Intersections: “Ten Questions Parents Should Ask Before School Starts”

August 14, 2018 by Bill Ivey

Forbes recently published an article by Frederick Hess entitled “Ten questions parents should ask before school starts.” Normally skeptical of articles that list whatever number of things people “should” do, I began to fall in love with his list at the first question, and by the third decided I wanted to answer them all. So, in order and writing as if I were speaking directly to a parent...

  1. What’s the best thing my child is going to read this year? Honestly, I don’t know. In my class, kids choose all the books, and choose all the questions they research. For independent reading, they can read anything they want, and have the opportunity at least once a week to give book talks to the whole class. Read-alouds are also chosen by the kids, based on the unit themes they design, and based on suggestions that come from the whole class including me.
  2. What one value is at the heart of our school’s culture, and how does that show up on a daily basis? We are a feminist school, or, as one Senior once described us, a “school of feminisms.” This means attention to student voice and genuine agency, thinking about the cultural contexts in which we live, and thinking about when actions might be taken and, on those occasions, which actions. It also means a basic assumption that multiple perspectives can and should co-exist, with the exception, as a kid once noted in housemeeting, that disagreeing about someone’s identity is disrespectful and not okay.
  3. In a typical day, how much time will be spent on morning announcements, attendance-taking, and standing in lines? For the most part, very little. I can take attendance more or less at a glance and remember who is missing for later and, other than getting into the dining room right after the bell rings, there’s basically no standing in lines. Morning announcements usually take three to five minutes, but earlier in the year, or if we’re coming up on a period of time where something unfamiliar is about to happen, or if a kid makes an announcement about something happening in the world and they fly into a discussion, it could take a lot longer.
  4. How will you know if my child is bored to tears and, if that happens, what’s your usual response? During the choice time portion of class, I’ll sometimes (not often) see a kid sitting there staring out into space or listlessly running their finger across their iPad. I’ll go sit with them, say something like, “You’re not as engaged today as you usually are. What’s up?” and see where the conversation goes from there. When reading to kids, I’ll try and make eye contact with each kid at least once a minute, and I will do everything possible not to call attention to anyone who may be losing focus but to help them get back on track - facial expression, making significant eye contact with their neighbour and making a subtle elbowing motion, reading all the while, or just talking to the kid afterwards about why they were unfocused and whether there’s something I need to be doing to help them.
  5. What’s the one paper, project, or unit that I should really expect my student to come home excited about? Again, as students choose all the content in this course, I can’t predict. We’ll know at the end of the year and, hopefully, it will be more than one!
  6. In the typical month, how many hours will be devoted to tests and test preparation? None. As an independent school, we are fortunate not to have to worry about mandated standardized tests, something I wish for all public schools as well. And in my class, students are assessed, through self-reflection and through feedback from me, through unit work (including class discussions and activities as well as individual Focus Question work) and independent writing.
  7. What was the most serious disciplinary issue at school last year, and how was it addressed? I’d be uncomfortable discussing a specific case for a variety of reasons including privacy for the child, but I’d be happy to talk through the approaches we typically take or, if you want, to respond to a hypothetical situation. In general, we recognize kids will make mistakes, some obviously much more serious than others, and depending on their seriousness, we might process them with the kids (and/or other affected kids), write up a sign a contract (which would involve seeking parental input), or take other actions as appropriate. Except perhaps for minor incidents, parents are always kept in the loop. Advisors too.
  8. How frequently should I expect to hear updates about how my child is doing? Formally, we have progress reports six times a year and advisor letters three times a year. Informally, advisors will touch base regularly, teachers may reach out if something especially cool happened or if there’s a concern, and of course you should never hesitate just to say, “Hey, I think everything’s going fine, but I just want to touch base and be sure.”
  9. If I email with a question or concern, how quickly should I expect to hear back? I check my email multiple times a day, and try to respond as soon as I read it unless it involves me talking to other people to gather information.
  10. What’s the most important thing I can do to help my child be academically successful this year? Stay in touch with her advisor, her teachers, and me. Obviously, that will happen should there be a question or concern, but we also love to hear when something especially positive is happening. And listen to her, just as we do.

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

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Filed Under: Intersections, Parenting, Education, Middle Level Education, Communication