discussion, homework, no homework, parents, questions

My Kid Is Drowning in Homework – Why Parents Should Be Speaking Up and How

Mathematics homework
Mathematics homework (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thea is only 3 and is nowhere near the homework assigning level, thank goodness. And yet, already it is an issue I come back to frequently in my mind, particularly as I get my fabulous 5th graders ready for middle school.  Speaking to some middle school teachers and hearing to expect at least 1 1/2 hours of homework every night and that no regard is taking for homework assigned by other teachers.  Yikes.  From a teacher perspective I have made my stance clear on how I feel about homework and how over-assigned it is, but what about for parents?  What can you truly do as a parent when sending your child to school to help them handle the insanity of homework as well as to maybe, just maybe, start a dialogue with their teachers?  Here a few things to start you out.

  • Get clarification on general statements.  If a teacher throws out an arbitrary number for homework minutes like I used to do on orientation day, ask them what it looks like.  When they say 50 minutes of homework, which child are they referring to?  Are they referring to a well-adjusted, high-level learner, or to a more sluggish paced child?  Which child will spend 50 minutes? Is that the maximum any child will spend?  At the very least it may make the teacher think about the 10 minutes X grade level rule so many of us have used as our standard.
  • Ask whether there will be punishment involved.  What happens to the child that does not do their homework?  Different teachers have different policies.  Some take away recess, something I shy away from because I don’t think I have the right to, others give them a chance to make up for it.  Some, like me, simply ask them to bring it the following day or try to not assign much.  This is going to directly effect your child and their view of homework, so do ask what will happen if they don’t hand something in.
  • Figure out your parental level of involvement.  Are you supposed to help or is this homework only for the child?  How are you allowed to help?  Would the teacher rather know if the child cannot complete a task by themselves (one would hope so!).  These are all important questions to ask as well and leads directly to the next point.
  • Ask what the purpose of homework is.  Is it used for grading?  Is it used for assessment?  Why does their homework look like it does and what is the end result of that homework?  This discussion goes way beyond just a general statement but it is vital.  Too often we assume that whatever a teacher assigns must have value otherwise it wouldn’t be assigned.  Having been that teacher I can tell you that is not the case!  So find out what the purpose is.
  • Search your soul.  Many of us think homework should be something certain because of what we experienced but even for this youngish teacher, school has changed drastically since I graduated.  Make sure that your homework expectations are not based on what you feel helped you as a learner, figure out instead what will help your child, after all you do know them better than the teacher but they are not you, no matter how much we see the resemblance.
  • Ask questions.  I am never bothered when parents ask me questions, in fact, I cherish their feedback and often wisdom about their child.  I differentiate assignments, I give class time and I try to not involve parents much simply because it is not them that need to learn a concept.  Yet I still fail sometimes, I still learn from my mistakes and I don’t always have the answer to something.  So start a dialogue and start it early, it can be something as simple as a line or two in an email and does not need to be often.  It will benefit all parties involved all year.
  • And finally, stand your ground.  As a parent I will expect Thea to apply herself in school and to give school her best in the hours she is there.  Once she is home, homework should not take up the majority of her afternoon and evening.  As she gets older, sure, there will be projects, papers, reading etc.  But she should not be having to give up most of her free time for worksheets or other repetitive tasks, and I will discuss this with her future teachers.  You can do this nicely and it may lead to a very interesting conversation.  Simply said; it is ok for parents to question a teacher’s homework philosophy.

being a teacher, homework, students

I Know Worksheets are Bad and Yet I Assigned One

There they lie; staring at me with their guilty weight of uselessness, reminding me how I made another mistake.  I thought I had them beat, that I had conquered the urge to assign them, and yet I slipped and now that pile of 32 math worksheets reminds me of why I gave up on them in the first place. I don’t know why I thought they would be a good idea, why I found them necessary that morning, but I did and now I have to come to term with what that means for me and for my students.  I know my good intentions of practice is hidden in there somewhere but I forgot to listen to my common sense, to look at my past mistakes, to think of the students.

