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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Read Aloud?

I grew up surrounded by books. My mom was a kindergarten teacher who turned our biggest bedroom closet into a library. I can still hear the metallic sliding sound of the sliding closet door.  Every night I would go into that closet and pick out some books for my mom to read to me. We did not do this because I had a reading log to complete or a book report to do. It was just simply what we did.

LISTEN TO THE MUSTN’TS

Shel Silverstein

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WONT’S
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me-
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be

When I think of childhood, I think of Shel Silverstein. My mom read A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends over and over to me as child. Many I can still recite from heart for even after reading a different book, I would beg for one or two poems. When I could read on my own I would lay and read his words over and over letting my imagination go wild.

My father read books too, but mostly nonfiction. Books about golf swings and basketball plays were his favorite. I have written a lot about how influential my father was over my life, but when it came to reading it was always my mother who did it. Now that I am sitting here thinking about it, I cannot think of one time in my life where my father read a story to me. Though I guess he must have at some point.

I do remember my older brother Matthew carrying a book with him all of the time, even to the Thanksgiving dinner table. My father would yell at him to get his nose out of the book. But, my mom’s influence sunk in and it sunk in deeply. My younger brother Gregory went on to be an English major in college too.

Reading gets so much focus in today’s schools, yet this focus has caused education to stray away from the actual act of reading. Kids are asked to do so much that there is little time to read. Whether it is a worksheet of comprehension questions, a reading log, a journal entry, a book report, a project or a test, little time is left to read or to be read to. By middle school, where I have spent most of my 12 years of teaching, many students haven’t been read to in years. Once I figured that out, I made a point every year to read at least one entire book aloud that was simply for fun. No tests, no quizzes, no nothing. Just for fun. And let me tell you they loved it.

I am a lover of books. I am a teacher who required and motivated my students to read 20 books outside of class each year. Yet I find my second grade son’s reading log to be a thorn in my side. I read to him every night with his siblings, but making time for him and his kindergarten aged brother to read aloud to me every night is difficult at best. I talked to my husband about reading to them more and helping find time to listen to them read too. More and more my husband has been reading with them and I don’t think I have ever seen anything sweeter.

This past weekend my son read to my husband from his World History book, and they got into some very deep discussions about Roman soldiers.

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I guess reading logs are necessary in today’s society, though I wish there were a more organic way to encourage reading. It is so crucial for kids to see reading as more than just homework, especially boys.

Over the past forty years we’ve witnessed a marked increase in girls’ academic achievement. Unfortunately, there’s also been a documented decrease in boys’ academic achievement.

There are several theories about why this is happening, but perhaps the most compelling is the assertion that school, and reading especially, is being seen increasingly by young boys as a “feminine” activity.

Even though it’s likely our fathers did not read to us (Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, cites a study where only 10 percent of participants reported having fathers who read to them—see xxiv), fathers reading to children is one of the very best ways to reverse the academic ambivalence we’re seeing in young boys.

http://education.byu.edu/youcandothis/dads_reading_to_children.html

With a focus on achievement and standardized testing, schools run the risk of turning more and more children off to reading. This is especially true for boys who are often already difficult to motivate to read. Reading should be a million things such as fun, entertaining, informative, thought-provoking or helpful. But the problem comes when reading becomes nothing more than an exercise to prove one’s ability or the effectiveness of a teacher or school.

If every teacher started each day with a Shel Silverstein poem and every parent ended the night with one, we may not have a country full of geniuses, but somehow I think it would cease to matter.

Where the Sidewalk Ends

from the book “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1974)


There is a place where the sidewalk ends
and before the street begins,
and there the grass grows soft and white,
and there the sun burns crimson bright,
and there the moon-bird rests from his flight
to cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
and the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
we shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow
and watch where the chalk-white arrows go
to the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
and we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
for the children, they mark, and the children, they know,
the place where the sidewalk ends.

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?

Testing: You Can Refuse, But You Can’t Hide

Reading and math have had a long history of being tested with standardized tests. The classic notion of reading, writing, and arithmetic has been the center of people’s perception of what kids learn at school. But this idea represents a very narrow understanding of what really goes on at school.

Standardized testing usually starts in the third grade. When I first started teaching in Baltimore City, it was a big deal if you were assigned to one of the testing grades (grades 3 and 5 in that K-5 school). If you taught in a tested grade, the pressure for your kids to perform was much greater, especially if your school, like mine, was drastically under-performing and in danger of being taken over by the state.

Also, the more your test scores improved, the more funding the school would receive. (This is particularly important if your principal, like mine, was misusing thousands of state funds for her own personal gain in the form of lavish “professional development” trips and paying friends’ salaries for positions they didn’t actually hold or qualify for.)

But this added pressure of testing was reserved for those teachers teaching the third or fifth grades. The other teachers were left out of the test prep activities and the proctoring of tests. They weren’t held accountable for the test scores at all, as if the third graders hadn’t had to go through K, 1st, and and 2nd grades or the 5th graders hadn’t had a teacher for 4th grade that contributed to their learning as well.

