What about the “backchannels”?

Recently I was one of a group of people in our system invited by our Superintendent to go to Alan November’s BLC 09 conference as a team to bring what we can back. I was honored and thrilled–and even more so a few days later when I was also invited to be part of the practitioner’s strand and present at the Building Learning Communities conference. So I am going–as part of an austere group of educators from our county–and I am presenting!

Last week, the group going was called together to begin to pre-plan and strengthen our own community of learners who will converse, listen, think and learn together before we go, while we are there, and after we return. Our team consists of some amazing educators, many of whom are on Twitter–@BeckyFisher73, @jacatlett, (Janelle)  @dld1, (Donna DeGroat) @dharding3, (Diane Harding) and Beth Costa, Kristen Williams, Nancy McCullen, Christa Livermon and John Hunter. Many of these folks are our new instructional coaches (Christa and Janelle will be in my region) and I am looking forward to going with this group.

Last week, we talked about our goals in going:

Where do we, as a school system, go next?  As we incorporate more 21st century tools, what do we want to accomplish? What can we bring back?

When many of us saw Alan November at VASCD, we heard him talk about new literacies and redefining or recognizing new literacies–just what IS 21st century learning? How do we ensure that students do new things? We wonder about student involvement in creating the questions. . do they get to? Students need choices  that are open-ended and creative; we recognize it’s not just about the technology, but what the technology is forcing us to see and understand about our world. That’s a foundational understanding many teachers don’t have.  What foundational underpinnings do we want for ourselves, our teachers, our students? How do we best help students think for themselves?

We reminded ourselves visual literacy is crucial–how do we make that a vital part of our curriculum?  Back channels came up–we talked a bit about how conferences are changing because of back channel conversations–and the power of networks like twitter.

Our notetaker recorded these questions:

  • Redefining what literacy means, what is the “new literacy”?  Does everything 21st century mean “just technology”?  What about collaboration?
  • How do we hold ourselves accountable for addressing 21st century teaching and learning (beyond “you have to have 2 technology projects each year) information literacy, visual literacy, inquiry, collaboration
  • How do we stay on top of all of what we need to know and be able to do?
  • What do we mean by “21st century learning”? Not all wikis are 21st century?
  • If it sounds too intellectual and we don’t make it practical enough and related enough to the learning environment, are we pointing out the right stuff in the examples?
  • Examples that cut across specific projects but illustrate how we can just do this as what we do?
  • How do we make this more about who we are and not just something a few people do?
  • What does inquire, collaborate, etc. mean for students?
  • Why do we wait until after the SOLs to do cool stuff?  creative productions with choices…why aren’t we doing this all of the time?

We decided to meet again closer to the time we go, and also go to the opening reception together. We also agreed that we should pair up to go to sessions so we could bounce ideas off of a teammate.

And, again, we were reminded:

“Watch the back channels – this will be very interesting.”



As we near the end of the first nine weeks, our system requires classroom teachers to have parent conferences for all students. Each year, that makes me reflect on past conferences, remembering the parent who called ahead of time to ask me what kind of flavored coffee I liked, or the parent who showed up in the middle of that marathon day with a picture their child had drawn for me, or the parent who brought me a bagel for our 7 AM meeting. I also remember some of the parents, who, at the time, I sometimes describe in my head, as just plain mean. They come in defensive, angry or hurt–and sometimes seem to attack me in their attempt to take care of their child. Sometimes the tone of voice simply puts me on edge–I hear criticism where there may be none (or there may be), but it is clear they are uncomfortable questioning the teacher and wanting change. These are the conferences we all struggle with–because it’s too easy for us all to walk away with disgruntled feelings that may affect future interactions.

Every teacher has their conference nightmares–or their fond memories of parent conferences. We remember the parent who brought us coffee or a treat just as much as we remember the parent who came in angry, defensive, accusatory or timid. Each has an opportunity to teach us something, if we can only step outside of ourselves to listen.

One of my most difficult ones happened with some GREAT parents several years ago, when I was a fairly new GRT. The parents smiled rarely, despite my sharing their child’s wonderful work and talking about what an amazing thinker and intuitive mathematician she was. There were no comments about the child sharing or enjoying at home what we do in class, other than questions about why we did this or that. Mom and Dad clearly wanted to support school and their daughter at home, and were asking for homework, asking for information about what we do each day, asking for information about how she would improve and continue to grow in arithmetic skills throughout that year.

