Last year I held several interesting parent-teacher-student conferences. I’m sure some of you are questioning what I mean by “parent-teacher-student conference” and asking me if it’s normal to include students in these conferences. Well, I’m not sure, but I do know they work extremely well for my students. In fifth grade, students are well enough aware of what they need to do to be successful as it relates to behavior and buckling down and getting work done. A student is a key stakeholder in his or her successful scholastic career, so including him or her is a no-brainer.
I was lucky. For the most part, parents and students showed up whenever requested and played an active and engaged role in these conferences. Considering I work in a Title I school that has a population that’s roughly 75% below the poverty line, anytime we can increase parental involvement in our programs it’s a good thing.
My happiness at the fact that the parents and students have at least turned out to the conferences often turned to disappointment when I would inevitably bring up the one topic that seemed to be a forgotten point among many of my parents: reading. In every conference last year, I asked parents and guardians if they observed their child reading on a regular basis. I would never define the time. Hourly, daily, weekly. I would simply say “regularly.”
Most of the parents were honest with me and said “No.” Most of them then began discussing the hardships that made it difficult for them to play as large a part in their child’s life as they’d like to. Many of my parents worked at least two jobs. Five or six even worked three. So, without judging or condemning their actions (which would have been wholly inappropriate and unhelpful), I empathized with them. Just the fact they took the step to come to our conference means they care. But how was I going to create a culture of reading in their home?
First, I stressed the importance of ANY READING IS GOOD READING. Studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics show that “reading stimulates the development of the brain, language, and a closer emotional relationship to the child.” Because most of my students had younger brothers and sisters, I stressed to both them and their parents and guardians that they should be reading to their siblings every day. In my classroom, I knew who had younger brothers and sisters. I always keep a wide range of reading levels in my class library. From pre-K all the way up to middle school books for my advanced readers. For those students with younger siblings, I encouraged them to take books home and finger-read with their younger siblings to help develop those necessary language and vocabulary skills that so many of our students are lacking today.
Why do I do this? Well, perhaps it’s for purely selfish reasons. Aside from studies showing this type of reading-within-the-family does offer huge amounts of success, I figure I MAY have that student someday down the road. It certainly makes my job much easier and the probable success of that student much more assured if he or she arrives to my class reading at or near grade level.
Aside from providing books to my students to read to their younger siblings, I implored parents to read anything – ANYTHING – to their children even if it’s a paragraph from a magazine or a recipe from a cookbook. Knowing that time is at a premium for most of my families today, I stressed that studies show students who OBSERVE parents and guardians and other relatives reading, the more they’ll be inclined to pick up a book themselves and dig right in.
It’s all well and good for me to tell my parents what they can do for their children, but what about me? What about us? The teachers? Well, there are times when we just have to put away the formal lesson plans and tell the state standards to take a hike. We need to model the appropriate reading behaviors we hope to see in our students.
For roughly 20 minutes per day, I would stop what I was doing and we would have a period of silent sustained reading (called DEAR [Drop Everything and Read] in my school). I know many teachers would use this time as an extra 20 minutes to do planning or check their school email. Rather than do that, a good 80% of the time, I, too, would get out a book and read WITH my students. The silence in my class for those 20 minutes was fascinating. Every 15-20 seconds, I would lift my eyes from my book to check on the class. Perfect little darlings. Reading quietly. Engaged.
As teachers, we have the responsibility to model appropriate behavior to our students at all times. Aside from preaching the virtues of reading, there must come times where we ourselves buckle down, whip out a book, and bury ourselves into it so our students can observe us doing the thing we ask of them every day: READ!