Conferences and the “essential conversation” between teacher and parent

Over the course of the next month, conferences will be held for and with students from both of our campuses.  These conferences offer an opportunity to check in on each student’s start to the school year, to look at the student’s educational outcomes and progress so far, and to set goals for the remainder of the year.  Beyond simply looking at a recounting of how the student has performed on classwork or a MAP test, the conferences allow for deeper discussion and understanding of the student as a thinker, a communicator, an artist, a person.  

While the format of these conferences at ANCS looks different depending upon the age of the student with students themselves leading the conferences once they reach middle school, one constant is the presence of both the student’s parent/caregiver and the student’s teacher.  These adults know the student in important but different ways, and in order to work together effectively on behalf of the student during a conference, there are some aspects of this relationship to keep at the forefront of our minds:

Recognize what each person brings to the discussion: In a book titled The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other, the author, educator, and parent Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot wrote about the natural tension that can sometimes arise in the relationship between parents—who are most interested in the their own specific child—and teachers—who are engaged in the deeply personal work of teaching a classroom full of students (you can read this short interview with Lawrence-Lightfoot to get a better sense of this and/or watch this longer talk she gave to really understand her ideas).  Near the end of The Essential Conversation, Lawrence-Lightfoot writes “productive dialogue requires that both teachers and parents…see the necessary and crucial claims of each other’s position.  Each must respect and value what the other knows and sees; each must attend carefully and listen deeply to the perspective and wisdom that the other brings.” As a teacher, hearing and appreciating what the parent sees and knows about her daughter from raising her is critical to supporting the student’s growth at school.  As a parent, really listening to a trained educator’s perspective on what your daughter is doing at school can really help you to know how to reinforce learning at home.

This is the student’s conference: Especially in middle school when students are leading the conference, it is important to let the student be the center of the conversation.  But even if the student isn’t physically present in the room, he should always be present and the focus of the conversation. Lawrence-Lightfoot describes a tendency for the “ghosts” of our own experience in school as children to haunt parent-teacher conferences by causing us to reflect upon our past as a way of understanding our student’s (or child’s) present.  But our student (or child) is different and unique from us and therefore his school experience will also be different and unique, so the attention in a conference should be squarely placed on his needs rather than on what school was like for us.

Don’t make the conference the only time you talk: At ANCS, there are two formal conference times each school year–one in the fall, another in the spring.  But teachers and parents shouldn’t save their conversations with one another for only these times. There is much to communicate about throughout the school year, and teachers and parents should be encouraged to reach out to one another to share good news, ask a question, or just to check in about the student.  Whether an email, a phone call, or a face-to-face chat, each of these help to build the healthy, productive relationship our students need us to have to support them in their development as learners and as kind, competent human beings.

How to help young people safely navigate a sea of technology

I’ve been working in schools since 1998 and have spent the past 11 years here at ANCS.  There have certainly been plenty of changes in education and in the experience of young people over that time, perhaps none as striking as the rise in access to and use of computer technology.  When I started at ANCS as the principal of our middle school campus in 2007, the entire building shared a cart of heavy, bulky laptop computers, and it was rare for a student to have a mobile phone (and “smartphones” didn’t exist).  Today we have a 1:1 student to laptop ratio in grades 3-8, additional tablets and laptop and desktop computers at each campus, and many students have mobile devices.

A few years ago our school’s technology subcommittee developed a multi-year technology strategic plan which included this description of the vision for technology use at ANCS:

As a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools, ANCS is committed to personalized instruction based on individual needs and interests as well as the performance of authentic tasks.   As a hands-on, constructivist community, we view technology as one tool to promote personalization, project-based learning, and authentic assessment. Teachers and students are empowered to explore creative and varied methods of instruction and learning, some of which will include technology, some of which will not.  It is the goal of the school to provide reliable, easy-to-use technology tools to its teachers and students to support their learning goals. Teachers and students are the primary drivers of how technology will be used in a certain learning activity; the vision of the school is to make technology available and to provide the appropriate professional development and training to make the use of that technology effective.   Lessons and indeed classrooms will vary greatly in how often and how deeply technology is used, and that variance is consistent with the mission of the school. Our goal vis-à-vis technology is to make sure teachers and students have it available to use at their discretion.

