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 Mixed Family Christmas

dadfam

Christmas Eve.

Over my 35 years of life, Christmas Eve has transformed.

As a kid, it was a time of anticipation, excitement and wonder. A born lover of books (thanks to my mom who was always reading to me), my imagination came alive, as I lay in my bed straining to hear footsteps on the roof or a faint jingle of a bell.

My father used to love to tell me about how when we were really little, he did everything while we slept on Christmas Eve, even put up the tree. As we got older, it became our job to put together our fake Christmas tree. I can still picture the huge box with color-coded wire branches. But, my Dad was never far away. Lying on the couch, barking orders and breaking up arguments between my brothers and me.

He cherished the holiday. He would draw it out as much as possible. He would lay in bed forever with the door closed while we sat on the other side begging him to get up, so we could open the presents. In fact, it was the only day of the year he ever stayed in bed past 7am. We would be going crazy by the time he got up, then he would announce some crazy rule like we could only open one present an hour. His own presents, that we had so carefully chose, he would pile around him on the couch refusing to open them until the last possible minute. Even breakfast had to happen right in the middle of opening presents, much to our frustration. I was the pancake maker and my Dad of course was the taste-tester who had to eat nearly the whole first batch. Of course this was to ensure that they were not poisoned and safe for us all to eat.

But our holidays were never religious.

I grew up with a father from a religious Baptist family and a mother from a non-religious Jewish family. My Dad was the only one of his siblings that was not religious, and I never found out why. I guess my parents decided that the best solution was to just leave the religion topic alone and let us figure it out for ourselves. I didn’t realize how unique that was until I took a religion class in college, and the professor looked at me like I was some strange exotic bird. “What do you mean you were raised without religion?!” My parents weren’t rebelling against religion; it was just a non-issue. We had a Christmas tree and lit a menorah and that was that.

When my husband, a Catholic, and I started dating, I was introduced to the Italian Christmas Eve tradition of the 7 fishes. Well, that was great, but I was a vegetarian and had been since the 7th grade. But once we were married, I decided that I wanted to eat all 7 fishes. I wanted to embrace the traditions of his family, as much as I wanted to preserve my own.  Again Christmas Eve changed. We opened presents, drank wine, and ate more fish in one night than I had eaten in my whole life!

Then we started having children. We had so many traditions and cultures that it was overwhelming to think about. With our first child I tried so hard. I read up on Jewish heritage and questioned my husband about Catholic beliefs. I bought books to read to him and craft projects to go along with them. We went to a few churches trying to find the right fit, but I got too nervous to try a synagogue, because I had only ever been to one for funerals.

But the more we thought about religion and tradition the more complicated it got, so for now we just focus on teaching our children to be kind, appreciative and to care about others. And once again, Christmas Eve became about anticipation, excitement and wonder, only this time those feelings centered around our children. Now it was my turn to buy the gifts and hide them carefully. My turn to read my favorite books to them and watch their eyes fill with wonder. My job wrap those gifts late at night while drinking wine and listening to Christmas carols.

And with a new generation came new traditions with the old. Unlike my parents, I had an elf to remember to move. I had reindeer food to make with them and sprinkle across the lawn at night. I had a blog post to compose, while everyone was snoring.

Christmas Eve has changed over the years, but some things remain the same. My love for traditions new and old has endured. A gift that my parents gave me that never needed to be wrapped.

The last Christmas I spent with my father, he didn’t want to leave my house. It was time for me to put the kids to bed, and my parents and brothers were driving back to NY that night. But my father sat on the couch and refused to budge. It got later and later. I put the kids to bed finally, and I was exhausted. I was nearly 9 months pregnant and had 2 little boys.  I was annoyed that he wouldn’t leave until the basketball game on TV was over. My brothers paced in the kitchen with their coats on. My husband glared at me with annoyance. My mom kept sneaking me apologetic glances and saying to my Dad, “Alright Michael, let’s go.”

I didn’t know that less than 2 months later that he would slip on ice in the driveway of our childhood home, the only home we ever lived in. I didn’t know he would hit his head and suffer a subdural hematoma and never recover. I didn’t know it would be the last Christmas for him. But I believe that he did.

People get so caught up in race, religion, tradition, cooking, cleaning, buying, wrapping….but it’s all just on the surface of the memories that we create.

Because tomorrow, at Christmas dinner, my Dad’s absence will be overpowered by his presence. People who give to this world can never really leave it.

10 Things My Father Taught Me About Teaching

This is my dad.

dad swing

The picture shows how I choose to remember him most…smiling. That smile lit up the lives of thousands of children that passed through his gym over the nearly 40 years that he taught physical education and coached many teams. At his wake, the room overflowed with people of all ages. Many I knew, but so many I had never met or even heard about, yet my father’s death moved every single one of them to tears.

Here is just some of what I learned from him about being a teacher.

1. You can’t fool kids. If you don’t care or don’t like them, they will know right away.

2. There’s nothing wrong with getting down on the floor to play a game of duck, duck goose with a bunch of kindergarteners. (Not even if you are a 65 year old, 6 foot 3 inch tall black man.)

