22 April 2012

Cogs in the Machine

This past week was AIMS testing week for the elementary grades. In order to allow students to focus on the tests, neither of my daughters had any homework this week. And for the first time ever, their after-school activities this week reminded me of my own elementary school days.

I can remember coming home from school, having a snack, and tuning into to an episode or two of Gilligan’s Island. Then maybe I’d practice piano or flute for a bit before heading outside to play. Or maybe I’d read a book or pretend for a while. I really don’t recall having much homework as a kid, or really even that much in high school.

I certainly could have applied myself more in those days, studying important topics and reviewing notes. Learning how to study would have been an excellent skill to acquire. But somehow, school was pretty easy for me. I liked school – both the learning and the social aspect. I never felt burned out or tired from what I was asked to do. And I feel like I’m an educated, critical-thinking person.

A typical weekday afternoon in our house involves racing home from school so that Madeleine can lay out her books on the table, and begin her nightly ritual. She usually starts by plugging away at endless math problems, moves on to the weekly four-page spelling packet, and then practicing violin. She’ll take a break for dinner and a shower, and and then finish up anything not yet done before heading to bed. Madeleine works hard in school all day, only to come home to face more schoolwork. I ask myself why this cycle exists.

But this week we didn’t race home from school. The girls enjoyed a leisurely snack while we talked about the day at school. The girls played outside with their cousin, something they usually only have time for on the weekends. Instead of being lethargic during dinner, they came back inside hungry and sweaty and excited about their afternoon adventures. The contrast was striking.

There’s an anti-homework movement here in America as of late, and surprisingly, it’s not coming from the students but from their parents. There’s a tiny part of me that wants to dismiss this movement as more indulgence from this already overly lenient generation who have also bequeathed obesity and financial irresponsibility as their major contributions to society. But after three-quarters of a year as a middle school parent, I have to say that they’ve got a point. Books like Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth and films like Race to Nowhere make serious points worth examining further. People like to complain about and place blame on public schools, but there is very little discussion about the lack of creativity and pointless competition in our schools, and why we feel compelled to perpetuate tasks (like homework) that have been scientifically proven to have little value, and in fact, have negative effects. Of course, these issues all stem from our worship of the Almighty Test Score – don’t get me started on that topic.

It’s disheartening to put your kids to bed each night knowing that their tomorrow will be no different from today, with school or school work occupying eight to twelve hours of their day. There is no time for TV, and I’m honestly okay with that. There’s not much on TV that would be worth watching. But there is also no time for outside play or pleasure reading. There is no time for creative pursuits or crafts. There is no time for playing with friends. Usually on the weekend Madeleine spends time reading books assigned to her for language arts and it seems at least each month there is some big project. We squeeze in some family activities, but honestly I do not know how parents manage all this when their kids are involved in organized sports and other activities.

She does learn a lot and finds some of these projects fun. But a lot of it seems like busy work and drudgery to her too. For several months, homework ended in tears more nights than it didn’t. There has to be some kind of balance, some kind of time allowance that permits kids to be kids while they are kids. They’re going to have to work their entire adult lives, so when else will they have time to play?

As a teacher, I’ve re-evaluated and completely revamped my own personal philosophy regarding homework since I became a parent. I give my students five options, from which they choose two assignments, which are due two weeks later. Every two weeks I repeat the process with different choices each time. I can’t tell you how many parents thank me and express gratitude for the way I structure this. And I even have students tell me that they miss my homework assignments after they leave my class. My homework assignments seem to offer my students several things that are really important: choice in which tasks to complete, ample time for completion, clear expectations (understandable to both parents and students), and creativity.

Other parents have told me that sixth grade is the worst in terms of the homework overload. So we’ll push through the next five weeks and hope that the summer rejuvenates and refreshes all of us enough to face school again in August with smiles and energy. I’ve tried talking with Madeleine’s teachers this year, but they seem perplexed when I mention that the quantity of homework seems excessive. Their solution was to allow her to do fewer problems, but the amount assigned remains the same. I didn’t really understand how this might be fair to the other students, especially to those whose parents aren’t as vocal. I don’t mean for this to appear that I am slamming them or their techniques – they feel great pressure to have their students perform at high levels on tests, and our society firmly believes that practice makes perfect. And with teacher evaluations being tied to student test scores beginning next year in Arizona, this pressure will only intensify.

What perplexes me most about this situation is how to change it. And really, homework is just a small symptom of a much wider problem – homework is what I see as a parent, but the issues are all intertwined and fraught with such complexity. How can we parents start a revolution, when even I – as an insider in the ‘business’ – don’t know where to begin? If we, as parents, try to buck the system, it seems that our kids face the brunt in terms of lower grades, which as we all know can impact their future. How do we revamp the whole system in order to better prepare this generation for leadership, creative problem solving, and responsibility, so that they can become more than just cogs in a machine? How do we begin?

1 comment:

  1. How soon until the pendulum begins to swing back the other way?