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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children Will Learn What We Teach Them

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“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

-Albert Einstein

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

-Maya Angelou

I know, without a doubt, that years after being in my class that my students don’t remember the themes of the novels I so diligently taught. They don’t remember the exact words of the comments I wrote obsessively in purple pen all over their essays. But I know they remember feeling like my class was more than just reading and writing some words.

Standards.

Objectives.

Assessments

Data.

Evaluations.

Education in this country has become obsessed with trying to quantify learning. But learning is not an a+b=c kind of endeavor. The answer is not a formula to be derived.

The PARCC test has been heralded as being able to determine if a child is on the track to career and college readiness in as early as the third grade. This test, though abandoned by many states, is driving education in the state of NJ and a few other states late to the discovery that it is actually a poorly designed assessment.

Elementary curriculum continues to be narrowed (since NCLB) to focus solely on reading and math. Math is being narrowed to focus on one methodology of teaching (whether it is right or wrong is not the point). Reading is being narrowed by a focus on informational texts (despite cuts to time spent on history and science) and by an obsession with technology (to simulate the test, students are assigned keyboarding practice and shown video clips daily in lieu of being read to by their teachers).

These shifts may seem minor to the untrained eye, or even a sign of the times where the digital age now rules. But, this cannot be further from the truth.

If all we teach our children in school is to do math a specific way, read certain types of texts and answer certain types of questions, and a handful of technology “skills” like drag and drop, scroll and how to type quickly, then that is what our children will learn. If we drill these things hard enough and long enough, then test them on it….they will pass with flying colors. The problem is that we will be patting ourselves on the back with the same hand that has robbed a generation of a true education.

Training is not education.

Education is imitation borne of admiration.

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Education is exploration.

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Kids doing archaeology in the backyard to find buried objects.

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Kids exploring the Metropolitan Museum of Art after learning about Ancient Egypt.

Education is experience and explanation.

Kids learning about irrigation from a friend who is a farmer.

Kids learning about irrigation from a friend who is a farmer.

Learning about evolution from his Daddy.

Learning about evolution from his Daddy, who is a physician.

Education is hands-on and often messy.

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Education is best shared with a smile.

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When we teach children, we are teaching much more than how to read or write or compute.

We are teaching them how to think, to live, and to love…

Or else we are teaching them not to.

In the Blink of an Eye

I remember the moment when I first looked into the eyes of of my first baby. His eyes black as night peered at me from under the blanket draped over us, Barely wiped down from the messy miracle of birth, he was placed against my bare chest. We could have been anywhere at all. In a cab. In a meadow. On the moon. Those eyes were all that I saw, the only things in the world, besides his soft heartbeat against my chest.

It’s easy to forget the wonder of that moment in the rush of everyday life. The lunchboxes to pack. The homework to complete. The papers to sign and return. The toys on the floor. The dishes in the sink. The laundry, the laundry, the laundry. But yet it is a wonder that we adults should never take for granted.

When I was pregnant with my first baby, the first ultrasound was incredible. I had never seen anything like it. The grossness of a transvaginal ultrasound (sorry fellas but reading those words is much easier than going through one) suddenly didn’t matter when the little flicker of the heartbeat came into focus on the screen. That was my baby growing inside of me.

By the third ultrasound, I was obsessed with them. I carried the pictures with me everywhere and stared at them in awe. Ultrasounds were the coolest things in the world. I remarked once to the technician, at the 6 month ultrasound for my second baby, that she must have one of the best jobs in the world. To which she replied, “Yes, when the baby is healthy.” I felt my heart drop into the pit of my stomach.

My first pregnancy and delivery had gone without a hitch. I had no reason to think about complications. I was so lucky, and I never even thought twice about it. Of course the technician’s job wasn’t all declaring with glee, “It’s a boy”, or “It’s a girl.” Sometimes there was no heartbeat. No heartbeat. I couldn’t imagine, but in that moment of awkward silence I was forced to.

