Prepare Yourself Before Going to Open House

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches English at Santa Monica High School

In the next couple of weeks, thousands of Westside parents will catch a glimpse of their children's teachers and classrooms at an open house.

Parents usually come because they want to become familiar with the campus where their children spend roughly 900 hours a year, and to build a rapport with teachers.

All too often, though, parents enter the rooms sheepishly, listen passively, say "thank you," and leave--having learned little about the campus, staff or curriculum. Nor have they learned the types of important contributions they can make to the school.

With five years' worth of these twice-a-year parent fests under my belt, I have some pointers on how you can get the most from visiting your child's school, and what you can do to make a difference there.

First, find out about the nuts and bolts of each class, such as what your child is learning and how he or she is graded.

For example, ask the teacher for a list of topics that are covered so you can know which novels, historical eras, or scientific and mathematical concepts your child is learning.

Ask for the teacher's grading policy, too, to learn the kinds of assignments, tests, and projects required, and which ones count most heavily toward the final grade.

Since homework typically constitutes a large chunk of students' grades, be sure to ask the teacher how often it is assigned. That way you'll know better if your student constantly comes home without books and says nothing was assigned.

In addition to finding out the basic requirements of the class, ask about the "extras" that can help your child excel. Is there, for example, a museum exhibit, PBS program, or performing arts show that would make something your child is studying seem more alive and worthwhile? Are there related magazines or journals you could subscribe to or peruse together at the library? Which of the assigned novels, plays, or short stories are available on videotape for home viewing?

You may not be able to ask all (or any) of these questions of teachers at open house because there just isn't enough time. Indeed, in my own classroom, I can generally talk to a few assertive parents, no matter how hard I try to reach all who come.

But there is a solution. Bring to the open house a note for each teacher that lists your phone number at home and work, and the best time to reach you. List specific questions or concerns you want to discuss. Make sure your give the student's last name if it's different from yours.

What you see at open house is important, too. Wall displays, maps, showcases of student work and other learning props are pluses.

As you look around, though, also notice whether the learning environment is missing things you can contribute.

It's old news that public schools are starved for money and that classrooms don't have as much in the way of props or even basic supplies. So the shelves, desks, chairs, paperbacks, posters, or other materials in your attic or garage might just be among the things a teacher or students are pining for.

The best way to know is to ask the teacher for a wish list; most of us don't have to think long to name a few simple supplies that would help our teaching.

But teachers don't just like you for your possessions. Many would like you in the classroom, too.

Will the class be studying any topic in which you are qualified as a guest speaker? Are there tasks such as tutoring, paper-grading, or display-making for which you could volunteer? Even an hour now and then helps teachers and students immensely.

Above all, remember that exploring your child's academic world need not be limited to the open house. It is your right to visit a public school on any school day, and many teachers encourage parents to schedule visits to their classes.

If your work schedule makes daytime back-to-school visits impossible, then making the most of an open house is the best alternative.

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