educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock


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My wife and I have been attending back-to-school nights for 13 years. Even though our youngest is in middle school and we have two high schoolers and know the routine, we feel a sense of duty to attend and support our kids and their teachers. This year, as I listened to each teacher’s energetic welcome and course description, I was really struck with the scrutiny today’s teachers are under.

The Web has made teaching quite public. Almost every teacher described a virtual presence, some of them highly robust. Teachers referred often to “The Portal,” the way parents can access their children’s grades and school performance.

The transparency and access of the Web means that teaching is open to an unprecedented amount of scrutiny.

Some of this is good: Better oversight of kids who lie about having completed their homework (not that I know anyone like this…). A better sense by parents of how their kids are really doing in class and if they are even attending (perhaps only outwitted by those clever Ferris Bueller hacker types). Teachers keeping a running evaluation for their students and parents. Provocatively, this openness might mean parent-teacher conferences are flipped, like a flipped classroom, in that parents do their “homework” before the meeting.

Some is not-so-good: Parents who check the portal seventeen times a day and break into a panic when their kid’s 10-point math homework grade hasn’t been reported yet. Indeed, these digital gradebooks can lead to the expectation that grades will be updated not just weekly but maybe daily or even hourly. A less visible problem is that the Portal provides access to the product of teaching while still masking the teaching process.

I wonder about the line between focusing on instruction and focusing on communicating the results of that instruction. We have created an unprecedented communications loop between parents and teachers, and there’s no going back. But parents might need to be trained in some way about what to expect and how to manage their use of these tools.

Because we know about helicopter parents, but we might think more how digital tools like Portals encourage/develop those choppers. Sure, parents want to know where their children are and how they are doing. And teachers are seeking new tools and apps to help them communicate this info. While it’s tough to argue against a parent seeking to know how his or her child is doing, we might be trading that immediate gratification for a long-term pattern of hovering, of tracking and following and knowing too much.

These Portals might also help us create more transparency about teaching process, which in turn could help replace the reductive, oversimplified (I’m trying not to use the word “stupid”) ways of evaluating teaching — and schools. Parents could see throughout the process how teaching is going and learn themselves, well, just how challenging and interesting this process is.

In many genres, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, characters stand at a mystery portal, wondering if they should enter. The Portal provides ways to strengthen the teacher-parent-student triad, but parents don’t want to dive through into a rabbit hole of smothering oversight.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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2 Responses to “Portal”

  1. I have thought about this a lot, and often feel pressured to constantly monitor my kids schoolwork. Honestly, I really don’t! I expect them to do their best, and talk with them about their assignments, help if needed and that’s about all. At the last back to school night, I almost laughed out loud as the teacher talked about parents signing up for the text alerts – until I saw so many writing the information down!

  2. Scott, thank you for mentioning the “other kind” of Portal in your last paragraph. It is that kind of portal that allowed me access to alternate realms when I was in elementary school, and although this resulted in my 3rd-grade teacher telling my parents that my reading speed was not up to what my proficiency exams indicated that they should be, I still recall entering a story and dwelling in there for a while, perhaps seeing elements of the world not explicitly presented by the text itself…

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