I had no way of knowing that that baby inside me that day would be born prematurely. I had no idea that I would be rushed for an emergency C-section and that I wouldn’t hear him cry when he was born, because he had trouble breathing and was rushed from the room. I had no idea that I wouldn’t hold him for over 24 hours after birth, or that I would learn to nurse him with an IV sticking out of his scalp.

Thankfully, he was okay after a few days in the NICU and was able to come home with us from the hospital. Though, I met many parents that were not so fortunate.

Now my first baby is 7 years old and my second is 5. I don’t know where the time goes, but I know it goes quickly. Just talk to any parent of a child about to graduate high school, and they will tell you that it feels like just yesterday that they were putting their child on the bus to kindergarten.

Testing starts on Monday in our town and across much of New Jersey. And I think what bothers me the most is the precious time that is being wasted. Ask parents what they want for their children more than anything in the world and few will reply high test scores, but many will say that they want their children to be happy.

Why make school feel like work?

Children are in school a fleeting 13 years (not counting college, if they attend). The current life expectancy in the U.S. is 79 years old. They will spend the vast majority of their lives working. Of course we all hope our children love their occupations, but the reality is that many adults do not.

Why not invest the time, energy, and money wasted on testing our children to death and spend it on making the 13 years of school more inspiring, engaging, and full of learning driven by discovery and doing instead of receiving? The test makers claim that their tests make education more rigorous and prepare children for college and careers. Well, I think rigor comes from teaching, thinking,and applying knowledge to actual tasks and projects not from tests.

Children best prepared for the world spend time in it from a young age. You want to prepare children for college and careers, improve the foreign language programs in America that are grossly lacking compared to other countries. Take the children on more trips to see their town, state, country, and world. Sure, have the children analyze text, but then instead of answering questions on the computer, ask them to take what they learned and DO something with that knowledge.

They could write and deliver a persuasive speech. Participate in a debate. Create an advertisement. Draw a comic strip. Design a lesson about what they read and teach it to the class. Write and illustrate a children’s book about it. Research other points of view and compare and contrast them. Start a service learning project to make real progress towards solving a problem they read about.

Those activities require higher order thinking skills and demonstrate rigor much more than a test with multiple choice, short answers or even a complex essay. Yet those activities are being cut from teacher lesson plans in favor of more and more worksheets to “get through” the demands of the Common Core and more and more test prep to prepare for tests that are tied to teachers’ livelihood.

On Monday, the test will begin and the clock will keep ticking. Ticking off the minutes they have to complete each section. Ticking off minutes for short breaks. Ticking off the minutes until school is over and they can finally run free. Ticking off minutes of their childhood that they will not get back, even if the PARCC test is thrown out in a year or two.

In the blink of an eye, a piece of their precious childhood will be wasted.

And all of us are to blame.

My parents and I with my second son in the NICU.

My parents and I with my second son in the NICU.

Good Readers Feel Good

Yesterday, I was at a friend’s house for a play date. My youngest two and his youngest two were playing happily.  Our oldest sons are both in the 2nd grade class. We both are recent transplants to the area and we are both married to doctors.

Our conversation drifted to reading and I discovered that his son is in the high reading group, while mine is in the middle group. I know I shouldn’t care, but I felt the hairs on my neck stand up. I heard myself being nutty explaining the reasons why he wasn’t in the top group.

1. We moved to town in October, so he hadn’t been tested.

2. His classroom teacher taught the middle group, so she thought it would be easier for him to stay with her, since he was new to the school.

3. He is young for the grade and so many parents hold their kids back.

But my friend was quick to dismiss my thinly veiled defense. He said he wasn’t sure how different the classes really were anyway. And as a teacher, I know that he is right. Maybe they read longer books or books with bigger words, but they aren’t composing sonnets or memorizing the Gettysburg Address.

Really public education just rides the middle road with slight variations to the shoulders on the left and right. With the focus on testing, those on the low end tend to get the most attention, though the attention they get often does more damage than good. The book Readicide: How Kids Are Killing Schools and What You Can Do About It by, Kelly Gallagher details this perfectly showing how the lowest-performing schools and students get the most test prep instruction, which then kills the chances of developing a love of reading.

