My children have a skill we refer to in our family as selective hearing. They can hear the creak of the oven door from three blocks away if I am pulling out a pan of cookies, but if I look them in the eye and tell them to go clean their room, somehow it doesn’t register. One of the first things I learned from the teachers at Blackstone Valley Prep is that selective hearing can also be used, not just by my children, but as a parenting skill. There are words I turn a deaf ear to every day. At the top of the list are “But Mom” and “I can’t.” As much as it is counterintuitive, sometimes I give my children their best opportunities when I stop listening to their excuses.
In one sense, the job of our state’s lawmakers, our Board of Regents, our school committees and our school administrators is the same as that of our mothers and teachers. Rhode Island needs a “No Excuses” attitude when it comes to education. Instead, we must show our children what they can do and watch as they use the knowledge we give them to grow faster and brighter than we ever imagined.
Even on the small scale of Blackstone Valley Prep, the “No Excuses” environment is intimidating. But after two years as I parent I can attest to the tremendous positive effect it has had on my children and in our home. Teachers make themselves available by phone every night until 9pm and in person for various “opportunity day” events conducted on Saturday mornings throughout the year. They make home visits each year in order to assess each situation a student faces; broken homes, non-english speaking families, poverty, illness, special needs, etc. Together with the student and guardian they look at each “I can’t” in a child’s life and say “Yes, we can.” Setting an expectation of success with the parent and the scholar and providing a positive and supportive school environment are the least expensive aspects of any child’s pathway to college.
My favorite way of removing a classroom excuse is free: enthusiasm. Whether honor role or IEP, every student struggles. Teachers at BVP call on a students to answer questions in class just like any other school. A student responds, and for a moment a look of lost confusion wanders across her face. The difference a positive environment makes happens in the moment between confusion and disappointment when, before she can give up, her fellow scholars start quietly snapping their fingers. Respect and encouragement are met with enthusiasm. Suddenly “I can’t” is drown out by room full of students saying “we want you to”. “I can’t” becomes “I can.” It is completely free and as easy as the snap of a finger. With enthusiasm, teachers are passionate about their work, students work to help one another grow, parents support one another and everyone makes a child’s pursuit of knowledge the most important aspect of every conversation. Not everything is as easy as a snap of the finger, but as parents, scholars, teachers, and communities, we can never let “I can’t” be more important than “We want you to.”
Tracey Dann is a 2012 School Reform Blogging Fellow for RI-CAN. Tracey is the proud mother of one second-grader and two first-graders at Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy. As a parent and substitute teacher, Tracy has seen what both traditional public schools and public charter schools have to offer for the children of Cumberland.