In the middle school, this inequality in testing is even more pronounced. Since teachers teach specific subject areas, even if they switch grades, they can still remain teacher untested students for their entire career. Yet math and reading teachers are doomed to a career dominated by standardized testing. In NJ and many other states, social studies has never had a standardized test and that has led to it being marginalized, particularly in the elementary school.

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) is increasingly alarmed by the erosion of the importance of social studies in the United States. This erosion, in large part, is a consequence of the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Since the introduction of NCLB, there has been a steady reduction in the amount of time spent in the teaching of social studies, with the most profound decline noticed in the elementary grades. 1In addition, anecdotal information indicates that many American children are receiving little or no formal education in the core social studies disciplines: civics, economics, geography, and history. That such a situation has evolved is untenable in a nation that prides itself on its history, its system of government and its place as a leader in the global community.

By requiring states to measure student achievement in language arts and mathematics and tying school performance reports and financial incentives to testing results, NCLB resulted in the diversion of both funding and class-time away from social studies and other non-tested subjects. The phrase “if it isn’t tested, it isn’t taught” resonates in the American educational community, with significant implications for educational practices and outcomes.

http://www.socialstudies.org/positions/nclbera

A few years ago, science was added to the NJ ASK and science teachers began to feel the pressure that reading and math teachers had been feeling for an eternity. But with the push to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, the standardized testing machine couldn’t stop at adding science. What about social studies, physical education, health, art, music, family and consumer science, keyboarding, and industrial arts? Those subjects had teachers too, and they needed to be evaluated. But how without creating a standardized test for every single subject?

The answer was Student Growth Objectives or SGO’s. SGO’s were based on these teachers making standardized tests of sorts. These tests were developed collaboratively by teachers in the same subject area and/or grade. Benchmark tests are now given twice a year, once in September and again in May or June. They are written, administered, and graded by the teacher. The SGO is based on a goal set by the teacher as to what level of growth they hope to achieve that school year.

So this means that your children are now tested in all areas by test standardized across every discipline taught in school. And it doesn’t even end there.

Teachers of the PARCC tested areas (elementary grades 3-5 and reading and math teachers from then on) are evaluated based on Student Growth Percentiles, which will be calculated using the PARCC data from this year. However those teachers must also develop their own benchmark tests (one or two) to determine an SGO as well. (Where I taught, this was a 200 question multiple choice test developed by teachers.)  So, in reading and math, many students face four tests a year that are not directly tied to their current lessons but rather overall academic achievement goals.

When do the teachers have time to teach? 

Right now, tying teacher evaluations to test scores is new so the percentages may change down the road. But here is the breakdown of how teacher evaluations will be calculated this school year of 2014-2015.

Teachers of PARCC tested areas: 

Teacher Practice 55%  SGO: 15%   mSGP(mean Student Growth Percentile): 30%

Teachers of non PARCC tested areas: 

Teacher Practice 85%  SGO: 15%   mSGP(mean Student Growth Percentile): none

So teachers of students that do not take the PARCC will have 85% of their evaluation based on their lessons and observations. And, the “standardized test” that they give allows them some really nice advantages. They create the test. They administer the test (with none of the oversight and regulations that come with the PARCC test) . They grade the test. They even get to set their own goals for what they want to achieve. Pretty good deal.

Teachers of students who take the PARCC have just barely over half of their effectiveness based on their lessons. 85% vs. 55% is a HUGE difference. Plus they have even less time to teach, because they have to give benchmarks for their SGO’s and take 2 weeks out of instructional time to give the PARCC.

Who in their right mind would want to be a math or reading teacher under these circumstances? If teachers fare poorly under this system, will they be able to find enough desperate, young or naive suckers or altruistic saints to fill their shoes? 

This system is unequal and guarantees a school curriculum dominated by testing. So, send in your refusal letters, I know I will. But don’t fool yourselves. Even if we “Take the PARCC” and it goes down in flames, our children’s education will not be saved.

Testing: You can run, but you can’t hide.

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Give Me Literature or Give Me Death!

“Education is not the filling of a pail; but the lighting of a fire.”

-William Butler Yeats

I am a busy mom of four young kids.

I struggle to find time to manage the onslaught of daily redundancies, even with my new temporary stay-at-home-mom status.

The mountains of laundry.

The making of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.

The picking up.

The putting away.

The homework.

The meetings and school events.

My return to writing has fulfilled a part of me that felt like it was dying, since we relocated. Most people think me to be so strong and independent, which is flattering but lonely at times. But our choice to move was a planned one. Carefully, well… obsessively researched and calculated. It was a gamble, but not of the reckless sort.

