Friday, November 17, 2017

The Soil of Parent Engagement

Most school districts are coming up with dozens of parent engagement programs.  No shortage of effort and sincere desire to make things work.  Then why do parents remain on the periphery, almost staying at-arms-length from what’s needed?  How can we move from the frustration of many failed efforts to the warm satisfaction of success? 

Most success stories include a laser-like pursuit of a single goal.  A singer wants to be a star, so they pursue that with everything they have.  Career counselors agree that a scatter-gun approach will fail and that a sniper approach is what’s needed.  A pitcher who tries to be a third baseman may end up cut from the team.  A child who is always drawing should probably not try to become an accountant or salesman. 

When we face a challenge with a single focus, a single idea that we can put our whole self into, we end up with a much higher chance of success.  When we find that single talent or purpose and give it our all, we stand a much better chance of winning against the competition.  Trying to be all things to all people never works.  Trying to get everyone to agree, or to like us, can never be achieved.  But, if we can find one thing that will take root, one thing that will grow and become stronger, then we have a chance to draw others into its success. 

Instead of many ideas for parent engagement, I suggest finding one foundational idea.  Like the difference between scattering many seeds on dry soil and adding humus and water to the soil first.  If we make the soil rich and ready for seeds, then we can have a great garden. 

The core impediment to parent engagement is ignorance.  Parents don’t know what their role is supposed to be, how to fulfill that role over thirteen years of schooling, and where to get the information they lack.  They rarely know just how important they are, and how to translate their love for child into life success for child.  Schools don’t know what will work to increase parent involvement.  If they did they would be doing it.  They also don’t know where to find the answers they lack.  So, what we have here is ignorance winning out and students losing out. 

One “soil enriching” solution would be to capture the attention of first-child kindergarten parents.  When parents are bringing their first child to kindergarten for the first time there are many unrepeatable opportunities.  They are scared.  They are lost and confused.  This is an opportunity to draw them in with useful information, to give them knowledge that enables and empowers their participation.  Ignoring these parents in their time of need is a critical error. 

To do this smartly would be to develop an online learning process using the school's LMS (learning management system) platform and create accounts for parents.  This could then be introduced in first-child classes and followed up with through the LMS interface.  Coupling it with a communication process whereby the teacher and parent interact with each other to help all three (student, teacher, and parent) build a unified approach to education will create rich, fertile soil.  Imagine the future of these parents’ involvement.  Imagine the subsequent trust and inter-communicative exchanges that will happen over the years. Imagine how much more successful the other programs (scattered seeds) will be.  

By finding one specific solution that addresses an underlying issue (ignorance) and building in beneficial practices to create perpetual successes, progress will be made.  As the roots reach deeper into the soil each year, more and more parents will join this new culture of enabled participation instead of standing on the periphery with reticent distance.  More and more first-child parents will hear about and attend the classes.  By opening them up to other parents of older students there will become a growing buzz about the difference this interaction and unity of purpose can make in the success of the students. And THAT will draw parents in even more.  

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Pre-Teaching Through Parent Engagement

When looking for ways to increase parent engagement we see many options.  Some promote short-term involvement, and allow parents to drop out somewhere around the next bend, like when their child moves up a grade.  Other programs or ideas build parent engagement progressively, making it a part of the expected family dynamics each year. 

One idea that leads to an increase in parent engagement is pre-teaching at home.  If parents are given the upcoming curriculum standards, they have a chance to be the one who teaches their child some of what is to be learned.  This increases their knowledge of the path ahead, but also gives their child a memory of their involvement. 

For example, if Kindergartners are going to be learning about “Scissors Safety” the practices can be sent home just after registration and the parents can ease into the concept in the safety and calmness of home.  The child will always remember the lesson coming from their mom or dad, and when the teacher asks them to demonstrate their safe technique in class they’ll come off as prepared and confident.  This builds esteem.

This type of parent-inclusion can become part of the year-in-year-out expectations; this is the new norm and what we do each grade level.  It can help parents to re-learn or remember what they learned in school long ago, or maybe the parents are learning it for the first time.  Some parents are less proficient at English than their children, and getting them to help the child learn vocab terms can also help the parents.  Maybe it can lead to involving other siblings, too, raising the level of knowledge in the whole household.  It can also give the parent a chance to teach things a bit “their own way” so they can create a family context around the lessons.  