As you can see, our goal is not for students to use technology simply to have a slicker, more modern way of learning but to use technology as a tool for deeper, more personalized learning.  We are fortunate to have two terrific educators–Mike Boardman and Kisha Rogers–who directly support teachers and students in the use of ANCS’s technology and many more teachers at each campus who share their instructional technology skills with their colleagues.

Alongside the increase in the use of technology at school is a parallel rise in exposure to screens outside of school.  These infographics from Common Sense Media highlight the dramatic change over the past several years in the level of media consumption among young people, particularly through mobile devices.

As parents and as educators, it is important to be aware of these changes so we can help our children and students to develop healthy habits when it comes to the use of devices so that we can avoid the negative impacts emerging research suggests can come from certain types and/or levels of media use.  Here are three things I’d encourage all of us to do to support our young people when it comes to screens and devices:

  1. Monitor what students are using and watching and discuss with them what’s appropriate and what is not:  We all know that “But my friend plays _________ video game” or “Her parents let her watch ______________ show” is a common response from kids.  But we should all decide what’s best for our own family. Common Sense Media has terrific guides to apps, games, movies, and television with suggested ages and detailed descriptions along with discussion points for parents to use when talking with their kids.
  2. Help students develop a healthy media “diet”:  There are plenty of positive benefits to using devices for learning and for enjoyment.  But obviously there can be too much of a good thing, and we have seen students come to school bleary-eyed from staying up late watching a tv or displaying semi-addictive tendencies in relation to a video game.  Again, Common Sense Media offers simple ideas for parents and for educators to help students establish appropriate limits for when/how/where/what they use devices.
  3. Reflect on your own screen time: Smartphones have made adult lives more efficient and easier in many ways, but they can also cause us to check email more frequently, want to capture and post about every moment in our day, and sneak in views of phone to check the score of a game while out with our family (I’ll admit to some of these myself).  Our young people model much of their behavior based on what they see from us, and a recent article published by the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that one of the best ways we can support our kids in having healthy media use habits is to be more mindful of our own.

Access to technology is without a doubt a powerful tool for students, but we must take care to work in partnership between school and home to guide students in using that technology in ways that are beneficial to their learning and emotional development.

From the blog vault: “Inspiring an appetite for learning”

Last week, our school nutrition team received word that their program had been selected for a 2018 “Golden Radish Award”, an award given annually by the Georgia Department of Education, Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia Department of Public Health, the UGA Cooperative Extension, and Georgia Organics for “extraordinary work in farm to school”.  The ANCS nutrition team certainly does extraordinary work. They strive to provide locally-sourced food on our menus, with an emphasis on farms and vendors that are small and/or minority-owned. They teach hands-on classes to students in the kitchen and in our gardens to help students better understand how to make healthy and tasty meals. And they plan menus based on feedback from students and with dishes integrated with the curriculum that expose students to foods from different regions and cultures, like Mexico, West Africa, and Southeast Asia.

As a tie in to this news (and because I didn’t write a new blog post over the Labor Day weekend :)), I encourage you to take a few minutes to read this post from last year on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Education Matters” blog by ANCS Chef and Nutrition Director David Bradley about the thought that goes into our farm-to-school program.  There’s even a video of our students in action in the ANCS kitchen!

