Why We’re Getting The Homework Question Wrong

Homework was a constant struggle in our home. As a parent I felt obligated to make sure my children were doing their part to keep up with their school work and that included doing homework and turning it in on time. But when I think of the stress that homework added to our lives, I have to wonder if in the end it was worth it.

I have come to my own conclusion that it wasn’t. Most of the homework in my opinion was just busy work and kept my middle daughter up late into the night. For my son with learning challenges, homework was a joke. And after awhile he lost interest. No matter how long he worked he rarely completed an assignment on time. Even with his accommodations he still had homework expectations and that led to a lot of stress and frustration in our home.

Which is why I am a huge proponent of the documentary and grassroots movement, The Race to Nowhere. Vicki Abeles, the film’s director, has just written the article “Why We’re Getting the Homework Question Wrong” which appeared in the Washington Post. She has launched a national petition on Change.org ”which asks the National PTA to stand behind a set of national homework recommendations that would encourage schools to assign homework only when it advances try learning, encourages a child’s self-direction and curiosity, and promotes a healthy, balanced schedule”.

I agree with Vicki – I think it’s time to ramp up the conversation about homework. I encourage you to read Vicki’s article and if it resonates please share it with other parents.

Use this forum to share your thoughts – what do you think about homework? How does it affect the quality of your child’s life? Your home life? Do you think your school district has a policy that is working? Do you have any recommendations?

I look forward to the conversation,

Sally

What if the Secret to Success is Failure?

by Paul Tough, NY Times Magazine, September 14, 2011

 

Dominic Randolph can seem a little out of place at Riverdale Country School — which is odd, because he’s the headmaster. Riverdale is one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, with a 104-year-old campus that looks down grandly on Van Cortlandt Park from the top of a steep hill in the richest part of the Bronx. On the discussion boards of UrbanBaby.com, worked-up moms from the Upper East Side argue over whether Riverdale sends enough seniors to Harvard, Yale and Princeton to be considered truly “TT” (top-tier, in UrbanBabyese), or whether it is more accurately labeled “2T” (second-tier), but it is, certainly, part of the city’s private-school elite, a place members of the establishment send their kids to learn to be members of the establishment. Tuition starts at $38,500 a year, and that’s for prekindergarten.

Randolph, by contrast, comes across as an iconoclast, a disrupter, even a bit of an eccentric. He dresses for work every day in a black suit with a narrow tie, and the outfit, plus his cool demeanor and sweep of graying hair, makes you wonder, when you first meet him, if he might have played sax in a ska band in the ’80s. (The English accent helps.) He is a big thinker, always chasing new ideas, and a conversation with him can feel like a one-man TED conference, dotted with references to the latest work by behavioral psychologists and management gurus and design theorists. When he became headmaster in 2007, he swapped offices with his secretary, giving her the reclusive inner sanctum where previous headmasters sat and remodeling the small outer reception area into his own open-concept work space, its walls covered with whiteboard paint on which he sketches ideas and slogans. One day when I visited, one wall was bare except for a white sheet of paper. On it was printed a single black question mark.

For the headmaster of an intensely competitive school, Randolph, who is 49, is surprisingly skeptical about many of the basic elements of a contemporary high-stakes American education. He did away with Advanced Placement classes in the high school soon after he arrived at Riverdale; he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign; and he says that the standardized tests that Riverdale and other private schools require for admission to kindergarten and to middle school are “a patently unfair system” because they evaluate students almost entirely by I.Q. “This push on tests,” he told me, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”

The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Randolph has been pondering throughout his 23-year career as an educator the question of whether and how schools should impart good character. It has often felt like a lonely quest, but it has led him in some interesting directions. In the winter of 2005, Randolph read “Learned Optimism,” a book by Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who helped establish the Positive Psychology movement. Randolph found the book intriguing, and he arranged a meeting with the author. As it happened, on the morning that Randolph made the trip to Philadelphia, Seligman had scheduled a separate meeting with David Levin, the co-founder of the KIPP network of charter schools and the superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City. Seligman decided he might as well combine the two meetings, and he invited Christopher Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, who was also visiting Penn that day, to join him and Randolph and Levin in his office for a freewheeling discussion of psychology and schooling.

Levin had also spent many years trying to figure out how to provide lessons in character to his students, who were almost all black or Latino and from low-income families. At the first KIPP school, in Houston, he and his co-founder, Michael Feinberg, filled the walls with slogans like “Work Hard” and “Be Nice” and “There Are No Shortcuts,” and they developed a system of rewards and demerits designed to train their students not only in fractions and algebra but also in perseverance and empathy. Like Randolph, Levin went to Seligman’s office expecting to talk about optimism. But Seligman surprised them both by pulling out a new and very different book, which he and Peterson had just finished: “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification,” a scholarly, 800-page tome that weighed in at three and a half pounds. It was intended, according to the authors, as a “manual of the sanities,” an attempt to inaugurate what they described as a “science of good character.”

