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Opinion: Back-to-school night: A shift away from ‘passion for learning’

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Back-to-school night has changed over the last couple of decades, and not for the better. It’s unclear to me exactly when this happened; it’s been more of a gradual shift noticed after 23 years of annual attendance at my kids’ schools, all of them in an affluent suburban school district. Three more to go after Wednesday night.

In those earlier years, teachers spent most of their time -- admittedly, in upper grades, they’re allotted a measly 10 minutes each -- talking about what the students would learn and how they, the teachers, would transmit knowledge, build skills and foster intellectual growth. Sometimes they would talk about goals -- not testing goals, but about sending students out of the class at the end of the year who had more confidence in themselves, or more compassion for others, a sense of being world citizens, or a lifelong reading or exercise habit.

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These days, the talk is mostly of grading rubrics, class rules, points deductions for various behaviors, the preparations for the state’s standardized test. There were a couple of classes Wednesday night that could have been in any subject; the teachers didn’t actually mention anything about the curriculum or the value of learning this topic, but one gave a lengthy talk about the dire consequences of unexcused absences. Another teacher finished early with her spiel about how to navigate her website and how many days students were given to make up missed work, so asked for questions, then seemed nonplussed and unprepared when a parent asked what the students would learn this year.

I imagine that we parents have contributed mightily to this. Students aren’t the only grade-obsessed ones around these days; their parents appear to be planning for their second-graders’ Princeton careers. If teachers don’t mention how the grades work, a parent is sure to mention it. Surely, the most common parental question is, ‘Do you give extra credit?’ This is also the teachers’ one big chance to impress a few basic rules on the parents so that no one comes running later for a special break for this little darling or that. The state’s standardized tests have added another layer of deadening.

Still, a couple of teachers managed their way around this. One dispensed with the organizational stuff in a minute and gave us the contact information for parents who might have more questions -- and then launched into an enthusiastic pitch about the value of learning both foreign language and culture, and how the students would absorb both. The English teacher handed out an easy-to-parse brochure she’d prepared to take care of the basics and devoted most of her time to helping parents understand the wonderful literature the students would read and analyze, and urging them to immerse themselves in a couple of the books as well.

Various teachers interpreted the school district’s new emphasis on college- and career readiness in extremely different ways. One saw that as the virtual end of multiple-choice tests. Long live the lively classroom discussion and essay writing! Another saw it as paramount the importance of tidy-looking homework with proper staples, because messy work is not accepted in the workplace.

The most interesting part of this is comparing the evening with my daughter’s view of her daily educational experience. The classes she loves and feels she’s learning the most in happen to be the same ones where the teachers showed a passion for their subject and well-focused goals for the students they teach. Goals, that is, beyond well-stapled homework.

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-- Karin Klein


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