Sunday, February 1, 2015

Too Much F***ing Homework, Part 2

Four days after our unsatisfactory telephone meeting with the vice-principal, we received an email from him. He had spoken to the history teachers as well as the head of the history department, and he wanted to enlighten us as to the "facts" of the multi-step project to which we had objected. Clearly he felt that our daughters had given us misinformation rather than facts. The facts, he informed us, were straightforward: the project was assigned on December 12—well before the Christmas break (although the last day of school was December 19); the kids were given three sessions in the library to work on it (two before the break and one after); and the librarian had told the students during the first library session that the notes were due the week after Christmas break (something both daughters, who are in different history classes, refute). The underlying message of the email seemed to be that our daughters were liars or slackers or both, and that any reasonable child would have been able to complete the project (over the holidays?) without undue stress.

Had he chosen to speak to any of the students in, for instance, my daughter E's class, he would have learned that the first library session was taken up with a lesson on "how to take notes," that during the second one, the computers were down (so the research session was cancelled), and during the third one, the computers were so slow that it was impossible to conduct research efficiently. Leaving aside for a moment the question of the many ways in which technology (for which the infrastructure is still mostly inadequate or unreliable) often renders school assignments more unwieldy and time-consuming than low-tech equivalents, such as, say, a persuasive essay about a topic discussed in class—leaving aside that important question for the moment, it is clear that this particular multi-step history project was not a project for which enough class or library time was allotted, nor was it designed as an in-school project, as E's teacher's admonishment that kids had better work on it over the holidays (contra the homework policy) makes clear. On paper, it may appear reasonable and doable (though even that is disputable), but the reality for the students actually carrying out the assignment is quite different; "evidence" collected solely from the teachers who designed and assigned the project cannot be expected to reflect that (student) reality.

The vice-principal's email made it clear that he was interested primarily in defending the school's practices, rather than resolving the persistent problem of teachers' collectively assigning homework that far exceeds the limits set forth in the Toronto District School Board's homework policy.

My husband and I  decided, in light of the VP's follow-up email, that tackling the problem by means of reasonable—or unreasonable, expletive-laden—discussion with the school's administration was going to prove futile. After considering possible next steps, we decided to to approach our local trustee first and the school's own Mental Health and Well-Being committee second. Stay tuned.

12 comments:

  1. Reminds me a bit of a conversation I overheard between parents of third graders several years ago. Each of the third graders were struggling with an assignment for online research, made worse because the kids didn't really understand that they were not only supposed to find online resources but use a particular citation format. The assignment was taking each of the students hours and hours longer than the teacher expected, but the teacher reportedly told each parent separately that their child was the only one having a problem with the assignment--so she wasn't going to make any changes!

    It is unfortunate there seems to be an assumption that student reports are untrustworthy somehow, so they can just be discounted by the schools.

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    1. Oh, don't get me started on schools expecting kids to navigate complicated online research resources at too-early an age and forcing 8-year-olds to use citation systems meant for upper high school and university students! It's been our experience, too, that if a kid complains, she's told she's the only kid, and if parents complain, they're told they're the only parents complaining. I tried to forestall that tactic this time by saying up front, that if parents don't complain, it's because of precisely the kind of unhelpful, parent- and kid-blaming response that he was giving us. I've been thinking that maybe each school or family of schools needs an ombudsperson, but I don't even know how or where to propose such a thing. The ongoing fight against excessive homework is exhausting enough!

      Thanks so much for your comment.

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    2. There has been a lot of talk amongst our trustees about having an ombudsman. Let your trustee know you are in support of that initiative!
      Trixie

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  2. Yep, this is why I feel like I always have to find another parent who is having the same problems (before I go to the teacher/Principal) because otherwise it'll be a problem that my kid is having, rather than a problem with the homework itself. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because it's a good opportunity for me to figure out if it really is just my family's problem and because I sometimes find parents too afraid to speak up, or not knowing how to speak up, and I'm happy to do it for/with them.
    I do have a big problem with using just the teacher's perspective when determining if there really is a problem. The teacher wouldn't be assigning the homework in the first place if they thought it was wrong, so why go ask them if they think it is right?
    I think you hit the nail on the head with the idea that what is planned for homework and on paper does not reflect reality. I don't see a lot of teachers asking for feedback on homework (how long did it really take? did you have trouble getting it done? did you understand it?) so they can actually evaluate how effective and reasonable the homework really is. Imagine if they had all the parents and students provide a report card on what really goes on at home!
    Trixie

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  3. Hi Trixie,

    Thanks for your comment. When my kids were in elementary school, I too conferred with other parents about homework issues, and although most of them were experiencing the same problems we were, I found, like you, that few were willing to speak up. Their fear was that there could be repercussions for their kids if they spoke up. I completely understand that fear, but I figured that my kids were already suffering because of the homework (especially in Grades 4 and 5 French immersion); and, in fact, there never were negative repercussions for them. It got to point where parents would approach me and ask when I was going to write an email or talk to the teacher about a given homework problem--which I totally didn't mind. But I do think there's a greater chance of effecting real change when parents who are experiencing similar difficulties with homework (or any school issue, really) approach the school as a group.

