Homework Rant

My family is fortunate to live on one of those old fashioned blocks that is truly a neighborhood.  There are about a dozen families on our street with elementary school aged children, and during their free time, the children run in a pack around the block with the big ones looking out for the little ones.  Their games are incredibly creative: I’ve seen these kids write a script to film a movie, engage in elaborate games of “family” and sword-fighting, climb trees to fantastic heights, and design amazing obstacle courses.  They have their arguments and spats, but overall the culture we’ve watched them create is one in which everyone — from the child with autism to the nerdiest of the nerdy — is accepted.  My girls are glad to have a street full of brothers they know will have their backs.

What I cherish more than anything about this neighborhood is that the kids are able to run around independently.  There are adults around in the afternoon — a combination of parents and babysitters — but once their homework is done, the kids are pretty much on their own until dinner time.  This year, however, my older daughter has not been able to join the gang much at all after school.  That’s not because I over-schedule her: after school she has a half-hour trumpet lesson once a week and religious school on Wednesdays, but rather because homework has become a monster, devouring childhood.

My kids’ schools have a late start (late bell is at 9:20 a.m.) and a late finish (they don’t get off the bus home until about 4 p.m.).  We are an all-choice school district, so many kids on the street have significantly earlier schedules, which admittedly compounds the problem.

E leaves for school at 8:15 three mornings a week because the school band practices before school starting at 8:30 a.m.  By the time she gets home, she’s already had a seven and a half hour day, and she’s understandably tired and worn out.  But there’s that pile of homework, staring her in the face.

Last night she got off the bus and did not finish her homework (plus 15 minutes of trumpet practice) until 9 p.m.  The only concerted break she took was a half hour for family dinner.  She did, of course, take lots of small breaks that she created herself as mini-rebellions I’m not sure she’s even really aware of — she wanted to direct her little sister on how to clean up their toys, or discuss the distinction between hermits and homeless people with me, or go to the bathroom — but again, looking at the totality of the circumstances, those breaks, as frustrating as they felt at the time, were the only rebellion she could muster against homework demands that are simply too much for her child’s body and child’s brain. All in, this kid put in a 12 hour day yesterday.

As a practicing lawyer, I know how fried I feel after a 12 hour day, and indeed, one of the great perks of the job I have now is that I rarely have to put in such days anymore.  Why are we demanding this of our children?  Is it to teach them Grit?  Resilience?  Is this what Rigor looks like?  It seems to me that it’s going to backfire: demanding too much of our littlest children is ultimately going to inspire them to cheat or rebel.  As Peter Greene says, Grit is nothing more than a big old Poop Sandwich.

I can almost hear the teachers reading this now.  They’re fuming at me, asking why I haven’t reached out to my daughter’s teachers to address the issue.  Trust me, I did.  The full text of my email is below — the only changes I’ve made are to take out names and other personal information.  The entirety of their response appears below my email to them.

Dear Mrs. _______ and Mrs. ________:

E is having a very good year this year, and I’m glad to see that she’s working hard.  I especially appreciated the cell project.  She is a conscientious student, and I think she particularly appreciates that classroom management seems to be less of an issue this year than in years past.  Plus, you’ve got a really sweet group of kids in that class.

That said, it seems like the homework load (tonight in particular) is a lot to ask of 10 and 11 year olds.  E is a hard-working and conscientious student, and I’m sure she takes more time on her assignments than is strictly necessary, but she tells me that today she got off the bus, had a snack while she worked, and then worked straight through until I got home at about 6:15.  It was only her and her sitter (also a student with homework to do) in the house for that time, so I don’t doubt that she was probably working pretty steadily during that two hour block, and when I got home the ELA work was pretty much done.

She continued working (admittedly with more distractions) until we ate dinner around 7 p.m.  She was back at work at 7:30 to start her math homework, and I found myself getting frustrated with her because she was getting ridiculously easily distracted, but that doesn’t seem unreasonable when she’d already put in an 11 hour day at that point (band practice starts at 8:30 a.m.).  She only finished when I started this email to you, around 8:50 p.m., and she still needed to practice trumpet for another 15-20 minutes after that.  Her bedtime is 9:30 p.m.

