|Parents' night, but not at Woodberry Forest|
(Actually a parental awareness class
in India, via Wikimedia Commons)
This weekend is "Parents' Weekend" at Woodberry Forest. Since we're a boarding school, the weekend is a Big Event, one of the two or three times when we encourage and expect as many parents as possible to be on campus. The weekend begins Friday with football and soccer playing simultaneously, followed by a nice dinner in the dining hall.* Then comes the key event: Academic Mini Classes.
* The axiom at all colleges, which persists despite its clear falsehood, is that food services saves the prime rib for Parents' weekend, and puts out dog food the week before. Thing is, we're having prime rib (and challah!) Wednesday night as part of a special Rosh Hashanah dinner. I wonder what we'll have on Friday night...
What we call "Academic Mini Classes" is generally referred to as "Open House" at day schools. Parents go class-to-class through their son's schedule sitting at desks among peers just like the students do. Each class lasts ten minutes. What we do with those ten minutes can set a tone for the entire year of parent-teacher relationships.
I've heard numerous theories and advice about how to approach Open House. Much depends on your personality, your pre-existing relationship with the parents, the size of your class, the number of expected attendees. I'll merely tell you what I do, not what you should do.
(I will tell you what you should NOT do: Don't read the syllabus and discuss grading and attendance policies. Doing so encourages the parents to help their kids game the system when the going gets tough; you want the parents supporting you, not giving their kids legal advice. More importantly, just reading the syllabus is BORING. If you need to communicate boring information, give everyone a handout to read later.)
During my ten precious minutes with the parents, I teach a class on a topic that we have recently covered. In the honors section, we've just covered projectiles. So, I bring out the moving cart that launches a ball straight up. Just as I do in class, I ask, "Does the ball land in the cart, behind the cart, or in front of the cart?" I make the parents write down their answer, then argue with a neighbor. We do the experiment, and discuss the reason the ball lands in the cart in language that they all can understand.
In general physics, I bust out the motion detector and use the fan cart (with the fan turned off) to create a position-time graph. I ask, what will the graph look like if I turn the fan on? I make the parents write down their answer, then argue with a neighbor. We do the experiment, and discuss the reason why the position-time graph is curved.
These parents think of physics class as old, balding man writing equations that no one can understand on the board. That's not what good physics teaching looks like. I need to open their minds to new possibilities in ten short minutes. By doing live, qualitative demonstrations, I convince this audience that physics is worth knowing; by using everyday language to explain the phenomena we observe, I convince the audience that physics is know-able. After that, the skeptical frowny faces of parents who are angry that Johnny got a 5/10 on a problem set turn to wide-eyed enthusiasm.
Now, you might have a different approach. Perhaps you show that momentum is conserved in Angry Birds. Perhaps you use live video from an ipad 2 in order to find the speed of a parent pitching a tennis ball. Whatever you do, I'm suggesting that you bring forth your best performance, using any necessary tools. Make the parents wish they could sit in on your class; make them sad to have to leave to go to boring ol' English class. The political capital you buy with a well-planned, enthusiastic performance will be worth a hundred thousand printed pages of class rules.