The Value of Homework

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Talk to any parent of a school age child, especially on a weekday (or Sunday night), and the subject of homework is bound to work its way into conversation.

An article recently came out about extensive research that showed clear evidence that elementary students reap nearly no benefit from homework. But for many parents, this was just official confirmation of what they already knew.

The intention of homework is often stated as reinforcement of skills learned in class. That purpose itself is problematic.

Every child in every class does not need the same level of reinforcement assigned across the entire class  after every lesson. Some children do not need to do nightly, monotonous spelling assignments to score 100% on the spelling test, while some children can do spelling homework until they are blue in the face and never score above a 70.

Many children are avid readers and do not need the burden of a reading log or endless comprehension questions slowing them down. Many other children just need someone to read to them and talk to them more to increase their access to positive literacy experiences.

When  I snapped the photo today of my  sons helping me prepare vegetables for a stir fry dinner, the irony of the word “homework” struck me. Perhaps what children need most is less homework in the traditional worksheet or book report sense and more home work or housework. In trying to keep up with the modern obsession with perfection, many parents outsource house work rather than go the traditional route of assigning chores to their children. Too many children have become so disconnected from the concept of work in the home and that leads to the same disconnect when they get out into the world.

A landscaping company comes to upkeep the perfect lawn. A cleaning service comes to upkeep the perfect house. A company comes to open and close the perfect pool. Painters, plumbers, roofers, ….you name it.  All so that parents can free up time to upkeep the perfect body at the salon or gym or to work long enough hours to pay for all of those expenses.

It is more common to buy food or eat out than to grow food in the backyard where kids can be a part of the process that gets food on the table. Heck, so many American families rarely even make it to the table together due to endless activities and sports practices that often start at age 4.

As a result, work becomes something arbitrarily assigned by an authority figure, rather than something integral to daily life. Our children become input/output machines and then the teachers in the upper grades and later employers lament the lack of problem solving skills and work ethic in the younger generations.  Companies have made fortunes on convincing consumers that life was hard and that we needed a plethora of products and services to make it easier. But actually, the answer is easy and cheap.

Bring back home work in the traditional sense. Turn off the website that drills math skills and put down the spelling lists. Take the time to reinforce life skills and a sense of responsibility. Imagine the potential such a simple shift could have on the typical American family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

PARCC Or Bust

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The PARCC test simply will not die.

The state of NJ sits stubbornly on the list of the 6 states plus DC, out of the original 26, that grip the PARCC test like a dying wish.

Well, nearly 50 people stormed the State Board of Education meeting to pry that dying wish out of the State’s cold dead hands.

Blood is in the water here in NJ. The opt out movement far surpassed the Education Commissioner Hespe’s original prediction. Parents have now seen the effects of these ill-conceived tests and every single day someone new asks me about how they can opt their child out.

But the PARCC will not leave NJ quietly.

Not with Commissioner Hespe sitting on the PARCC Advisory Board. Not with Commissioner Hespe at the head of the Study Commisssion on the Use of Student Assessments in NJ. Not with that Commission recommending that the PARCC test, after only ONE year under its belt, become the sole test required for graduation.

Hespe went from confidently dismissing the opt out movement as a weak and misguided minority to treating the movement as a serious force to be reckoned with.

Hespe is sweating.

Now is not the time to back down.

The first threat Hespe doled out was that parents were not allowed to opt out. (Yet thousands of parents found a way to refuse.)

The second threat was that students whose parents refused to allow them to take the PARCC would have to sit and stare throughout the entire test. (Very few districts stuck to this policy and finally Hespe came out and discouraged sit and stare policies.)

The third threat was that opt outs would cause schools to lose funding. (Parents refused anyway and there has yet to be any evidence that ANY school district lost funding. See this video by, superintendent and opt out leader, Dr. Michael Hynes for more evidence.)

The threats weren’t working. Parents would not back down, and the numbers of parents opting out began to climb.

So Hespe and other test supporters tried a different tack. They reduced the testing time… a little.  See parents…we are listening to you. Now shut up and go away.

But the reduction in testing time only spoke to a tiny fraction of the criticisms of the PARCC. Then the test results came out and the vast majority of the state of NJ (one of the best performing states in education) FAILED.  Hmmm….looks a lot like what happened in NY and their opt out movement is at least 10 times that in NJ.

