First Person

Parent blog: When you hear "I hate homework!"

Mom and literacy coach Ilana Spiegel confesses that she hates what homework can do to her household but says there are ways to eliminate daily battles.

I hate homework. Well, maybe it’s not homework I hate but the yelling, tears and endless procrastination that accompany homework in my house. It is when I think of homework as less of “work at home” and more of “continued learning” that I see a shift both in my ability to support my kiddos and in their willingness to comply.

Just the other day, my oldest, Max, a high school freshman, asked why on earth he needed to learn and practice factor labeling and dimensional analysis for a physical science class (yes, it was uttered with more than an ounce of adolescent angst along with the pragmatism).

He wanted to know not only the purpose for the work he was doing, but where it lived in the real world.  After I googled exactly what factor labeling and dimensional analysis are, I told him that his most favorite aunt and uncle who just finished med school probably use it all the time in figuring out medication dosing. My answer must have satisfied him because he went back to work.

But, really, why do homework?

Max and my other three kids raise a good question. Why do they need to do homework of any kind?

For a while I tried the, “It is exercise and food for your brain.” That worked about as well as, “Because I said so.” Once again, when I made the shift from “work at home” to “continued learning,” I began to realize that in the elementary and middle school years, homework should serve two purposes – to reinforce a skill taught at school and to communicate with parents about what is being taught.

At these grades, homework is neither busy work nor a time to learn new concepts. Math and spelling homework should provide an opportunity for your child to get more “reps” at a math technique or spelling concept that she has already been shown at school and has yet to master. Ideally, it should be specific to what she needs as a learner, based on formal classroom assessments and anecdotal observation. Science and social studies homework should involve reading or re-reading similar content that was explored in class.  Written reflections about what was learned and what your child still wants to know are reasonable for any subject.

The bottom line is we do homework to continue the learning we began in school so we can ultimately take it into the world with us.

Once high school starts, the work in school might be continued by applying what was learned to a new situation. Take, for example, Max’s factor label homework. One side of the paper was similar to what had been modeled and demonstrated in class. When Max cried, “He never taught us this” when he turned to the second page, he was right. The second set of problems required the students to apply what they had learned to similar, but not entirely the same, problems. The expectation as kids get older is that they can apply what they know to new situations.

Tools to support your child’s continued learning

Regardless of whether or not you are sitting in another room doing your own thing, or right next to your child giving immediate feedback, the space in which your child continues her learning should have all the tools necessary for work:

  • A hard, flat surface
  • Pencils, pens and highlighters
  • Rulers
  • Paper and sticky notes

In our house. we have four distinct work areas. Charlotte, my middle schooler, prefers the solitude and comfort of her bedroom to do  work. Jack, my fourth-grader, gets more anxious about what he is missing when he is in his room so you can often find him at the kitchen counter or table. Max, the high schooler, tends to use the “kids office,” or our formal living room which has a low wooden table and lots of lamps. Ruthie, my kindergartener, prefers a lap desk in the family room with a pencil box of supplies.

In addition to spaces, tools like planners are invaluable. For some kids, the simple act of writing down assignments is enough.  Others might need slips of paper and notes reminding them what supplies they need to bring home to fulfill the assignments.

Time and timers are additional tools. I’ve found that most kids grossly underestimate the amount of time needed to complete assignments. Use a timer to compare estimated and actual times, or to say, “You have 7 minutes to complete this assignment.” For some reason, numbers other than ones that end in zero or five grab kids attention better.

My kids are telling me to end this post with, “See, that’s why homework really does suck!” But they all concede that we have a lot fewer tears, screams and tantrums these days when we are continuing our learning at home.

Image of father helping his daughter with homework courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.