Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Future Paths Event

It was a perfect day for it.  Breezy with the winds heading off shore between 14 and 20 knots. 

The field trip was fully booked as it was every year, and the parents had all arrived ahead of time, as planned.  As the buses pulled into the parking lot you could hear the excitement of the kids as they chattered and laughed.  Tables were set up at the edge of the parking lot, and everyone started to gather in that area.

The kids lined up at the My Dreams table and waited their turn to get the kite they had each made.  Each student had worked very hard to build a collage of photos that expressed their individual life dreams.  They had searched the Internet, magazines, and home computers to find the right combination of images.  They organized and placed the images with deliberate care.  Some images had been enlarged, and others shrunken to make their importance more relational to the whole message. 

They had learned about wind, and physics (just a bit about physics, after all they were only third graders).  They had researched different kite designs, made drawings and plans, and then constructed them themselves, using the collage for the surface paper.  Each kite had passed a pre-test in the schoolyard to prove it would fly.  And now was the big day... the annual Future Paths event. 

At the My Dreams table, each student was given their kite and a single spool of string.  They had practiced knot tying in class and began attaching the string to the kite’s leash.  They refused any help, knowing this was their task, knowing they knew how, and wanting the satisfaction of doing it themselves.

After tying the string to the leash they donned their cardboard hats.  Like the kites, these hats were made by the students and were very "creative" in a messy sort of way, but they were all of the same shape.  Kind of like a cold-weather cap with visor and ear flaps, but they also had blinders that came along the cheeks and were kept in place with a rubber band chin strap hooked onto a notch at each front, bottom corner of the blinder flaps.

With their “kite helmets” on they spread out along the beach and approached the water’s edge.  The offshore wind was holding at around twelve knots with gentle gusts up to eighteen or twenty.  Holding the spool gently in one hand and the kite leash in the other, the children ran away from the water, letting the breeze take the kite and pull some string off the spool.  Gripping and releasing the spool to gain height and distance, the children let their kites fly higher and higher.

Parent attendance was mandatory.  Everyone was informed a year in advance, and each month hence so there would be no excuses.  They had also been prepared for this; going to secret practices that the students didn’t know about; learning how to do their part when the time came.  As instructed, they waited in a large group chatting amongst themselves until each child had gotten their kite in the air and finally played the string out to its full length of fifty feet. 

While some teachers coached the kids to keep their eyes and thoughts on their dreams – and how high they wanted them to go – other teachers told the parents to line up; each parent choosing between two different lines.  Since it was a life-changing decision they were about to make, moms and dads had been given a year to carefully consider and be sure.  Also, their choice had to be independent of each other because every parent makes a unique impact on their child’s life.  Just because parents choose to be paired doesn't mean they will influence their child's dreams the same way.  In fact, it is guaranteed to be different.  And we all know from experience that the unique way each parent influences a child lasts a lifetime.  This was a big deal for everyone involved.

As hard as some choices might be, it was vitally important for each parent to make an honest choice.  It was unfair to the student to have it any other way.  To deceive the child would be much worse than either choice.  So, the secret parent practices had also included discussions, questionnaires, and intention exercises to help today's choice reflect each parent's truest intention - the way they would actually affect their child's pursuit of dreams. 

Almost thirty years ago, someone had thought up this event after studying the suggestion of a highly creative artist.  The event always caused some upheaval in relationships, but the children always came away knowing what to expect of their parents going forward; something which also helped them choose who they would listen to in life.

No matter what choice any parent was to make, there was something grand and inspiring about watching the kites all flying out over the water with the kids earnestly watching their "dreams" fly.  If you've never been, I suggest you go just to watch the kids' faces.  They beam with such hope and desire.

As the parents lined up, one line was longer than the other.  It was always this way. However, this year it was much longer than it had been historically and this was likely due to the fact that many of the parents were former students who had gone through the Future Path event a couple of decades ago.  This was the string line where parents could ask for a spool of string of various sizes ranging from 100 to 1,000 feet in length.

With their spool in hand these parents walked out and stood behind their child, waiting. When the teachers gave them the signal, they were to reach around their child and hand them the new spool; enabling the child to send their dreams higher and farther.

The other line – the shorter one – moved more quickly because there was only one choice. Each parent in this line was handed a double-barrel shotgun and two 12-gauge shells of buckshot.  They then walked out and stood behind their child, waiting for the teachers' signal so they could blast their child's kite to shreds.


