Summer homework is due. Today.
Today is Day One for 1.1 million New York City public school children. The rest of New York's school children are matriculating right around now, too, and it seems that most of them — public and private — were asked to do something school-related over the summer. The question is: Did they do it?
The answer, albeit Clintonian, is: That depends on what the word "they" means.
Did "they" do it if mom sat next to them till 3 a.m. last night, doing the typing to save time? What if she read them "A Tale of Two Cities" out loud? What if dad rented the DVD and suggested topic sentences?
In our house, we certainly intended to have our kids do their work in a timely fashion. As August rolled around, the vague notion of something important we were supposed to do — they were supposed to do — started rising like a harvest moon.
The brilliant idea of having the moppets do "a little bit every day" so it wouldn't be a "burden," and yet they wouldn't "lose the gains they made in the academic year" had about as much impact in our household as the brilliant idea of having them start raising organic alpacas and selling the wool for college tuition. Lovely in theory, but — hey, "The Simpsons" are on.
All of which means we have sabotaged our children's education, according to a lot of folks in the field.
"I really have to start paying attention," my friend Marla said last week as she hunted for her daughters' assignments. My cousin and her son got three hours of sleep the night before their school in Chicago began. My sister was shocked to find that the eight questions her high school junior had put off turned out each to have eight sub-sections each — a,b,c,d,e,f,g and h — and "h" was always, "Write a definition of all the adjectives you just used." No sleep for them.
But at least they weren't over at my friend Carol's apartment. It took quite a while before Carol's daughter started cutting out pictures for her summer book report collage.
On Anne Frank.
[These] are the stress-free months us parents don't get throughout the school year either, which is why the stomach feels such distress when it is time to start the whole cycle again. And so, teaching our kids perhaps the worst academic lesson of all, we pull a first night all-nighter. On the other hand, it's amazing how much of "A Tale of Two Cities" you can absorb when the clock is ticking, the DVD is blaring, dad's gluing and mom's typing. It's also very easy to give an example of, say, "The worst of times."
We may all have forgotten buckets of what we learned last year, but we remember this one: Homework stinks.
Hope you got yours in on time.
That Panic Last Night
By LENORE SKENAZY
September 2, 2008
My feeling: the whole parent involvement in the schools thing is not working out. At least, it's not working out the way schools mean it to work out. As far as I can tell, the requirement that parents be deeply involved in homework produces further antagonism between schools & the people who send their kids to them.
Then, when those people write newspaper columns about the horrors of parental involvement, everyone else loses confidence, too.
Speaking of parent involvement, one of the big selling points for Catholic high school around here was my best friend's experience in LA. Her two kids, one boy & one girl, attended Catholic schools K-12. Both were accepted by highly selective colleges (Yale for one) where both have done very well -- and neither my friend nor her husband helped with homework ever. No tutors, either. Once, when I filled my friend in on the kind of labor we've had to put into homework, she simply stared at me, a look of noncomprehension on her face. It was as if we lived on different planets, which we did.
I mentioned back in June that C. was given a monster summer reading assignment by his new school. Two thousand five hundred and forty-nine pages in all, not that anyone was counting. Five novels, Guns, Germs and Steel, the Book of Genesis, the first 12 books of The Odyssey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, and six Science articles from the New York Times. Plus quite a number of short-answer written responses.
This turned out to be completely do-able -- not just do-able, but for the most part fun. I did take Liz's (and Paul's) advice about organizing the reading, and I did keep C. on track by managing his Excel chart (that's a screen grab of the chart I made for me). But that was easy (and productive - I'm now using the chart for my own work).
I didn't have to nag, and I didn't have to "help." That was the big surprise. It turns out that the school understands the meaning of C's reading scores better than I do. (woo hoo!) The school definitely understands the kind of novels a new freshman boy likes to read better than I do. I would never have chosen these books. *
Thus far I conclude that the "secret" to a good summer homework assignment is:
- work the student is capable of doing without help. I had no idea C. could read GGS, the Bible, or The Odyssey completely on his own. But he did, and he seems to have understood them, at least judging by the brief conversations we've had.
- at least some work the student wants to do or will enjoy doing. C. loved all five novels, which were so terrific that one of his friends bought and read one of them, too.** Those 5 novels, I believe, increased C's motivation to read the Bible & The Odyssey, neither of which would naturally have sparked his interest. The 5 contemporary books whetted his appetite for more challenging fare. (I think.)
- extremely short-and-sweet questions along with answer forms on which to write the answers. All of the summer assignments, which came from Religion, Classics, English, History, Science, and Guidance, were bundled together in one print-out, which was mailed home and posted online. And nearly all of the written work could be completed on that one form. The science teacher also included examples of student work to show exactly what he wanted students to do.
At this point, my sense is that the sheer amount of summer reading and writing kids are asked to do isn't the problem. The problem is giving kids summer homework that is either over their heads or too logistically complicated for them to manage.
This brings me back to the FWOT aspect of projects and constructivism in general. Kids being taught via projects and discovery must expend huge amounts of time and energy organizing and simply remembering everything they're supposed to do.
I'd put money on it C. had the largest summer assignment of any kid mentioned in Skenazy's column, and yet I spent no time helping with content and minimal time helping with logistics. It's pretty easy, in terms of the demands on executive function, to remember you have to read 8 books. It's hard to remember you have to answer 8 questions and the 8 questions have 8 questions, too.
A few years ago I read a book about kids who scored perfect 1600s on the SAT. The main feature of perfect-scoring kids that distinguished them from everyone else was the amount of reading they did:
[S]tudents who ace the SAT read an average of fourteen hours a week. Average score students, on the other hand, read only eight hours a week—an immense drop-off. The biggest difference, however, was found in the amount of time students spent reading for school. Average score students spent four hours a week reading literature, textbooks, and other assigned reading for school. Perfect score students put in nine hours a week for school-assigned reading, more than double the amount of time.
What do 1600 students read for fun?...The book most frequently mentioned—by a total of 6 percent of perfect score students—was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
The Perfect 1600 Score: The 7 Secrets of Acing the SAT
bonus factoid: One of my friend's children had something very close to a perfect score on the new 3-section SAT. (I don't know what the other child scored, but it had to be quite high as well.)
No SAT prep class & no tutor.
Just 13 years of Catholic schools.
* And not just because I hadn't read them, either. What a fabulous list! I read everything on it, and loved everything on it save one of the novels. (C. liked that one just fine.)
** nix on the Anne Frank assignment