Extending learning past the end of the “regular” school day

Now that we are just about a month into the new school year, students and families are beginning to hear about programs and groups available to students at ANCS outside of “regular” school hours.  A range of enrichment classes, clubs, and other extracurricular activities enhances the learning students do in the classroom with their teachers by offering opportunities for different skills to be honed and different settings in which to use them.  At our elementary campus, after-school enrichment classes (the first of which are starting in September) provide students with the chance to learn alongside classmates of different ages and to gain some new skills in a small group environment. For example, past classes have focused on computer coding, cooking, soap-making, science experiments, running, and improv.  At the middle campus, after-school clubs are often student-initiated and a space for our middle schoolers to try on leadership roles in managing clubs with a supportive faculty advisor. A listing of available clubs will soon be on our website and will include areas of focus like being a part of the cast or crew for drama productions, skateboarding, art, computers, and a queer-straight student alliance.  We’ve even got a farm at the middle school that students can help to maintain and in which they can learn.  And, of course, there are plenty of athletics options through our participation in a few local sports leagues competing in activities like flag football, cheer, ultimate Frisbee, basketball, cross country, baseball, soccer and more, all of them available to all middle school students and several extending down to 4th or 5th graders. You can contact our athletics coordinator, Santina Cambor, with questions.

None of these programs could happen without dedicated teachers, staff members, parents, and other community members who give of their time and talents to lead, coach, and support our students in these extracurricular activities.  Additionally, given that our local/state funding accounts just for the learning that happens during the normal school day, there are expenses associated with each of these activities that we must pay, and we strive to make all of the activities accessible to all of our students.  We aim to charge only modest fees and offer scholarships to families and receive generous funding from our PTCA to help offset these costs in a way that is as inclusive as possible.

To our ANCS parents and caregivers, I encourage you to explore with your child the various after-school extracurricular options available and find an opportunity for extended learning.  And if there’s something you’d like to see that isn’t currently offered, ask your student to suggest it at school!

Being good models of environmental stewardship for our students

Last night the Southface board of directors held their regular meeting at ANCS.  Southface supports nonprofits like ANCS in understanding, designing, and implementing projects that promote responsible resource use.  Over the past 9 years, ANCS has been fortunate to have been awarded three different grants from the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta’s “Grants to Green” program to make over $1 million in energy-efficient improvements to our two historic school buildings.  Solar panels to produce renewable energy, low-flow plumbing fixtures, motion-controlled LED lighting, thermal envelope insulation, and other projects completed in partnership with Southface have allowed us to greatly reduce energy and water use at both campuses.

We take great pride in being good stewards of the environment, and we appreciate recognition given to us by the U.S. Department of Education as a “Green Ribbon School”, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a top ENERGY STAR performer, and by the City of Atlanta as an “Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge MVP” award winner.  As a school, we strive to model for students how to take care of the world around them by conserving resources, and it goes beyond just our facilities.  For example, our PTCA’s sustainability committee shares “green suggestions” from students at morning meeting, and the committee also organizes “zero waste” lunch days about once a month to draw attention to eating all of the food on our trays and being mindful of using reusable containers if packing a lunch from home.  For years, ANCS has participated in the Safe Routes to School program–including earning an infrastructure improvement grant with the Georgia Department of Transportation–to encourage walking and biking to school so that fewer cars are on the streets.  And in our cafeteria, our nutrition team emphasizes the use of locally-sourced produce, meats, and dairy as much as possible to reduce the energy costs associated with ordering products from distant vendors.

These efforts at reducing our energy footprint not only help us to protect the environment for our students now and into the future, but they also allow us to significantly cut our utility expenses which means we can put more dollars directly into teaching and learning.  If you’d like to connect with the PTCA sustainability committee to learn more, you can do so here.

17 years in, staying true to the mission of ANCS

Right before the start of each new school year, all of our ANCS teachers and staff gather at a site away from school for a retreat to begin building community and thinking about our work ahead with students and families.  At the opening of this year’s retreat at Sweetwater Creek State Park, I shared some of my reflections on the state of our school as we set to open for our 17th school year. A primary focus of my remarks was about holding on to the initial vision and mission that has guided ANCS through many changes since the school first opened its doors in August 2002.  For my first blog post of the new school year, I’ll hit on some of the same ideas.

