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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

That Student

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He was that student.

You know the type. He talked when the teacher said quiet. He stood up when the teacher said sit down. When it was time to work, he asked to go to the bathroom. When it was time to hand in homework, his rarely if ever made it into the collection pile.

On the bright side, he had a winning smile. He could make the teacher laugh on those days she wasn’t driven to want to cry. He had some great insights when novels were discussed, though he was loathe to write them down.

The difference was that his English teacher one year had just arrived at that suburban school from teaching in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the country. She didn’t buy his tough guy talk that he was from the “ghetto”, for she had seen the ghetto and that town didn’t have one. His shenanigans didn’t even shake her, for she had come from places where kids fought and cursed and came to school fueled with the kind of anger that drove third graders to throw over desks…sometimes at her.

When he brought a book to class to read, he claimed it was a great story. She recognized it as a piece of adult urban erotica she had seen in other places. She brought it to the teachers’ room and a colleague commented, “Well I bet that’s all your kids in Newark read, right?” His joke wasn’t funny. And it wasn’t funny when she asked the guidance counselor to schedule a meeting, and she said his mother probably wouldn’t come anyway. And it wasn’t funny when she did come and showed no parenting skills at all.

He was that student.

Back in 7th grade that year, he was crying out for help and probably had been for years. He couldn’t read well. He acted up to cover up for it, like so many other kids like him.

But back then he was just a pain in the neck to his teachers. It wasn’t until high school that he started really disrupting classes and making his teachers cry out to the administrators to “do something” with the kid.

An administrator had the sense and heart to go back and ask that 7th grade teacher what she had done to reach him. How had she handled his behavior? What advice could she give?

What could she say? Sure she remembered him. She remembered all of her students.

The one who she walked home from school down the dangerous drug-infested streets of Baltimore to tell her parents about her disrespectful, disruptive behavior. They didn’t have a phone and she couldn’t bear to have her ruin another day. The one whose father answered the door strung out on drugs and offered to beat her right there in the street.

The one who was 14 years old with a mustache in the 6th grade. The one whose father abused him and called him stupid. The one who was a gang member and whose mother admitted to being one too. The one who had rival gang members try to break into her classroom to jump him, while she was teaching. The one who she would walk the streets on her lunch break to find and convince to come back to school. The one who came back to hug her when he heard she was moving, despite getting expelled days before she would get approval for skipping him ahead to the high school based on a portfolio she worked with him to create. An approval that was revoked when he set off fireworks in a school hallway.

The one on her basketball team who was barred from playing because the switchblade she carried to protect herself, on her ride home in the dark on the subway, fell out of her backpack in math class. The one who cried that basketball was her life and that she would never hurt anyone unless she had to.

What could she have said that would have saved him? What could have been done so that a few short years later she didn’t read his name in a police report, telling he was accused of drug distribution to a minor and the illegal possession of a weapon.

The drugs that are choking our society will never go away, if schools don’t step up and start trying to reach those kids. Teachers like her are flailing. pressured to show achievement in a system that is failing so many.

That student was failed by us all, even the teacher who cared so much.

She should have kept pushing. We all should.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.

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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.

Career and College Ready?

From the first moment I heard the catchphrase “career and college ready”, it bothered me, though I couldn’t easily put my finger on why.  The notion that school is a place to prepare students for life beyond school is certainly not revolutionary.

We teach children how to add and subtract so that one day they can work a cash register or balance their checkbooks. We teach children how to read so that they can fill out applications and follow written instructions or directions. We teach children about the world around them so that they can understand how things work and why people act the way that they do.

The now of education is inextricable from the later. Right?

Well, consider this quote:

“Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” -John Dewey

Perhaps, in focusing so much on preparing them for later, education has missed the boat in capitalizing on the now of the process of learning. Setting benchmarks and piling on assessments to make certain that children are on a track that will guarantee success might actually be derailing students from ever reaching that success.

If we teach children to enjoy learning, the process of it (the reading, the computing, the exploring, the writing, the thinking, the creating, the debating) they will learn more than if we teach children to be focused on the measurable results of learning. If we excite children about the act of learning, the pursuit of knowledge will become a self-propelled race rather than a proscribed march through pre-determined checkpoints.