For example, sex education is a very delicate and personal process for any family.  Most parents want to be the ones who open up this topic and discussion.  For some families, their beliefs around this topic would be respected by pre-teaching it at home by creating a context consistent with their family beliefs.  It takes courage to enter into these topics with a child whose innocence you have been protecting, so having a nudge by the school can help parents have “the talk” before losing the opportunity to bring it up first.  Some parents will discount their ability and chicken-out, leaving these things “to the professional” instead of giving it a try.  That's fine.  But for the parents who want this type of education kept within the context of home, family, a loving marriage, and preventing society from becoming the role model, being enabled to teach the content at home is a great chance to be involved.  The school may even allow the student the option to “test out” of the classes on that content, giving them a privilege to learn something else for those few weeks. 

There are many ways parents can be drawn into their child’s education.  By becoming part of the “lesson memories” that will forever remain in their child’s mind, the parent/child relationship is actually strengthened -- helping them to survive many bigger upcoming challenges that all families will face.  These types of solutions to parent engagement are more available than ever before, and don't cost much.  It just takes being a bit creative, thinking outside the box, and building on other good ideas.  

For example, most schools have adopted online learning management system (LMS) platforms that allow cloud-based communication, distribution of content, testing, and many administrative functions.  Going forward we will obviously be seeing more of this, not less.  So, why not develop a “take home” content section for parents to be linked to after registration.  Once developed, these online lessons can be stored and distributed at almost zero cost. 

One district who develops a “take home” course can sell it to other districts -- covering their cost and allowing other districts to have it at a lower cost than developing it on their own.  Since state standards are often the yardstick for all schools, having the state develop the take home content and provide it at a nominal cost makes even more sense and can create a statewide increase in parent engagement.  Wouldn't that be a good thing?  With the cost savings of digital reproduction it is possible to distribute tremendous amounts of content at virtually no cost.  The expense is in the development phase and in the annual editing work, but these costs can be easily distributed over a large market so each user pays only a fraction of the cost.  Here is a simple equation illustrating the relationship.

If state laws prohibit the state department of education (DOE) from “going into the courseware business” then a non-profit can be licensed and contracted by the state DOE to provide the content to meet appropriate standards.  The content can also include lessons for the parents on good instructional principles and techniques. This could be a great way to improve parent/child relationships across the state by improving communications, as well as building mutual respect and familiarity.  All good things. 

The point here is that cost is no longer a reason to not provide parents a shot at pre-teaching their children.  By providing the opportunities, the state DOE can allow each community to opt-in and increase use of the program at their own rate. This builds community strength of participation.  But the biggest benefit comes in the conversations held between parent and child.  Anchoring the child’s associative relationship between their parent and the given lessons is a powerful asset to their future relationship.   Truly something worth considering.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Supporting Your Grad's Adult Transitions

Regardless of the distinction between current generational circumstances and those past, the improvement of current circumstances will almost always provide a better future. Parents have the ability and responsibility to help their children fulfill their potential. Whether making the transition from grade school to higher education, or looking to enter the workforce right after graduation, a child’s parents play a huge role in how successful they'll become later in life.

Many grads head straight into college, community college, or trade school, hoping these paths will give them a leg up on the competition for future earnings.  However, many others are choosing to simply forego more education and simply “get a job” at the first place that's hiring.  Parent engagement is not just for K-12, but also includes the phase that comes after high school.  Knowing how to do this well is important.

Graduation from high school is the first time in a long time when "freedom from forced learning" is granted.  However, as all successful adults know, the need for learning never stops.  So, instead of bucking the whole idea of learning in a regrettable error of rebellion, the healthier trajectory is to assess new options and choose what makes the most sense.  This is where parents can be a big influence, and make a big difference, even if they never were involved much during the school years.

It is the very rare grad who already knows what they want to commit their whole life to. 
  • What do I want to do for work?  Sit at a desk?  Work outdoors?  Work with people, with my hands, with animals, with plants, with numbers? 
  • What kind of earnings do I want?   Monthly budgets and bills paid?  Savings and retirement accounts?  Big house and exotic vacations?  
  • What kind of work place do I want?  Whether you want to be an orderly or a surgeon, the surroundings of a hospital can be a comforting certainty.  Whether you are the groundskeeper/maintenance person or the lead pastor, going to work at a church every day can be a pleasant thing.  But, taking a first job as a helper on a sewage pumping truck can lead to a whole life of filth, grime, and foul odors. 