It was, in other words, exactly what Randolph and Levin had been looking for, separately, even if neither of them had quite known it. Seligman and Peterson consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters, and they settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras. The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, gratitude. (read entire article)

Nurture Shock – Chapter 7: The Science of Teen Rebellion

Teenagers lie and apparently they lie a lot more than even I realized – even after raising three of them! The story in the beginning of the chapter is a little unsettling though I think supports the notion that many teens are giving adults the impression that they are on a good path when in fact they are just ‘doing school’ (a term I’m borrowing from Denise Clarke Pope) and on The Race to Nowhere. In one study 96% of teens reported lying to their parents. The reason? The most common reason was,”To protect the relationship with my parents – I don’t want them to be disappointed in me”.

I see this as good news. It reinforces what other researchers have said – that for teens the relationship with their parent is the most important relationship in their life. This is a really great point to remember when you have a rebellious teen who is pushing every boundary you try to set. I always kept my eye on the prize, so to speak – and did my best to maintain a good relationship with my children. Sometimes it meant a lot of compromising, but in the end, really all that mattered was that relationship.

I’m bored – if only I had a dime for every time I heard that phrase. According to the authors the more controlling and enabling the parent the more likely the child is to experience boredom. I had the exception to that rule. We did not fill our son’s free time – because he rejected structure. But he also didn’t like down time. So he’d finish with one activity and want to jump to another right away. Tired of constantly hearing “I’m bored” we tried a little humor, “It’s nice to meet you, I’m Sally”. Wasn’t what he wanted to hear of course, but it helped me not feel like I needed to immediately come up with something else to fill his free time.

Teens are risk takers. We all know that either from parenting teens or being risk takers ourselves (guilty). Researchers in PA came up with a program called TimeWise to help teens understand risk, peer pressure and essentially be ‘architects of their own experience’. Initially it looked like a great program, but over time the class did not have a huge impact. And the reason has to do with the teenage brain. Some teens are just wired to take big risks. More specifically the teen brain is handicapped in it’s ability to gauge risk and foresee consequences. Another interesting tidbit – teens can think abstractly but not feel abstractly until they have had more life experience to draw on. So, what’s a parent to do? Create opportunities for safe risk taking – skateboarding, skiing and snow boarding, dirt biking, jumping on a trampoline, climbing walls, mountain biking, white water rafting – none without risks but it sure beats joy riding in a car with a brain that feeds on big doses of the thrill factorl!!

The last part of the chapter goes back to discussing lying and arguing. Those families where there was less deception had a much higher amount of arguing. Arguing was seen as good thing for the teens, not so much for the parents. Arguing wears us out – I know this first hand. I wanted to encourage negotiation, partly because I didn’t have that opportunity in my family of origin. But it’s a delicate balance knowing when to continue the argument/negotiation and when to zip it and stop engaging with your teen.

I absolutely agree that parents need to let their teen feel heard – even if you totally disagree. They need to practice on someone and a parent seems like the safest place to do that. The authors barely touched on listening. I think listening in this culture is one of our biggest challenges. In fact we only listen for an average of 17 seconds before wanting to jump in with a comment.

The most important lesson I have learned (and am still learning) as a parent of three teenagers is that listening, and truly being present while you are listening, is one of greatest gifts you can give your children. What were your teen years like? How has that experience informed your parenting?

Next Week: Can Self-Control be Taught?

This Week’s Recipe: Truffle Brownies from Bon Appetit (Reprinted from the Bainbridge Island Review )

I found this recipe today – I haven’t tried it, but I’m putting it out there for all you chocolate lovers. Enjoy!

truffle brownies 117

Truffle Brownies

  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray
  • 12 ounces bittersweet chocolate (do not exceed 61% cacao), chopped, divided
  • 11 tablespoons (1 stick plus 3 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1 cup walnuts, toasted, coarsely chopped
  • 3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • special equipment

