Sunday, February 6, 2011

School and Parents: How Procedure Effects Learning & Behavior

The girls have been in school for a few weeks now and we've made some interesting observations. I want to share those with you as well as my perspective/thoughts as a parent and an educator.

Assignment Notebooks
Maia wrote to her Madison classmates in response to their questions that the teachers here are really strict. She noted that they expect you to have all your books (they have textbooks that they need to complete their homework) and they do not except forgetting your materials as an excuse for not completing your homework. Students are penalized for not completing their work and awarded for doing it. The homework is graded based on effort to complete it, not necessarily on correctness and is most often corrected in class so students learn from their mistakes.

The work they are doing is definitely not busy work. It clearly is reinforcing the topics they are studying and it is teaching them higher order thinking skills. The work typically requires a level of reading comprehension/study concept, followed by the student analyzing or synthesizing information. They are asked to write in their own words to explain concepts and give their own example. They can't simply copy from the book by the time they are in 3rd grade and beyond. There is a clear progression in the level of expectation from one grade to another.

So, how do they do this and keep it all organized? Every elementary student is given an assignment notebook. This is the primary communication between the teachers, student and parent. Assignments are written on a special space on the board in the classroom and students are given specific time and direction to copy it down in their assignment notebook each day. The teacher walks around to ensure this is being done and makes a special effort to check in with the kids that tend to have trouble keeping track of things. The expectation is that the assignment notebook is the first thing that comes out and the last thing that goes into their backpacks both at school and at home. As parents, we need to look at it everyday as well to make sure that we know what our kids need to do.

The second purpose of the assignment notebook is communication between the teacher and the parents. Teachers don't have time during the day to check their email so if there is an important message to send in, it gets sent in through a note in the assignment notebook. If your child was really sick and didn't get to complete their work, that can also be put in the notebook alerting the teacher so she will go easier on the homework issue with your child for that day. They still need to complete it though. If your child has an appointment or will leave early, that too is sent via the assignment notebook.

My thoughts on this are, why don't we start with higher expectations in our elementary schools in the US? Why don't we prepare our kids for middle school by teaching them earlier how to organize? We spend several weeks in the fall starting in 3rd grade on test taking skills for standardized tests yet we spend very little effort teaching them to be organized and take responsibility for their work connecting school to behaviors outside of the classroom. The main point being that the systems exist in the classroom. Our teachers do a great job of that but it doesn't get carried home in a systematic way. Those are life skills that will help a child in all aspects of what they do and learn.

As a former 7th & 8th grade teacher I remember the transition being incredibly hard for parents and was dumbfounded by those parents who didn't understand why it was so important for students to remember to bring their materials to class. If those expectations start earlier, our students are prepared for the rigor of middle school and high school.

In my opinion the assignment notebook is a transformative experience. They start this as soon as students enter primary school. I have learned that this is in all primary schools not just where our kids attend. By high school, there is no such requirement. It is assumed by then that students have developed their system of organizing and taking responsibility in their own ways. In Madison, I know high school students may purchase schedulers/assignment notebooks especially designed for the school with important dates (school events, breaks, etc.) indicated. There is no such thing in our Madison primary school. Why wait?

So what would a first grader write? Perhaps together the class could generate ideas of three important things they learned that day. The teacher could write it on the board and the students could copy it. I would have loved to know more about what my kids were doing in school at that age.  The typical answer I got was "nothing." Or how about a suggestion for what to continue to practice with your kids at home to continue to build on what they did in school? Perhaps not all families will do this but the suggestion certainly doesn't hurt.

Some parents don't live close or have the opportunity to stop in school. Those parents have many fewer avenues for communicating with the school and the assignment notebook would be a potentially great way for them to stay a little closer to what their child is learning and have it come directly from the child.

What changes have we seen? An organized motivated child takes responsibility seriously. That child is concerned about making sure that the work is done and done well. She seeks additional systems to keep herself organized. This is the child that probably doesn't "need" the notebook but likes having it and feels mature using it and taking responsibility for her actions. Her parents like keeping up with what she is doing and have an opportunity to ask more specifically about her activities.

