IT TAKES A VILLAGE

Kathy Hays, BHP Teacher
Arizona, USA

When I first started teaching, the last thing I wanted was to have parents in my classroom. I loved it when they were involved in the extra curricular activities, but the classroom was my territory and I felt uncomfortable with the prospect of having parents there. I was 21 years old, insecure in my teaching ability, and extremely independent. Two things happened to change my thinking: I had children of my own, and I had an amazing teaching partner who made me realize parental involvement is vital for student success. This teaching partner introduced to me a visualization: Education is supported by a tripod consisting of students, teacher, and parents. All three legs must be strong in order for students to be successful. Over the years, this idea has been reaffirmed—especially in my Big History class.

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Family field trip to ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration. Photo courtesy Kathy Hays.

Now, it’s quite possible (likely, actually) that the content of Big History is unfamiliar and intimidating to some parents, making the idea of talking about the course with their kids seem daunting. But parents don’t need to be content experts—they can show their support in other ways. It’s our responsibility to make this show of support as easy as possible. It might take some creativity and persistence on your part, especially if you teach in an environment (like mine) where families have limited time and resources. However, I’ve figured out an approach that works quite well—and starts with simply extending an invitation.

I organize several Big History family events throughout the school year. They include a Unit 3 trip to the Grand Canyon and Lowell Observatory (read about that adventure here); student “Invent a Species” presentations in December (check out photos of student work here); and our Little Big History presentations in May (see student work here). I recently discovered a program at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (“To the Edge of the Universe and Everything in Between”) that provides an opportunity for parents to acquaint themselves with content from the first few units of the course. (As the best time to introduce parents to BHP content is at the start of the school year, I communicate with parents over the summer, through our student/parent portal, to ensure they’re in the loop.)

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How do I make sure families have the information they need? I send home details about each event the day I tell students. In my weekly communication with families, I remind them about presentations and trips. Two weeks before, I send home a hard copy of the invitation. The strategy has proven effective: This year, we had overflow crowds at our “Invent a Species” night, and almost 100 people at our family field trip. I’ve already had parents inquire about the Little Big History presentations—and they’re over three months away!

The responses from families have been positive:

“Thank you for such a fun family field trip this weekend. Now that we’ve been, we’d love to go back to see the other presentations.” (August 2015 – School of Earth and Space Exploration)

“Thank you so much for setting up this field trip. Justin really enjoyed it and so did we. To see the Hubble Deep Field Image explained in 3-D and time in the context of the entire Universe was simply awesome! We’re looking forward to what else this class has to offer.” (August 2016 – ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration)

“Thank you for…inviting families to attend the ‘Invent a Species’ presentations. We enjoyed getting to see the student presentations and were amazed at all they learned this semester.” (December 2015 – “Invent a Species” presentations)

I’ve discovered parents genuinely want to be involved in their children’s education, but they sometimes just don’t know how to take the first step. Since extending invitations and opening the door, I’ve found parents feel welcome to join our class—and this makes all the difference for students.

About the author: Kathy Hays has been teaching for 30 years, and this year is her second teaching Big History. She teaches five BHP classes a year, and so reaches about 130 ninth-grade students. Her school is on a semester schedule with daily 52-minute periods. Kathy’s favorite thing about teaching Big History is the opportunity to learn with her students!

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