A life trajectory is the choice of every high school graduate.  With diploma in hand, what’s next?  Being prepared to answer that question may come immediately, or years later.  Many who enter college chasing one major, shift their course toward an entirely different career part way through.  While that may be a normal part of growing up, parents can have a huge impact on the self-knowledge and confidence it takes.  Most grads have never made such an important decision and find it hard to believe they can choose any path they want.

It makes a lot of sense for some grads to sign up for a short hitch in the military, learn some discipline, learn some skills, save some money, get a bit of college funding, and then choose a life path from a more mature perspective.   Sometimes community college with a job on the side does the same thing, providing a chance to grow up before establishing a more permanent life direction.  From the parents' perspective, the point of these choices is not what path is chosen, but how well these choices fit the person, how ready a child is when “choice time” comes, and how cohesively the family dynamics evolve. Good parenting is about influencing the child toward things like:
  • handling life responsibilities like financials, relationships, and chores
  • embracing good character development for its long-term value
  • developing wisdom and good judgment, courage, trust, and respectability
  • taking advantage of one's best possibilities
  • maximizing their potential in their own unique way
  • becoming a good - and improving - decision maker 
  • creating and sticking to a plan
  • finding their place in the world and the satisfaction that comes with it

If the child chooses "what my parents would want me to do" they have failed to be their own adult.  If they don't know themselves well enough to see how wants, dreams, ambitions, and effort must be genuine to succeed, they may end up chasing a false path and never be happy on it.  If they haven't learned to make decisions and commit to a plan, they may linger in vacillation for years.  

So, parents, please do not underestimate your importance during the K-12 years.  Everything a child believes about themselves, dreams is possible, and dares to go after in life will be significantly - but not entirely - impacted by you.  Knowing this beforehand empowers you to choose as best you can to be the influence you want to give.  Your child’s choices will have risks.  Protecting them from the possibility of harm is not always the best choice.  Falling in love is risky.  Having sex is risky.  Just walking out the front door is risky.  So, when they face choosing an initial life trajectory, it isn’t so much a case for safety as much as one of weighing the possible outcomes.   Having prepared them to do well means you have done well

Whether it's at home before Kindergarten, during the school years, or in their twenties, children want parents to be relevant, involved, and good at being parents.  Input and influence from parents who have been involved all along will undoubtedly be more relevant and more accepted by the child during adult transitions.  So, if you are a parent who is unsure if your involvement in their learning matters… IT DOES.  Get involved earlier and know you will get better at it.  As I said, successful adults know that the need for learning never ends.  So, jump in and learn… because you love them.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Of Ignorance and Learning

We are all ignorant.  Of something.  No one likes to admit it, but it’s true. 

A learning culture is about embracing that truth; that we are ignorant of a great many things, and... most importantly... that we can do something about it. 

In a day and age of global-interconnected social media, we see the effects of giving every mind a platform.  We see people who are irresponsibly overconfident, spewing their opinions into the minds of innocent audiences who choose to listen.  But, should we trust the overconfident?  What do we know about their research, their thinking process, their knowledge, and their ignorance?  And, what do we know about their own awareness of these same things, as well as their sense of responsibility to them, and us?  On the flip side, just because we think something, does that mean it is something good for others to think?  I offer this blog post fully aware that I am ignorant of what you know and want to know.  So, being responsible to that ignorance, I am offering these thoughts carefully and constructing a path of reason in the hope it will bridge some gaps.

Unlike a blog post, parent engagement requires the exchange of thought.  Teacher thoughts mixing with parent thoughts, all around what the child is thinking.  There is bound to be a ton of ignorance on all sides.  Yet, instead of just admitting it and embracing the opportunity to bridge some gaps, we see a lot of frustration over the other person’s lack of understanding.  We see teachers who want parents to support them, and parents who want teachers to support their thinking.  We don't see a lot of, "I wonder what they know that I don't."

