Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Blogging again

I haven't blogged about homework for a while, but I thought I would start up again -- maybe not every day like I did before, but once a week. I still receive a Google alert on homework every day so I can keep abreast about what is going on. Today, I came across this page from a fourth grade teacher's website and thought I would use it as a basis for comment. It seems likely that this is a very committed and conscientious teacher who is trying her best to teach her children well. Yet, I find some things questionable in this approach (which I think is representative of the ways in which may teachers think).

First, although it seems reasonable for students to participate in organizing their weekly planer and I have no objection to the notion that they will write down their assignments, I don’t get why they would stay in for recess if they can’t complete the assignment. Recess is there for a reason. We give salaried workers legally mandated 15 minute work breaks twice a day, because we know they need breaks. Similarly, we give kids breaks because we know they are good for them. Why we would take breaks away from a child who struggles to meet the requirements does not make sense. This is school, so if the child has trouble doing something the teacher considers important, it would call for an educational, not a punitive intervention.

Second, we have the question of why a child would not get his or her homework planner organized for the week, assuming 20 minutes is a reasonable amount of time. Does the child have trouble focusing? Does the child need help learning this strategy for organization or does the child need to develop an alternative strategy? Does the child have trouble with handwriting? Is the child hungry first thing Monday morning and not ready to proceed? Maybe the child has trouble sleeping on Sunday night, making the adjustment from a weekend to a weekday schedule? I don’t know the reason for any particular child, but, as with any behavioral requirement, failure to meet the expectation is an opportunity to assess why, and engage in an intervention, an opportunity lost if we blindly assume the child can do what he or she is asked to do and use a punitive response when the child does not. And keep in mind, even if the teacher doesn’t see keeping the child in for recess as punitive, the child’s experience is still one of negativity, not one that is conducive to further learning.

Third, let’s consider the overall volume of work. Educators typically say ten minutes per night per grade. This teacher seeks 25 minutes per night reading, which would leave about 15 minutes for other work. Looking at the volume of the remaining assignments, it seems unlikely that most children can complete them in that period of time. Is there are agreed upon amount of time that children should be spending on homework? Is it more than 40 minutes per night in this teacher’s mind? And if so, how much? 50 minutes, an hour, an hour and a half?

Fourth, let’s assume these requirements are consistent with the overall philosophy and approach of this school and represents what children in the fourth grade there are expected to do. Children don’t work at the same pace? Children may not all be able to hit the ground running and use their homework time productively. Children may not all be able to read what they wrote? They may not all remember what the assignments were about? They may not recall what was taught in class, the basis for understanding what they need to do? It is not uncommon for children to take twice as much time or more to complete what the more proficient students can do? Are we looking a situation in which some kids will need to spend two hours a night on this work? Perhaps, just to get by? Are we looking at kids who are going to face mounting demands in subsequent years, without developing positive attitudes toward school and their own competencies? In my experience between 10 and 25 percent of all students, to differing degrees, have the experience of moving through the grades with increasing demands that eventually overwhelm them and cause them to fail.

Finally, what is the relationship between the teacher and the parent? I’ve often highlighted how homework involves a usurpation of parental authority by the school. It involves decision-making by the teacher over activities that are to go on in the home.  Where did that authority come from, and should we leave it unchallenged? What I find interesting here is that there is a clear threat to parents that, if they don’t use the information in the way the teacher meant them to; if they take the information given, look at the child’s homework planner, and make their own best decision how to best help their child, this website will be taken down.

I’d like to advise the teacher to rethink her homework policy and make the following adjustments:

1.      Establish clear time expectations for homework.

2.      Advise parents to stop their children from working after those limits are met.

3.      Advise parents of their ultimate authority to modify expectations as they see fit for their children.

4.      Ensure that grading policies do not create situations in which children fail because of homework difficulties.

For more information on Dr. Goldberg's model, read other postings on this blog, visit his website, The Homework Trap, or read his book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers. 

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