    As for giving teachers a report card on how their homework assignments are working out at home, what a good idea--I think I might just do that! But, seriously, I've often wondered why teachers don't solicit more feedback from students and parents, and why, if they aren't willing to do so, they are not required to submit to student evaluations, as college and university instructors are. Sadly, the people who are most affected by what happens in school (students) are the ones with the least voice.

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  4. Our child is most of the way through his first year in a Gen Ed classroom where he is doing extremely well considering it's not something he's experienced until 5th grade. It's one of the best things that could have happened for him on so many levels. He is very bright was not thriving in his prior room placement. But it's been hard in a lot of ways too, most of all with homework. He's a perfectionist and avoids things that are new to him through a variety of coping mechanisms because he's afraid he won't be good at them before he even tries. This has made our family's adjustment to his first experience doing homework a bit difficult since it's an entirely new thing for him. It's hard for us to know what is too much homework in terms of what is "normal" to the other kids in his class, and their families, because the only comparison we have is the homework we had in school. That was quite a long time ago since we are much older than most of the parents. Ok, that said all nice and stuff - THEY HAVE SO MUCH HOMEWORK! It's not just the quantity, it's the level of it for his age. I'm glad they have him doing challenging things and high level thinking; I did very well in school a hundred years ago; but I didn't have anything near this quantity or level of expectations in elementary school. I not a math person as it is, but it's scary when you can't comprehend your 5th grader's math homework well enough to help him for fear that you may guide him to their version of an F = a lot of red check marks and a lower number at the top of the page. He's adjusting to it and doing better and better, but I have 10x the grey hairs I did a year ago from it. I wonder what it would look like if all the schools and classes in a given school district entered the homework assignments into PowerSchool or similar. It might be kind of interesting to be able to compare that information between similar classes and schools in and even outside his district.

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    1. I was so glad the one of my son's classmates posted their (grade 6) nightly homework on Edmodo (an online classroom program) each day. It created a record I could print to show the teacher/principal just how much homework was assigned. To see it written out actually suprised them, as they thought there wasn't much homework going home. It blew my mind that they didn't have any record of their own of the homework they had been giving.

      On a different note, I knew homework was going to be an issue as soon as the my kids' teachers had to teach the students ways to keep track of the homework. As an elementary student I didn't need a student agenda or Edmodo or any kind of 'system' to keep track of homework. The only homework we had (in elementary grades) was to finish up anything we didn't do in class, the occasional project, or reading. No need to keep track of anything, as we just brought home the incompleted worksheets/notebooks and knew that's what we had to do. Or the teacher reminded us of the project we had to work on and since it was the only homework, we didn't need to create a list. Or we just read more of the book we were studying and needed nothing more than the teacher telling us what chapter we should be on. How did the school board (especially one that minimizes the amount of homework in elementary school) create such a chaotic system that 7 year olds needs to keep day planners to organize the work they do at home? If they followed their own homework policy then agendas, day planners, and organizing skills (that many adults haven't mastered) would not be necessary for elementary students.

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    2. Sorry, that should have read "How did the school board (especially one that CREATED A POLICY WHICH SHOULD minimize the amount of homework in elementary school)"

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    3. Julie V.,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree that it would be interesting to compare homework loads across classes and schools, but I also think that no matter what is considered "normal," if it's too much for your son, it's too much, period. To say nothing of the fact that, as you point out, the new "normal" with respect to homework really isn't (normal). It bugs me that despite all the recent research showing that homework in elementary school is not very effective (by any measure), huge amounts of it are still being assigned. When will teachers and administrators stop equating quantity with quality?

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    4. Anonymous: Don't get me started on agendas! I think they're a symptom of so much that is wrong with contemporary schools—actually I once wrote an entire post arguing as much (see here). But I agree that no elementary kid should have so much homework that he or she needs a planner to keep track of it. I didn't even need one in high school! That said, I think it's a great idea to document how much homework is coming home (either via Edmodo or by some other means) because often teachers don't seem to realize how much kids have (especially if there are multiple teachers involved) or how much time it takes kids to do it. Maybe if more parents (or kids) did this, teachers would clue in and start assigning less homework. But I also wonder why we should have to go to so much trouble when, as you say, the homework policy is supposed to prevent too much homework from being sent home in the first place.

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    5. Great article about agendas! (sorry, I posted as anonymous again). I do keep track of homework after all the problems in the past, knowing I can't just leave it to my word vs. the teacher's.

      My youngest son's teacher does seem to follow the homework policy, so there's very little of it (thank goodness!), but she STILL insists on using agendas. My son doesn't see the point of having to write out "read for 20 minutes" every day or "pizza lunch tomorrow" when he doesn't eat pizza. I don't bother signing it because it's just busy work for both of us. He also doesn't think the paper agenda system works for him (why do they think one system will work for everyone?) and wants to do it online, because the homework they do get is all done in Google drive anyway.
      -Trixie

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