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 me, Innovation Day, questions

Can Older Teacher Still Be Innovators?

This morning when I looked in the mirror I saw a new wrinkle.  Right there inching along on my forehead, something I swore was not there before.  I look younger than I am and yet the signs of time will cover my face slowly but certainly.  It makes me wonder when will people think that I am outdated?  That my teaching no longer is fresh or new?  When will parents request the other teacher simply because they seem to have more energy?

Teachers seem to have a shorter shelf life these days.  Like our glory days of innovation are numbered and one can only have so many new ideas, and only when in their prime years.  Yet, I see teacher much older than me generate ideas that I could never even fathom.  Come up with lessons that students talk about years later.  And yet the credit goes to the young, the fresh, the energetic but only if they look it.

Can an idea still be fresh if thought of by an older mind?  Will the general consensus continue to be that new must come from the young, the innovative, the ones that are most tapped in?  Can we change the stigma of the aging teacher and how their ideas lose merit with the years of use?  Or is this simply a product of my aging imagination that wonders whether I will be old and my ideas will lose their luster?  Are teachers judged more on their ideas than their age?  Can innovation be embraced when it comes from someone older than you or must it always be packaged as coming from the next generation?

being me, family, questions

We Pass on Our Wondering

My grandfather always told me that a little girl lived in the water-tower by his house and that if I paid enough attention, I would notice her stocking hanging out of the little window to dry.  To this day, when I go home to Denmark, I pass that water-tower knowing that his story is probably not true and yet I wonder.  My grandfather gave me that gift; that little spark of curiosity that kept me focused and interested even beyond my curious years.

I try to pass that on to my students.  I don’t make up stories as much as he does, but rather leave them with a spark of curiosity.  I proudly exclaim that I do not know the answers and how will we ever find out?  I ask them to seek their wonder, to allow their mind to ponder, and to take some time to reflect.

The day passes by and we do our curriculum and yet we try to squeeze something out of every minute we have to give us some extra time to wonder.  We wonder out-loud, we wonder silently, sometimes alone, sometimes as a group.  We speak of it because that provides it a legitimate place in our classroom.  We cherish it and we laugh about it.  Not all wonderings are meant to be explored.  The gift that my grandfather gave me I now pass on to my students.  A fitting legacy for the man that means the biggest part to me, the man whom we chose to name Theodora after, the man who now is in the twilight of his life.  Every time I drive by a water-tower I wonder if there is a little girl upset that her stockings are always wet, looking for a window to hang them from and then I wonder whether he remembers?

As my grandfather slowly succumbs to ill health, I keep him in my thoughts, knowing that I made him proud.

alfie kohn, being a teacher, grades, questions

Is the Report Card Obsolete?

Today I was asked what I have against report cards and as I stood there explaining my stance on grades something dawned on me; if we keep parents informed throughout the semester or trimester, do we really need report cards?  After all, I continuously meet with my students and offer them feedback and we set and work on their goals.  I send home more detailed feedback for parents to peruse so then doesn’t the purpose of the report card become obsolete?  In fact, the report card may work against our philosophy of students as developing learners since we chunk their development and their learning into artificial calendar dates as determined by the district.   Something unnecessary and just a tad bit redundant.

So I leave with this thought; could we abolish report cards altogether?  Or are they a necessary component of our reporting to students and parents?  Are they simply an overview or a snapshot rather than the entry ticket into college and free pizza?
being me, labels, questions, students

Does Teachers Having Background Knowledge on New Students Harm Them?

Early on in my life, I was labeled smart, something I have discussed in other posts.  This distinction wasn’t given to me because I proved myself in class or because I excelled in all academics.  The label had in fact been bestowed upon me because I had started school when I just turned 5, rather than the normal age of 6 in Denmark.  Unfortunately, I was the perpetual underachiever that just floated by unless I really, really cared about something such as creative writing and yet the label stuck through all of my years of schooling.

