Dr. Steve Constantino writes about family engagement in his new book, Engage Every Family. In the book, he shares the incredible story below. Read it and join in the conversation!
Mary teaches middle school science. She has assigned her students the long-term project of picking one of the planets in the solar system and preparing a display and report to be shared with the class and exhibited at the school “open house.” Mary spends considerable time each year on this project. The displays are always well received and the principal always comments about how the project puts the school in a very positive light with the community. The students use their library and writing skills, research skills, and presentation skills, and they coordinate their creativity and ability to conceptualize and apply their knowledge. By all accounts, it is an excellent project.
Some parents have contacted Mary to ask questions about specific aspects of the assignment, trying to determine what Mary’s expectation is with regard to the display portion of the project. Mary has become quite used to parent calls and skillfully answers each question to the satisfaction of parents. One parent, Mrs. Smith, explains to Mary that she is on a fixed income and cannot afford the art materials necessary for her child to fully participate in the project. She fears not only a bad grade but that her child will be embarrassed at the open house if the display is not up to the standards of the displays of other students. Mary tries to assure Mrs. Smith that whatever her child produces will be acceptable, provided that the guidelines of the assignment are followed.
Mary indicates that the project should be driven by the child, not the parent, and that Mrs. Smith should support her child but not worry about the amount of money spent or the “glitz factor” of the final project. Presentation boards and construction paper will be supplied by the school.
Even though the conversation was pleasant, Mary sensed that Mrs. Smith was not completely comfortable with her responses. Mary mentioned to the principal that there is a chance he might hear from Mrs. Smith. She explained the situation to the principal and the principal thanked her for the “heads up.” No further conversation took place.
Mrs. Smith was not convinced that this assignment was fair and takes her concern to the principal. The principal listens to Mrs. Smith and assures her that there will be no repercussion if significant money is not spent nor will there be preferential treatment for different displays of creativity within the project. Feeling that she can do nothing more, she leaves the principal’s office calm but frustrated.
Mrs. Smith supports and works with her child for several weeks to help create the best display and report possible. The Smith family does not have a home computer or printer. The family car is taken to work by Mr. Smith, who works the three to eleven in the evening shift at the local warehouse; therefore driving to the library is not possible. Mrs. Smith asked if her daughter could use a computer at school and was told yes, but the school could not allow the students to print the reports, since it had a limited paper and ink budget for the computers. Mrs. Smith, remembering that writing was an important aspect of the assignment, encouraged her child to use her best penmanship and write the assignment by hand on notebook paper. Mrs. Smith directed her daughter to write neatly and legibly or the process would begin again.
Mrs. Smith’s child turned in a project on time. Her child received a grade of “85” on the project.
When Mrs. Smith came to the open house, she quickly saw that many of the projects were indeed elaborate… a paper-mache model of Mars, complete with canyons and craters, color photographs and a report done on a computer and printed in color. There were planets spinning on battery-powered spindles representing an axis and one that was able to form the gaseous clouds of the planet’s atmosphere, because of a parent’s expertise in atmospheric engineering.
Mrs. Smith noticed that her child’s project was not among the others. When she asked Mary, Mary indicated that there was not enough room in the hallway for all of the projects and that some were displayed in the classroom. Upon entering the classroom, Mrs. Smith noticed that the three projects in the classroom, including her child’s project, had no special effects and the reports were handwritten. While they met the spirit of the assignment, they were obviously not as elaborate as the others on public display in the hallway.
Confirming her worst fears, Mrs. Smith was angry at the situation and made no effort to conceal her emotions toward Mary and the principal. Her child, embarrassed by the entire situation, left the school building and waited outside until Mrs. Smith was finished yelling at the teacher and the principal. The principal asked Mrs. Smith and Mary to step into his office. He told Mrs. Smith that her child received a “good grade” and that her behavior was inappropriate toward Mary and him.
Mary was in tears, and Mrs. Smith was close to tears. The principal told Mrs. Smith that there was nothing wrong with the display configuration and that Mary was an excellent teacher who had prepared these assignments successfully for many years. He believed the entire incident should not have happened and told Mrs. Smith that all she had accomplished was to undermine the relationship between herself and Mary and embarrass her child. Mrs. Smith was unable to express her feelings of inadequacy about the incident, the project, and the fact that what happened was exactly what she feared, given similar situations in past years.
Feeling outnumbered and outmatched, Mrs. Smith left the principal’s office, found her child, and went home. Her child was absent from school the next day.
Questions for Thought
- Do you believe that this could happen in a school? Have you actually seen it happen?
- What was the purpose of this project? Why did it exist?
- What steps could have been taken to prevent what happened in the story?
- What specific changes in culture are needed?
Please join in the conversation below!
Meet Dr. Steve Constantino