The Value of Homework

boys cooking

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Highly Personal Decision

Politics.

Activism.

Social Change.

Since my high school days, these are the things that have excited and inspired me.

During my freshman year of high school, I read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by, Dee Brown and found the band Rage Against the Machine not long after. I was shocked by the accounts of how the American government dealt with Native American tribes and fascinated by the sheer anger in lead singer Zach de la Rocha’s voice. His lyrics told a story that ran against everything that I had learned and the rage to make me believe it had to be true.

I wrote a lot of poetry in my teenage years and read even more books. My parents were not really into traveling (the farthest we traveled was Florida every year to visit my grandparents), so I fed my wanderlust with books like The Dharma Bums by, Jack Kerouac and A Clockwork Orange by, Anthony Burgess.

In college, my world view continued to open up, though through literature instead of travel as my parents vetoed my desires to study abroad. I started taking classes in World Literature and minored in Politics all while pursuing my passion for photography in the darkroom at Rutgers that is now extinct.

Then I stumbled upon Bruce Robbins, a professor whose interest in the place where literature and politics collide fueled my own leanings in that direction. As a senior, Bruce served as my adviser for my Honors Thesis, which was an exploration into whether books could use text and photography to achieve real social change. This was not just a scholarly pursuit, but also a very personal one. I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do after graduation. I loved college. I loved the reading, the thinking, the arguing, and the writing. But would delving into issues of inequality and poverty intellectually be satisfying enough for me? Would I be able to change the world that way?

Well, my Honors Thesis took me into flophouses in Manhattan and led me to interview David Isay the creator of NPR’s StoryCorps, a project that records the amazing (and often lost) histories of everyday people. But it wasn’t my Thesis that led me to my next move. It was a poster. The poster was recruiting college graduates to apply to Teach for America. I read the statistic at the bottom about how children in poverty are reading an average of 2/3 grade levels behind their wealthier peers. But I think it was the photograph of a young African-American boy looking back at me with big eyes that drove me to head to the computer lab and find out how to apply. That poster, in an instant, achieved social change. My dream of getting a PhD. at Harvard fell dead on the ground behind me, and since then I have only glanced back at that dream a few times.

The story here gets more complicated, emotional, and well…long. So I will zoom ahead, past my 12 years of inner city and suburban teaching experience, through the births of my four children to this summer when I finally decided to turn my back on public school for awhile to homeschool my children.

Those of you who follow my blog know how hard I fought against testing and for quality, dynamic, and developmentally-stimulating education. You read my editorials, speeches, petitions, and pleas. You know I fought and fought hard.

My decision to homeschool was not a giving up on public schools as one teacher recently accused me of, but rather a giving in to my children and their needs and fulfillment. For many years, I worried about the world, now it is time for me to focus on my children. I believe that by giving them the best that they will in turn affect the world for the better. In just a short 10 years my oldest will be 18. And judging from what I hear from those parents who have gone through it, I too will wonder where the time went.

My decision to homeschool is a highly personal decision, not to give up on quality education for all, but to give in and commit myself to giving that gift to my own children while I can. There will be time to return to that bigger fight.

But for now, I will focus on them. I will honor my short time with them and give them every bit of what I want to give to all children. I will stop thinking about what I wish public schools would do and just do them without fight or argument. I will appreciate my opportunity to take this time with my children, knowing that one day (in the blink of an eye) it will be over, and then I can return to trying to solve the world’s problems.

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Guess What? Common Core Kindergarten Is Not the Savior of the Poor

Erika Sanzi recently published a critique of Sarah Blaine’s article about the Common Core standards for early education, particularly kindergarten, being “developmentally inappropriate. Sanzi starts off her article stating that she felt torn and wished that she could side with Blaine since, “Like Ms. Blaine, I look at all of this from a place of privilege.”  Yet Sanzi goes on to support the developmental appropriateness of Common Core for the early grades.

Sanzi claims, “There is much wisdom to be found in the voices of educators on this question of developmental appropriateness.” Then she cites one English arts specialist, Pat D’Alfonso, as evidence. It makes me wonder if Sanzi ever read the Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative Issued by the Alliance for Childhood that was issued March 2, 2010. This joint statement was not signed by one  “English arts specialist” but rather over 300 educators and health professionals, many highly renowned in their fields, see their statement, names and credentials here.