Last spring a few weeks after our enrollment lottery, I bumped into a small group of prospective parents who had just finished taking a tour of our elementary campus.  I introduced myself to them, and, in conversation, one of the parents commented on how it was “great to be able to send [her] son to a school that’s now a ‘finished product’” because of all the work that previous waves of parents, board members, and, of course, teachers and staff, had put in.  Another parent nodded in agreement and said that he was thrilled that his child had “gotten into such a good school” as compared to the school for which he was zoned. I’ve thought back more than once to that seemingly innocuous conversation, and I think the reason I keep coming back to it is because it surfaces for me some tensions that exist as our school gets older and evolves.

Having been named Georgia “Charter School of the Year”, with long wait lists, a strong budget, and a solid track record of success, I can understand why some might consider ANCS to be a “finished product” as compared to our early days when practices and procedures were being figured out, the budget fluctuated, and charter renewal was on the horizon for the first time.  Similarly, I can appreciate (and am happy!) for a parent to see us as a “good school”, and obviously I understand that by applying to ANCS, parents are taking an active step of choosing our school over another school for any number of reasons. But I worry that those who might believe ANCS is a finished product–especially if a parent or caregiver–may not engage with our school in the way we still need to them to. And I wonder if the markers for why some parents today might deem ANCS a “good” school are the same as indicators earlier families would have looked to.  Let me explain.

You can see our school’s mission and vision right here on our website.  The principles that animate that mission and vision are those of the Coalition of Essential Schools, an organization that no longer exists but of which ANCS was long a member and whose ideas still live on.  At the core of the CES common principles is collaboration and partnership–between and among students, teachers, and families. Through these relationships that develop, ANCS is able to carry out its mission.  From the very start of our school, families have been “key collaborators” and “democratic practices” have been used to shape the school. This is as true today as it was when ANCS first opened. In that sense, then, we are not necessarily a “finished product”, but one that is evolving–a school that might be surer on its feet than we were a decade ago, but still one that needs and wants the engagement of its families and collaboration between school and home, teachers and parents, maybe in a different way than in 2002, but still to create a learning space for students that is true to our mission.

Speaking of being true to our mission, ANCS was founded in large part to help foster learning that was hands-on, rooted in interesting, relevant projects for students, and centered as much on the process of learning as the outcomes.  Phrases like “helping students learn to use their minds well”, “depth over breadth”, “student as worker, teacher as coach” and “learning…assessed with tools based on student performance of real tasks” populate the CES principles that have long guided our school.  For many families (and teachers), this approach to teaching and learning is what has drawn them to ANCS, a desire to help students develop skills as critical thinkers, communicators, problem solvers, and artists. There seems to be a growing tendency, though, to view ANCS as a “good” school based mostly on measures that don’t wholly capture many of those skills.  Scores on standardized tests of reading and math–like Georgia Milestones or MAP–are useful and important, but certainly far from the only way of determining whether we are living out our mission. In fact, the air space given to analyzing scores on these tests or how ANCS compares to other schools on them is much louder now than it was when I started at ANCS in 2007, and our scores on those tests are, in many instances, better now than they were then.  This trend towards basing an opinion about whether ANCS (or any school) is “good” by focusing mostly on these scores misses the much larger picture of what our school is helping students to know and to do, and, in fact, preparing students for these tests can sometimes run counter to other deeper, more meaningful learning in which students could be engaging. The scores matter, but they are not the only thing that matters–far from it.

In a similar vein, when I hear parents remark that ANCS is “good” as compared to one local school or another, when the comparison school is one that has more students of color or more students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, I have sometimes heard in a parent’s words–whether explicitly or implied–the demographics of schools playing into that comparison.  The founders of our school were dedicated to creating a racially and economically diverse school, and it is a central part of our mission and the CES principles. As the demographics of the neighborhoods we serve and our school have changed over time, we’ve been working hard over the past several years especially to lift up that part of our mission, so if you have chosen ANCS based on our demographics (and I have had some parents tell me exactly that), please know that we are unapologetically committed to, in the words of the CES principles, “honoring diversity” and “deliberately and explicitly challenging all forms of inequity”.  

