Take the Pledge: Stand Up for Childhood

Kids: they dance before they learn there is anything

that isn’t music.  ~William Stafford

VBS Get Down_2252

New backpacks are ready to go — filled to the the rim with pencils, paper, and folders adorned with puppies, Hello Kitty, or the latest teen idol. It’s back to school time here in the US, and kids are resuming their breakneck schedules. Commuting, long days in the classroom, adult-led after-school activities, and an ever-increasing homework load. Many of them have lost recess, or in the process of doing so. Simply put, they must be exhausted.

I don’t know about you, but if I had a typical American kid’s schedule, I would revolt. Or act out in class or at home, be depressed or anxious…oh, wait….that is exactly what we are seeing happen in today’s society. And it’s not just the kids that are struggling, it’s the parents and educators, too.

So, I am asking all the adults in children’s worlds to take a pledge this school year. It doesn’t matter if you are a parent, educator, after-school provider, or simply a caring adult: this school year, take a stand for childhood.

As a parent: Sign your child up for fewer after-school activities. Make sure they have ample free time to play and spend time outdoors. Talk to your child’s teacher and/or the administrator about the homework policy. If you haven’t read The Case Against Homework, please do. If there is no recess in your child’s school, fight for it to be reinstated.

As an educator: Make room for play and creativity in the classroom. Work with a team to create a school garden/outdoor classroom, and make learning come alive! Appreciate different learning styles and work with students to better meet their needs. Establish a realistic homework policy that allows students and families to have time to spend together, and gives kids ample time to relax and play so they will be ready for learning the next day.

As an after-school provider: Make sure to give kids time to blow-off steam and have fun when they walk through the door, instead of launching into homework time or a structured activity. Let them have choices and direct their own play, versus always scheduling every minute. Provide ample time for outdoor play.

As a caring adult: No kids, no problem. If you are a blogger, write a post about the need for kids to play and spend time in nature. If you are an aunt/uncle or grandparent, offer to take the kids hiking, camping, or to go shoot hoops. Consider talking to the parents about the benefits of play. Keep up-to-date on education reform issues. Concerned citizen? Assess the parks and green spaces in your neighborhood. Are there ample places to play in your community? If not, speak out!

There is something we can each do this school year to make a better version of childhood a reality. I love the quote at the top of this post. Let’s keep the kids dancing as long as we can. They have a whole lifetime to be grown-ups. Let’s not require it of them too soon.

Here are a few additional resources you might find helpful when speaking or writing about the need for play and time outdoors:

Please join me. Stand up!

See ya outside! ~ The Grass Stain Guru

Creative Commons License photo credit: hoyasmeg

Homework Hassle Part 2

TGSG Note: The following interview was conducted by Tracy Stevens, an educator and blogger I follow on her great blog — A Better Education. Tracy is dedicated to bringing creativity, enjoyment and passion to today’s education system, a goal we all share here at TGSG. The interview with Sara Bennett is reprinted here with permission, and is a great follow-up to Sara’s post here yesterday. See ya outside! – The Grass Stain Guru

I recently interviewed education activist and advocate, Sara Bennett. Sara co-authored “The Case Against Homework” and has a blog on the subject at StopHomework.com The book shows how homework not only does not boost academic achievement, it also causes a whole host of problems for children and families. It is peppered with both homework horror stories and success stories of parents who have successfully handled the homework issue. Specific examples are given of how to advocate on your child’s behalf and significantly lighten (or eliminate) the load, including how to talk to teachers or administrators with diplomacy and how to form committees to change school policy. The results are surprisingly positive and even when the outcome is not as what was hoped for, she suggests a homework triage system and guides the reader on recognizing homework assignments that add value and those that do not. It proposes a much more careful approach to homework to make it meaningful rather than burdensome busy work.

1.  Sara, as a lawyer for battered women, you are no stranger to advocating for those who don’t have much of a voice. How did you get into doing this work?

I was shocked when my oldest child went to first grade and brought home homework. I thought it was a bad idea from the very beginning, and back then it was only a reading log. We would fill it out without telling him, but at the Parent Teacher Conferences, his teacher said that he needed to write it. But he couldn’t write yet and that didn’t seem to be the way to practice writing, by entering in book titles. We also didn’t want to artificially limit his reading time to 10 minutes, making him think it odd to want to read more. We wanted him to continue to love being read to and eventually to love to read to himself.

