Having just wrapped up the first ParentCamp USA hosted at the U.S. Department of Ed in Washington DC, I feel like there are half a dozen takeaway blog posts I could write. But there is one topic I feel more passionate about than any other, and that is….Why ParentCamp? Why do I care so much about an event that I am willing to donate countless hours of my limited time (as does every other ParentCamp organizer)? So, here we go…
I wish I could somehow capture the energy and excitement that happens in a ParentCamp smackdown (the last session where everyone comes together to share one thing they took away from the day). Having attended many Edcamps, I can tell you the energy is triple that of an Edcamp smackdown. Why is that?
I think there could be a few reasons, but believe the biggest one is that parents (families) are not typically part of edu-conversations. They may be given information by their schools, they may talk to each other about education, but seldom are they truly part of the conversations where they are not only free to express concerns and ask questions, but also contribute ideas and to the solutions.
ParentCamp like Edcamp is nothing formal (which is a huge appeal, because it’s hard to be real in a formal setting, and if we aren’t real, then we likely aren’t digging into the real issues.). It is not a bunch of presentations. It may even be more about the relationship building than informing. ParentCamp is a group of people coming together (often community – but in this case, it was our entire country) because they all care about the same thing…supporting our children and their education.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to educate them. To best do that we need to first recognize titles are irrelevant (I’d also add, to some extent, so is the level of your education). EVERYONE has something valuable to contribute to the conversation. Each one of us has a unique lens and perspective that others cannot speak from. Each one of us has triumphed over an obstacle in a way that someone else has not. For that, each one of us can offer something to the conversation that will help our kids reach for dreams they never knew existed. It is difficult to get people to attend and participate in something (without being bribed with a prize) if they feel inferior, so…goodbye titles!
So how do we engage families and the community in education? Should topics offered at ParentCamp focus on relationship building? I can tell you that is what I assume many thought ParentCamp was about at first, because we had more discussions submitted on relationship building than anything else for ParentCamp USA. So this may sound a tad crazy, but no. We should not have so many sessions built specifically on how to engage with families. I’m not saying to have none, but in all reality, that’s not where parents struggle (we often struggle with getting the real information, not with speaking to our child’s teacher), and it really isn’t what is going to entice the average parent to take a few hours out of their weekend to attend. If we want to engage families. If we want to entice them to come and share and learn with our teachers, we need to give them information that they can use. We need to give them information that is relevant to them and their family, today. We need to start conversations that talk about what education looks like today (both the struggles and crazy amazing things) – because it likely looks little like what they experienced when they were in school. We need to come together to share ideas on how to make it easier to be a parent. The world changes so fast, and we all have so little time to do the research/reading to stay up on how to use social media…or what it is, or what is STEM and why we should care. Parents don’t need another 2 free hours each day to be a partner in their child’s education, they simply need to tweak what/how they do things already.
Here’s the other piece…I always love when you go to a Back-to-School Night, read the welcome newsletter, meet with the teacher, and they all stress how important it is for us to “support our child’s education/learning at home.” How many families know what the heck that means, or how to go about it? I remember when my oldest first started school. Based on what the teacher and school shared with/told me, the way I was to support my child and his education was to read the newsletters, show up at events, contribute to the fundraisers, volunteer my time, make sure he did his homework, and sign off on a piece of paper that we read 15 minutes a day. I’m sorry – but THIS drives me insane! This is being his cheerleader. It does little to ensure he is getting the most out of his education. It sets me up to only play an active role after the fact, when something has gone wrong. To be reactive versus proactive.
To support learning parents need to know what that means, and how to best do that. We need to know about what and how our children are learning. We need to know about the tools they are using, and a general idea of how they are using them. We need to ask questions, but in order to do so, we need to have some basic knowledge first.
Going back to discussions offered at a ParentCamp…we need to not only offer feel-good sessions, but also sessions that provide concrete information and resources families can use/turn to tomorrow. By default, we will build a working relationship between home and school when we can all hold a conversation about helping our kids read for passion, navigate the mind-boggling IEP process, or use the technology that our kids are using in AND out of school.
Remember, the average parent has just a few hours to give each year to be physically at the school. They’re going to be selective when choosing those moments, and right or wrong, they’re almost always going to choose moments that are about and for their child…not ones to help make the school prettier, or community better. One could argue though that if they are helping their child be a valuable member of their community, they are in turn helping make the community better too.
At the end of ParentCamp USA, those of us who planned the event sat down to quickly debrief the experience. The question came up about what we are doing to help prepare educators on how to engage with families. A valid question, and something our schools needs to be better at. A question that I personally believe we make far too complicated (a conversation for a separate post). But a question that is not to be addressed at ParentCamp.
What makes ParentCamp so wonderful and exciting is that it’s unique in that it is about the parent piece in this puzzle. It is about helping engage parents through inviting them into these conversations they’ve seldom been a part of, and how they can better support their child’s education because they now are beginning to understand what the heck that means, and how they can do it without trying to find more time in their day. If we want to talk about helping educators become better at what they do, we have Edcamps. (Side note: although educator focused, I highly encourage parents to attend and participate in an Edcamp. The participants are extremely welcoming and you can learn SO much. Most things being done or used in a classroom, can also be done and/or used at home. And the bonus? If you see something great, you can bring it back, and serve as an advocate for these great practices to be applied to your own child’s classroom, school and/or district.)
- It builds and strengthens relationships and community
- It provides a forum and starts crucial conversations
- It provides us with information and ideas
- It opens our eyes to new perspectives…and helps us see we all want the same thing for our kids
- It proves even difficult conversations can prove to be productive and positive when we toss titles, put kids at the center, and approach the issue with a “we” mindset
- It proves that families and educators can come together to talk about more than class parties and grades
- For those inviting kids to lead, it proves how incredibly bright and talented our children are, and what we are missing out on by not inviting them into these crucial conversations (Student, Ben Cooper stole the show with his discussion about technology used to support students with dyslexia/learning disabilities at ParentCamp USA). Parents & educators, take that as a compliment as to what an amazing job you are all doing.
To learn more about hosting your own amazing ParentCamp…go to www.parentcamp.org
A huge thank you to the U.S. Department of Ed for opening their doors to host a ParentCamp in our nation’s capital, and to all those who participated and made it such a phenomenal day and event.