For example, instead of drilling low performing students with dry leveled readers, inspire them by reading aloud to them from high-interest fiction, silly poetry, or informational texts about subjects the students actually show interest in learning about. Don’t fill their take home folders with worksheets and decodables, but rather run a book drive and fill their backpacks with books they want to look at and sleep with under their pillows (even if they can’t, “Gasp!” read all of the words).

Whether my son is in the high reading group or not really is not the predictor of his success. What predicts success comes from the relationship he develops with books at home and at school. Even though I carry a heavy burden of guilt for those nights I only have time to read to him and not listen to him read to me, I have laid the groundwork for a love of reading. So his reading aloud will improve simply, because he loves to read.

This is what his bed looks like. The books are sorted by genre. Some nights we have to help him empty some out of his bed, so that he can sleep!

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He loves to read to his sister.

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He loves to create his own books and his little brothers follow right behind the best way that they can.

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The most fundamental problem of test-driven learning is the lack of joy. Administrators are stressed. Teachers are stressed. Parents are stressed. So, students become stressed. And learning, which should be fun becomes work. If you start working at 5 and 6 years old, you won’t have much love of learning left when you hit high school.

So many times I want to skip doing spelling homework or reading aloud to be recorded for the reading log, because my kids are having fun making their own stories, playing imaginative games, or just plain tired from a long day. The repetitive assignments just don’t feel right most nights.

Think about your favorite elementary school memories. Most are driven by feelings that you had both good and bad. Kids don’t know about curriculum standards, lesson plans, objectives, skills, or assessments. They just know how they feel.

If today’s education reforms don’t make the kids feel good about learning, then what good can they be?

A Response to Rob Furman: Elementary Education Reform is Big Business

Access to universal preschool sounds like such a lofty idea.

What better way to level the playing field than making sure that our youngest learners get an equal opportunity to have a good head start in life? Who could deny that some children in America are experiencing preschools that are nurturing environments of play-based learning, while others are getting nothing but shoddy day care centers or babysitters with TV remotes in hand? Anyone who wants to deny children quality preschool must be out of touch with reality, right?

Wrong.

Yes, children come to kindergarten with vastly different abilities and habits as elementary principal Rob Furman suggests in his article, “4 Surprising Reasons Why Preschool and Kindergarten Must Change” published by Huffington Post. ” As an elementary principal I have seen the difficulty kindergarten students have starting school when they have had no Pre K experience. Most students are soaring academically, while others (those without Pre K experience) are trying to learn how to hang up their coat or to sit and raise their hand if they need the teacher’s attention.” 

But the reason that some kids come to school unprepared has more to do with the experiences they are receiving at home, not at preschool. Some children are read to every night before bed, are taken to Mommy and Me music classes like Music Together or Gymboree, are fed healthy food regularly, are able to safely play outside in their backyards or at nearby playgrounds, are spoken to with kindness and encouraged to ask questions, and are raised in peaceful supportive home environments. Those kids excel. They would excel academically and behaviorally regardless of preschool, because they feel safe, loved, and are free to explore.

Other children are not so lucky. Without paid maternity leave in America, many moms and dads who want to stay home with their young children are not able to afford it in today’s economy. Therefore, more and more children are placed in day care centers from an early age than ever before. Many American children of all financial situations live in homes where stress levels are high. Parent expectations are high from choosing the safest car seat to looming college tuition.

High stress careers, financial woes, marital problems, health problems, depression,drug abuse, an endless pursuit of perfection and so many other issues drive many parents into survival mode. Families aren’t eating dinner together anymore and children aren’t playing kickball in the streets like I did as a child. Older siblings are inundated with extracurricular activities and sports that demand more and more of our children’s time at younger and younger ages. The younger children in families are raised on fast food in car seats, watching DVD’s as they are shuffled from practice to practice and activity to activity. Television and other electronic devices have become a savior to busy parents. They keep the kids busy, so they can check Facebook or watch whatever is on the DVR to decompress from their own stress.

