Pigeon Press (Portland, Oregon)
This year, the parents of freshman students have set up a group chat on Gmail where they discuss matters concerning their children and the curriculum. Recent problems have been the content of a visiting writers series book and the ninth grade homework load.
Many students, particularly those new to Northwest Academy, were overwhelmed by the amount of homework assigned.
“New families were pretty surprised by what sounded like the volume of homework that Northwest Academy was handing out,” Elizabeth Meyer, a freshman parent and moderator of the group chat, said.
Although Meyer said the role of moderator is not a well-defined job, she makes it clear that the group chat is a platform for parents to collaborate, share experiences and be engaged but this should not bleed into their childrens’ educational experiences.
“What has happened this year with the homework questions and students blowing that out of proportion has been concerning,” Meyer said.
Mary Folberg, Head of School, said that some struggling at the beginning of ninth grade happens every year.
“There’s a lot of new kids coming into our school in 9th grade,” Folberg said. “Its part of the sad state of our education systems that students come in and are kind of shocked by the workload that we have. They need to learn those work habits. We have the same angst in the sixth grade.”
Folberg also said that the freshmen have all the resources to succeed, particularly writing and math lab classes for new students.
“Learning labs are so important,” Folberg said, “because it teaches students how not to procrastinate, how to brainstorm, how to organize, how to do all the things that most of us stumbled onto that a lot of schools don’t teach.”
The visiting writers series book, Gutshot by Amelia Gray was another source of concern due its mature content. Some parents thought it was too graphic for 14 and 15 year olds but others just wanted more communication with the school.
“I don’t have an issue with my daughter reading the book,” Meyer said. “But it would have been better not to hear it over the dinner table from my ninth grader, I would have much preferred some sort of dialogue from the school or with the school about the adult content in the book.”
The conversation about Gutshot in the parent group chat escalated to a point where Jada Pierce, the English Department Chair, and Paul Martone, the visiting writers series coordinator, co-authored a letter to all Level One parents which helped ease any misunderstanding and unease about the book.
“One of the goals was to introduce the parents not only to the visiting writer’s series but also to our philosophy on controversial texts,” Pierce said. “Students will encounter discomfort sometimes in the texts so the hope was also to show why we see engaging this with this kind of material is valuable.”
Pierce said Northwest Academy received positive feedback from the parents after the letter was sent.
“We decided that in the future we’re going to send out a letter at the beginning of the year to clarify what the visiting writers series is and who the authors are and what the books are which is something we probably should have been doing anyway,” Pierce said.
Freshman students believe that they are ready and are mature enough to be exposed to darker material and handled it well despite parents’ concern.
“We’re going to get exposed to that kind of content and this book was really good and interesting to talk about,” Isabella Roby, another freshman, said.
Level One students are immersed into a new environment and given access to edgier literature. This can open students up to new viewpoints.
“My approach to the book was that [Gray] is writing down feelings that a lot of people have but are too afraid to show and I think that’s what made everyone think it was weird,” Jade Strapart, a freshman, said. “We’re not used to sharing all these things, we keep them to ourselves and that’s what shocked me and other people at first.”
Northwest Academy tries to expose students to a variety of different materials, some of which can be difficult to talk about. Students, however, are always given the opportunity to opt out of activities and material they feel uncomfortable with.
“Anyone that doesn’t want to can excuse themselves and that’s fair,” Folberg said. “So if its something that really bothers someone, I’m sure those teachers are open enough to hear about it and hearing why, and that’s important.”
Martone said that literature inspires many different feelings. He was only considering the reactions of students and not parents when making the decision of including Gutshot.
“We select books with adult subjects and themes, with the intention of respecting our high school students, nourishing their creative intellects and building social relationships,” he said. “The administrators and educators at Northwest Academy believe the classroom is an ideal setting for exploring complex subjects and themes. We believe these explorations–and confrontations with art–are essential to the educational process.”
Meyer said that having a group chat among parents allows her to a more engaged parent and helps drive the conversation with her kid.
“It was an interesting conversation with the parents,” Meyer said. “But it was probably a more interesting conversation for the kids to have at school and what it did was certainly drive a lot of conversations at home about how the students were dealing with the book which is precisely what should be happening at home.”
Northwest Academy offers many opportunities for parents to be engaged and be part of a conversation with the school, but not many parents have taken advantage of this resource.
A parent night was held four weeks ago particularly for new parents to talk to Folberg and Scott Kerman, assistant head of school. Although this was open to all parents, only four parents showed up, three of them freshmen parents.
“If parents want to have that dialogue with the school then there’s a wide opportunity for them to do that but they have to come and be a part of it,” Folberg said.
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