    9×9×2-inch metal baking pan

Preparation
  • Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Line 9×9×2-inch metal baking pan with foil, leaving overhang. Spray foil with nonstick vegetable oil spray. Combine 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate and butter in medium metal bowl. Set bowl over saucepan of simmering water and stir until chocolate and butter are melted and smooth. Remove bowl from over water and cool chocolate mixture until lukewarm, 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Whisk sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, and salt in large bowl to blend. Whisk in chocolate mixture. Stir in flour, then chopped toasted walnuts. Transfer batter to prepared baking pan. Bake brownies until tester inserted into center comes out with moist crumbs attached, 26 to 28 minutes. Transfer pan to cooling rack and let brownies cool completely.
  • Bring cream to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat. Add remaining 6 ounces chocolate to hot cream and let stand 5 minutes to soften, then whisk until melted and smooth. Pour chocolate ganache over brownie sheet in pan and spread to cover completely. Let stand at cool room temperature until topping is set, about 4 hours. DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and store at room temperature.
  • Using foil as aid, lift brownie sheet from pan. Fold down foil edges. Using large sharp knife, cut brownie sheet into 25 squares, wiping knife with hot moist cloth after each cut. Arrange brownies on platter and serve.
  • The author recommends a sprinkle of sea salt for glamour and extra flavor.

Nurture Shock: Chapter Two – The Lost Hour

This is a great chapter chock full of information about sleep and how important it is to the developing brain. I agree with it all. But what affected me the most is the research about the teenage brain.

All kids are affected by sleep loss, but the teenage brain presents a special challenge. During puberty the biological clock does a “phrase shift” that keeps adolescents up later. No surprise here – all three of our kids are night owls. Made it challenging when we had to get up early the next morning, yet felt compelled to stay awake to be “present” for the kids. I didn’t realize that adolescents produce melatonin on a different schedule than pre-adololescents and adults. When it gets dark outside our brains produce melatonin which makes us sleepy. But not the case for adolescents. Their brain doesn’t release melatonin for another 90 minutes so they may go to bed early but lay awake unable to fall asleep. When their alarm clocks go off their brains are apparently still releasing melatonin which can cause them to fall back asleep or nod off in first period. So now I have a greater appreciation for my son’s typical response to my question, “How was school?” His reply? “Not sure, I fell asleep in first period!”

I personally think the research is so compelling that all middle and high schools should shift their start times to accommodate the teenage brain. And driving to school half asleep is another good reason. A recent study in Texas showed a correlation between later start times and fewer accidents among teens. Our school district took the plunge several years ago and rolled back the start times for the middle school and high school to 8:45 am. Other school districts around the state and around the country have done the same. The authors highlight Edina, Minnesota, an affluent suburb of Minneapolis where they moved the start time from 7:25 to 8:30 am. SAT scores improved and overall the students reported higher levels of motivation and lower levels of depression. “In short, an hour more of sleep improved student’s quality of life”.

In a national study researchers at the University of Kentucky found that sleep decreases each year during high school. In their first year, 60% of kids got at least eight hours of sleep on average. But by the second year it was down to 30%. What’s most interesting to me is that their moods were equally affected,  “. . . dropping below 8 hours doubled the rate of clinical-level depression.”

While these numbers are stunning and should rock the foundation of every school board in the country, for various reasons change has been very slow – 85% of our public high schools start before 8:15 am, and 35% start before 7:30 am. This is a good time to mention The Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture, a phenomenal grass roots effort that has sparked a national conversation about the ‘pressures faced by American school children and their teachers in our achievement obsessed public and private education system and culture’ (borrowed from their website).  The Race to Nowhere is a call to action asking all of us to question the status quo in education and whether we are on the best path to raising healthy young adults who will eventually become contributing citizens. Please check out their website and see the film when it comes to your community.

This chapter also highlights the little mentioned link between lack of sleep and obesity, a national epidemic among our children. It’s not just fast food, lack of exercise and video games – it’s sleep, too.

Next week – Chapter 3: Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race

This week’s recipe:

I love chicken soup and currently I have two favorites:  The Barefoot Contessa has a great one but her book is already on everyone’s shelf. Greg Atkinson, a Pacific Northwest chef has possibly an even better recipe in his cook book West Coast Cooking. Enjoy!!

Organic Chicken Noodle Soup

Makes 6 servings.

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 medium organic onion, peeled and cut into small dice (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 large organic carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
1 medium stalk organic celery, cut into small dice
2 tablespoons flour
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or grated on a Microplane grater (about 1 teaspoon)
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
8 cups homemade chicken broth, or store-bought organic broth
1 pound organic free-range chicken breast meat, cooked and shredded into 1-inch pieces
2 cups (about 4 ounces) egg noodles
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon kosher salt, or to taste

1. Heat the oil in a large stockpot and sauté the onion, carrot, and celery until soft and just beginning to color, about 5 minutes. Stir in the flour, garlic, thyme, pepper, and nutmeg and sauté for 1 minute longer.

2. Stir in the chicken broth and bring the soup to a boil. Cook until the vegetables are just tender, about 12 minutes.

3. Stir in the egg noodles and the cooked chicken meat, and cook until the noodles are tender, about 8 minutes. Just before serving, stir in the parsley and salt, to taste.