Learning Expectations: Vignette #3

Vignette #3  –  A sixth grade teacher and mother of two elementary grade students shares how parenting school aged children has helped her appreciate the value of “hands-on” experiences and manageable homework assignments as user-friendly ways to genuinely understand and support the learning and behavioral expectations of her children in school. 

When Nicole Parker’s first child began school she admits to sharing common feelings of excitement and concern. Having been a classroom teacher for ten years, Nicole assumed that she had an advantage in understanding what her own children would need in order to thrive and succeed in school. Over the years, she shares that she has been humbled by her parent/teacher role which has left her both frustrated and filled with admiration for her own children’s teachers. With each child’s entrance into a new classroom, Nicole shares that she experiences a “learning curve” in understanding her role as a supportive parent. Her uncertainty speaks to the importance of teachers finding ways to make their expectations visible and to providing parents with hands-on opportunities to understand the experiences of their children. 

Like many other working parents in her school, Nicole’s teaching schedule makes it nearly impossible for her to volunteer or take part in the school day activities of her children. And yet, she shares how one particular fourth grade teacher was adept at finding ways to help parents understand and appreciate the short and long term expectations of their children in the classroom. Before the school year was even underway, parents were invited to a “meet and greet” the teacher evening where Ms. Hall not only shared some of her background and what led her to teach fourth grade, but gave the parents an opportunity to talk about their school experiences and the expectations they had for their children in the year ahead. A personal letter and a parent survey also were sent out by Ms. Hall, as well as a document that outlined the learning goals for the year, classroom procedures, expectations around behavior, information on their first unit of study, and tips on how to support kids’ learning at home (including guidelines and tips about homework and class projects). What Nicole found most profound was how Ms. Hall took the parents through a “sample lesson” and mini version of some of the transitions that the students would go through every day. This “day in the life of a student” experience became a valuable piece of information for the year ahead, as Nicole helped to support her child who often struggles with transitions. With an awareness of Ms. Hall’s expectations of how the kids needed to move through activities during the day, Nicole boasts that she felt that she had a “common language” that she could use and even employ during transition times at home. Nicole also appreciated the “head’s up” emails that Ms. Hall sent out to the collective of parents (and on individual bases) to inform parents about daily successes or challenges. These emails often provided a “three questions you can ask your child about the week” section, further creating opportunity for communication between home and school. 

More than anything though, Nicole asserts that parenting school aged kids inspired her to review and revise her approach to communicating expectations around homework and the parental role in supporting how their children think about what they are learning. She recalls the year when her son seemed to have countless projects and nightly assignments that nearly sent her family “over the edge.” Without a clear protocol of how to help (or if they should help at all), Nicole often felt confused and frustrated. She was constantly wondering whether she was doing too much or too little to help her struggling son. It made her think hard about her own students and their families, and the range of skills, willingness, and comfort that they had in supporting work at home. When her son questioned the point of certain assignments, Nicole wanted to have an answer. Whenever she came up empty handed, she realized how problematic this was for actually supporting a positive spirit of learning. In this moment, Nicole vowed to make certain that she could communicate a clear rationale to parents and students for every homework assignment that she gave. Appreciating the limited and valuable time that families have at home together, Nicole brainstormed and collected ideas that would create small, manageable “homework connections” that would not overwhelm families, but would create opportunities for them to appreciate and understand the learning going on in the classroom. This often came in the form of short interview questions posed by her students to an adult, or a directive for students to read a piece of their writing/reflections to family members and then write down their responses. What she found is that these manageable and non-threatening assignments often gave way to larger conversations about the classroom at home. Once it came time for parent-teacher conferences, many of the parents had a context for their children’s work and seemed more comfortable discussing the challenges and successes that Nicole would highlight. By consistently creating and sharing clear expectations for the rationale and process of the work her class was doing (even when it was messy and without clear answers!), Nicole insists that the culture of meetings with parents and students shifted from “me vs. them” to a partnership.



  • In “Five Hallmarks of Good Homework,” Cathy Vatterott insists that “meaningful homework should be purposeful, efficient, personalized, doable, and inviting.” This short article highlights what these hallmarks mean and what teachers can do to create homework that deepens student understanding and builds essential skills.

  • This site on “Parent Communication Strategies” includes links to five articles that highlight ways to keep parents informed and involved throughout the year. From “Communicating With Parents in Pictures” to “Involving Students in Parent-Teacher Conferences,” there is much valuable advice here to help build relationships between schools and families.




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