Don’t worry they said. It’s the first year of the test. The kids will get better, after all, these tests are rigorous…it will take time for little Johnny and Mary Lou to catch up. They need typing practice and time to learn how to navigate the testing tools like scroll bars and rulers on the screen. They need to learn how to engage in close reading and explain their math answers in explicit detail.

And if that isn’t enough encouragement….

Insert the fourth threat…

Your kid takes the test every year from 7th grade on or he can’t graduate.

You hear that parents! They won’t. We swear they won’t. Don’t you dare opt out. We hold your kids’ future in OUR hands not YOURS. We say PARCC or bust.

Well played Hespe, well played.

Well I say…

There is no wizard behind the curtain.

Call his bluff.

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Not One Boy

This is a photo of my little boy standing in the snow at age 4.

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Four years have already passed since this picture.

In four more he will be the same age, age 12,  as Tamir Rice was when he was shot and killed by a police officer. Tamir was only armed with a pellet gun.

Many might find it weird for me to read an Op-Ed about Tamir Rice, a black  inner city Chicago youth, and connect it to my son.

But why not?

Because my son is only a quarter black?

Because my son doesn’t live in inner city Chicago or an area with similar levels of violence?

Because my son isn’t even allowed to play with guns and won’t be allowed to have even a pellet gun even at age 12?

Because my son is not in danger?

But I still see the the connection.

Because if I can’t read the Op-Ed piece in the New York Times today, and imagine my son laying there bleeding for four minutes after being shot without apparent cause, while two police officers did nothing to help him…then I am part of the problem.

Tamir was a boy.

My son is a boy.

No boy should die like Tamir did.

Forget the hashtags and the debates.

No boy should die like Tamir did.

Not mine, not yours, not Tamir’s mother’s.

Not one.

 

 

 

 

 

We Are All Individuals

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The world gets dangerous when we start to think about people in terms of generalizations rather than individuals.

My father once told me that if you had told him as a teenager that one day he would marry a white woman, he would have told you that you were out of your mind.

Then look at how happy his love for a “white woman” made him.

My father once told me a story about something that happened to him and my mother in the mid 1970s just before I was born.

My parents were driving home from somewhere in the early evening. Not quite dark yet, but getting there I believe. My dad turned to my mom and said, “I think those ladies behind us are following us.” My mom didn’t believe him and said he was just being paranoid. But as they kept driving, it became evident that there were two “old ladies” following them.

My father turned down a few side streets and the car followed. So he turned into a gas station and they followed. After a few minutes of this game of cat and mouse, my mom said, “I am tired; let’s just go home.” So they drove home forgetting about the ladies.

My father sat down to watch television and my mother went upstairs to wash her face and change into her pajamas. After about 10-15 minutes, there was a knock at the door. My father went to answer it, and on the front porch stood a police officer. The police officer began questioning my Dad. Had he recently driven his car anywhere? Where had he gone? How long had he been home?

Finally, my father said, “Officer, is there a problem? It is late, and I would like to go to bed.” Finally the officer asked, “Was there a white woman with you in the car?” My Dad, an elementary school physical education teacher (not that that really should matter here) turned and yelled up the stairs, “Paula, would you please come down here.”

My mother joined him at the front door and my father put his arm around her and said, “Officer, this white woman is my wife.”

It is hard for many to imagine that a black man just driving in a car with a white woman can be suspicious to some people. Our media and society tell us repeatedly that racism is a thing of the past, but the reality is that it thrives now probably stronger than ever.

Does that mean that #blacklivesmatter is an essential and productive rallying cry? Or that whites need to be schooled in the pitfalls of #whiteprivilege?

No. I don’t think hashtags have anything to do with it.

The hate will stop when we start seeing people as individuals, not as a race, a religion, a socioeconomic status, a gender, a sexuality, or even a profession.

The notion that police officers are power-hungry racist pigs is just as damaging to our collective psyche as racial slurs. These days there is so little respect and reverence given to those in what were once considered prestigious positions: police officers, teachers, doctors, and even the president. Just as so little respect is given to young black men in particular as the world seems to approach them as guilty until proven innocent.

Why?

Why did we as a society let a few bad apples spoil the bunch when it comes to these generalizations?

