Friday, July 22, 2011

The Power of the Dinner Table

I just had the opportunity to spend the evening with my two daughters, 17 and 15.  While at the dinner table we enjoyed great conversations regarding the books we are each reading, differences between how teachers teach, and the value of homework. While on vacation last week we experienced the same thing. Many times when they visit, yes I'm divorced, we cook together and talk at the dinner table as well. It seems like the moment we leave the table, however, conversation wanes. Texting begins, the T.V. gets turned on or one or more of us get online and focused on something other than each other. I can remember the best conversations I still have with my parents, my wife and even my friends occur around either a meal or possibly a beverage. 
I know that there is a tremendous amount of research that acknowledges just how important a family meal in the evening is, so I am wondering why we as school leaders, don't protect that time for our families. We can often fill  children's days with scheduled activities which prohibit family time at the dinner table. 
Whether it be dance lessons, music lessons, sports team practices, games, concerts or just a plethora of homework I would guess that a dinner together as a family is a rare thing and even if everyone is eating at the same time, it is rarely around the dinner table with no T.V., texting, radios, newspapers etc. 
I also remember doing my homework at the dinner table as that was the only place to really do it in my house when I was young. Mom and Dad were often there as well or made frequent visits to ensure we were not experiencing any difficulties. After we were done with our homework and chores, we were sometimes allowed to watch a T.V. show with them. We had early bedtimes and were encouraged to read in our rooms by frequent visits to the library and the absence of any electronic devices in our rooms. Even when I did get a record player, it was not to be used after the designated bedtime. 
I look in my son's room at college and he has two video game consoles, a computer a 42" flat screen T.V. and the ever present smartphone. Until he left for college, however, his mother had him follow much the same routine I had followed when I was a child.  I commend her for using the Power of the Dinner Table with my kids when she could. I believe it is due to their time at the dinner table is what has ensured their success up to this point. Our parents were geniuses.  It is amazing how we don't often realize this until after we have had our own children. I am going to call my parents tomorrow and thank them for all of those times I missed a show I wanted to watch in order to complete my homework or honor a bedtime which I am sure was designed to encourage my reading. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Student Advisory Committees

I have long advocated for advisory committees for schools and over the years brought in parents, business partners, educators at the post-secondary level and even students to discuss needed improvements in programs and schools.  I patted myself on the back for bringing these people in to hear about what wonderful things we were doing in my classroom. Later, I wised up and actually brought them in and asked them what I should be teaching.  Mom was right about the two ears and one mouth thing. I have continued this practice but until recently I have always felt that I have gotten what I needed in terms of input from those sitting at the table. In the past three years, I have come to realize that although they are at the table, I really don't get much from the students in terms of what they want. Why would I expect to when in that type of setting they have been trained to sit and listen, be seen but not heard, not to speak unless spoken to. And of course only the best trained are invited to that particular table.
I changed my approach during the accreditation I participated in at Keokuk and repeated it here in Fort Dodge. I selected a diverse group and ensured that they were honest when questioned. I have a long way to go in this area, however, as I rely on student officers to provide me information about how students feel about initiatives we as adults have put in place.
My eyes have truly been opened while spending time in Rachel Hansen's Government class twice this year and John McBride's Journalism class as well. In Ms. Hansen's classroom the students are charged with designing and delivering their own "Declaration of Independence".  Remarkably, the two student groups both cited the lack of their voice in decision making in our school.  They proposed changes that are very imaginative and several I plan to implement in our school. Other issues they are protesting, once explained, they were remarkably understanding. I kick myself for not giving students the reasons for many of the rules/policies currently in place. Instead of reasons for the rules we all too often provide consequences when they are broken. We know full well that many of our consequences for rule infractions are ineffective in changing student behavior. Students generally follow rules because they have been "trained" to do so early in their school experience, they understand how doing so benefits them, or they value a relationship they have with the rule maker/enforcer.
We will be selecting a new schedule model we hope to transition to in the 2012-13 school year. Students have already played a big part in the process. I hope to increase their involvement over the next several months.  We have a group of students selected blindly from groups of students who are representing desired demographics. Surprisingly, I had better response from the students approached than I did the set of parents which were selected. I have them meet separately and record their questions and suggestions. I feel strongly that adult involvement tends to squelch honesty and creativity.
I have been sitting here this evening pondering the many things we need to get done over the next several weeks, one of which is to discuss possible changes to the student handbook. In other words, changes we will make in the rules we set at the building level. We do this early to ensure we have the opportunity to engage the board in discussions concerning policy when we feel it is necessary. Last year we put a new attendance policy in place which required board approval/action. I have always completed this process using other administrators, teachers and at times parents.
This year I plan to begin the process with students. I plan to have students discuss desired changes in their advisory period. I will compile the information and then hold a forum in the evening for them to come and debate the ideas with myself or other students. We will involve them in the discussion providing them the voice our founding fathers desired when writing their Declaration of Independence from English rule.
As stated earlier, we have a long way to go in bringing students into the governance of our school, but I think involving them in change and hearing from them during in-service is a step in the right direction. One day I hope to see student advisory committees established in each district and maybe even see a requirement for student involvement in policy development.