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

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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Stop Blaming, Start Acting

When schools became big business, they became political.

Everyone has a stake in the education game these days…something to gain (money and power) and something to lose (money and power).

In his book, manifesto really, “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling,” John Taylor Gatto exposes schools for the systemic prisons that they have become. Ask anyone in education and they will tell you that schools just aren’t what they used to be.

But my question is, whose fault is it?

Who is to blame?

A passionate education reformist and self-proclaimed activist, I have fought with, written to, and offered alternative solutions to every level I could gain access to from classroom teachers to supervisors to principals to superintendents to school boards to city council to the mayor to the State Commisioner of Education to the Governor to Senators to the Secretary of Education and even the President himself.

And I have come to one simple conclusion.

My husband says it often, that if you look to government to solve your problems then all you will get are more problems.

If we the people want education reform, then we the people need to demand it.

Period.

If we wait for the pendulum to swing, or the next president, or governor or superintendent or whatever…then it will be too late. Time stops for no one.  And our children cannot wait.

If you don’t like the way schools are being run, then find your voice. Find others and encourage them to find their voice and together you will become louder.

Speak from a place of knowledge and offer solutions rather than just critiques. Start small and find your confidence and then get bigger, tackle bigger and bigger goals until you see the change you want.

If your child cries and fights you over homework. Say something. Don’t let it ruin your night, week, year, relationship.

If your child hates to read or write, make time for the library and journal together. Talk to the school about what reading and writing looks like in the classroom and start a discussion about how it could be done differently.

If the math doesn’t make sense, ask the district to run a parent academy and explain it. If it still doesn’t make sense start a discussion about how it could be done differently.

Small steps.

Local change.

That is the real power that we the people have.

These are OUR children, OUR schools, and OUR responsibility.

One block at a time we can rebuild and stop waiting for others to do the work for us.

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Students Like the PARCC Test?!

Recently I had a converstaion with a third grade teacher about the PARCC test, and I just can’t get it out of my head.

She told me that her students like the test. They love to show what they know and want more tests. She said that she thought that all of the stress related to the test came from the nervous adults.  She claimed that adults are just not comfortable with change. Though she did admit that maybe some of the enthusiasm for the test came from the treats and special things the school did to encourage the kids to do their best on the test last year.

Here is one example of a test day treat that some schools use (not necessary this particular teacher).

But, I wanted to listen to hear the other side.

My newsfeed is full of fellow activists against the PARCC test. This teacher felt very strongly that the test was a good thing for her students. She teaches in a district known for their excellent schools. Maybe she knows something I don’t.

So I listened, when usually my modus operandi is to argue.

I listened, but when she finished. I asked a question.

What about the fact that the majority of students in NJ scored below grade level on the PARCC test last year? How did the students feel when the report came home telling them that they failed?

I can honestly say that this teacher’s response shocked me.

She replied that she knows that many parents just didn’t show their children their scores. My face probably gave away my thoughts, so she continued to say that the students don’t really know what the colors or levels mean.

I guess she has a point. Most third graders cannot comprehend the most likely wordy score report that arrived home this year way after their third grade year ended (certainly too late to drive instruction as the test advocates promised).

But what about the kids in all of the other tested grades? Do they know they failed? Should their parents hide the score reports too and maybe the newspaper reports that the majority of NJ students scored below grade level?

http://www.nj.com/education/2015/10/nj_parcc_scores.html

Should parents and teachers make them feel better by telling them that a couple of years ago the vast majority of NY students failed too (prompting their powerful opt out movement)?

Should failing be no big deal when so much time and money is devoted to the PARCC?

What kind of children are we raising if we teach them to try their best on a test that might soon count for graduation, but in the same breath tell them that failing is no big deal?

What kind of education reform relies on this kind of bait and switch? Not one that I want for the children of NJ. Not one that I will tolerate for my children.

If my children return to school next year, I will compose their opt out letter in September and explain to my children why I wrote it.

I do not believe in the carrot-and-stick approach to learning. I do not believe in anyone exciting my children to perform academically for anyone except themselves. I do not believe that deceiving children is a productive way to educate them.

And I do not believe there is any value in the PARCC test.

Even if the students are excited to take it.

They should be excited about learning. Period.

 

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My third grader trying his hand at cuneiform during a homeschool unit about Mesopotamia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

An Ode to Imperfection

Sometimes my imperfections get to me.

I nervously wipe the mud from around my 2 year old daughter’s face under the scrutinizing eye of another more well-kept mother.

I muse loudly about the state of my boys’ clothes, “I have no idea how you got them so filthy.”

I make a mental note to buy some new pants (or more likely find the next size bin of hand-me-downs), when I notice on the run that a pair has become too short.

I remark how pretty the bow or barrette is in the hair of other people’s little girls, while glancing self-consciously at my own little girl’s wild mane of frizzy curls dotted with bits of leaves and grass or colored with paint.

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Most of the time, I feel confident in our decision to homeschool, to get dirty, to learn beyond the confines of the classroom, and to live differently than most around me. Most of the time, I believe in the value of unstructured play and the power of just being outside and using what the Earth has to give as toys.

Most of the time I feel okay that my own hair is frizzy, my jeans torn, my face untouched by makeup for weeks and sometimes months at a time. Most of the time I can take people’s reaction to my family with pride. Yes they are all mine. Yes I am with them all day long. Yes I teach them too. Yes it is as crazy as it sounds, but also wonderful too (and stressful too).

But sometimes, I feel self-conscious. I feel jealous. I feel unsure of myself and the path that I have taken. I panic that maybe I haven’t been using a rigorous enough curriculum in math or that my kids are not better off with me than at school. I wonder if one day I will regret not taking the time to buy my baby girl beautiful dresses and brush her hair into pigtails of perfect banana curls.

Sometimes I just want to give up, run away, take a nap or do something other than this. Sometimes, if I am brutally honest with myself, I find that I judge others even as my mind is accusing them of judging me.

Most of the time all of us are imprefect. Sometimes we just need to remember exactly that and love each other (and ourselves) and our imperfections all the same.