(Special thanks to Nick Offerman for sharing the wisdom of Yoko Ono in his book "Gumption".  If we do not declare our intentions to lift or hinder our children's dreams, we are in effect liars and deceivers.  They will hope for and believe great spools of string are to come to them as gifts from us, and we will probably fail them that expectation, but if we can declare our true intentions and strive to fulfill it, we may get away without disappointing, discouraging, or even destroying their dream chasing oomph.  At least with declarations of alliance we have a chance of living according to the ways we choose instead of some accidental carelessness.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Parents - The Fourth Cornerstone

School districts constantly work with hundreds of external organizations, colleges, community groups, government offices, and political leaders.  These partnerships are formed to benefit both parties, but the primary beneficiary is, and must be, the students.  At all points of interaction, benefiting the students, as a whole, must be the single greatest reason for these partnerships.

In any business or organization there is always a need for decisions about which opportunities are the best.  Which ones are most urgent now, most promising long-term, and most profitable to the stakeholders.  School districts, within the context of their unique purpose, would be wise to evaluate their partnerships under the criteria of, "Which partnerships impact the students the most?"

When considering the direct impact on student learning, there are three important groups that must be considered above all others.  These groups form a “supremely important” foundation of influence – placing them well above other potential partners.  State education departments control the funding and mandated standards that school districts must operate by.  The teacher and principal unions create a supply of educational professionals vastly necessary to the process.   After these two groups, which group is next?  What group is the third most important partnership that school districts need to work with?


Even though they aren’t even trained – more than any other group parents and guardians create the greatest influence on student lives, efforts, and lifelong outcomes.  What qualifications make them the most powerful determinants of student success, you may ask?

  • The sheer size of their numbers – on average there are two to every student
  • The number of hours they spend with students each week
  • The perpetuity of their influence year after year for more than eighteen years
  • The depth of their dedication – there is often no limit to what they will do for their students
  • The strength of their influence on student thinking – personal identity, self-esteem, confidence, aspiration levels, work ethic, choice of reachable dreams, and career attractiveness
  • They work for free

School districts who are truly committed to a mission of maximizing lifelong success for all students must not only engage parents, but must create very real, effective, and lasting partnerships with them.  They must work with them as groups and as individuals.  They must work with them as the volunteers they are, not as extensions of the teaching function, or as instructional aides.  They must create learning opportunities based on asynchronous and opt-in availability; following the adult learning model.  They must pay them with respect, attention, and appreciation.  They must listen to them and change in response to what works best for that partnership.

If we think of parents as the fourth cornerstone of education (school districts, state departments of education, and teacher/principal unions as the other three), we can gauge by comparison how well they are encouraged, invited, welcomed, involved, trained, enabled, empowered, and regarded.  Where there is a disparity between the level of importance, attention, respect, and involvement given to parents as compared to the other three cornerstones, there is much to be done to correct it.

Creating parity of importance is no easy task.  Drawing parents into strong functional roles, developing their leadership skills, listening to them when they never went to teacher college, and giving them their due respect for the enormous power they hold over each child’s development, is much more than what district leaders usually want to spend their time on, and there is no mandated force making them pay attention to this group, but it must be done for the sake of the students.  After all, partnership means giving your partner their due, right?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

More Parent Leadership is Needed

It has been my experience over the past twenty years of involvement with parent groups, community groups, teachers, schools, faith-based, and other volunteer-dependent organizations, that leadership matters.  No great surprise there, I am sure, but where does it come from?  Where do you find leadership in these organizations?

I also came to realize that leadership can be learned.

Business organizations spend millions on leadership training and leadership development programs.  Why?  Because it works and it pays a sizable return on their investment.  In other words… it’s worth doing.  In order for people to look within and dare to bring out the “leadership version” of themselves they have to be motivated.  In business – there is a salary to keep, a promotion to gain, and a career to build.  This motivates.  In volunteer-dependent organizations the motivation is there, but it is more subtle and elusive.  In both instances, the motivation – like all motivations – is rooted in caring. 