That label “smart” though had its advantages; teachers viewed me with a favorable lens, even when I really had no clue what I was doing.  I was assumed to be not working hard when in all actuality I really was so lost I couldn’t explain many things.  And the teachers did most of the work for me,  it worked perfectly since from year to year my old teachers would tell my new teachers that I was smart and so the year was set.  I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, just sit through the barrage of parent teacher conferences where my mother was told numerous times how I wasn’t applying myself.

Some may say that my teachers saw something in me that I had not recognized myself yet, and to them I say, sure…  But what is more intriguing here is really that label teachers bestow upon children and how it tends to stick with them.  They say that first impressions count and nowhere is that truer than in an educational setting.  Often by the time our students start in our classrooms, we know a little about them, maybe not all of them, but most.  We may have spoken to their previous teacher or we may know their family, or in the very least have heard of them.  Sometimes they come with a file thicker than my arm, other times they are a vast mysterious until we have our first class.  And yet, we think we have them pegged very quickly.  I often wonder how much of a different perspective one could get of a student if the first class you had with them was one in which they excelled?

So can we move away from our assumptions?  Are we, in fact, creating a barrier between us and the real student by having “background knowledge” about them?  Can we stop labeling students or is this hardwired into our nature?

alfie kohn, exploration, Passion, questions, Student-centered

School: The Killer of Curiosity

“What is that?”  “Where does this go?”  “Can I do this?”  All questions overheard during my school’s recent kindergarten visitation day.  There they were: fresh, eager, curious, asking questions about everything; where does this go, what does this do?  I marvel at their spirit.  And then I think of later years of students, despondent, going through the motions, routine focused and mostly okay, but not asking all of the questions.  Where did the questions go?

As teachers we do not set out to kill the joy of learning, at least , not anyone I know does.  We state in our missions that we want to change students’ lives, motivate them, inspire them, and keep them eager to learn.  And yet our mission seems to be at odds with our school system.  Classrooms are set up all facing the teacher so that the “sage on the stage” can be the center of attention.  The whole day is rigidly structured so that subjects do not overlap, routines are taught and mastered and hardly ever broken.  Punishment goes hand in hand with rewards and grades become the ultimate reward in the end.  An A will always be better than a B no matter what the teacher says.  We divide our students into winners and losers and hope they all have a nice journey through school. And then we wonder why students lose interest, lose relevance.  By the time we get to high school, the eyes are on the prize; graduation, where they will break free of the rigidity of school  Students count down until summer vacation so that they can be free.  Free.

As Alfie Kohn has stated, “School is not an institution of learning, it is an institution of listening and memorization.” (Said in in a LeanBlog Podcast 2/24/09).   And this I believe is killing our school system.  Test-obsessed and score driven, we no longer let children develop their curiosity to provide them with a real stake in learning.  We no longer offer them choice because we have too much curriculum to cover.  Our homework is not set up for meaningful exploration but rather to teach time management and study skills.  Time management?   Like our over-scheduled students need more time management?  When students fail to hand in their homework we assume that it is either because they are too lazy or because they didn’t feel like it.  We do not assume that perhaps it was uninteresting, irrelevant or perhaps even too hard or meaningless.  We almost always assume we know best.  And even if we know within our hearts that the piece of homework assigned probably wasn’t all that engaging, we assign it anyway, because we have to assign something and we were forced to do inane homework when we went to school so why should our students be exempt.  But the system is broken, we know it, and we have to change it.

There are exceptions, of course, thankfully.  There are pockets of teachers and schools that are taking a different approach. That are actively combating this curiosity-killing school system.  Those that let their students explore, those that weigh their options, assign meaningful homework, that question their practices rather than go with the status quo.  They provide inspiration for some and shudders for other.  Perhaps they are just too different for some to even recognize them as schools.  Yet they are part of the answer.  We must bring back exploration, we must give teachers time to fully engage their students.  We must spark teachers’ curiosity as well so that we all can love learning again.  They say that curiosity killed the cat, let’s not have the lack of curiosity kill our schools.