So we have settled. I have found my voice again. I have spoken up about things that matter to me most. In a short time, I have developed a blog, that may not shatter any records or make any money….but it has a following of readers. It is encouraging to see the stats rise all day. The fact that 200-500 times on any given day, my words and thoughts are pulled up on someone’s computer or phone screen.

But my reading has become so shallow, that I feel my mind getting restless. For weeks, I have read and read and read on my phone and laptop. Article after article about high stakes testing, Pearson, the Common Core, child development theory, the opt out movement and anything remotely related. What I read was fueling my writing and my urge to educate others about the dangerous road down which education is headed. But all of this reading was giving me anxiety and making my brain feel like a rodent on a wheel.

For years I taught 7th grade English and motivated my students to read 20 books outside of class. I was alone in this. My colleagues didn’t require as many, in fact several did not require any reading outside of class at all. But it felt right to me. I didn’t want to “teach English”. I wanted to inspire the creation of life long readers.  I didn’t make my students write 20 book reports. Instead they kept journals full of sticky notes, where they wrote their thoughts as they read. Every 2 weeks we went to the school library, and while they chose a new book and read, I read their thoughts.

Did every child love the assignment? No.

Did every student read 20 books? No.

Did I give “reading detention” to a few kids over the years out of frustration and desperation? Yes.

Did I make my students with I.E.P.’s (special education) and ELL (English Language Learners) do it too? Yes.

Did I have parents complain? Yes.

Did I have parents read books and forge sticky notes for their kids? Yes.

Did I have parents write me letters thanking me for inspiring their whole family to read more? Yes.

The project became a big part of my legacy. From year to year, I would ask at Back to School Night how many parents heard about my book project, and many sheepishly raised their hands. I would have parents come up to me that same night and tell me that their child would never read one or two books, let alone 20!. Many of my students said the same thing. The number 20 seemed like torture.

But in my last year teaching, I created a bulletin board. Each student was given a paper hand, and they wrote their name in the center. Each time they read a book, they put a star sticker on it. The board was right near my classroom door, and it quickly became the hang out. Kids were talking about their progress. Talking about what they were reading. Egging each other on. And I couldn’t have been happier.

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I even put a hand up there with my name on it. I said I would read 20 books too. In fact for the 8 years that I taught 7th grade, I made the same promise. And for 8 years, evaded the few kids who asked me how many books I was up to. Each year I started strong, even posted notes just like the kids had to. But as the year wore on and my responsibilities and stress grew, I lost motivation and gained excuses.

I wouldn’t say I lied to the kids, but I certainly wasn’t honest. I told myself that my intentions were good, so it didn’t matter if I really finished. I had read more books in my life than most people. I already loved to read…life just got in the way. But that year with the bulletin board, I had a visual reminder of my failure, as the kids laughed at my hand with only 3 stars on it. I couldn’t bring myself to add stars for books I didn’t read.

So instead I talked to my students honestly about how lucky they were to have time to read. To not have the obligations and stress that adults have. I told them about the stacks of half read books on my nightstand with receipts as bookmarks sticking out from the pages. I told them that my idea of a vacation would be to lay in bed for days and read, like I used to before I had kids. I told them about how I read A Thousand Splendid Suns by, Khaled Hosseini, which is 384 pages long, in one night, because I just could not put it down. I described how I cried like a baby while reading to the point where my husband thought I was crazy. I told them that for the first time ever, I had shut the book and closed my eyes, because I couldn’t bear to “see” what would happen next. But as I told them these stories, I still couldn’t help but feel like I failed.

Tonight, I realized that the only person I failed in that situation was myself. For my guilty confessions showed my students what it meant to truly love to read. It showed them that reading could be like a dessert that you couldn’t eat, though you would love to. My words and emotion turned reading from a chore or an assignment into something more. Even if it wasn’t dessert for them, they could see how it could be for someone else and that was a step in the right direction.

I failed because, I didn’t make the time for myself to do what I love.

After being submersed in the politics of education reform, tonight I sat down to read one of the three books I received as gifts for Christmas (admittedly one of them I gave myself on a whim while in the book store shopping for my kids).

The first few pages of The Book Thief by, Markus Zusak made me realize all at once that I have been depriving myself of what I love most.  The narrative voice is incredible. I felt immediately grabbed and pulled into the book in a way so powerful and delicious. The most well-written article is nothing compared to a majestic literary voice. It is truly an art.

I had to pause my reading to write this, but I promised myself not to write another post until I finish the novel. I am anxious to go savor the book until I pass out from exhaustion or one of my kids wakes up with a nightmare or something.

You see the makers of the Common Core have placed such value on informational text, because it is what most adults read these days at work and for pleasure.

But I have to say that perhaps that is exactly what is wrong with adults these days. They are reading the wrong things.

If you fill your brain with information day in and day out, you become nothing more than a depository. Literature is thought, imagination, culture, and passion. Why would we want to deprive our children of these things? To make them career and college ready?

I would much rather have education light a fire than fill a pail.