Monday, February 26, 2024

Homework and the Blended Family

Recently, I had the honor of giving a seminar on implementing a no-homework policy in elementary, middle, and high school classes. It's a policy that took me some time to come to, but one that I can't imagine ever changing now that my eyes have been opened. At the beginning of my teaching career, over twenty-five years ago, I was exactly the opposite - piling on homework in the name of rigor and punishing students who didn't do it. The turning point for me was the realization that there really was no rigor to be found in this approach. I could assign reading, but most students just wouldn't read it. At best, even the smartest would look up summaries and fake it. I could assign writing, but they'd cheat. After some careful consideration, I decided that I couldn't even blame them. Why are they working at home, sometimes harder than they're expected to work in class, without supervision, and often without even knowing what they're doing? After researching the effects of homework, I fully made the switch to no assignments outside of class time.

I don't want this post to get too technical, but in case there are any teachers reading for arguments or support for no-homework policies, or maybe parents looking for ammunition to fire at their local school boards, here are the bullet points of what I shared with my colleagues:

  • Homework does not provide the rigor we assume it does, because all the work is unsupervised.
  • Homework does not teach students study skills or time management any more than kicking a kid into the deep end of a pool teaches them to swim. At best, it activates survival instincts; at worst, it drowns the student.
  • Homework gives students a distorted concept of work-life balance and robs them of positive interactions with family members, often replacing them with very negative ones.
  • Homework does not effectively build skill through repetition, because the students who practice correctly every time already have the skills, and the ones who don't already have the skills often repeat and ingrain incorrect practices that then have to be retrained. (See: "Dad said to do it this way.")
  • Research that supports the practice of homework is dubious at best, and much of the research shows that homework is ineffective and makes students hate school.
  • At best, research shows that 30 minutes or more of homework per school night can increase learning by 4%, at the cost of family harmony, social interaction, leisure time, artistic pursuits, and extracurricular activities.

One quote I found in my research that has really guided my thinking on the subject is from Jackie Glasheen, principal of Kelly Elementary School in 2016. "We really want kids to go home at 4 o'clock, tired," she says. "We want their brain to be tired." Essentially, if your students even have the brain power to do any homework after school, then you probably haven't had them work rigorously enough in the classroom to begin with.

After making the switch to a no-homework policy, I've seen rigor and student skills increase, even though we can't necessarily "cover" everything students previously did for homework. The difference, to me, is that the students really learn what we study in the classroom, and they weren't really learning what we were doing (or not doing, if we're being honest) for homework before.

But one thing that I never considered in my extreme pro-homework days is how homework affects different types of families in different ways. Wealthier families can hire tutors to help with the workload and maintain positive boundaries for parents and children. Middle class families generally have at least one college-educated parent in the home who can assist with the more taxing assignments. But poorer families generally have none of these advantages. The very families who already have the most stressors and the least amount of quality time between parents and children are exactly the ones that the burden of homework hurts the most. 

In addition, before I became a single parent and then a parent in a blended family, I never considered how these dynamics could be exacerbated by the load of homework I assigned. As a single parent, who was also a college graduate and educator, it was often more than I could handle to even enforce quiet time for my kids to do their homework, let alone help them with it. Doors were slammed, tears were shed, and voices were raised, but not a lot of learning happened. I had two kids that were already hurting from the pain of separation and divorce, and instead of spending healing personal time with them, we were fighting over how long it should take to do thirty math problems. 

Then later, as a blended family, we saw that dynamic change even more. Sure, there were more hands and brains in the home to help with homework, but the relationships were new and fragile, and the added stress of homework created even more angst and drama at a time when we could have been bonding as a new blended family. The truth is, homework causes stress, makes kids feel stupid, and complicates the parent/child relationship. What it does to the step-parent/child relationship is absolutely terrible. In a home where remarks like "you're not my mom" and "you can't make me" and "I'm calling my real dad" are still shouted on the regular, the added burden of making a child write an essay or read ten pages of Hatchet can set familial progress back months, or stop it from ever progressing to begin with.

So, here's my advice for teachers: Consider the effects of your homework assignments on the most fragile of your students. The ones who are sailing through your class are probably not benefiting from it at all, but the ones who are struggling, both personally and academically, are possibly seething with animosity towards school and towards the parents and stepparents who are trapped in the role of enforcing the status quo. Consider the cost/benefit analysis of every assignment you send home, and try to imagine what really goes on once your students leave your room.

And my advice for parents: Put the onus for teaching material back on the teacher. I've adopted this policy myself, and it's been difficult, but it's definitely improved my child's stress level and our relationship. Instead of becoming frustrated with her for not understanding an assignment or not getting math problems correct, I simply tell her not to do it. Math, in particular, doesn't come naturally for her, so when she doesn't understand what to do, or asks me to show her how, to essentially teach the material, I just refuse to do it. I tell my child to mark the problem she doesn't know how to do, skip to the next one that she understands, and make sure to be the first to raise her hand in class tomorrow and tell the teacher she needs help with the problem. It's not my job to teach my daughter math. Period.

My job is to encourage her personal, spiritual, and intellectual growth as a father, and to foster goodwill between her and her other parents and stepparents. I only have a few hours on a weeknight to get that job right, and I'm not wasting that time trying to figure out how many hours it takes for Fred's plane to land in Cleveland if the flight leaves forty-five minutes late in ten degree weather with twice the normal load of baggage and one engine operating at eighty-five percent efficiency. Fred's gonna get there when he gets there.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

If You're Angry and You Know It

 I love my granddaughter.

