Pushing Students from Learning to Leading
On Tuesday, we launched the application season for the 2017 Fishman Prize. Interested in nominating a teacher you know or applying for the prize yourself? Learn more about this year’s winners by going inside their classrooms in Lift Every Voice, a collection of essays on harnessing the power of kids, parents, and communities.
In this excerpt from Erica Stewart’s essay, she describes how empowering her students to lead their own parent conferences builds conceptual understanding and stronger relationships within her school community.
Luz’s mother raises her eyes from her fourth-grade daughter’s math exam, covered in a conscientious 10-year-old’s neat calculations and painstakingly drawn models. “I don’t even know what this is,” she says. “This isn’t how we solved 12 x 35 when I was in school.”
It’s both a question and a challenge. And I get it. I’m new to California and the Common Core math standards myself. My students are solving more rigorous and complex problems than students years older in the non-Common Core state where I spent most of my teaching career. Most days, I begin lesson-planning with the same sentiment as Luz’s mother: “What is this?”
Luz’s parents’ eyes are still fixed on me when Luz breaks the silence. “Let me show you. It’s called the box method.” Her parents straighten in surprise. She flips her test over to the blank page on the back and begins solving. “First you break 12 into one 10 and two ones.” Her parents nod, their skepticism melting into probing questions as Luz leads us through her every move.
Parent conferences are some of my favorite days of the year. Parents at my school are deeply invested in these meetings, too. Over 95 percent of our families attended all of their child’s conferences this past year.
Parents don’t attend these meetings because they are mandatory; to be clear, they aren’t. They come because conferences are powerful collaborative opportunities where we hold one another accountable to be our best selves because that is what our students deserve.
Parents leave these meetings empowered with tools to support their kids at home. And I leave them with new insight and strategies for supporting their kids in my classroom.
In our first conferences of the year, parents requested specific things they could do with their children at home besides checking their homework. I sent home flashcards, which parents quickly made their own and improved upon. I overheard one mom telling other parents at dismissal how she liked to mix in addition and subtraction facts to keep her son on his toes—a strategy I immediately stole and began using in class.
But the very best part of our conferences is that they’re led by the students themselves.
After greetings and a brief framing for the meeting, the student opens their math binder and shares with all of the adults huddled around the table where she’s grown and what she is still working on.
In Luz’s conference, she explains the place value mistake she made several steps into the problem. “I can’t believe I rushed and wrote that 30 is three ones, not three 10s.”
I recall the anxious student at the beginning of the year who responded to most questions in class with an apologetic shoulder shrug or an embarrassed “can I ask a teammate?” And I remember my own anxiety as I answered, “No. We’re sticking with you.”
Luz is able to lead her conference today because she spends every day in math class explaining and defending her problem-solving process and decisions. And she is able to do that because I have learned that the most empowering thing I can do for my students is to immerse them in struggle and to facilitate, not direct, their thinking.
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