We reach for worksheets when we want to make sure that students get something, when we want to have them practice, to secure a skill.  And yet who assigns worksheets with just a few problems?  After all, you want a lot of problems to make sure they really get it, that they will never forget.  So why didn’t I just assign them 5 problems to show me they knew, why the need for a double-sided sheet with 32 problems on it?  The time I must have robbed from my students outside life haunts me.

So I take my pride and put it aside and I realize I made a mistake.  Tomorrow I am going to have to tell the kids that, own it, and apologize.  It shows that i am still learning, that I make bad decisions too, I am nowhere near perfect as a teacher.  And I learn, I learn from my mistakes, from my good intentions gone bad.  I learn from the feedback of the students and I admit when I mess up.  That’s what makes us better teachers.  That’s what builds better classrooms.  Humility, humanity, and reflection.

being a teacher, choices, homework

Give ‘Em a Break

I used to be that teacher that thought breaks meant more time to do work.  I used to be that teacher that thought that vacation meant the students would forget everything unless I assigned them work to do. I used to be that teacher that thought school was the most important thing in a child’s life and I therefore had the right to all of their free time, as much as I needed, to make sure that they were always learning.  Then I had a child and as I see the world through her eyes I see the constant learning.  I see the exploration.  I see the boundless curiosity.  And I am ashamed of my past decisions.

Vacations and breaks are not for school, otherwise students would not get them.  They are for living, for being with family, for recharging and letting the world sink in.  They are for going outside, for reading for fun, for exploring whatever one chooses.  School is not the most important thing in life; living is.  So I give my students a break over the break.  Read a book if you want, blog if you want, sleep in, have fun, and relax.  When you get back we have much to do but until then you deserve the rest.

So give your students a break.

being me, homework

A Father Helps His Son With Math

Last night as I sat in the San Francisco airport waiting for our flight home, I could’t help but listen in on an exchange happening across from me.  A father sat with his child helping him with his math homework.  My curiosity was first peeked because the lesson they were doing was one I had just taught that week which meant the boy was a fifth grader.  And yet I stared fascinated as the dialogue continued:

Father – how did you get this solution?

Boy – I am not sure…

Father – Well, if you don’t know it is not right!  Erase it properly and do it again.

Boy starts to erase the page…

Father – Now how are you doing this problem?

Boy starts to explain how he has been taught but is interrupted.

Father – That is not the correct way, why can’t you understand that!  That is not how you do it.

Boys’ shoulders visibly slump.

Father – You need to get this done right now and do it right or we will erase it again.

As I sat there, horrified at this exchange, I almost jumped in and offered my help.  But I didn’t because it wasn’t my place.  Yet in my head I could not help but go there.  How do parents expect us to teach a child to love math when this is how they help with homework?  Obviously this father was frustrated, it was a Sunday evening and they were traveling, so that time was not the best to do anything that required brain power for the boy or for the father.  Why do it in public like that?  Why humiliate your own child with a raised voice?  The effect on the child were immediate and very apparent.  That child did not want to do his math anymore, he did not want to learn the method the father wanted to teach him.  That child lost a little more faith in his education and I wonder how he felt?  I felt horrible for him and I felt bad for that child’s teacher who had no idea that this boy had struggled with the math and that his father had helped him in such a way.

We do not always see the damage that homework creates outside of our room, or how well-meaning “helpers’ distribute their knowledge.  All we see is how it affects the child in the long-run, how their love of learning diminishes and we wonder what we could have done differently?  Well sometimes not assigning the homework is a huge step in the right direction.

discussion, homework, no homework, Student-centered

From the Mouths of Babes – My Students Discuss Homework

Thanks to a wonderful Time For Kids article this week, my students engaged in a 30 minute discussion on whether or not teachers should assign homework (we ran out of time or it could have gone longer).  I started out taping the discussion, hoping to share it, but the camera stifled them, so I turned it off and instead just listened and asked a couple of questions.  And the result?  Well, it was mixed.