Ask a college professor or an employer, what makes a great student or employee.

I am certain that they will not answer with a list of skills and knowledge, but rather a type of character.

Successful people excel in careers and college because they can think, they like to think, and they have within them the desire and fire to achieve.

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The kids completing observation journals after a nature walk at Huber Woods. Ages 3,5, and 7 learning together.

A Highly Personal Decision

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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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The Magic of Childhood

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Discovery

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Cooperation

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Safety

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Wonder

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Adventure

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Imagination

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Love

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Sadness

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These are just some of the ingredients that make up the incredible magic of childhood. This magic is something to be revered and respected, like the power of an ancient sorcerer. It is a recipe that mere mortals cannot follow like a recipe from Pinterest. It is more than measurements and arithmetic. It has a life of its own.

When this magic is free, it is like nothing else on earth, boundless in what it can give. Far too much time is spent trying to contain it, train it, and mold it into what we adults want it to be, or think it should be.

But no, childhood is not a composite of please and thank yous and inside voices and pushed in chairs and sharing and good report cards and goals scored and homework completed and vegetables eaten before dessert is even considered.

Childhood is not a series of milestones completed and tracked on some sort of unwritten scorecard judging parents and teachers alike.

No, childhood is magic.

Period.

And we should learn to let it be and watch it color our world with joy.

The Importance of Being “SOOPR MOM”

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The more involved I get in education reform, the deeper I get into politics and the further I see schools getting away from the best interests of children.

My son, who is in kindergarten, made this for me the other day in school. In fact nearly everyday, he comes home and pulls out a small squarish folded up piece of paper with a picture for me. It usually says, “SIMONMOM,” but he is coming along with his writing abilities. It shows how even at school, in the middle of all of the hustle and bustle, he is thinking about me.

I guess this is a perfect metaphor for why I have been relentless in fighting back against the PARCC and against people in positions of power that have clearly forgotten what it is like to be a parent of a young child. Truly education reform and the people driving it have lost touch with the wonder of childhood.

The children, for the most part, have no idea that the adults are fighting around them (except maybe those fortunate few whose parents have turned this fight into a civics lesson for them). They have no idea that when they enter their name into a computer that some company is collecting data about them that one day will turn into a profit.They have no idea that the test their teachers are proctoring was not made by those teachers, will not be graded by those teachers, and are in many cases not supported by those teachers. The very same teachers who are with them day in and day out taking care of them academically, socially, emotionally and more. They have no idea that their parents and grandparents did not have the pressures in school that are now the norm today. They have no idea that there may very well be a better way to learn.

Why?

Because they trust us.

The other day I watched my 5 year-old son run ahead of me and into the street. Thankfully no cars were coming, but I still pulled him aside and explained how dangerous it was to run out like that without looking both ways at least. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Well I knew you were watching, so I didn’t have to look.”  But what if I wasn’t watching and luck wasn’t in our favor?

The state of education today is a direct result of parents not watching. The more I watch the more I notice how so many others are not. It is not that parents don’t care, because I believe that the vast majority of parents want nothing but the best for their children. Yet, caring is not the same as watching and holding administrators, board members, city council members, local, state, and national politicians accountable. The Open Public Records Act is a powerful law, but only if people use it. Public hearings are pointless if the public is not informed. Politicians and other leaders will not listen if they know that no one is watching.

Every time I read an article about the PARCC test failing I think about how it NEVER should have been implemented across the entire state in the first year. The amount of money spent on this test is truly revolting as a recent article estimated that NJ will spend 22.1 million dollars on the PARCC test just this year. This doesn’t count the technology and training expenses that happened prior to the start of this test.

There will be no winners. Even if the anti-PARCC movement succeeds (as I believe that it will), there are still many people who will walk away from it with fatter pockets. Though in my heart of hearts I want to demand that the companies hand as much of that money as possible back to our schools and for those politicians who refused to listen to the criticisms of the public who elects them to lose their jobs, I will be satisfied if parents learn one lesson.

We need to be the superheroes our children trust us to be. We must constantly remain vigilant about what we allow to occur in education. For when we do not watch for villains, our children suffer. The PARCC is just one episode of an ongoing saga of good against evil playing out in our public schools.