By Cathy Fleischer
In the early 1990s when I was a newly minted PhD and college professor, I attended a state board of education meeting that was focused on whether or not to adopt a new English Language Arts curriculum. The curriculum was forward looking, based in current best practices and one that teachers around the state had worked on diligently. The teachers were nervous but excited to be at the meeting, hopeful that their logic and good sense would convince the Board to adopt the curriculum. I sat back with a smile on my face—ready to hear the Board members applaud the teachers for their good work.
As the teachers stood up to offer careful and rehearsed testimony on their proposed changes, however, the elected officials paid little attention. They walked on and off the stage; they talked with each other; it seemed as if they did their best to not listen to the teachers and their important message. As we broke for lunch, the teachers were despondent, convinced that their hard work and careful research had not paid off and saddened by the dismissive attitude of the board toward their expertise.
But after lunch, an amazing thing happened. A parent stood up to testify, clutching in her hand a pink booklet that was written by one of the teachers in the room. The booklet, created by this teacher to help parents understand why and how she taught in the way she did, explained in very clear language the benefits of certain ways of approaching reading and writing and offered specific examples of children’s progress to become literate. As the parent spoke, explaining how this way of teaching helped students, the members of the Board completely shifted gears: listening intently, nodding their agreement, and responding to her impassioned words.
This anecdote offers two lessons that have stayed with me for over two decades.
Lesson 1: When teachers speak, those in authority may not listen. But when parents speak, they have a better chance of being heard.
Lesson 2: If parents are the ones who can be heard, then teachers need to find ways to inform them, so that those parents can inform others.
How can teachers inform parents?
So how we can we use these lessons to advocate for effective literacy instruction? Step 1 is to offer parents and families a vision of what literacy education might look like, gently sharing a student’s amazing writing or finding ways to show them what a thoughtful literacy classroom looks like–in other words, providing them with an alternative view of reading and writing. For example:
- The teacher of the parent at the Board meeting who wrote a booklet for parents let them know—in parent-friendly language—what they could expect to see from a child over the year, helping them feel comfortable in understanding a little bit about literacy growth.
- Another teacher I work with offers a unique kind of literacy night for the parents of her ninth graders. She begins by asking them to share a memorable experience about their own writing. Their heartfelt stories help her demonstrate why she values time, feedback, and choice in her own writing classroom. Their personal memories immediately illustrate an innate understanding of some of the professional knowledge we hold about writing instruction, knowledge that seems missing from too many “common cored” classrooms: that writing processes shift for different genres, that most real world writing takes place in lots of genres, and that red pens and endless negative criticism don’t go far in making anyone want to write.
- Many teachers I work with bring these classroom images to the parents and communities of their students: YouTube videos of writing and reading workshop that are shared with parents; parent-teacher book clubs about issues of learning; open houses and “literacy fairs” that show off student work and explain how students got there.
When parents and families have the opportunity to see that an alternative view of literacy can be taught, they can become our allies: talking about ways of teaching in public settings from school board meetings to the sidelines of soccer games. When we can help parents truly understand why we teach in the ways we do, they are able to speak to others in ways we are not always able to–and we can encourage parents to do so.
Here’s the challenge: What one step can you take to to help parents (and others) understand a literacy practice that you use in your classroom? Can you plan a literacy night? Create some kind of online presence? Write a parent guide? Devise a way to share student writing? Or perhaps you could write publicly about your practice. Check out these tips for writing to an audience of parents.
Think about what you might do and share your ideas in the comments section. Let us learn from each other about how to create grass-roots change!
For more information on how to advocate with parents and others, check out Everyday Advocacy: An NCTE Resource for Teachers from which this blog was adapted. https://teachertoolkitblog.wordpress.com/
Cathy Fleischer is a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University where she teaches classes in English education and composition, co-directs the Eastern Michigan Writing Project, and serves as Imprint Editor for NCTE’s Principles in Practice series. Her most recent research focuses on ways teachers can go public with their work.