As I understand it, the homework tonight was TWO ReadWorks assignments, the ELA worksheet with the terms to be associated with each word, the worksheet to determine the places at the table, and 2 pages of long-division math problems.  As a working parent, my time with my kids is pretty limited, and so I ask that you please be aware of the homework load that you’re giving these kids, both from a developmental perspective (E had no time to run and play at all today because of homework) and from an awareness of how such a heavy homework load impinges on family time.  Frankly, tonight’s load was unacceptable, especially because I had been counting on E’s help to get the house ready for Thanksgiving.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.  I am happy to discuss further.  Please feel free to reach me at XXX-XXX-XXXX.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

And here’s the response I got, in its entirety:

Good afternoon Mrs. Blaine,

Thank you very much for voicing your concerns.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

-_________ and _________

I know that we have a problem in this country: parents vilify teachers, and teachers vilify parents.  I do not want to jump on the teacher-bashing bandwagon.  I by no means think my kid is perfect, and like I said, I think that the four hours the homework actually took easily could have been compressed to two hours if E had been fresh when she sat down to begin her work.  But a feature of nightly homework is that our kids aren’t fresh when they begin it: they begin their homework after a 6 or 7 hour school day (plus commuting time).

Teachers, we parents want to be on your side.  We really do, and in large part the reason I started writing this blog was to help parents and teachers find ways to speak to each other, and to reasonably voice our concerns.  But when your responses to our legitimate concerns amount to nothing more than what appear to be, when We the Parents read between the lines, perfunctory and polite f– yous, we get upset.  And we get angry.  And we feel like we’ve had enough.  And the divide between parents and teachers grows rather than shrinks.

How can parents and teachers find ways to have meaningful conversations and dialogues with each other?  How can we find ways to listen and really hear what we are saying?  How can we find ways to work collaboratively with each other, rather than alienating each other?  I know that email gets in the way, but it’s also almost impossible for me to address these issues by telephone, as you’re busy teaching our children.  I am all for high standards and a demanding education.  But when I watch demands for more rigor and increased grit undermine my children’s childhoods, I get angry.  There is no excuse for assigning hours of homework to 10 year olds.

I’m a former teacher.  I know that, at best, the jury is still out on the efficacy of homework — especially at the elementary school level (see here, here, and here).  As a parent, I’m not opposed to all homework.  I think it’s important for our kids to have routines, to have parental oversight of some school work to ensure that they’re holding themselves to high standards, and I think that well-designed and thoughtful homework helps to improve the school-home relationship.  But that’s not what I’m seeing this year.  Rather, the bulk of what my kid is bringing home is hours of worksheets.  Test prep.  It is work for work’s sake.  And it impedes my ability to parent my child as I see fit.

I’ve worked hard to make sure that E is a conscientious and careful student.  But I worry that she’s become conscientious and careful at the expense of a childhood she won’t be able to live twice.  After 42 years, I’ve realized how precious childhood is, and I’m a firm believer in the idea that no one on his deathbed wishes that he’d worked more.

It’s really hard to parent a child in our achievement-driven culture.  On the one hand, I’ve got an excellent student on my hands, and I don’t want to stand between her and a highly-selective college or university someday.  She wants to please her parents and her teachers, she wants to succeed and do well, and she is an ambitious kid.  But on the other hand, I want her to live her childhood as a child.  I want her to run around the neighborhood playing with her friends, even those who are younger and/or get out of school an hour or two earlier than she does.

Teachers, I want you to partner with me in helping to educate and raise my kids.  This is a team effort, and I’m willing to pull my weight.  However, teachers, you can’t begin to help me if you won’t hear me, honor me, respond to me in a substantive way, and respect my concerns about what today’s version of public education is doing to our children.  My kids deserve no less.

I have no interest in playing gotcha or getting you in trouble or running this up the chain of command or even second guessing  your teaching in the court of public opinion.  But if you won’t engage, you leave me no choice.  As I tell my kids, there are battles I expect them to fight themselves, and I won’t rescue them from their own mistakes.  But this is a policy issue that is far beyond 10 and 11 year olds.  And when it comes to bad policy in our public schools, I will fight you until my kids graduate and beyond, especially if you refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of my concerns. Welcome to democracy in action.  Oh, and by the way: Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

P.S. My daughter arrived home from school.  She said that her English-Language Arts teacher pulled her aside to tell her to “make sure to tell her mother” that the reason they had two ReadWorks assignments last night was that “they” were talking in class and so the class couldn’t finish the one they were doing as classwork.  E, an honest kid, admitted to me that she was one of the talkers, but again, if you’re consistently pushing kids beyond their limits and expecting them to behave like automotons, they are going to rebel in the little ways available to them.  And don’t even get me started on the propriety of using my kid as your messenger rather than addressing my concerns yourself.  Finally, I thought the purpose of homework was to support pedagogy, not to serve as a punishment. I’m not sure how children are supposed to learn to love school if schoolwork is equated with punishment.