What I mean is, I really love my granddaughter. She's five now, almost grown, but still my Babay Girl. She lived with us for a while when she was little, because my daughter was a young mom herself. In some ways, you could say that I got robbed of the traditional "spoil them and split" experience that most grandparents get, but I'm not sure why that's supposed to be a good thing anyway. When she's with us, or whenever we're on the phone, I try to treat her like another of my own children, the best I can. She has her father, but I can also fill in some gaps and father her without overstepping or crossing boundaries. 

One thing that I love about her is how resilient and honest she is. She's been through some stuff, both seen and experienced some disappointments that have aged her in that way that life does to little kids sometimes. "Wise beyond their years," we say, forgetting that the wisdom we're praising comes with a price. It's cost her some of her childhood to get that wisdom.

For instance, we went on our annual camping trip, just me and the girls without my grandson, because you have to be night potty trained to sleep in a tent with me. It's her second trip, her (one year younger) auntie's first, so she knows more of the routines - the sleeping arrangements, activities, cooking over a fire and whatnot. The first night of the trip, the sun has gone down and everyone is around the campfire, several families with someone leading in happy kids songs, and she gets that look that tells me she's about to drop some knowledge.

"Papa," she says, serious as she can be, "why do they say 'If you're happy and you know it stomp your feet'? You're supposed to stomp your feet when you're mad."

I didn't have an answer for her. She's so right. It's weird. The song is so weird, too. Why am I so happy? And why are there so many different ways to show it? Instead, I responded the same way I always do when she stuns us with some deep thoughts.

"You're so right, Baby Girl," I said, "That's crazy."

She nodded and went back to licking the marshmallow off the sides of her hand. I thought about it for a while longer, looking up into the night sky and getting more serious than I should for the occasion. I Tweeted about it (because saying "I x-ted about it" is stupid) to record the moment and so the family could weigh in. Then I forgot all about it.

That is, I forgot about it until a couple of weeks later when I was listening to the audiobook of She Deserves Better by Sheila Wray Gregoire (great book, by the way). At one point, she referred to the song, noting that the lyrics used to be different. Apparently, the song used to be about all the emotions, all kinds of different feelings and how to show them. That specific line really did used to go "If you're angry and you know it, stomp your feet." And Baby Girl is so right; that makes a lot more sense. I looked up the original lyrics, which are hard to find, believe it or not, and sure enough, they're all there. Apparently, if you're sad and you want to show it, you can cry boo-hoo. If you're scared and you want to show it, you can either shout "oh no" or run away, depending on which lyrics source you trust more. There's even one for if you're sleepy, which encourages kids to take a nap, which is something I've always endorsed myself.

I was so shocked, as if a major part of my own childhood had been a lie, which, I guess, it kind of was. The original song goes back almost a century, probably Russian, and got to English audiences around the 1940's, possibly. But what happened since then? When did we decide that it was inappropriate for kids to be sad or angry or scared? When did we banish all the so-called darker emotions and start telling kids that if they felt any of them and they knew it, they weren't allowed to show it?

Besides her wisdom and perception, another thing I love about my granddaughter is her resilience. With everything she's been through, she's learned not only to express her emotions and ask for things in more constructive ways, but she also helps take care of her little brother, and even leads her (younger) auntie with so much patience. That's an odd sentence, I know, but still impressive. When Baby Girl was three and early four, she used to either throw tantrums or just lock up completely when she got overwhelmed with emotions. Trying to get her to calm down and stop screaming, in some cases, or to open up and say words in others, was a daily trial. And the overwhelming emotion could be a bright one, not just sadness or anger. If she got a toy she really liked for Christmas, she might get so happy about it that she would freeze for a minute. 

Now that she's five, going on six, she's learned much better ways to express herself. She gets angry, and might even scream, but instead of a wild, incoherent scream, it's more of a focused, articulate scream. "Give that back!" is something I can deal with. She has a vocabulary that matches her moods, and she usually feels authorized to use it. Sometimes she might have to whisper it in your ear, or work herself up to it, but she gets it out. She shows it.

The whole discovery about the song is making me rethink the way a lot of us grew up. I'm trying to remember times when the grown-ups in my life really backed me when I was angry or sad or scared, and I have to say, I'm drawing a blank. It's like those emotions were too inconvenient or dark for the people around me, and they'd really rather just see me clapping and stomping and shouting in happiness, even if that wasn't what I was feeling at the time. Even as a parent, I think I can remember times when I might have redirected the some of the kids away from their emotions with distractions or commanded them to hide what they were feeling. I try not to do that anymore, and just get the littles to talk through their feelings, breathe through the moment. One thing anyone with much older and younger kids will probably tell you is that the youngest ones get the best Christmas presents and the best parents.

I can't go back to the older kids and change my parenting style, so maybe they can consider this an apology. But I can commit to doing better by the littles, helping them to identify their emotions and express them. The hard thing, the thing that's really going to take some effort and patience, is doing the same for myself. For those of us who grew up in an era where every verse was "happy," and every movement was only allowed to express that one emotion, it's difficult to be more honest, to allow ourselves to feel the feelings we feel, and to show them to others and risk upsetting them. There's so much unresolved, unprocessed anger and sadness today. Just scrolling through my social media feed, I get endless videos of road rage and public fights. This tells me two things: 1) That the grownups don't know how to manage their emotions any better than the kids, and 2) That I should stop clicking on every fight video in my feed.

So going forward, how about we all try to do better? If you're angry and you know it, stomp your feet, punch a bag, sprint a mile. If you're sad and you know it, cry boo-hoo, write it down, sing the blues. If you're scared and you know it, say "oh no," call a friend, meditate. Take your time, though. Sometimes, the hardest part is knowing it.