Shortly after my son returned to third grade from his winter break, he presented me with a note from his teacher. That week I was to help him complete a science project requiring research and a variety of art supplies. I was also to spend time teaching him his multiplication tables and spelling. It also explained that on Tuesdays he should read to me and on Wednesdays I should oversee his math homework. Since there would be standardized practice tests the next week, I was to make sure he got to bed early and ate good breakfasts.
I am a teacher, and these assignments seemed a snap. Teaching multiplication tables to a child who has memorized nearly everything about all 150-plus Pokmon should be easy, I thought. However, he, like many kids, hasn't grasped the importance of knowing his basic math facts.
"Am I just to review this with him?" I asked his teacher's voice mail. "He's learned the multiplication tables at school already, right?"
"No. Each child really learns these facts individually, so the children are to learn them at home and we will use the facts in our work at school," said his teacher on my voice-mail message.
But how am I to teach math to this child, I wondered to myself? Should I help him to understand the concepts he was to learn and why, before the mere memorization of facts? Or is there a different strategy I should use? What does research say about the various ways kids learn math? Were cassette tapes of rap versions of the math facts really the answer?
There has been a subtle shift in recent years in which parents are being called upon more and more to provide not only school supplies, homework supervision, love, and moral support, but actual instruction of fundamental skills and knowledge. If parents are to teach their children in partnership with teachers, we need some help.
While my hat goes off to those who can effectively home-school their children, we can't assume parents know how to teach merely because they are parents. If that were the case, there would be no teacher shortages, and the colleges of education could close their doors. On the contrary, teaching is an art and requires knowledge, understanding, skill, compassion, patience, and humility.
The one job the majority of people will have is that of parent. And yet this is the one job for which there is little formal training. Adding the expectation that parents now deliver small parts of the core curriculum begs the question of how parents are to effectively teach this material.
I think the time has come for Parent School. If parents are to be co-teachers, schools will need to find ways to help parents learn the teaching techniques, teaching styles, and content mastery to effectively teach each of their children. "User friendly" distance learning, workshops, and online and print resources might be considered.
The new assumption that parents must be co-teachers raises even more significant and troubling questions, however: How does this expectation put at a greater disadvantage those with parents who don't have teaching skills, or those with parents who work in the evenings, who don't speak English as their first language, who don't have financial resources for supplies or tutors, or who aren't invested in their children's success in school?
I am in awe of all that effective teachers do to help children learn and grow. If parents are to be effective as greater partners in the learning process, these questions about their role will have to be addressed.
* Joan Lazarus is an associate professor of theater at the University of Texas in Austin.
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