In a learning culture, the opportunity to eliminate ignorance is something that all participants appreciate.  It is a shared goal.  It also means people take responsibility for the potential that their ignorance has for causing errors.  And instead of shouting ignorant opinions from the rooftops, or from their digital dais, they work to find more solid ground, ground they can trust to lead others to stand on.  The focus is more on serving the unified certainty than being the revered source. There is a lot more humility present in their intentions than hubris.

The world is still in a great debate about climate change.  Among the many offered opinions we see, are ones that scream “CONSPIRACY!” “HOAX!” and “It’s just weather!”.   But, why would someone offer such opinions?  Have they done the research?  Have they analyzed decades of data?   Or do they just want to feel the power of being heard?  Sure, we live in a global community that allows and even encourages our competitive verve to freely voice our thoughts onto the world stage.  We can post on Facebook or Twitter any sort of opinion we have.  But, is that responsible?  Are we really aware of our ignorance, and do we care? Are we really sure that the ground we stand on is solid - solid enough to invite others onto it, too?

If one person hears a few thoughts, facts, and opinions (offered out of ignorance) and twists them into some imaginary plot, they might feel the need to scream, “CONSPIRACY!”, but does that make it so?  The question is actually one of filling in the ignorance gaps; of learning.  What do you really know?  What can you prove?  What's changed since you learned it?  

It isn’t always responsible to raise an alarm based on unproven thoughts.  In fact, it rarely is.  With our platform comes a responsibility; the responsibility to consider the impact of our statements on others, to consider how much we don’t know before we send that thought into someone else’s mind.  Just because we think it, does not mean it is true.  And, even if it is true for us does not mean it is true for someone else.  Much of this “thought throwing” culture is based on pure speculation and the interpretation of many other people’s ignorant opinions.  With a digital dais to speak from we take on the role of leader.  We are openly choosing to offer our influence, to actively sway the thoughts of others.  To do this, responsibly, we must consider the effect we actually cause. 

If we are leading a wagon train across the 1852 Mojave desert, is it responsible for us to shout “Water!” and point to a mirage?  We must consider the effects.  In the absence of other opinions and any true knowledge, we may be leading others further into doom.  If we scream “HOAX!” about global warming, just because we can’t see it or understand it, there may be little effect.  But, if others who are still undecided take us at our word, we may actually lead them into trusting us and following us, and eventually… toward global destruction instead of away from it. 

When parents speak to teachers, they must do so with a responsibility to their child.  What they tell the teacher will impact the instruction.  What they learn about helping their child at home will impact the child’s education.  And, vice versa, when a teacher is speaking to a parent they must also be responsible about the effect of their influence.  The need to be aware of their ignorance about the child, about problems in the home, and other relevant points because what they learn from the parent will also impact the child’s education. 

When we take this to the district level we see passionate parents arguing against an entrenched and immovable system.  We also see a myopic bureaucracy refusing to learn from their community.  This frustration can cause both sides to hunker down into their ignorance and throw thoughts at one another.  This is where a culture of inquiry – the commonly accepted practice of eliminating ignorance instead of proving it – will bridge gaps, form allegiance and alliances, and create consensus.  

If there was one place we would expect to find a learning culture - a focused and accepted custom of admitting and eliminating ignorance - it would be in the education system, right?  But what we see instead is a culture based on the dais.  In order to become part of the education system you must be a teacher.  You must become excellent at speaking from the front of the classroom and distributing what you know and believe.  Therefore, everyone in the industry is mostly focused on offering what they know, not on eliminating their ignorance. 

Instead of asking, “Why do parents think that?  What do they know that we don’t know?” they would rather tell parents why it won’t work.  Educators want to educate.  So, it makes sense.  But, it doesn’t bridge gaps.  Parents know what is going on in the real world, the world their children will have to enter.  Teachers and educational administrators live, work, and breathe in a separate reality.  There is much they don’t know about corporate culture, corporate learning, global integration, and the future workplace their students will encounter. 