At the time I was already forty and very self confident, so I wasn’t at all intimidated by his teacher who was young enough to be my daughter. After that, every year my husband would have a yearly chat with the head of the school about the philosophy of homework. Even when the head, whoever it happened to be, admitted that we had some valid points, we were told that we were the only family who considered homework to be a problem. As the years progressed, I got a reputation for being vocal about homework and parents started to come up to me and ask me whether I could raise the issue with the teacher or at a school meeting. By 2004, when my oldest child was in 8th grade, I went to a meeting where people were talking about all the practices that were in place so that kids could get their homework done, even when they had stayed at home because they were sick. It just seemed ridiculous, and I stood up and said that I wanted to form a committee to look at homework and was anyone else interested in joining me. Several parents did and I discovered that I wasn’t the only voice in the school complaining about the homework load. By the end of that year, we changed several things in the homework policy.

My son always had a really easy time in school and he could do his homework quickly and efficiently. That made us very good advocates, because no teacher or principal could ever even hint that homework was a problem because he might have a learning issue. He could do it; we just didn’t want him spending his time that way, especially since the homework seemed to be busy work.

2.  What kind of homework is more meaningful and what kind of homework is not useful?

Most homework is not meaningful. Elementary school homework is waste of time. There is no correlation between homework and academic achievement. Projects tend to be the worst because kids most often can’t do it alone and there is not much learning that happens, it’s just compulsory. Reading is always important, but it’s not important what a child reads, so I would encourage pleasure reading. Math homework is especially problematic in that it is difficult to find homework exercises that add value. Typical homework in history or English is to read and answer questions at the end, which is completely useless. It trains the kids not to read for interest or comprehension, but to look for the answers embedded in the text. I know my point of view is radical, but there are plenty of teachers who don’t assign homework. They utilize their class time, making homework unnecessary. In college you take 3-4 classes and for every class you expect about 3-4 hours of homework. This makes sense because your classroom hours are minimal and you need to have independent study time in preparation for the classes. In grade school the students are in school the majority of the day, so this model doesn’t make sense.

3.  What do you say in answer to the defense that homework is a great way to understand what your child is working on in class and how well he or she understands it?

A student should not need to spend a lot of time on homework every day so that parents know what they are doing. Ask them what they are doing! Communicate with the teacher! If there is something that is really interesting at school, you will hear about it.

There is such a climate of fear about our economic competitiveness that is leads to more academic rigor. Yet, the very zealous focus on academic achievement is causing problems for students academically, socially, physically and emotionally. Why is balance so important?

Because we are more than just academic learners, we are whole people with other needs and interests. Not everyone is going to use everything that is learned in school. Most of us use very little of what we learned outside of basic reading and math. It is important to find what we are each passionate about and time outside of academics is necessary to learn this. We cannot predict what the future will bring so we need to be well rounded and know our interests. I just read an article in the New York Times that talked about recent graduates from the Wharton School being unable to find jobs using their degrees. It had the positive affect of freeing them up to do what they are passionate about and they actually felt relieved. Their parents had pushed them to go to school, but now they were doing what they really wanted to do. One talked about going to rabbinical school, another talked about founding a shoe company that designs collapsible shoes.

4.  Do you think homework is a function of the standardized testing machine, in that a teacher must “get through the year” having to cover a certain amount of topics that will be tested?

Yes, that is part of it. Teachers are teaching to the test, trying to make sure kids have the material to do well on the test.

5.  When looking for schools for their children, what can parents look for that will help them make choices that lead to balance and sanity when it comes to work load?

It depends where you live, as the smaller communities don’t always have a choice. If there is a choice, parents should pay attention to what interests their children have and what learning styles work for them. Go on a school tour and see how big the school is (the bigger the school the harder it is to make a difference and make a change, but, then again, it might be easier to find what you’re looking for). See whether the teachers are excited about what they’re teaching, whether they’re using innovative methods, ask what they do to excite kids. Do they encourage exploration and alternative options?

6.  Parents frequently mention their preference for a school with a high degree of academic “rigor”. When you look up the word rigor in a dictionary it mentions severity, harshness, austerity, inflexibility. Do you think parents really want that kind of school life for their children?

No, I don’t think we want that kind of school life for our children, but that is what we have.
I think they want a place where their children will love learning and be introduced to new and exciting ideas.

7.  Students are not the only ones subjected to homework. How do parents and families suffer when homework is such a presence in the lives of their children?

