Last night I ran an activity table at Family Math and Literacy Night at one of the schools where I work. I set up my go-to project -- collage making with tissue paper (it never looks bad, but simultaneously, no one is ever really all that good at it) -- and sat down at my station with a New Yorker. I didn't really think anyone was going to come to my station. Most of the kids who go to this school don't know who I am, and "art station" sounds like it has about as much to do with math and literacy as "whale station" or "popcorn station" might. (Although, I would absolutely go to a "whale station" if such a station existed.)
For the most part, I was right. Parents and their kids flocked to stations with teachers who actually taught math and literacy. Especially popular was a station across the hall from mine that had a bunch of fake food you could pretend to buy. What is it about fake food that is so captivating for children? A fake broccoli has ten times the appeal of a real broccoli when you are eight. On second thought, a fake broccoli has ten times the appeal of a real broccoli at any age. I'm not sure why this is. You can throw a fake broccoli at a dog? You can draw a moustache on a fake broccoli and say it is your buddy? I'm not sure.
Some families, though, wandered into the teacher work room where my station was set up and sat down to make collages. I never had more than three kids at once, which gave me ample time to have conversations with children (one of my favorite activities, just ahead of "eating doughnuts" and just behind "distracting cats with strings"). One kid told me she wanted to be the kind of scientist that "figures out what happens at the edge of space." I asked if I could borrow that idea from her at some point for a novel I might hypothetically write in the future. She said no.
The thing that was the most wonderful about this experience was that the kids who were at Family Math and Literacy Night with their parents were jovial, polite, and comfortable-seeming. That's something that isn't always a given with kids at school. I think the reason for it is obvious: when your teacher and your parent get in the same room together, and you're not in trouble for anything, it feels safe.
I think we often forget how important community can be. We get so wrapped up in our own projects, inundated with isolation, we not only forget to reach out to people who are important to us, we often other-ize them. Everyone is guilty of doing this. When you're not talking to someone, it's easy to demonize them, or dismiss them and what they are doing. I hear teachers saying mean things about parents all the time ("She has no structure at home, so no wonder she acts out at school"); simultaneously, I hear parents saying mean things about teachers all the time ("She can't focus because that classroom is a circus"). We refuse to work together. We take the entire burden on ourselves, and lash out when that becomes too much.
Working together is not synonymous imposing your belief systems on someone else. When I say "working together," I do not mean what happens when a teacher calls a parent and says, "Your kid is out of line, I need you to come here and fix it." Working together is that rare thing that happens when two people or groups of people are proactive. It happens when everyone agrees to respect everyone else to engage in some kind of community effort. No one has the power, because everyone has the power.
This is so hard to achieve in the kind of school setting I am used to being in, because the power dynamic is always skewed. A school full of white out-of-towners who are in positions of authority does not always feel like a safe place for a parent whose kid is struggling behaviorally or academically.
That makes Family Math and Literacy Night sort of a godsend. When parents, kids, and teachers all choose to be in a place for a proactive reason, everyone just feels better, period.
If only we could make it so that all parents and all teachers and all children could engage in this kind of community activity. But as it is, I have six weird-looking collages in my room that I didn't have before, and for now, that's good enough for me.