When the children rush from the school hall following their sell out production of We Will Rock You, they are met by their parents, carers, family, mates, all high on the atmosphere of success and achievement. The kids did rock! They are launched into an avalanche of praise, ruffled hair, affectionate embraces and kisses. Seeing it happen beautifully encapsulates how wonderful the teaching profession can be. Seeing the young people celebrated by the ones who love them leaves one feeling that a job has been well done. Feeling a little bit like John Wayne at the end of The Searchers, I turn and go and help with the stripping down of the borrowed staging.
A week later it’s consultation evening and parents, carers, siblings lurk around waiting for their turn to hear my message about their child. It’s a million miles away from the atmosphere that existed at the end of the annual school show. Now I’m talking to anxious mothers whilst the fathers look shifty. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Secondary schools finds it so hard to get parents and families connected with what happens day to day with our core business of learning that for some, the consultation evening is the only time we may get them through the school gates. That, and the curious incident with the whoopee cushion in the Science laboratory.
Primary schools often can’t get rid of parents; they’re all over them like a rash! But secondaries are always searching for that elixir that will bring them flocking in. Getting families engaged with their children’s learning is one of our greatest challenges. We are used to reporting, delivering data, running consultation evenings; we now however have to look at other opportunities of getting the families in. And there are plenty of innovative (and very obvious) ideas out there that we can look to for inspiration.
The simplest and among the most effective work around this theme I have seen recently is when pupils in Y7 have set up learning exhibitions. A learning exhibition is essentially an opportunity to put the children and their work up front and invite families in, as part of an over-arching project. A school I worked with in Rotherham recently did this with great success. The Y7s had been enjoying a blended curriculum around the theme of time machines. The culmination of this work was to be the burial of an authentic time capsule. In the capsule were letters addressed to their 16 year old selves. The work was rich and required the pomp and ceremony of an event. We decided on the exhibition idea as we wanted to share the children’s learning with the local community. The thing with this is, besides the appropriate administration, it’s a relatively straightforward event to organise. Straightforward in this case as it became something the children took ownership of. Letters were written to families by the children inviting them to the event which was to take place straight after school on a Thursday. The duration of the event was 45 minutes, making it easier to fit into busy family schedules and perhaps more of an attractive proposal. The school hall was set up as a kind of learning market where the children manned the stalls that were filled with examples of their learning experiences over the course of the project. Laptops buzzed with class-made movies and power points whilst children talked their visitors through what they had been doing in their lessons. The reactions of the families matched that of the aftermath of the school show.
The Rotherham exhibition was echoed at another school I work closely with in Barnsley, Kingstone School. The learning exhibition here took place in an open classroom with the children using the market place idea. On top of the learning on show, there was fundraising, home baking and storytelling. Again the reaction of families was overwhelmingly positive.
Kingstone School has been committed to increased engagement of families for some time. One early innovation, now commonplace, was the inception of a How to help your child succeed event where teachers are available to offer suggestions to families as to how children can progress in their subject and what they can do to support them. It does what it says on the tin basically. The event (now annual) is successful as it builds on that family engagement that is more apparent perhaps in other settings. It communicates expectations and the concept that secondary schooling is a three way process – school, student and family.
Over the last few years, Kingstone School has developed a creative curriculum in Y7 and Y8. Cultural Studies blends the humanities and uses processes such as Mantle of the Expert in order to lure high quality teaching and learning. Recently the school has pioneered a creative assessment process which brings in families into the centre of the action. The process was shared by Debbie Kidd in her article ‘Assessment as an Act of Love’ in Creative Teaching and Learning and garnered much interest on publication a few years ago. Essentially, the process takes the form of a meeting chaired by the class teacher. Attending the meeting are parents or carers, peers, a member of the public with the child in the centre. The child then shares their learning through a presentation, having provided an essay for all to read prior to the meeting. The child then has the opportunity to answer questions about their learning and their progress, and the opportunity for them to authentically shine is there.
Although there were initial reservations about the process when it was first piloted, it is now embedded as part of the Y7 and Y8 calendar and is met very positively by families and the wider community. There are other innovations as well going on in many schools around the country. The advent of class blogs, social media and video conferencing has enabled many people from outside the classroom to share the learning journeys of those within.
On Thursday June 30th 2011, Kingstone School will be hosting a conference Creative Ways of Drawing Families into Learning which will explore this theme and offer an opportunity for delegates to get fresh ideas first hand by attending innovative workshops and by talking with pupils and their families. Professor Mick Waters is confirmed as the keynote and will be on hand all day to offer his perspective. Each delegate will get a subscription to Creative Teaching and Learning magazine valued at £53. Booking information can be found at www.creativeschools.org.uk.
I hope you may be interested in coming along!!