Why are we raising children to think that most police officers are not driven to protect and serve, that teachers are only in it for the pension and summers off, that the internet knows better than most doctors, and that most presidents are figureheads that only push corporate agendas?

There’s more to life and more to people than these generalizations.

Most terrifying to me is that police officers now have to walk with the added fear that much of the public they serve is skeptical at best.  But if you turn off the television, radio, and computers and just look around, you will find goodness in these people, in all people even.

I was so deeply moved looking at the photographs again from that horrific moment in American History: September 11, 2001. But this time, after 14 years, I was most captured by the first responders. I saw a photograph of a member of the NYPD comforting a bleeding ash-covered woman. His care and concern amidst the chaos was so beautiful.

We, as a country, continue to heal from the September 11 attacks and from the train of questionable police killings. Yet it is important to remember that as we work to root out police officers, who do not deserve the uniform that they wear, that there are far more police officers that serve with pride and deserve our respect for the sacrifices they make for others.

I want to thank Sergeant Tim Devine from the Linwood Police department in Linwood, NJ for giving my four children the royal treatment this week during a tour that I scheduled just for my four children, whom I now homeschool. Sgt. Devine and the other members of the Linwood police did not blink an eye showing a 2,4,6, and 8-year-old the fingerprinting machine, offices, holding cell, and even a very dangerous reindeer Christmas decoration rescued from the town bike path.

He popped his hat on the kids and let them sit in the police cruiser, while I took photos. They didn’t just see the radar gun, but got the chance to use it to clock the speed of an officer who drove in a circle 6-8 times to give everyone a turn, including me. The kids went home with a smile and a copy of their fingerprints to boot!

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I don’t write this to belittle the cases of Eric Garner,Freddie Gray or Michael Brown or any other black man or woman treated unjustly by police officers. (Everyone deserves just treatment under the law.)

I write this as a reminder that we are all individuals.

Maybe too if we stopped scaring our urban youth straight as teenagers and showed them this kind of care and attention at a young age…things could be different…for everyone.

A Word to Abusers: This is My Temple.

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This blog a sacred space where I empty my deepest thoughts, feelings, and dreams.

A place where I leave my most raw, immediate self, so that one day I can look back and feel what I felt again with a new heart and soul, changed by time.

A place where I connect with those I know in life, online, or not at all.

A place where I philosophize, cry, smile, and spend quality quiet time with my mind and heart.

A place where I share private pieces of my life to contribute to the greater world beyond my small corner of time and space.

A place where I risk some privacy to feel rooted in something bigger.

Writing is my temple.

These words and pictures I share are sacred. My words are not in the public domain like some Wikipedia entry. My images are not just some stock photography or clip art for you to use to suit your own purposes.

There is a difference.

A difference that must be respected lest this beautiful new art form, the blog, will cease to have value. If writers do not feel safe, they will stop sharing. And in their place, commercial and culturally bankrupt drivel will rush in to fill the empty space, as it has in so many other places on the internet.

I feel threatened.

For the second time, I checked my stats page to find a disturbing search led some sick, pervert child molester or pornographer to my writing. To pictures of MY children.

I carved out an hour or two to drive to Starbucks and write (my internet is down at home), while my husband put the kids to bed. I sat down with my black grande coffee and a head full of ideas. While I downloaded my latest photos from my phone onto my laptop, I checked my stats only to nearly choke on my much-anticipated coffee that now bubbles like volcanic acid in my churning stomach, as I write fueled by anger more than caffeine.

Here is what I saw under search terms for July 11, 2015:

“daddy it hurts but keep pushing it up me”

This means, without a doubt, that someone typed those words into a Google search box and then clicked on my blog to see if it contained photos or information that related to those terms.

Are you sick yet?

How am I supposed to sit here and write now? How can I focus on anything but the fact that some stranger who would search for such a thing has looked at photos of my children?

I can’t.

Hell, I can’t even finish my coffee.

No photos tonight.

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Dear Star Ledger Editorial Board, Dial Yourselves Down

For many years, I did not read the newspaper. I was busy balancing a teaching career and a new, growing family. All a newspaper subscription was to me was more stuff that I had to squeeze into our overflowing recycling can.