Family’s lives revolve around homework. We hear all of the time about kids and families having to give up events for homework. There is no time for whatever the kid loves, whether it’s music or art or reading or doing nothing, let alone a visit to a grandparent or an out of town wedding. We hear about kids having to do homework on vacation, in the car, even at play dates before the play can begin. Often parents have to put a significant amount of time helping or doing the homework. There can be a lot of negative interactions, especially between teenagers and parents. For the younger kids there are temper tantrums. A lot of parents are expected to teach the homework concepts but are not good at teaching and don’t want to have that kind of dynamic with their kids. It causes a lot of family friction.

8.  You give many good, specific examples in your book of how to diplomatically address the issue of homework overload with teachers and principals. Can you give some examples of your advice?

When kids are little, stop the homework the moment it creates anxiety and write the teacher a note. Teachers are almost always fine with it. Once you know that there is no correlation between homework and academic success, it’s easier to make decisions on homework. My main advice is for parents to speak up to teachers and administrators. Teachers don’t know if you don’t tell them. If no one speaks up they don’t know. Advocate on a larger scale, form committees of parents against homework. Speak up to school board or superintendent, legislators. At every different level there is impact.

9.  In your experience do these meetings or requests typically end well?

Not always but mostly. 1st through 7th grade went well. When we talked to the teacher we got the homework reduced by half or three-quarters. A teacher in my son’s 8th grade and my daughter’s 5th grade were more difficult. No matter what I said did not make a difference, so we wrote a respectful note acknowledging our differences and informing the teacher that they would no longer be doing homework. Even that wasn’t so bad. Initially my daughter was a little a little embarrassed to be the child who wasn’t handing in homework, but she quickly got over that and was happy to have free time after school. It is also great for the kids to see you standing up to authority in a respectful and reasonable way and getting your needs met. It’s a good lesson.

Homework Hassle

TGSG Note: If you are a regular-reader of this blog or follow me on Twitter, you know I am an advocate of homework reform and a huge fan of author and blogger, Sara Bennett. Sara an I connected about a year ago, and we have swapped posts and cheered each other on ever since. I am thrilled to have her guest post today at TGSG. I hope all parents and educators will read her book and add her blog to their RSS feeds.  See ya outside! – The Grass Stain Guru

saraEvery time I walk or ride my bicycle through my neighborhood park, I can’t help but notice how few school-age children are outside. I always see plenty of adults running, biking, walking, and dog-walking, and the under-four crowd is having fun in the playgrounds. The twenty-somethings are often kicking around a ball or throwing Frisbees. But the 5-18 year olds, unless they’re participating in an organized sports such as soccer or baseball, seem to be almost nonexistent.

Maybe it’s because I have homework on my mind–after all, I run a project called Stop Homework–but I can’t help but think that homework is to blame for keeping our children inside. After all, at 3:15 every day I see kids as young as five hauling hefty backpacks down the street, and I hear their caregivers asking them about their homework. Eight and nine year olds are begging to play in the school yard while the caregivers shake their heads and sternly insist they go straight home to do homework.

It takes a lot of self discipline for me not to jump in and say, “Let the children play!” I want to stop and reason with them. “Don’t you know that research shows that homework has no value in elementary school? Don’t you know about the new study that says that play is crucial for children’s development? Didn’t you hear about the study showing that a walk in nature improves behavior in children with ADHD?”

But I restrain myself and wonder how best to spread the word. I’ve come to conclude that it’s up to all of us to spread the word. If homework is dominating our children’s time, if it’s interfering with their childhood and keeping them from growing up the way we want them to, it’s time to make changes, starting in our homes. We must make sure our young children have plenty of time to go outside and play, even if that means their homework remains undone. And we must make sure our older children, too, get enough exercise, downtime, and sleep, even if that means that some of their schoolwork isn’t finished.

Bennett's Book - A must-read for parents.

Bennett's Book - A must-read for parents.

Most of all,  we need to try to change the source of the problem. It’s time we all write notes to the teacher explaining why our children need fresh air and protesting when recess is taken away (which is too often punishment for undone homework). It’s also time to press the issue at a higher level–with our principals, school board members, and those who make education policy.

In the short term, our children will be happier and healthier. In the long term, they’ll also be happier and healthier, and ultimately better educated as well.

Guest Blogger Bio: Sara Bennett, the co-author of The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It, is the founder of Stop Homework, a project affiliated with The Alliance for Childhood. Read more about Sara’s work on her website StopHomework.com.

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