A Back-to-School List—For the Grownups!

[Thomas Moore, "A back-to-school list -- for the grown-ups" Charlotte Observer (08/12/03): 11A]

It’s as familiar in August as a 90-degree day -- the back-to-school shopping list. I’ve discovered those lists are missing some essential items that can’t be bought.

Here’s my list of back-to-school necessities only business people and parents can provide:

1. More parental involvement, encouraged by the business community. Many companies send employees into schools as volunteer readers or mentors. That’s a valuable contribution, but it’s not enough. Imagine if your child had an adult mentor you didn’t know. How would that make you feel? Along with mentoring children at schools, business people must reach out to parents. If your company has close ties to a school, consider hosting an event where school volunteers from your company can meet parents. Maybe your corporation can provide or fund transportation to low-income parents so they can get to other school events.

2. More opportunities at school for students to write. I’ve heard complaints from business people about their employees’ poor writing skills. It’s possible to develop kids who are great at taking tests but can’t compose a compelling letter, story or presentation. Why? Because we aren’t allowing enough time for children to write. Writing can happen during every subject, from math and science to music. We just have to make it a priority. Parents and business people can and should advocate for more writing experiences in our children’s schools.

3. Less emphasis on tests. Without getting into the minutiae of the new No Child Left Behind federal assessments or North Carolina’s long-standing testing program, I’ll simply state that our community shouldn’t be so focused on testing. Tests are putting more and more stress in our children’s lives. The tests show us what children can’t do -- not what they have achieved. We don’t ask our leaders to pass standardized academic tests before we put them into public office or hire them for important corporate jobs. If you had to take a test of the basics every adult should know, how would you fare? Who would decide what you should know? I believe we focus on testing because it’s easier than dealing with the more difficult issue of teacher retention. Many low-income schools have a high rate of teacher turnover. New teachers with only a year or two of experience often get placements in the most challenging settings. That’s a recipe for low grades and poor scholastic performance. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent James Pughsley is taking steps to place more experienced teachers with disadvantaged kids. Good. But beyond that, we need to give talented teachers new, stimulating opportunities so they stay at the same school for several years or more. I’ve seen it across the country, in every economic group: When children have strong relationships with teachers who are dedicated to a given school, children achieve higher grades. We also must pay attention to recruiting and retaining minority teachers. Our teachers need to reflect the diverse community of children they serve.

4. More free time for children. Many middle-class parents feel significant pressure to fill their children’s time with after-school or weekend activities. Their daughter’s friends are in gymnastics or theater, their son’s buddies are in soccer or Boy Scouts, so shouldn’t their children be, too? I’d say one outside activity is fine, but it’s best to leave most afternoons or weekends free for playing, talking, homework and daydreaming. Give yourself time to talk with your children. Get to know their thoughts about their teachers, friends and other important people in their lives. Let them read to you in the evenings. Give your children the gift of a childhood.

5. Honey, not vinegar. Yes, like most major institutions, our education system needs improvement. But nonstop negative rhetoric about the public schools doesn’t help anyone. Limit your negative comments about the schools and people who work there, especially in front of children. When we speak respectfully about teachers, that helps children understand their teachers are worthy. I know that when I learned new information from a teacher I respected, the knowledge registered deeper in me. I was able to reconstruct her information and make it mine. When you see a teacher at an event, let her know how much you appreciate her work. When you’re driving and pass by a school, offer a prayer or positive thoughts for that place. If you’re unhappy with the schools, channel that energy into respectful action.

6. More room to grow. This year, give the children and teenagers you know a little more responsibility. Acknowledge what they’ve learned. We’re here to help students deal with all the choices in their world, so they can make sound choices as adults. Let them grow.

Thomas Moore, Ph.D is a keynote speaker, workshop leader, early childhood consultant, and children’s recording artist. He is author of Gryphon House award-winning teacher resource books "Where is Thumbkin?" and "Do You Know the Muffin Man?". He is contributing author of Wright Group/McGraw-Hill’s curriculum, DLM Early Childhood Express and author of their literacy series "Music, Movement and More". He has also produced ten recordings for children.