Many students believed that homework was a necessary evil at first, and by that I mean, they think they should be assigned it so they can learn responsibility.  However, when I asked them whether they could be taught responsibility in a different manner they all agreed they already were responsible in school.  After that they started changing their mind.  Some highlights for me were:

  • We already work our hardest at school and deserve to be done with school when the bell rings.
  • We are tired when we get home so homework does not represent our best work.
  • Some times our parents cannot help us and we end up more confused.
  • Teachers do not own our time outside of school, but why do they think they do?  They can’t for example order us to go to Target.
  • I want to have a life outside of school and pursue my activities.
  • It is ok to have homework during the week but never during the weekend or during holidays.
  • If a student works hard during the day and is responsible, they should be able to not have homework after school.
  • It is ok to assign reading and special projects but they have to be super fun and have student choice.
  • Homework does not teach us responsibility but instead teaches us to get it done fast.
  • Homework should not be graded since it is just practice. 
  • Homework should be assigned because school has to come first and that is our job.
I love the level of thinking I am seeing in these students as they develop their discussion habits. They are figuring out when to speak and reacting to each other’s comments.  I also love how they are evaluating the world and learning to speak their minds.  I believe the camera stifled them because some were nervous in stating their opinion, after all, they are only 5th graders, what do they know?
aha moment, assumptions, being a teacher, believe, community, homework, hopes, role model, students

They are Someone’s Child – Tania’s Aha Moment

This last aha moment is shared to me by the prolific can-doer Tania Ash, whose newly minted blog I have a feeling will be a must read and who is also a must follow on Twitter at @tcash. Tania was a person who reached out early to me in my Twitter experience because that is just how she works. Always looking to welcome new teachers into the experience, always there to support, and as one of the founders of the wonderful #elemchat held on Thursday nights she has been a fantastic resource in my PLN. As a 5th grade teacher in Morocco, she is never afraid to connect with others both herself and with her students. This aha moment speaks deeply to me as I have gone through this same transformation. Thank you Tania for sharing it with the rest of us and also for rounding out our aha moment guest series with such a heartfelt piece.

When I was asked to write about my a-ha moment, I must admit that I had mixed feelings. Coming from an educator I respect and admire so much, a prolific writer whose blog represents not only a wealth of ideas, but also thought-provoking, deep reflection; after the initial excitement, my first fear was that of falling short. My second, was to find the perfect a-ha moment among myriad possibilities.

There have been so many a-ha moments along the way. How to choose a single one? My life, my choices, haven’t exactly followed the most typical itinerary.

There could be the moment when, after dropping out of school in grade 13 and following a boy to another continent, I decided I wanted to work in an elementary school and became an assistant in a 2nd grade classroom.

Or the moment, 3 years later, when I decided that I wanted to go back to school and become a teacher. It could be any number of moments with some of the inspiring educators I had the honour to work with, from the 2nd grade teacher who opened the door to the world of teaching (and continues, to this day, to be both my mentor and best friend), to the 3rd and 5th grade teachers who opened up their classrooms, filing cabinets and plan books when they kindly agreed to act as my cooperating teachers during my student teaching… those were unforgettable moments that shaped the teacher I was to become.

It could be the moment when, after serving as the technology coordinator in my school, I realized that I longed for my own class where I could be a pedagogue and plan learning experiences from start to finish, and not just content myself with being the “tech” of someone else’ project.

That said, one of the moments that most profoundly impacted my teaching came from the most unexpected sources. Well, it was unexpected to me at least. It wasn’t in any textbook in the teacher-training program, it wasn’t in any student-teacher internship programs, nor part of any of the countless workshops and conferences I’ve attended over the years. It was a transformation that started small, and then began to grow. It isn’t a particular moment per se, but a collection of moments that started the day my son was born. The day I became a parent and got my first glimpse at the other side of the fence was the day I began to be a better teacher.