And what about our nation’s poorest families? Child hunger and homelessness are rarely spoken about unless it is the holidays, yet for too many children it is a daily struggle. Gang and drug violence plague poor neighborhoods where the media rarely reports on the harsh reality of youth growing up there. I know because I have taught in an elementary school where kids had to leave out of the back door because there was a shooting out front and a teacher and a principal were assaulted inside during school hours.

Universal preschool would help those kids yes, but what would help more would be real progress in the war on drugs and real solutions to ending gun violence. It would help if their parents were educated and read to them or just spoke to them with  patience and kindness. It would help if they had safe places to play without fear of abuse, abduction, or violence. It would help if they had books in their homes and in their hands. It would help if they were sung to or hugged and told that they are special.

Furman’s article speaks volumes about how misguided even some elementary school principals are about how children learn best.

“Given the new expectations for our kindergarten students, Pre K programs must develop the pre-learning experiences necessary for reading and math readiness. I often hear our parents saying, ‘What has happened to play time in kindergarten?’ Well, sadly playtime in kindergarten is gone. But playtime is perfect for our Pre K programs ( Fact Check) Pre K should now accommodate all those very important social skills so necessary for student success in later years. That is not to say that our children will not have fun in kindergarten. We always want to be mindful of developmentally appropriate learning experiences for our children. Pre K experiences will be more focused on imaginative play, appropriate social skills and academic readiness.”

You cannot say “Well, sadly playtime in kindergarten is gone,” and, “We always want to be mindful of developmentally appropriate learning experiences for our children,” in the same breath and not be a hypocrite.

The fact is that universal preschool and compulsory “advanced” 1st grade kindergarten are not going to do anything to advance the academic potential of ANY child. Not if the curriculum is based on reading and math readiness that comes in the form of worksheets, computer programs and testing and at the expense of recess.

Kids learn math, reading, and social skills by having a safe and nurturing environment to play. All these new mandates and reforms has brought is exactly the opposite.

Florida parents are fighting to keep recess in their elementary schools because the districts are claiming that with the new rigorous Common Core standards that there is no time to play.

 http://insider.foxnews.com/2015/01/14/florida-elementary-schools-cut-out-recess-blame-common-core

(But really, I think this is Jeb Bush posturing for a presidential run and coming out against the Common Core. Once again, our children have become a political springboard.)

Education reform is full of rhetoric right now,so parents need to be more informed and vigilant than ever. If you are not sure if this is true, just take a moment to read what an executive at Pearson (the company that makes and reaps huge profits from the PARCC assessment and many other high stakes assessments) has to say about why it is worth it for our nation to have spent $1.7 billion on testing in 2012. With the new obsession with expanding and redesigning high stakes tests, that number will only grow.

http://researchnetwork.pearson.com/educator-effectiveness/is-1-7-billion-a-lot-or-a-little-to-spend-on-testing

Remember in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz what happened when Dorothy finally saw who was behind the curtain. It was not at all what she expected.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
― L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Pay attention to the motivation behind these education reforms. Make them take off their masks. They don’t care about our children.

P.S. Rob Furman makes a lot of money off of education reform too. http://www.furmanr.com

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Typing Homework: The New Key to Success in Elementary School?

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Homework.

Ask any teacher, student, or parent and they are certain to have an opinion about it.

Teachers:

  • “It’s necessary reinforcement of skills learned in class.”
  • “Oh really, your dog ate it? I have never heard that one before.”
  • “It gives students a chance to do what we don’t have time for in class.”
  • “It’s an easy way to raise your grades, if you do it on time!”

Students:

  • “It’s a waste of time.”
  • “I love fun projects.”
  • “I don’t have time because of my other after school activities.”
  • “It’s a good way to raise your average.”
  • “Wait! We had homework?!”