Addendum (1/5/16): One of her team of teachers — and, incidentally, the more flagrant assigner of work for work’s sake — did call me about a week after this incident.  We spoke for awhile, and it was a decent talk.  I expressed my concerns, and she did give me the option of pulling the plug on the homework, but not with a reassurance that doing so wouldn’t affect my kid’s grades (i.e., as I understand it, my kid could still “lose points” for not completing assignments even if I write a note explaining the issue).  I do think she understood, however, my anger and frustration at her decision to use my kid as a go-between when she had no way to know whether my kid was even aware that I’d emailed about the issue, and I am hopeful that she won’t repeat that mistake.

The homework load was lighter between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it was unclear to me how much of that was because of the natural ebb and flow of the school year (the marking period ended during that time, and we were all busy with winter parties and concerts and whatnot).  Last night, however, the homework load was back — and just as extreme.  I’ve instituted a new policy of not allowing my kids to start their homework until I get home from work: that way they have about 2 hours in the afternoon to run and play and be kids — and when they do sit down to work, they’re fresher and more focused from having that time off.  But my big one worked from 6 p.m. until I pulled the plug a little before 9 p.m. last night, with only a break for family supper.  And even my first grader spent about 90 minutes on a combination of homework and reading.

Please, teachers, especially elementary school teachers, please be thoughtful about the work you’re assigning, and don’t assign work unless you truly believe that its worth is more than the worth of the precious family time we working parents cherish with our children.  Teachers, I will bend over backward to support you and your role in raising my children, but please also remember that respect and support are — or at least should be — a two-way street.  Thank you.

To Love Me, To Civilize Me, and To Keep Me Safe

by Sarah Blaine

I think we all, whether explicitly articulated or not, indeed, whether we are parents or not, have a parenting mantra.

As my neighbors will attest, I regularly ask my daughters: “What’s my job?” Their canned response, developed as a family over time, is: “To love me, to civilize me, and to keep me safe.”

I truly believe that about sums it up.

My job is to love my children: wholly, unconditionally, and deeply.

My job is to keep my children safe: and by safe I don’t mean wrapped in a bubble, free from injuries, but rather safe to explore, safe to take risks, and safe to push the boundaries of their worlds as they grow and change.

And finally, my job is to civilize my children. That is, it is my job to ensure that they learn to value kindness, to be considerate of others, and to learn to effectively navigate the shoals of growing up in the contradictory and confusing culture we call — sometimes without noticing the irony — western civilization. Civilizing them also includes teaching them not to fart in public and that locking the cat into a “cat haven” under the bed is a recipe for laundry, not entertainment.

Civilizing children is transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next. Teachers and parents need to be partners in this endeavor: neither can cede responsibility to the other.

My family developed our mantra over time, and I imagine it’s not done evolving. When my oldest was still an only, only the civilizing part of the mantra had evolved, and we used it as a party trick. I’d ask, “What’s my job?” and my daughter would pipe back in her two-year old lisp: “To civilize me.” My friends would chuckle. Love and safety didn’t need to be explicitly stated. For her, they went without saying.

But the concept of civilization became a powerful force: discipline (both positive and negative) became about encouraging civilized behavior, and discouraging uncivilized habits. It started as a joke, but the tool worked. Discipline stopped being as much of a power struggle and instead became an attempt to guide my daughter into channeling her self-centered, selfish, animal impulses into a more nuanced, adult, and, yes, civilized view of the world, one where everything wasn’t ME ME ME NOW NOW NOW. One where she was a willing participant in civilizing herself.

But then my little one, my younger daughter, my pixie as my neighbor calls her, came along. And eventually, she learned to talk. The waters run deep in that one, and it’s a magical experience to discover the corridors of thought her mind explores. They could not be more different than my own.

It’s easy for me to figure out what the big one is thinking: it’s usually similar to what I’m thinking.

But the little one is contemplative, and full of little quirks and notions, and sometimes dark thoughts, and always full of questions. She cannot be hurried. She has fears. She is also anxious to a fault, and I work hard to help her examine and keep her anxiety in check.

My little one was the one who evolved our party trick into a mantra: the words were not these, but the intent was clear: all discipline wasn’t just about civilizing her, she pointed out; sometimes it was about teaching her how to keep her body and her soul safe. So we evolved our saying into mommy’s (and daddy’s) job being “to civilize her and to keep her safe.” It went along with a parallel mantra: “What do mommies always do?” I’d ask. She’d answer, “Come back.”

My little one is the most affectionate, generous child I have ever encountered: she is full of “hug alerts” and “I just wanted to give you a kiss” and constant snuggles. Her gift is for giving. She made it clear that parenting wasn’t just about civilizing her and keeping her safe: it was also about loving her enough to recognize and adapt to her unique spirit, which I love and cherish, even though it is so very different from my own. And she needed me to state my love. Explicitly. My job is to love her.

So our mantra evolved — again — into its current form: our job as parents is to love our children, to civilize our children, and to keep them safe.