Volunteer-dependent organizations draw amazing achievement from an unpaid workforce.  How?  Because their people care, and often… passionately.  In our schools, parents are a volunteer force.  An army of potential doers, thinkers, and achievers.   What is the source of their caring?  Their love for their children.  However, it is not enough to depend on this motivation to carry effectiveness into achievement.  They care, but like most people, their leadership version of themselves has not been trained, taught, exercised, or developed.  For schools to receive the greatest impact from this army of volunteers, parent leadership must be developed. 

Experiential training with a dual focus is needed – focusing on the “how” and the “what” of parent groups. 

One focus needs to be on how positive influences emerge and increase within the group.  This means they need to be watchful and aware of what is causing their peers to gather, to become more willing, to become organized, and to achieve valuable results.  Too often a new parent leader will be given a stage from which to be heard and they become lost within the elixir of an engaged audience, speaking long after their point has been made.  Too often, a veteran member is elected chair or president only to fall away from serving and resort to over-controlling.  The problem isn’t their willingness.  It’s their understanding of leadership.  They are not studying the impact of their influence so they can make internal adjustments toward more effectiveness.  They have the opportunity to make a positive influence, to increase the power of the group’s caring and motivations, but due to inexperience, they fail to recognize what works. 

The second focus needs to be on improving education for all students.  This focus is the only foundational cause that all parents can get behind.  From this foundation all ideas, endeavors, and efforts make sense and build power.  Too often parents fail to see the big picture, fail to realize the enormity of their potential impact.  Yes, their caring and motivation is rooted in their love for their own children, but it only takes turning to the left or to the right to see that there are many parents who have children to care about, too.  This doesn’t mean competition.  It means there is a potential to combine forces of love and goodness, on a huge scale; a scale that will actually create incredible advantages for their child as well. 

Within these two areas of focus anyone who wants to participate can find challenging pursuits – either existing opportunities, or new initiatives – with rewarding outcomes.  Knowing how to become a more effective leader is imperative.  Knowing what to draw people toward is vitally important.  This is how large volunteer-dependent organizations create unity and massive impact. 

High tide raises all boats.  Imagine what 500 unified voices would sound like.  5,000?  In San Diego Unified, with more than 200,00 parents, just a quarter of that number – 50,000 parents – could create a “high tide” of influence to improve things across the district.  What keeps this from happening?  A lack of leadership.  I am not criticizing anyone here.  I am saying that there is a need, a dearth of something valuable, and it happens to be available.  So why not do what we can to increase parent leadership?  That’s all I am saying.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Parent Engagement Is A Dance

Hopefully we can each remember the first dance we went to; how interested we were, scared, awkward, unsure, and hopeful.  Parent engagement with schools is very similar.

Each one reluctant to make the first move. Each one afraid making the first move will place them forever in the leader position. Each one wanting certain others to do the asking, but they never do.  Finally, with some encouragement, someone extends an invitation, and the other one says, "Okay" and they're off and dancing.

A first dance partner is a learning ground. You may not win the contests, but you can have fun, learn something (each of you), and end up sweaty, smiling, and glad. Then there is another dance partner and your barriers to getting out there on the dance floor are lower.  Your ability to give them their own sweaty smiling gladness is stronger than it was.  And  you keep getting better at the whole thing, and more comfortable, too.  Next thing you know, you are one of the better dancers, and the other better dancers want to join you on the hardwood.

Sometimes it’s the teacher or principal who needs to reach out and ask.  Other times it will be an assertive parent who dares to ask.  Whoever is first, the other person needs to be ready to say yes.

Then, the opportunity to work together happens and... they dance.

Part of dancing is the interaction, the "getting acquainted".  The involvement provides the opportunity for mutual influence and acceptance, respect, and willingness.  These tenets need to be part of what every parent engagement moment delivers.  Awkwardness, stumbling, tripping, and even falling down can be part of the process as well. Dancing means being partners, working it out, stumbling and righting things - together.

Parents don't know these circles as well as teachers, and yet, teachers don't know the child as well as the parent does.  But, then the parents don't know much about the comparative analyses that a teacher does which can identify things in the child that the parents don't see or know about.  It's a dance.

Administrators know the district, the budgets, the policies, and the state laws. Parents know what is going on outside the school environment, how companies are hiring, how job requirements are changing, and how these trends will affect future job prospects.  Administrators control the programs that expose students to career thinking. Parents have new ideas for district innovation, business practices, and societal concerns.   Administrators want to improve.  The exchange of thinking, the mutual learning, the willingness to sweat and smile is vital to what schools can become.

It's a dance.