Parents, Culture Wars, and Open House Before a Hurricane

We held Open House at my school on the evening of September 27th, a Tuesday night. The night before Hurricane Ian hit Florida.

Given the storm about to arrive, I might have expected a low turnout. Given the storm of activist parents who are reportedly unhappy with public schools for all kinds of reasons, I might have expected that the parents who did arrive would be angry for some reason and ready to torch my classroom library.

My expectations were wrong in both cases.

I’m not going to claim my community and school were immune to either Ian or censorious parents. Ian caused us to lose power for four days – debris littered the streets, some of which were flooded. Parents did challenge a book at my school last year, but it has not been an epidemic of massive book banning like the ones I’ve heard about in the news.

I also know that I have Creative Writing and 9th grade English Honors/Pre-IB classes, classes which tend to draw more parents. But to have both sides of my sign-in sheet full on the eve of a hurricane hitting was astounding. Even more astounding was the experience itself.

In recent years our open house has been a real open house – not a miniature school day, running parents through their kids’ days with ten-minute classes and three-minute class-changes. I put on a PowerPoint of information playing in a loop, a Star Wars ambient music playlist on YouTube. I cleaned up for company, put out some books, and I entertained for two hours.

But mostly, I got to engage in conversations with parents. None of them accused me of teaching anything inappropriate. None of them wanted to torch my classroom library. Nobody had anything bad to say. Maybe those parents stayed home because of Ian. I know I got a biased sample. But if it was biased, it was also uniformly positive.

Here’s it was parents seem to appreciate.

They appreciate having their kids come home excited about your class. They appreciate it when you get their kids turned on to reading and writing again. They appreciate the fact that your room is an inviting place to learn. They appreciate your bookshelves. They appreciate you getting their students to write with thoughtfulness and creativity instead of formulas and compliance.

They appreciate you teaching their students how to think. Okay – they seem to think I’m teaching their students to think, and they appreciate that. I’m not sure what their students are saying that leads them to believe this. I am trying to teach my students how to think. I am not always successful. Most days I feel like I’m still learning how to think. But however they got the impression that I am teaching their children how to think, they appreciate the attempt. One father shook my hand firmly and said, “Thank you – for actually teaching them how to think.”

We didn’t talk politics. I’m sure some of these parents were quite conservative and some were quite liberal. But they all seemed pretty happy. My classroom, the non-polarization zone! They did not seem to be concerned about whether I was using the approved curriculum and the textbook. They seemed more interested in the other books I put out that weren’t officially part of the curriculum – Ian Doescher’s Shakespeare/Star Wars books, Fahrenheit 451, books about creativity. They seemed less concerned with compliance to state and district mandates and more appreciative of the things I did to engage their kids.

Recent surveys, like this one reported on by NPR, indicate that most parents are pretty happy with their local public schools. They apparently become less happy as they consider public schools in general, and seem more influenced by negative publicity about schools nationally. But most parents, across a vast divide, seem to be happy with their local public schools.

I worry about the attacks on our public schools. I worry about our extreme political polarization. I worry about our future as a country. I worry that I am not doing a good enough job as a teacher.

But for one night, just before the hurricane hit, I forgot all of that – the storm called Ian and the storms of culture – and enjoyed the fact that my attempts to engage my students and make them think, my attempts to help them love reading and writing, were appreciated by many of my students and their parents.

And for one night, before the storm hit, that was enough.