I am also stubborn and literally pay for nothing that I read or do online. No iTunes. (I use free Pandora, ads and all.) No extra lives or power-ups on Candy Crush. No book downloads unless they are free, which is part of the reason why I am reading Oliver Twist. No online news subscriptions. Okay fine, we do pay for Netflix, but I feel like that doesn’t count since we have been members since the days of mailing the DVD’s back in those little red envelopes.

But in October we moved to a town in a different county in NJ, and I wanted to get to know our new area. I ordered daily delivery and at least skim the Atlantic City Press every day.  Overall, I find it a great way to get to know local politics, businesses, and events. However, the more I get involved in education reform, the more I become infuriated with the lack of balance in reporting both locally and across the state. Few reporters ever question those they interview with any questions that challenge their views or politics. Therefore, the media becomes a platform that allows them to stand upon and control the message that reaches the public. This is exactly how Education Commissioner David Hespe got away with spreading his pro-PARCC message just days after he walked out in the middle of a public hearing.

The last straw for me though was an editorial published by the Star Ledger Editorial Board yesterday telling the public in reference to the “collective freakout” about the PARCC test, “Let’s try to dial it down.” Should the public really be taking advice about how to feel about education from the editorial board of a newspaper? What sort of authority or education do they have regarding education?

The editorial begins by saying, “…Of course, no kid should be forced to sit for hours and stare at a blank computer screen while other students take it.” Well, clearly the Editorial Board missed the fact that before parents started to fight back, many school districts were implementing sit and stare policies. The “of course” was not so obvious to many school administrators and school boards across the state of NJ.

Secondly, yes, it was a bit rash to call Pearson’s surveillance of social media “spying” but the hysteria that surrounded that discovery should not downplay real legitimate questions about transparency, the internet, and our children. The public has a right to know what their tax dollars are paying for, what exactly these companies are looking for and in turn doing with the information that they collect.

Finally, the most ridiculous claim of the entire editorial came late in the article.

Remember that there is a broader public purpose here, one much more important than taking pot shots at the PARCC. One of the main reasons we need this standardized test is for parents in struggling districts like Camden or Newark, who would otherwise have no way of knowing whether their kids are in a failing school.

“Pot shots”? Yes, that is why so many people traveled to Jackson and Camden to present testimony to Commissioner Hespe…to take a pot shot. That is why thousands of people refused the test for their children…to take a pot shot. That is why 500 early childhood experts signed a statement calling the Common Core Standards, upon which the PARCC test is based, developmentally inappropriate for young learners…to take a pot shot. That is why so many parents and teachers are concerned about the impact on learning time the PARCC creates by requiring two full testing periods a month apart….to take a pot shot.

But the lowest of the low is the assumption that the poorest communities of NJ desperately need the  PARCC test, because without it they can’t figure out that their kids are failing.

WHAT?!

Seriously, has anyone on the Star Ledger Editorial Board ever been to Newark or Camden? I would love to take a field trip to one of these cities with the Editorial Board. I would ask them to find one single parent that has no idea that their kid is failing or that more importantly that their schools are failing their kids. All they hear is about failure. They know the graduation rate is low. They know the incarceration rate is high. They know that crime, violence, and drugs threaten their children at every turn. They know that their schools are nothing like the schools that their Governor went to in Livingston, NJ. Every test has come back that the schools in these areas are riddled with failure and the PARCC test will be no different.

These communities do not need a test. They need learning. They need their schools to be safer. They need to use funding for quality, engaging curriculum and support services rather than meeting the expensive demands that an online test puts on the budget through technology and training requirements. They need lessons that inspire students rather than prep them for tests. They need gardens, playgrounds, field trips, science experiments, and after school clubs and sports. They need mentors. They need love, patience, and an understanding that poverty is a real influence on education and can not be cured by a test.

The Star Ledger Editorial Board has some of their own improving to do. Maybe they should ask Pearson to design a test for editorial boards so that maybe they can look around and see that they are not doing anyone any good by writing editorials like this.

Who Isn’t Refusing the PARCC?

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This image might look familiar to you. Many have been changing their profile picture to show solidarity in the grassroots movement to refuse the high stakes PARCC test. This simple act will empower many to have the courage to compose and submit their refusal letter, even if they feel like they are the only ones in their town. There is power in numbers . This is an easy way to visually show the number of supporters and to increase their reach and power.