Parenting children and especially, for me, parenting two very different children, has stretched my soul and, I hope, given me a little insight and humility concerning my character and experience. One thing parenting has certainly taught me is that parenting is an expansive and evolving endeavor: it isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor.

I can be as judge-y as the next person, but I try harder these days to refrain from indulging in that cathartic exercise in superiority: the decisions I make for the youngest are sometimes so different than the decisions I make for the oldest that I’m sure an outsider would judge me out of my mind. But my children are so different, and one-size-fits-all does not meet their needs, nor would it help them develop into their wisest, kindest, and most civilized selves.

My oldest thrived on learning to sound out words at age 3. At pick up on her first day of kindergarten, her experienced and gifted teacher looked me in the eye and said, “I see we have a real reader here.” And we did: she came into kindergarten reading Magic Tree House and other chapter books, and during “book buddies” with the second graders, she discovered that she was a more fluent and accomplished reader than her second grade buddy.

My little one will be 6 this fall. She hasn’t started kindergarten yet, but I know that her sister’s entering-kindergarten reading fluency is far-off. However, from the time she could talk, she has wanted to know about skeletons and bodies. We google images of animal skeletons together, and my iPad is full of apps about biology and the human body because of her. She once spent about forty-five minutes detailing — for my somewhat stunned cousin — how to dissect a rat, which, I hasten to add, she learned from an iPad app aimed at high schoolers, with the eponymous name “Rat Dissection.

As parents rather than full-time educators, it is hard to feel that we can have a meaningful voice in the education policy world. I think that many parents sit out these debates not because they don’t have thoughts and concerns and ideas, but because they worry that they are non-expert participants in an education world that teems with experts, both actual and self-anointed.

Who are we? We are just parents. We defer to those in the know.

But we parents do have insight, and we need to have a voice, because we do have some wisdom, wisdom that is worth sharing, wisdom that can add richness and perspective to a debate that is often sadly lacking in both.

That is why Louis C.K.’s comments about his daughters’ math homework, standardized testing, and Common Core were so powerful. We have heard so few parents weigh in on this debate.

And that vacuum is why I read this Success Academy teacher’s response to Louis C.K. as so tone-deaf:

So instead of throwing in the towel, what we must teach alongside these more difficult—yet completely achievable—standards is grit. Parents and teachers have to work together to model and reinforce perseverance both at school and at home. A few tears shed over homework or a test is simply not reason enough for us to balk at meaningful, thoughtful math that will better prepare all kids for a changing and more dynamic workforce. When we as adults complain that the bar is too high, we send students the message that we don’t believe they’re capable of greatness.

Of course, I empathize with Louis C.K.’s frustrations to a certain extent. This math looks very different. The worksheets his daughter brought home might not have been the best quality—indeed, teachers are still figuring out the new standards, too. And nobody wants to see his child upset. But a Twitter tirade doesn’t help anybody, least of all students.

For my older daughter, this teacher’s comments are spot on. For her, occasional tears shed over math homework are character-building exercises in resiliency: academics come so easily to her that it’s a powerful lesson for her to learn to persevere when she does hit a stumbling block.

But for my younger daughter, the same tears might be a devastating watershed that could undermine her future academic success. And what is most upsetting about this slippery critique of Louis C.K.’s parenting by a teacher is that it’s a call from a teacher to shut out parents’ voices, to shut down the conversation: well, that’s not the kind of teacher I seek out for my children. Plus, she’s wrong. I bet Louis C.K.’s tirade did help two small people: his daughters, who experienced a powerful lesson from their dad’s empathy.

One thing that parenting has taught me, viscerally, in a way that classroom learning and book learning and even my experience as a teacher could not, is how different children truly can be, and that one-size-fits-all assembly-line education does not — and cannot — fit all of our children.

My youngest will enter kindergarten this fall. I have no doubt that my youngest is full of insights and connections and intelligence and deep thoughts and wisdom and imagination. In my experience, Common Core and its related standardized test preparation have not been significant stumbling blocks for my oldest. But I fear that squeezing my youngest into the standardized, common mold is not going to be effective. It’s not going to contribute toward civilizing her.

I hope and pray that my youngest will thrive, and I will do my best to differentiate and provide support at home, but my primary fear about where we are headed as a country is that we’re attempting to impose one-size-fits-all education on infinite-unique-needs-they-each-have individual children. And we have a movement that attempts, as the Success Academy teacher did, to drown out parents’ voices when those voices are raised in protest.

I am all for high standards; I am not for standardization.

My little one says that she’s a witch, she’s a wizard, she’s a secret agent, she’s a fairy, she’s a kitty, she’s a cat. But there’s one thing she never identifies herself as: a widget.