At first, it was just the realization of how powerful parenthood is…
As an educator, I’d always loved and valued children, but as a mother, I found out what that really meant. For the first year after my son was born, I found I couldn’t watch any news or read any newspapers. Every time there was a story about a suffering child, it touched me as if those children, in faraway lands, were *mine*. Today, when I meet my 5th grade students and their families in the first days of the school year, I can immediately visualize those nights when those parents tiptoed into their child’s bedroom at night, just to make sure s/he was still breathing, or imagine the trepidation they felt the first time they left their treasure in someone else’ care. Today, when I greet a new student at the door, it is the whole family that I welcome, doing my best to reassure them that I will handle their delicate treasure with the utmost care.

After a while, the a-ha feeling grew…
I began to look more closely, and more appreciatively, at the small things in life. Having worked with mostly upper elementary aged students, I used to think that teaching early childhood just wasn’t for me. I know – that’s quite the confession coming from a teacher. Shame! I found I had trouble relating with very young students, that our cadences were, well, off-sync. Kindergarten? I didn’t think I had the patience for the very basic, well, basics. But as I watched my son grow from an infant to a toddler, and the determination with which he learned to crawl, then walk, the elation I saw in his face with each new discovery, I learned just how *big* those small steps are. They say that quality preschool programs are one of the best indicators of future success. Today, as both an educator and a parent, I strongly support that claim – and would gladly teach Kindergarten any day if offered the opportunity.

And then it grew some more…
Another confession that I really must share is this – as a teacher, I used to give plenty of homework. I used to make students record their reading in a reading log, do problem after problem, practice basic facts, research…I even occasionally gave homework on the weekend…academia in overdrive! Today, as a parent, I realize just how precious those weekend minutes for family time really are. I see, now, that fighting with my child to get his reading homework done isn’t going to create a lifelong reader. It is only going to create frustration, anxiety and tension and may indeed backfire. As a teacher, I now strive to be more reflective, more selective in the homework I assign…much less than before… and I never, never assign homework on the weekend.

Every day, another a-ha connection
Whereas I have always felt a little anxious during parent conferences as a teacher, I now have a better sense for what a parent feels at that same moment. As a parent, I look at my son’s teacher across the conference table and see someone who is judging him – whether favourably or not – evaluating his development in the cognitive, physical, and social domains. Does she see the guilt I carry around about all the things I *should* be doing as a parent to help my child grow? Those things that somehow, despite best intentions, get set aside on those days when life gets in the way? This person is helping to shape my child’s future. Does she know everything she needs to know about him? Does she know how anxious he gets when he believes that he may have lost her approval? Today, as before, I start out parent conferences by listening. I listen to parents tell me about their child, and how they perceive their child’s feelings about school. Is Johnny happy to come to school? What kinds of topics does he seem to enjoy most? What works at home? Today, as before, I start out by listening, but it seems like today, when I listen, I can really hear what parents are telling me. As a teacher, I don’t beat around the bush – I am honest with parents about their child’s progress, and always include goals and strategies parents can try at home to help their child grow. I do my best to set the tone right from the start of the school year, to clarify that lines of communication are open. I explain to them that we are partners in the quest to help guide their child towards success, and that, whereas I may not have all the answers, I, we, can work towards effective solutions together.

I have the incredible fortune of having my child attend the school where I work, a school which is, in my opinion, one of the best schools out there. Located on a beautiful green campus, it has intangible qualities that make it a very special place where children are happy and want to learn. It is also a place where, every day, I learn a little something about being a parent, and I learn lots about being a teacher. Being a parent has helped – is helping me – become a better teacher. I switch hats numerous times during the day, look at the other side of the coin, or across the fence. Whatever the metaphor, whenever I move between my role as a parent and my role as a teacher, I make another connection, I have another little a-ha moment.