A disorganized child who cares what the teacher thinks, struggles. She finds it hard to develop a system to remember to bring home all the books she needs. Yet, with a suggestion, she developed one. As soon as she finishes with a subject for the day, she puts what is needed for homework in her backpack attached to the back of her chair. She is proud of the responsibility she has taken. The teacher does help check to make sure that her assignments are written correctly in her notebook. The parents ask to see it as soon as she arrives home. For a student less inclined to share an assignment notebook, a system of signatures between the teacher and the parent could be developed making sure the messages are getting shared between home and school.

What we have seen in just three weeks is some change in the amount of effort as a result of higher expectations. While the content practiced isn't always done well or right, the process and organizational procedures are in place. The disorganized child is beginning to develop systems for better organization with respect to school related content. While she may not like taking the responsibilities expected of her she is understanding that it is her responsibility to do so.

Parent Involvement
This is an area that has been a bit of an adjustment for us but it certainly helps us to understand some of the differences in parents in our Madison community who come from other countries into our district. There are clear lines drawn between parents and the school building and learning in the classrooms.

It seems that each teacher has an additional classroom assistant to help with kids that need academic support. The classes are up to 25 students per class at all age levels of primary school. Parents are not invited into the classrooms to assist as they are in in the US. The school is a gated area and we wait outside the gates until the bell rings or we are otherwise invited in to pick up our children. Similarly for a school event during the day, we wait outside the gate until we are invited in for that event. When the event is over, the students are in a line with their class and head back to the classroom. They generally don't get to go visit with their parents at the end of the event.

What we observe is that the students are more orderly. The expectation is that order is not disrupted and the children are not distracted by their parents presence. This separation is a bit of an adjustment for all of us, although Morgan has more than once run over to hug me and then gotten back into line. I haven't seen many other kids do that with their parents.

I'm a strong believe in parent involvement in our schools as it is their kids education that is at stake. What's curious about all this is that there is still a partnership between the parent and the school, although it is much more through the assignment notebook and requested meetings with the teacher. All teachers have one afternoon a week designated as "office hours" for which you can request an appointment or they may contact you requesting to meet about your child.

It is out of concern for your child that they require order and maintain high expectations for behavior. I'm not sure how well orderly behavior works in larger elementary schools but I may try to investigate that a bit. My sense is that the physical distance between parents and their child during the school day is common for all schools, not just the one our girls attend.

So, we would love to hear from you how your school works and if you are part of Madison schools experiencing the same as we do at Thoreau, what you think about the ideas/experiences we are taking away from here.


  1. Hey Lauren,

    Very cool observations. As an elementary level teacher, I see the distraction of parents physically being in the school at certain times---as you stated, there is a partnership to be groomed but at appropriate times and in order to keep things orderly, maybe the model from Spain should be more strictly followed. Same in Japan!

    As for assignment notebooks, we have them, in our elem. school, from 2nd grade on. They work well although there are parents that sign them and don't pay any attention to what it in there. But, it is a great communication tool and does help the students become more organized. I would be an advocate for a longer school day too, if that extra time was given to organizational strategies such as doing a better job of writing in that assignment notebook, which seems to get squeezed in here and there and many students don't use it effectively enough.

  2. Lauren,

    Very interesting post. As a mother of 3 children, two of whom are visually-impaired and one with ADHD, I really like the system you are describing in Spain. With our VI kids, we have grown accustomed to developing a notebook communication system with the school so we know what is going with them at all times as they start school. However, once our oldest VI child reached 2nd grade we were told that a parent/teacher communication notebook was no longer appropriate, it was now the child's responsibility to keep track of homework, etc. I agree that they should begin to be learn this responsibility, but strongly believe that the teachers and school need to do a better job of creating a system that all children can follow with the appropriate support depending on their personal learning style. It was a difficult transition for us and for our daughter and made for two very rough years until she was really old enough to have a reasonable chance at keeping track of things on her own (4th grade). I really like the fact that the communication system is consistent throughout the whole school where here in Madison it is up to the individual teacher to choose a homework system and in our experience, up to the parents to initiate and maintain a communication system. Our family's success at home depends heavily on routine, schedules, order, and organization and I wish that we could count on the same to be reinforced at school every year no matter who they get for a teacher!

    Thanks again!