CASTINE, MAINE. — It's the first month of school and students are all equipped with materials and learning their schedule. Now that they are getting settled, it's time to remember the deeper patterns of learning.
Children are facing new teachers, new studies, new friends, and new challenges. And they're getting to know themselves all over again in the context of these unfamiliarities.
This is exciting as well as bewildering for adolescent kids - and their parents and teachers, who hope for consistency of mentoring and building on intellectual and social skills from year to year.
As we talk with one another about math class this year, for example, we want to be assured of the signs of progress for the longer term: not just the calculations on the quiz last Friday, but also understanding of the concept of proportion, which will support the architecture unit across the hall in history. Parents are the guardians of the horizon of long-term learning; teachers of the more immediate. Therefore partnership makes for good schooling.
I am fascinated by the "messages" teachers and parents must convey in order to uphold this partnership. One year, I asked my middle school faculty to share their collective Top 10 list of advice gleaned in parent-teacher conferences. The list seems like good counsel at the start of a school year:
1. The majority of kids will take charge of their own learning, if we allow them to do so.
2. Children should be asked to feel rewarded by learning itself. Using external rewards to stimulate good grades gets in the way of feeling joy and power as the reward for hard work and accomplishment.
3. "The eye of the beholder": Kids see things from a kid point of view. Like a good journalist, parents and teachers need to get several sources for objectivity and accuracy when kids report on their day at school.
4. "The mother of invention." Inordinate emphasis on "good" grades risks losing sight of the positive potential in examining the reason for a low grade. Failure on a task can actually be more instructive than success, for example. And much learning takes place out of reach of what a grade can hope to measure.
5. Collaboration. Kids learn important life skills when they experience the struggle implicit in working with others and wrestling with unfamiliar challenges. Our tendency is to want to spare them.
6. "Little by little the bird makes his nest." Take the long view. Today's lessons are building toward future accomplishments. Wise, steady accumulation of challenge and competency is the golden thread of humane education.
7. Character. There are no assurances about the exact nature of skills for the 21st century, so to be forward-looking, educators must prioritize the concepts guaranteed to be at the heart of even unforeseeable futures: improvisation, comfort with chaos, critical-thinking skills, integrity, and ethical character.
8. Balance. Children need help balancing priorities. Are piano lessons getting in the way of homework, or is homework getting in the way of piano lessons?
9. Coach, don't cushion, during homework time. Bring learning problems and questions back to school. Don't deny the teacher the chance to understand your children's experience with homework - even if they can't do the work.
10. Don't miss school. Schoolwork can be made up, but not the contact and experience of school.
* Todd Nelson, a middle school principal, lives in Castine, Maine.