about?”
Sometimes, they’ll try: “I don’t know how you can ‘differentiate’ when you have so many students.”
Other times, they’ll respond in the only way they know how: “Should I hire a tutor for my child?” or, “Do we need to hold her back?” or, “I need to meet with the principal.”
The majority of the time, all we need is to communicate differently. That will help us avoid parental confusion and bring them over to our side, where they can really “get” what their child’s school experience—and progress—looks like.
When I see a teacher lose a parent’s understanding and focus, I’ll share some ideas and tricks I’ve used myself when I’ve wanted to help a parent understand what we mean when we talk about workshop.
Seek to understand and acknowledge the parent’s own experience. I will often ask a parent, “Tell me what school was like for you,” or, “Describe what your classroom was like when you were in school at this age.” If we take the time to really listen and empathize, we will not only make them feel heard, but also figure out how to proceed with our conversation.
Explain the new normal. It’s not enough to just say, “I use a workshop approach to literacy instruction.” We have to tell them what that means. We have to explain what it actually looks like and sounds like for the student. “We start our day with a minilesson, which is . . .” and, “Then, each child will move to a different part of the room to . . .” and, “I will work with small groups or individual students to . . .” Specific examples will help the parent know how you can actually do what you’re saying you can.
Use regular-life words. Just as we wouldn’t have a clue what work-related phrases are thrown around in a manufacturing warehouse, many of our parents don’t know what we mean when we throw “workshop words” around. Using “teacher-speak” without giving specific examples just alienates and confuses parents. So when we say things like “guided practice,” we need to follow up with, “That means I will be there to guide your child as he practices what he’s been taught.” It’s not a “dumbing down” for parents; on the contrary, it is using words they know in conjunction with our “industry words.”
Use resources. There are a lot of ways in which we can explain how a workshop model really works. In the past, I have shown parents a pie chart that summarizes the time spent on each component of workshop model; I have walked them through the increments of time spent on each component; and I have even shown them video clips highlighting what a minilesson looks like, how independent practice works, and what actually happens in small-group instruction. All of these resources are easily accessible and quickly reassure parents about the structure and format of a workshop-model classroom.
Review and repeat. After a parent-teacher conference, we may need to follow up to remind parents how we are working with a child in each component. We might say, “As I explained earlier, a small reading group is a time I can work quietly with two to four of my students while the others are engaged in independent practice. I have recently been pulling your child to work on reading fluency, which is the ability to read with pace and inflection. In doing so, I have noticed that your daughter . . .” Continually circling back through the definitions and meanings of each component helps parents stay clear on what we are trying to do.
One at a Time
A teacher recently asked me, “It’s such a big job, this communicating, this helping parents understand this instructional model. How can we do it?”
I answered honestly. “We have to do it one parent at a time,” I admitted. Sure, we can explain workshop model in large groups at our open houses and meet-the-teacher nights, but those aren’t ideal, because there isn’t the time or format to really help parents gain a legitimate understanding of how workshop looks and feels to their child—and certainly doesn’t explain how we differentiate, intervene, and enrich by using an instructional model. That’s why the deeper conversations must happen one at a time.
But here’s the thing: If we all do it, and we start early and continue the conversation throughout a child’s school years, we’ll develop a powerful and supportive group of parents who believe in what we’re trying to do. It will take time, yes. It will take energy, yes. We will get tired, yes. But it’s the best way to get all our stakeholders—students, parents, colleagues, and even ourselves—on the same train, headed in the same direction.