What follows is an overview of my day from March 2nd, 2016. The impetus for this post came from my constant amazement at just how busy I (and every other teacher I know) appear to be pretty much all the time. I’ve decided to break it down roughly by school period. I’ve removed any and all identifying markers to specific students and/or adults without sacrificing the spirit of what transpired on March 2, 2016. See part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here.
Besides lunch, 4th period is the only time of my day when I’m not actively engaged with children or adults. It’s the only part of the day when I can try to work through my considerable ‘to do’ list. My district gives me two forty-five minute planning periods a day. Various mandatory meetings eat up one of periods every day of the week except Thursday. My school’s Special Education department uses Thursdays to hold IEP meetings, legally required meetings where parents, teachers, and students get together to monitor and discuss any child receiving special education services or accommodations.
As soon as Mr. Carter (my team’s excellent math teacher) leaves the room, I try and get to work. My energy is already flagging a little, so I allow myself a minute to just sort of stare into space. We’re between periods and the hallway outside my room is packet with children. I smile and wave at a few of them while I slump down into my chair. I look over at my clipboard and see “RESPOND TO FDJs” written in angry, giant red letters. Every day I keep a running list of the things I have to do. The longer an item stays on the list without being completed the larger I write it. I’ve put this one off a few days, so that’s where I decide start.
A Family Dialogue Journal (FDJ) is a notebook that goes home with each student every two weeks. Students use the journal to write short letters to their families about what they’re reading, writing, and thinking about in English class. Then, the parents read the letter and compose a reply. When the journal comes back to class, I read and comment on what the student and family member wrote. The cycle concludes when students share their responses with the class and ideally everyone discusses similarities, differences, etc. Although an immense time sink, I’m committed to FDJs as a form of communication.
One of the first things I realized when I removed grades and tests from my classroom last year was just how important numbers and letters were for teacher-parent communication. I needed to find a way to a) let each parent know what we were doing in class and b) how their child was progressing. I experimented last year with a variety of methods but nothing stuck. Over the summer I stumbled across a book on Family Dialogue Journals (Here’s a quick summary on the book if you’re interested). I decided to give them a shot this year.
The book was upfront about the difficulty of implementing FDJs in the classroom. Time, diverse language populations, and trust are just a few of the challenges. The FDJ process asks kids to be vulnerable and reveal aspects of themselves that schools typically have no interest in. The benefits, however, can be powerful. Through the Family Dialogue Journal process, teachers are able to value and incorporate the diverse range of local knowledge represented in each classroom. Students and families may reveal things about themselves and their histories that I have no other way of accessing. This year’s trial run has been challenging. I’ve run into every problem suggested by the authors and then some.
Except for a few stragglers the hallway is now quiet and I get to work. I take the first FDJ notebook off the pile and flip to the most recent page. This student, a male, is a joy to work with. He raises his hand for everything, offers to help out other students, and seems to genuinely enjoy school. Although the FDJ entries only need to be around four sentences (students pick something we did in the last two weeks and write about their response to it. What it made them think, feel, etc.), his are typically a couple pages long. This one is no exception. He writes about the Struggle Boards (our last project), saying “I really enjoyed interviewing my peers. I found out that everyone struggles in their life. Some are just better than others at dealing with it. Why do you think some kids deal with challenges better than others, Dad?”
His sanguine father responds with “That’s a great question. Your mother and I have been very lucky in our careers. You and your sister have been able to grow up in a loving environment where mistakes are encouraged. We also value having conversations with our children. Remember when you I asked you to shower and go to bed, but instead you chose to play with your Legos? You didn’t like what we told you to do, so you struggle. Your mother and I sat down with you to talk about why we wanted you to shower and go to bed. After all, you had already been playing with your Legos all evening. We want you to know that we will always support you through times of struggle.”
Although his response only briefly touches upon the kid’s question, I love reading it. These are the type of FDJs it’s easy to respond to. I skim back through the pages. The kid gets my annotations (Great question! What do you think the reason is?) and the father gets his own letter (Thanks for sharing this. Did you and your wife decide on a consequence? If so, how’d it go?). Families rarely respond to my responses, but that’s an issue I’ll tackle next year. My focus this year is just getting families and students to complete the journals.
The next FDJ comes from a family of similar socioeconomic background and education level as the previous kid. Despite this, the notebook I now open barely contains any writing at all. The girl’s letter home is a single sentence: ‘Dear ____ (she always leaves it blank because she doesn’t know who’s going to respond), how have you struggled?” Mom’s response is equally terse: “I struggle to meet deadlines.” Ironically, this parent told me she’s not satisfied with the amount of homework teachers assign her daughter. At our last parent-teacher conferences, she asked for extra writing practice so her daughter could improve her elaboration skills. Family Dialogue Journals offer interesting insight into family dynamics and the persistence of personality traits.
There’s typically an inverse relationship between length of entry and the effort of my response. A longer entry, while requiring more time to read, is easy to respond to. There’s enough meat on the bones to produce some a genuine reaction from me. Although short letters, such as the one I’m currently holding, take very little time to read, I have to spend longer trying to tease out information. To the girl I write “Great question. What kinds of struggles do you see around your house? Was there any particular reason you asked this question? What are some ways you struggle? I’d love to hear more!”. The mom gets “Thanks for sharing. I know all about deadlines. I have to respond to these journals in a short amount of time. In fact, most of my job is about meeting ever shifting demands. Would you mind talking a little bit more about some of the deadlines you face at home? I appreciate you taking the time to do this.” The last sentence isn’t just for show; I mean it. Family Dialogue Journals ask a lot of families. Most families, when able, rise to the challenge. And despite their reticence to share out loud, students claim to enjoy them.
The next journal is in Spanish. Instead of looking for the rest of the FDJs written in Spanish, I embrace my ADHD, grab my the notebook and my laptop, and find a teacher who speaks Spanish. She translates it out loud as I type out her words on a Google Doc. The mom’s response describes a time teachers in her home country were protesting in the streets. I thank the translator and return to my room, where I type out a response, put it through Google Translate, print it out, and staple it into the journal.
I manage to knock out four more FJDs before the bell rings. It’s now lunchtime, 11:24, with zero lessons planned and seven FDJs completed.