Mon, October 17, 2022

Empowering Conversations about Schoolwork with Your Child

When my child Kal (they/them) was in the second grade, they had to write an argumentative paragraph on any topic. As is often the case in classrooms, the students were given a choice about what to write but no guidance in how to choose a topic. Kal was stuck. Rejecting my many suggestions, they complained to me about the assignment itself: “I don’t have a point I want to make,” “It’s hard to pick a topic,” and “I already know how to write a paragraph so it’s not fair that I have to do it for homework.” At some point during this conversation, Kal realized they actually did have a topic for the assignment. They wrote a paragraph arguing that it’s hard to write a paragraph!

That was years ago. In the time since, Kal has created a picture book about the Marquis de Lafayette, an animated short about how to make coleslaw, a working hovercraft (!), a schematic drawing for a new type of dishwasher, a presentation about gender identities, an essay about the androgynous mind in A Room of One’s Own, and a cartoon comparing atomic nuclei and electron shells to the Republican and Democratic parties. One of Kal’s most astounding capacities is being able to connect seemingly unrelated concepts.

But connection-making isn’t on the rubric, and a diminishing number of Kal’s assignments call for this kind of associative thinking. With Kal about to enter high school and earning inconsistent grades, our conversations about schoolwork have devolved into “Did you finish it yet?” and “How did you do?”

The Achievement Agenda

As parents, we easily get caught up in an achievement agenda. We want our children to be successful in school, not only so they have access to the opportunities provided by good grades and high scores, but also so they can feel the satisfaction of a job well done and gain skills they need for their future. The achievement agenda comes from a loving place. At least mine does, and so do those of all the parents I’ve talked to in 18 years as a classroom teacher.

At the same time, if we focus on achievement, we risk centering our own judgments about our kids’ work, instead of the work itself. We may express our judgments as praise (“This is so creative!”), criticism (“This part is unclear”), or suggestions (“I think you should add more examples”)—but they’re still judgments. Upon hearing these, our kids might feel proud because they’ve pleased us, frustrated because they tried but failed to please us, defensive because they think we should be pleased, guilty because they didn’t try hard enough and we’re displeased, or ashamed because they think they’ll never be good enough to please us. Shame is the worst outcome of such a conversation, but in any of these cases, we’ve inadvertently made our kids’ feelings of satisfaction, and the goals they set for themselves, contingent on our happiness.

Also, as soon as we express judgment—whether as praise, criticism, or suggestions—we miss opportunities to have other kinds of conversations with our kids. First, because expressing judgment centers our expectations, we miss an opportunity to help kids explore how their work matches their own values. Second, in focusing on how “good” the work is, we’ve missed an opportunity to talk about the work itself—to fully see and respond to the ideas in it, and by extension, to fully see and respond to our growing children who created the work. Third, when our comments focus on the work product, we miss an opportunity to talk about our childrens’ work processes and for them to learn from those processes.

So, what kinds of conversations about schoolwork can we parents have with our children to amplify their sense of satisfaction, increase the likelihood that they’ll learn from the process, and help them bring their values to their future endeavors within and beyond school?

Giving Empowering Feedback

In my book Two-for-One Teaching, I describe how teachers can create a classroom culture that empowers students to bring their own values to their assignments and interactions, so that school becomes a source of meaning, vitality, and community in their lives. One way that teachers can build such a culture is to give feedback on students’ work that helps them feel seen, heard, affirmed, appreciated, and respected—both for what they’ve already done and for what they might do in the future. If it’s important for teachers to give empowering feedback on student work, it seems even more important for parents and caregivers to do so. The next time you see your child working on something, or when your child brings home completed work that a teacher has assessed, try some of the following ways of responding.

Begin with Observation

Suspending judgment and really looking at a piece of work can be challenging. It means slowing ourselves down and paying close enough attention that we notice interesting details, structural features, and larger themes. For example, if I look carefully at Kal’s coleslaw animation, I might notice that they used green and purple to represent two different kinds of cabbage, drew everything very simply to make the cartoon playful and accessible, and communicated directly with the audience so viewers would feel moved to make the recipe. Making observations takes time—we need to look and look again—but when our kids hear us describe their work, they know we truly see it, and through seeing it, we see them.