Parents:

  • “It keeps my kids busy and out of my hair.”
  • “The projects are more work for me than my kids.”
  • “It is a struggle to squeeze it in with everything else we have to do after school.”
  • “It’s busy work. I doubt the teacher even reads it!”

Having taught both elementary and middle school, I can say with confidence that homework is much more time-consuming and onerous in middle school. The fact that students have 6-8 different teachers makes it difficult for teachers to balance the amount of homework and projects due at once. Once you factor in quizzes and tests, it can get even more complicated.

I used to give tons of homework as a new middle school English teacher, but over the years I cut back considerably. I realized how many of my students were overbooked after school between religious commitments, sports practices, music lessons, tutoring, etc. I lived in town with my students and saw few of them riding bikes, raking leaves, playing games like I did as a kid.  Few were reading books or pleasure either, because they were just too busy with structured homework and activities.

I started limiting homework as much as I could and shifted to encourage independent reading as much as possible. My students kept journals and recorded their thoughts as they read on sticky notes. I created a culture of reading in a more relaxed way and found much more authentic learning and thinking was happening than when they were doing nightly vocabulary assignments, for example.

Now, with the new PARCC assessment coming in the spring, students will be tested completely on the computer starting in the 3rd grade (and as early as kindergarten next year). These tests come with stakes higher than ever as the schools will use the data to evaluate teachers and administrators and to determine funding and graduation. It has been said over and over that online testing will revolutionize education and they are right. But it won’t be in a good way.

An online test requires typing skills for the students to be able to complete the test in a reasonable time frame. (These time frames can be seen here: http://parcconline.org/update-session-times. The test duration is 60-75 minutes a day for each ELA and Math for 4 days TWICE a year.)

The demand for typing skills has led many districts to purchase typing programs and even to begin assigning weekly typing homework. I have even heard educators and administrators discuss ways to help your child build stamina for these long tests by playing online games or reading on a Kindle or other type of device.

Recently the Atlantic City Press ran an article about the new emphasis on typing classes and to be honest it made my stomach lurch. Particularly this section,

“While most students can text up a storm or race through video games, they rarely have to use more than two fingers to do it. Slusarski teaches keyboarding to show them how they can use all of their fingers to be more efficient. She said it can be difficult for younger students, whose hands may not yet be big enough to spread across the keyboard, but they try.”

http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/education/teachers-hope-typing-classes-hold-keys-to-test-success/article_54ccaaf8-74ea-11e4-9bb3-0fa656cb1179.html

The article went on to praise the a child who was recognized for achieving the fastest typing record in his school. He attributes his success to playing computer games at home.

Why is it that a student’s typing speed is suddenly a marker of success in fifth grade,  as if school were a vocational school? Suddenly, instead of limiting screen time for my children as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, I should be worried that since my kids don’t play video games and stare at screens that they will be at a disadvantage in school? Should I start finger stretching exercises prior to kindergarten to help my children’s fingers “spread across the keyboard”?

This is insane. I send my children to school to learn, not to be trained. Not only will my children not take these developmentally inappropriate tests, but they will not be participating in typing homework as young as third grade. In fact, I am starting to wonder exactly how much screen time my children are getting in school.

The real question is why hasn’t the American Academy of Pediatrics come out against the national push toward online testing. Their stance on limiting screen time is clear.

“Today’s children are spending an average of seven hours a day on                                entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and                            other electronic devices. …Studies have shown that excessive media use  can            lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders,                  and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can  provide platforms            for illicit and risky behaviors.”

– See more at: http://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/Pages/Media-and-Children.aspx#sthash.hAyoJto7.dpuf

But I can show you what my children were doing this week after school. You tell me if you think I should stop them and start typing practice and online games instead.

My oldest drew about 15 pictures and was teaching his brothers all he has been learning in school about Native Americans.

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My kindergartener made a painting for his Winter-themed Show-and-Tell.

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All three played with shaving cream, homemade play dough, and helped to paint a castle created from the recycling bin.

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It is time to start advocating for what is best for our children.