Whether we are parents trying to change the system or teachers within the system, when we take on the role of “platform speaker” we are given a great privilege.  We are availed the opportunity to lead others.  If all we care about is our own knowledge we may fail them because of our ignorance.  Imagine the wagon train leader who struts and marches with a glow of affirmation because sixty some-odd people have placed their confidence in him as they march farther away from water.  Sure he feels the boost of having a “following” but there will come a day when they are dying of thirst and he will have to face the truth of his ignorance.  It is truly better to have admitted ignorance early on, than to face the dismay of having brought others with you into a bad outcome.  Having people follow our thinking is not proof we are right.  It is proof they trust us.  That trust deserves a responsible approach, a truthful admittance of what we do and do not know. 

In parent engagement groups that create and build a learning culture, the specter of ignorance is defeated by facing it.  By facing our ignorance we become empowered to discover new knowledge.  We can safely ask ourselves, “What do I not know?”  We bridge gaps.  We learn.  And we lead others to do the same.  

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Getting Narcissists On Board

The invitation to “parent engagement” is one of hope for a better community. 

The effects that result include better education for students who one day take their place as adult contributors in the community.  It also includes interactive discussion among present adults who care responsibly and contribute selflessly for an improved future.  These are easy to see, appreciate, and offer an invitation toward.  But there is more.

Once parents are involved they become experienced in the ways of community service and working toward a unified cause.  This easily transitions into the work of moving political people to open doors, shift funding, form better policies, and create a greater future for the majority and the under-represented.  Politics may be a dirty word, but in democratic civilizations the process of creating relevant change comes through collective, cooperative, collaborative, and compromised initiatives... politics.  Agreement is hard to come by when we see the full list of alternative and competitive wants held by all members of our society.  It takes political discussion and negotiation.  Yes, politics is difficult, angst-filled, and a path of constant wrestling with complicated issues.  It is definitely not for the weak of character.

As we near 2020, we see the way social media has given easy platforms to many who will think and advocate.  We see large protests, marches, and raging disruptions on the news.  We see fiefdoms of philosophy popping up like popcorn as the heat of conflicting wants rises.  Everyone who raises their voice in protest believes they have the answer, but they are also, more often than not, disinclined to listen.  This is where they fail. 

It is easy to rouse the rabble and gain fans for one’s passionate claims.  It does not, however, change the future.  Most who shout from the stage of frustration will never succeed at fulfilling even half their ideology, because they alienate and isolate.  In the end, they become frustrated that less was accomplished.  They wish more people had agreed with them and done something with their exultation. 

We live in a time of extreme luxury, access, and benefit, but also a time of extreme dissatisfaction.  Reasonableness is becoming lost upon the raging seas of inflamed opinion.  But are those who fan the flames also willing to do the work of agreement? 

Parent engagement is not about parents raging at a school board meeting.  It is not about being pissed at a teacher. Or forming a protest against a challenged principal.  True and successful parent engagement is about the results, about making small steps toward what's good for the future of all students, and thereby what is good also for the future of the community.  It is about fulfilling the hope we all share.  It is about working through the listening and learning process while maintaining a higher and greater want in mind.  It is about being someone who knows what matters to others and helps them to win, while getting them to improve the things you value most.  It is about WIN-WIN. 

It is easy to become a follower of thinking being shouted from a mountaintop.  It is hard work to actually improve things.  

Parent engagement is about drawing responsible and reasonable parents into a process of actual improvement, for the sake of all schoolchildren.  It is not about weeding out the rabble-rousers, but is instead about enlisting their efforts as a teammate, giving them real work to accomplish, real results to hang their hats on, and developing their loud passion into actual fuel, progress, and lasting improvement.   Let them lead a committee and see if they actually have the chops to achieve a result.  Can they create unity?  Can they lead others into agreement?  Does their leadership style work for the greater good, or are they only about themselves.  Proof is what they need, for others, but also for themselves.  They need to know they are more than just hot air. 

Sure, most narcissistic founts of their personal viewpoint will turn aside from the real work, but over time, winning a few can lead to winning more, and soon there can be practiced ways of inviting them into the satisfaction that comes from achievement.  These benefits of a healthy parent engagement program are not easily seen up front, but they do become frequent outputs of a good process.  When trying to get a good parent engagement program started, or trying to keep one on course, checking your progress against indicators like this can help adjust the direction, and help you eventually get there.

Parent Engagement Solutions believes that community building includes everyone, and if you can enlist the efforts of the self-serving, the opinionated, and the myopic, you are building a stronger, more inclusive force - a force that will create real and lasting benefits.