Connect to the Work

As we observe our kids’ work and describe what we see, we can also share what it makes us think about, feel, remember, or imagine. For example, the simple drawings and humor in Kal’s coleslaw animation reminded me of XKCD cartoons, which I then showed them. The Lafayette picture book prompted me to (badly) start singing the Hamilton soundtrack, which prompted Kal to tell me facts about Lafayette’s life that are not in the show. The gender identity presentation led to a great conversation about how I understood gender at Kal’s age and how each of us understands it now. Sharing how our kids’ work affects us shows them their work can have an effect. The work also becomes a jumping-off point for us to share our emotions, values, stories, and ideas about the world with our kids—and for our kids to share theirs with us.

As our kids get older, their work might start to address topics we don’t know much about, and we therefore might have few associations we can make. Kal once did a project on innovative transportation technologies, which is neither something I’ve studied nor something I am especially interested in. Still, as I looked over the poster, I let myself take in the information, became curious, and came up with questions about the topic. When we can’t connect our kids’ work to our experiences, we can ask genuine questions—not to test their knowledge (which is how some of our questions can come off to our kids), but to appreciate their expertise and also model the wondering that leads to lifelong learning.

Reflect Back Their Values

When looking at our kids’ work, we can point out topics, actions, or qualities that seem important to them. As a teacher, when I saw students coming back to the same topics—grandparents, music, religion, geology—I pointed them out. I tried not to sound presumptuous, as if I knew their values better than they did, and instead made clear that I was inferring their values from patterns I saw. “I noticed that in your last essay, you mentioned preparing for your bar mitzvah, and this essay describes a Passover Seder. It seems like your Jewish identity is important to you, and if that’s the case, I encourage you to continue using your school assignments as opportunities to think about it.”

Even errors and missteps can indicate a students’ values. I sometimes saw a student go off topic, which isn’t always effective in essays, but might be an area of future exploration for that student. “Your fourth paragraph [in an assignment about A Raisin in the Sun] included a bit about Beneatha’s ambitions. Although that part seemed unrelated to the rest of the essay, it seemed important to you. Perhaps for a future writing project, you’ll write about ambition.” Regardless of how well they do on the assignment, saying back what seems important to kids raises their awareness of their own values and can help them find new ways to explore and enact those values, in and beyond school.

Ask Questions to Help Them Notice Their Process

After a teacher assesses their work, students might feel happy, sad, angry, disgusted, or surprised—it depends on how well the grade matches their hopes and expectations. Regardless of the grade, it is important for students to think about what they did that was or wasn’t successful. Rather than making suggestions, try asking questions that help your child observe their process more closely and discover what worked, what didn’t, and what they can try next time. Not all of the following questions will apply to every project, and many students will not want to answer too many questions, so choose just a few to ask.

How did you make this? How did you get from having nothing at all to the finished product?

How did you choose your topic? Were there other topics you considered?

How did you come up with your ideas?

How did you know what the finished product would look like?

What strategies did you use to revise?

Was this an individual or collaborative assignment? If individual: Did you get feedback from anyone? If collaborative: How did you work together?

How did you use your time while working on this? Which parts did you spend the most time on?

How did you know you were finished?

How satisfied are you with the outcome? If you do this type of work again in the future, what will you do the same? Is there anything you’d do differently?

Questions like these can help our kids notice whether their work process is consistent with their values, so they can choose how they want to approach future work. If their actions have a satisfying result, they can choose similar actions in the future. If they’re not satisfied—either with the work itself or with their teacher’s assessment of it—they might try something else next time.

As parents, we can always share our judgments—what we think was good and bad about our kids’ work—or suggestions for how we think it could be better. But as soon as we do that, we take away the child’s opportunity to notice for themselves what they did, how it worked out for them, what they could have done instead, and what they might do next time. Sharing our observations, connecting to the work, reflecting back our kids’ values, and asking questions about their process empowers them to approach their work in accordance with what’s important to them.

Lauren Porosoff is the founder of EMPOWER Forwards.  She is the lead author of several books, including Two-for-One Teaching. Learn more at and follow her on Twitter @LaurenPorosoff.

This article first appeared in the 2022 issue of the Parents League Review. Get the current issue of the Review free with a family membership. Or purchase it separately.

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