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.
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.