So why are you here at ANCS?  I hope it is because you believe in the mission of our school and the principles that guide them, and I hope to work together with you to do important work in carrying out that mission on behalf of our students.

Time for summer (and summer reading)!

Come Thursday afternoon, ANCS students will begin their summer break, and while I hope all of our students get an opportunity to spend time outside playing and exploring, go to camps, and maybe even do some traveling, the summer also provides lots of time for reading.  In addition to all the books students might read on their own, every student at ANCS has some required reading for activities and discussion that will happen once the new school year begins on August 1st. Parents and caregivers, in case you missed them, here are the summer reading assignments:

For elementary campus students:

  • Rising K – Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
  • Rising 1st – Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell  
  • Rising 2nd – The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig
  • Rising 3rd – What Do You Do With a Problem? by Kobi Yamada
  • Rising 4th – The Jacket by Andrew Clements
  • Rising 5th – Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

For middle campus students:

There is a selection of books from which rising 6th, 7th, and 8th graders can choose.  All of them can be found in this document put out by middle campus librarian Terri Linahan.

Not only do our students have a reading assignment for the summer, but I–and the rest of our teachers and staff–do too.  Each summer, there is a common text that we all read to guide schoolwide professional learning in the coming school year. For the past several years, these texts have been focused on topics related to meeting the needs of diverse classrooms of students, and the books this summer continue that trend.  Our teachers and staff will be reading Culturally Relevant Teaching & the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students by Zaretta Hammond and So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.  These books promise to spark important thinking and discussion, and ANCS parents and caregivers might find them interesting to read as well.  If you do read one or both of these books (or have read them already), at some point in August, we’ll host a discussion about these books open to all in the community who have read them and want to explore the ideas in them with others.  I hope you’ll consider reading one!

This will be my last blog post for the current school year; I’ll pick back up in August.  However, we do have one final “Principles in Practice” newsletter which will come out in early June, and I’ll continue to post to Facebook and Twitter throughout the summer months.  Thanks for reading!

Thank you to all who volunteered at ANCS this year!

As we near the end of the school year, I’ve seen and heard many parents giving thanks to their children’s teachers, showing appreciation for the work they’ve done to help students grow academically and socially over the past 9 months.  Working with the teachers and staff here at ANCS, I know they are very much deserving of the thanks.

I also know that our students wouldn’t have the type of school they have if it wasn’t for the many people–most of them parents–who give their time to help out at the school in ways big and small.  Though we encourage parents to become involved at school, there is no requirement that anyone volunteer a certain number of hours or participate in specific activities.  Yet ANCS is fortunate to have parents and others who step up to fill needs and to make ANCS a special place for students.  

First and foremost, the folks who take on leading our PTCA are to be applauded for all of their work to organize events, distribute mini-grants, and find new ways to engage parents.  And most all of them are signing on for another year, so thank you to this year’s PTCA executive committee and to those who are leading it next year:

President:  Hannah Beth Millman

Vice President, Elementary Campus:  Brittney Gove

Vice President, Middle Campus:  Nikki Zimmerman

Treasurer:  Megan Gatewood

Secretary:  Alyssa Kopp

Fundraising Chair:  Rachel Ezzo

Communications Chair:  Paige Teusink

Our school is also grateful for the service of the members of the ANCS Governing Board who have put in many hours this year to attend committee and board meetings that shape the present and future of ANCS through policies, budgeting, and strategic planning.  In particular, I’d like to thank those board members in the final years of their terms: Ryan Camp, Tiffany Mitchell, Philippe Pellerin, Tara Stoinski, and Mitch White, who has served for the past three years as chair of the board.