3. Not everyone is going to work as hard or care as much as you do. But you shouldn’t let that slow you down.

4. Murphy’s always working, so you might as well not sweat the small stuff.

*Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.

5. Always have fun, but set the bar of expectations high.

6. A custodian is not any less of a person than a principal. Treat everyone with respect.

7. Have zero tolerance for bullying or any sort of put downs in your classroom.

8. Never be afraid to speak your mind at faculty meetings, board meetings, union meetings, or anywhere.

9. If you have a good idea, work hard to make it a reality no matter who or what stands in your way.

10. Don’t be in a hurry to retire.

When my dad kept teaching past retirement age, colleagues constantly asked him when he was going to retire. He used to hate that. He loved his job. Once he retired, he said no one would call him Mr. Washington anymore, he would just be Mike.

Well, there he was wrong. He never was just Mike, or “just” anything….and he never will be.

Teaching is not a job that ends at the end of the day or at the end of the school year. It is a job that keeps working long after the teacher is gone and the students have moved on and grown up.

Better Technology = A Better Life?

The holidays are here. What better way to show your loved ones that you love them than to buy them the newest and best technology available today?

Best Buy’s Black Friday sale boasts the following on their website today…

iPad Air starting at $319.99

iPod Touch (64GB) $249.99

iPhone 6 $0 down (an asterisk leads a close reader to the terms and conditions)

Apple MacBook Air (Latest Model) $899.99 (You save $100)

On Thursday night, I went to a parent information session about the new PARCC assessment and the new technology being used in the schools to support the transition to online testing. The presentation and workshops were given by the superintendent, other administrators, and teachers in the district. The majority of the information presented came from the website I referred to on my last post http://www.parcconline.org. The information was mostly in line with what I had heard before, with a few exceptions.  But there was an overwhelming sense that the new technology is exciting and the way of the future. (Though to be fair, the superintendent did add towards the end of the evening that there is no replacement for reading to your children and having them read to you every night.)

Arguments in favor of technology are everywhere these days. And companies like Best Buy, Apple, and Google reap mega profits from this prevailing belief. School districts are allocating more and more of their budgets to acquiring physical technology like Smart Boards and Chrome Books. But this isn’t the only way companies are turning profits from the technology craze. School districts are now purchasing rights to typing programs to use with students as young as third grade (and most likely even younger once the K-2 PARCC hits the ground next year).

They also pay big bucks for test prep programs like Study Island. Parents are shelling out money too $1.99 at a time on educational Apps on their phones, iPads and also for the phones and iPads they purchase for their kids, presumably because they are sick of sharing. Some companies and website offer their services for free at first only to charge later once they have a solid user base. And a trip down the toy aisle shows a large variety of technology-based learning tools for kids as young as babies, if you include to infant proof cover for iPhones and iPads.

But for a moment, if we take a step back from all of the excitement, is there another way to look at this obsession with technology? Is it really improving our lives as much as these companies want and depend on us to believe? Has Facebook and other social networking made our relationships better? Has technology been making our students brighter and more prepared to face a world plagued by problems that have spiraled out of control?  Has online banking and shopping made our lives easier? Is the world a better place now that we are so incredibly technologically advanced?

The answers to these questions are not cut and dry, yes or no. I am not suggesting that we all pile up our technology and burn them or throw them into the ocean. That would cause its own problems. (But as a side note, think about all of the waste rapidly changing technology creates. Ever try to throw away a computer? It has to go to a special place, where hopefully it is recycled, but who really knows.)

What I am suggesting is for people to just pause and think twice when the newest technology or  a new use for an existing form of technology is suggested.

Think about when your email was hacked.

Think about when your computer got a virus or stopped working suddenly.

Think about when your credit card or debit card had chargers on it from an unknown party, and you had to have a hold put on your account until a new card arrived.

Think about the carpal tunnel you feel in your fingers or wrists sometimes when you text too much.

Think about the school shootings that speak to a generation of kids with decreased empathy and ability to form meaningful social connections.

Think about how much less time is spent outdoors in nature, which is being destroyed at an alarming rate.

Think about the terrorist organizations that can spread hate and recruit members worldwide through the internet.

Just stop and think.

The Common Core Standards and PARCC claim to be champions for critical thinking, but  how can we expect to raise and educate critical thinkers, if we ourselves do not think critically.  Before instituting daily typing practice for your little ones to ensure that they achieve high test scores or logging them into a website sent home from the school to drill math facts or reading comprehension, just think of what you are not making time for each night. I know I am stretched to the limit every night between homework, cleaning out lunch boxes, going through folders, signing papers, marking events on my crowded calendar, making dinner, baths, and laundry. What about time to go to the library, eat dinner together, read stories, go to the playground, paint a picture, or have a dance party?

The world is a scary place, but I think that the best way to prepare our children for the future has absolutely nothing to do with technology, more rigorous standards, or a test.