Simply stated, Sanzi just like many legislators, education businesses like Pearson, school boards, and administrators have ignored the wisdom of those who understand early learning best. These standards were not designed with any regard to our youngest and most impressionable learners and only time will tell the true damaging effects of these irresponsible reforms.

But what makes me angry is the claims that these Common Core standards, despite being deemed inappropriate by over 300 highly knowledgeable people, who have experience studying and working with young children, have been touted as the savior of the poor in America. It is utterly ridiculous to suggest that somehow these standards are the antidote to the vast achievement gap between rich and poor, between people of color and those of European descent (or however you want to word it), and even between regular education and special education.

Poor children in America are in crisis and kindergarten is where major triage begins in order to compensate for what most agree is a 30 million word gap during their early years. Reading early and often is the antidote that can fill the gap and put students from widely different backgrounds on much more equal footing.

In addition, by requiring students from the beginning to use evidence from the text when writing and speaking, Common Core allows for students to depend far less on their prior knowledge and, in turn, quickly begins to mitigate the impact of having had less conversation or vocabulary rich experiences in early childhood.

In addition, by requiring students from the beginning to use evidence from the text when writing and speaking, Common Core allows for students to depend far less on their prior knowledge and, in turn, quickly begins to mitigate the impact of having had less conversation or vocabulary rich experiences in early childhood. (Sanzi)

Reading early and often does help. But sadly there is less and less time for reading in classrooms where rapid skill acquisition reigns.  What the kids are doing in most kindergartens is a far cry from children making up for lost time being read to and engaging in conversations. It is dominated by worksheets and assessments  If the PARCC test does extend to kindergarten next year, then you better believe kindergarten will also include typing practice.

Most schools with low-income students don’t have many books.  Especially since so much money is being spent on technology upgrades and training in order for the kids to be tested by the new PARCC test. Chicago public schools are refusing district wide, because it simply costs more money than they have to lay out. Sanzi is naive to think that this new set of standards and the inevitable (profitable) tests that will be tied to them will have the power to magically lift children out of poverty. In fact, it runs the risk of turning children off to reading, learning and school at an early age. The best motivating factor for reading success is the desire and love of reading. Children need positive associations not close reading and critical analysis when they are 5, before reading becomes work it must be loved. Why squander the opportunity?

But simply waiting until our children reach a testing year, and refusing the test will not solve the problem either. There has been a fundamental shift in how education is viewed and sadly that view is inextricably entwined with money. The real savior of the poor in this country will not come from the Common Core or lack there of. It will not come from taking the PARCC or refusing it. Starting from day one of kindergarten developing the skill of citing the text, will not make up for less conversation, but teaching parents how important it is to speak and read to young children will.

If we want all children to have a quality education, it will only come from the parents and teachers working together with their communities to demand better. Better schools and better education only comes with sustained hard work. Each community has its own strengths ans weaknesses that the people who live there know all about. The key is to start small and gradually grow more community education associations, parent groups, committees, and have those groups work together to create positive change one step at a time.

It isn’t a magic bullet but rather a long battle that will take blood sweat and tears. But then, with every small victory the community, school, and children grow stronger…together.

Common Core lays out the goals, but certainly doesn’t dictate how to get there. It’s hard to believe that beginning to read early ever hurt anyone but it’s near impossible to deny that failing to do so can quite literally ruin a child’s life. (Sanzi)

The goal needs to be less about when or how a child learns to read and more about how we can inspire and motivate children to want to read and to want to go to school everyday. No one would argue that not learning to read can ruin a child’s life. But I would argue that it is almost as bad to not show children how to love to read.

It is a crime not to inspire them to do more than perform well on the arbitrary, poorly designed tests that we allow for-profit companies to create for them. No child should feel like a failure at age 5, 6 , or 7. They shouldn’t cry when it’s time to do their homework. They deserve more and it is up to the adults to give that to them.

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My older son’s story about reading to his baby sister.