Beyond these people who have filled critical leadership roles, there are countless others who have volunteered their time and talents in important ways for ANCS.  Coaching sports teams. Helping on “zero waste” lunch days. Running our annual auction. Coming in to be a mystery ready. Organizing the lost and found. Overseeing the yard sale or bingo night or Grandparents and Special Friends Day any of the PTCA’s big events.  Serving on an 8th grade exhibition committee. And on and on.

Volunteers helped to start ANCS many years ago, and volunteers continue to make us thrive today.  So thank you for helping us have another great school year!

Why do we fundraise?

As you’ve seen and heard by now, this week kicks off our final push towards this year’s goal for the ANCS “Gather and Grow Fund”, looking to raise $20,000 in the month of May to keep us on track for our annual goal of $125,000.  A letter I sent home to all families goes into more details about this week (and you can find that letter here), so I wanted to use my blog post this week to address two questions related to our fundraising efforts: Why do we fundraise? and How can families participate in our fundraising efforts?

Why do we fundraise? Simply put, state and local funding isn’t enough to cover the costs of running ANCS and offering the educational program we want for our students.  This is in part because we haven’t historically had access to special state revenues for capital facilities improvements and because there’s a gap in how funding flows to charter schools as compared to school districts.  To maintain the historic buildings at our campuses, to keep a low student-teacher ratio so students are known well to be supported in their learning, to create a farm-to-school program that teaches students about where their food comes from and offers healthy, delicious meals–all of this and more necessitates raising additional dollars each year, an average of roughly $400 per student.  While we have been fortunate to receive some grants to make up this difference, we rely on our annual campaign and auction to help offset these costs as well. In fact, our board consistently includes fundraising revenue in our annual operating budget, evidence of our need for these funds.

How can families participate in our fundraising efforts?  Although we have a specific monetary goal for our fundraising campaign, even more important than that is our goal of 100% participation in the campaign from our school community.  Having everyone involved shows our collective commitment to our school and is also impressive to those from whom we seek grant funds. But participation can look different from household to household.  Perhaps you can make a $400 per student contribution to the campaign, but really we encourage you to make a donation of any amount that meaningful for you and right for your circumstances. You can also get your extended family to give on your behalf or your business to make a matching donation.  Volunteering for one of our campaign activities is also tremendously valuable.

I hope you will consider making a donation to our Gather and Grow Fund this week to have an impact on the educational experience of our students.  If you have any questions about the campaign, feel free to contact our fund development coordinator, Stephanie Galer, at sgaler@atlncs.org.  And thank you for your support!

Our former students, growing from acorns to oaks

Ask any teacher, and she or he will tell you one of their favorite parts of the job is when an old student comes back to visit.  Seeing former students–how they’ve grown, what they’re doing–is rewarding in a profession in which the results often take time to be seen and realized, and knowing that students take their experiences in your classroom with them is an acknowledgment that, yes, you really are getting through to them even when you feel like you are not.  As a K-8 school, this is the time of year when we at ANCS often hear from and see many of our alumni. Graduation announcements from high school seniors and visits from college students just arriving home for summer break are all a sure sign of spring.

We strive to stay in contact with our alumni and to track their progress in their schooling beyond ANCS as one of the ways we can assess the impact of our work with students while they are with us.  Annually we put together a report on our alumni based on responses from surveys of them and their parents as well as from information on academic performance on high school standardized tests (we are waiting on final data from Atlanta Public Schools on our most recent alumni to publish this year’s report, but you can see last year’s alumni report here).  We also host an annual alumni breakfast to let our former students reconnect with each other and their school.

ANCS Alumni gathered at this year’s alumni breakfast, December 2017.

If you are an ANCS alum, we’d love for you to complete this contact form so that we can keep in touch with you.  And if you are in your final year of high school or college, please let us know what your plans are post-graduation, as we are very interested in where our students wind up.  In a few weeks, I’ll join my colleagues from other local APS schools on the stage at the Maynard Jackson High School graduation, as many of our former students receive their diplomas, and I will be thrilled to see them as they finish this stage of their lives, one started at ANCS many years ago.