The refusal movement is growing and with the PARCC set to start tomorrow, the numbers will only rise. Though many of us have been working tirelessly to get the word out, many parents remain uninformed. Of course there are some who are informed and will choose not to refuse the test for their children.Perhaps they feel that the test is just another test. Or maybe they know their child will do well, and therefore it doesn’t bother them. Or even they may think the test is good practice for life. My goal is not to diminish their reasons, but to point out that their choice is an informed choice.

What about the overwhelming number of parents out there who are just simply not informed or misinformed?

Many school districts across the state have held information nights to present the parents with all of the wonderful benefits of the revolutionary PARCC test. If a parent does not have an education background and has faith in their schools, it would be easy after sitting through such a presentation to feel good about this new test. Who wouldn’t want a test that can really help the teachers and parents understand the needs of their children and get every child to be career and college read? Sounds great! And what’s more modern than a Chromebook? Technology is the way of the future, so why not prepare students for the future?

But let’s face it, the PARCC test, or any test standardized or not, does not have the power to do what supporters claim it can do.

Tests don’t level playing fields. Tests don’t make anyone ready for any career or college. Tests don’t tell parents or teachers what a child needs or doesn’t need. To achieve those goals you need human interaction by way of teaching, listening, conversing, and working.

However the PARCC test has:

  • reduced the amount of time and resources spent on science and social studies in the elementary school.
  • strained local school budgets to allow for the purchase of technology (namely Chromebooks) and PARCC-related training.
  • caused physical damage by requiring students as young as 8 years old to type and stare into computer screens for extended amounts of time.
  • caused anxiety in students and teachers by placing increased stress on testing.
  • caused schools to cancel meaningful and relevant assessments such as midterms and finals in high school and authentic assessments in lower grades.
  • reduced the time teachers have to teach yet increased the amount and pace of learning.
  • given many students an unwarranted feeling of failure.
  • caused schools to cancel field trips.

I could go on, but I won’t. Instead consider that if even half of this is true, then why aren’t droves of parents refusing? Well, if you set aside those who truly are informed and have decided to push ahead with the test, there are many others to consider.

Let’s face it. The most parent participation in school happens at the kindergarten level. Then it slowly tapers off until junior year of high school when parents become worried about the college application process. Perhaps one problem this whole mess has revealed is that the days of just blindly trusting schools to do what is right for our children are over. We all need to be active, informed participants in our schools, even if that means giving up some of the time suckers that we all know and love (Netflix, stupid video games on our phones, Facebook, Pintrest, Instagram, etc.)  Because a distracted populace is one that is easily manipulated.

Secondly, consider the fact that the obsession with high stakes testing started way back in 2001 with the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The majority of schools escaped feeling any pressure because the threshold for achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) was so low. What this means is that if a school had a subgroup population such as special education or Hispanic not meet the required mark, all the school had to do was show that group improved marginally the next year. It became okay that they failed, so long as they just failed a little less. I have sat through presentations where our principal broke down exactly how many kids had to pass to make AYP, and it was shocking how few.

Schools even went so far as to cater to kids who fit into more than one subgroup population (African-American and special education, or low-income and Hispanic) and make sure that they had priority for any special extra help classes.

However, schools in high poverty areas were hit the hardest. They were threatened by state takeovers. Administrators were afraid to lose their jobs, which too often came with lucrative opportunities for easy corruption. Inner city children have been suffering in schools dominated by test preparation for years. Sure the PARCC test takes it to a new level, but the damaging effects of high stakes testing have a long track record in this country.

Where was this movement in 2001, 2005, 2008?

One teacher reached out to me and asked me to write about the kids whose parents have no idea that they can refuse the test. In her diverse elementary class, the kids refusing come from affluent, educated families.The kids in her class from families with low socioeconomic status, uneducated parents, or recent immigrants are left to suffer through the test, while the other half of the class gets to go hang out in the library and read books. The worst part is that the teacher feels pressure not to encourage test refusal, so when the test begins she will have to bite her tongue and watch her lowest performing students suffer through a test that many believe has been proven developmentally inappropriate.

So while we celebrate the success of this grassroots movement, we should remember those children who must suffer through this test not because their parents chose for them to take it or because their teacher thinks it is a good idea. They will do so because their parents are uninformed or misinformed, and once again they will be left behind.