I heard criticism. I heard dislike. I heard anger (the dad particularly had a tone I heard as upset, and I named it angry). These may not have been the parents’ feelings, but I heard and read those emotions in the parents’ body language, tone of voice, and lack of smiles and my perceptions are what I remember.

We had to end quickly because of a prior commitment (I had another meeting), so we didn’t come to a consensus or conclusion. It certainly ended unsatisfactorily for me, and I knew it did for the parents as well.

Both of these parents were active in the building, as both worked at home, and that year they volunteered in three different grade levels. They had a reputation for being extremely demanding, and frankly, for not being nice in conferences as well. I had known these parents were coming in with questions. I knew they were probably coming in with a different view of what is going on in my class than I have. I felt they were coming in looking for a more traditional approach to teaching and learning than I have. I prepared differently for this conference and slept poorly the night before for worrying about it.

As I pondered those interactions that year, and wondered what I could have done differently, several things came to mind–and I think of this conference (and others) each time conferences come round.  Here are my thoughts and suggestions. And if they help me–or another teacher–then my time writing this is well spent.

First, I almost always begin conferences by asking parents if they want to begin with their questions or if they want me to share their child’s work first. This allows the parents to feel some control and often gives me a feel for how intense or critical the questions might be. In this case, the parents asked me to go first. That left their questions to the end, and we didn’t have time to address them all, much less come to any common understandings or consensus on plans for the future.

Knowing they requested the conference, I should have asked them to go first.

Secondly, as a gifted resource teacher, my class is less centered on isolated arithmetic skills than many classrooms, and more focused on arithmetic skills within the context of problem solving, and so the work on skills is not as transparent to parents as it is in many classrooms. I felt like these parents walked away feeling like I don’t work on arithmetic, and that was a major question for them.

I should have set up a situation that explained how I do that more clearly.

Thirdly, they asked about homework, and my answer was incredibly lame, as I was trying to save time. I actually had a pretty complicated system going on, and this child completed hers in school most of the time.

I needed to address that with them-and my other parents. I also needed to make sure she took it home so they could see it.

This year, I am actually collaborating with a classroom teacher to do problem solving homework in a way that really is going to stretch my kids–and I haven’t taken the time to share that yet with my parents just because I have been so busy. That is no excuse to not communicate clearly with parents, and I need to take care of that!

Lastly, they asked for information as to what was happening in my class so they could follow up at home. That is a reasonable request and I know they left feeling like I wasn’t going to do that, because we just didn’t have time to make a plan.

I asked them to reschedule another time for us to talk, and we addressed the issues we didn’t have time to in the first conference. It was a MUCH more pleasant situation as it was not rushed.

Just because we experience things once doesn’t mean we never make those mistakes again.  As a teacher, I hope parents understand that we are human–and sometimes aren’t as good as we want to be.

A new teacher talked to me the other day (in WalMart, of all places!) about a conference that went similarly to the one I describe here. I counseled her to call the parents and ask if they wanted more time–something I often do, if the conference is rushed. I also counseled her to let it go and just make sure she does her part to encourage good communication for the rest of the time she has these students, (and others in the future).

Conferences are about communication–and if either side lets that not occur, then everyone may lose.

Why Tzst Teacher?

I believe in teaching kids to think, so when I taught Kindergarten, I would often play with them with language–if they asked “can I go to the bathroom?” I would respond, “I don’t know, can you?” They soon learned to ask “May I go to the bathroom?” I would then respond, “Of course you can, you don’t have to ask.” (We had a bathroom in our room.) They soon learned to just go when necessary.

Or, when a child would come up and say “Can I ask you a question?” My response would be “Of course not, You’re not allowed to ask questions in school.” Some little ‘uns would then turn to walk off. . . .(I would catch them) but some would stand there a second and look at me, pondering what to do. I would tease them a few more sentences worth and then let them ask their question. . . but what happened is that they began paying attention to how they phrased questions and thinking about my responses.

I would give silly answers whenever I could–especially to questions they already knew the answer to, so they would say “No, that’s not right.” I could then ask them why they asked me if they already knew the answer. My goal was to get them to think and engage the other person thoughtfully.

They would often say “Ms. White, you’re teasing again!” One child, Aynsley, called me the teasiest teacher. I was actually pretty proud of that label. 🙂

The next year I moved to another school and again taught Kindergarten. In that school, I had another child, Joseph, say almost the exact same words–“Ms. White, you’re the teasiest teacher in the whole world!” At that point I knew what my vanity license plates would be and promptly ordered them–VA license “tzstchr”.

The name has stuck, and when I began a blog, I knew that had to be the name of it.