First Person

Parent blog: When you hear "I hate homework!"

Mom and literacy coach Ilana Spiegel confesses that she hates what homework can do to her household but says there are ways to eliminate daily battles.

I hate homework. Well, maybe it’s not homework I hate but the yelling, tears and endless procrastination that accompany homework in my house. It is when I think of homework as less of “work at home” and more of “continued learning” that I see a shift both in my ability to support my kiddos and in their willingness to comply.

Just the other day, my oldest, Max, a high school freshman, asked why on earth he needed to learn and practice factor labeling and dimensional analysis for a physical science class (yes, it was uttered with more than an ounce of adolescent angst along with the pragmatism).

He wanted to know not only the purpose for the work he was doing, but where it lived in the real world.  After I googled exactly what factor labeling and dimensional analysis are, I told him that his most favorite aunt and uncle who just finished med school probably use it all the time in figuring out medication dosing. My answer must have satisfied him because he went back to work.

But, really, why do homework?

Max and my other three kids raise a good question. Why do they need to do homework of any kind?

For a while I tried the, “It is exercise and food for your brain.” That worked about as well as, “Because I said so.” Once again, when I made the shift from “work at home” to “continued learning,” I began to realize that in the elementary and middle school years, homework should serve two purposes – to reinforce a skill taught at school and to communicate with parents about what is being taught.

At these grades, homework is neither busy work nor a time to learn new concepts. Math and spelling homework should provide an opportunity for your child to get more “reps” at a math technique or spelling concept that she has already been shown at school and has yet to master. Ideally, it should be specific to what she needs as a learner, based on formal classroom assessments and anecdotal observation. Science and social studies homework should involve reading or re-reading similar content that was explored in class.  Written reflections about what was learned and what your child still wants to know are reasonable for any subject.

The bottom line is we do homework to continue the learning we began in school so we can ultimately take it into the world with us.

Once high school starts, the work in school might be continued by applying what was learned to a new situation. Take, for example, Max’s factor label homework. One side of the paper was similar to what had been modeled and demonstrated in class. When Max cried, “He never taught us this” when he turned to the second page, he was right. The second set of problems required the students to apply what they had learned to similar, but not entirely the same, problems. The expectation as kids get older is that they can apply what they know to new situations.

Tools to support your child’s continued learning

Regardless of whether or not you are sitting in another room doing your own thing, or right next to your child giving immediate feedback, the space in which your child continues her learning should have all the tools necessary for work:

  • A hard, flat surface
  • Pencils, pens and highlighters
  • Rulers
  • Paper and sticky notes

In our house. we have four distinct work areas. Charlotte, my middle schooler, prefers the solitude and comfort of her bedroom to do  work. Jack, my fourth-grader, gets more anxious about what he is missing when he is in his room so you can often find him at the kitchen counter or table. Max, the high schooler, tends to use the “kids office,” or our formal living room which has a low wooden table and lots of lamps. Ruthie, my kindergartener, prefers a lap desk in the family room with a pencil box of supplies.

In addition to spaces, tools like planners are invaluable. For some kids, the simple act of writing down assignments is enough.  Others might need slips of paper and notes reminding them what supplies they need to bring home to fulfill the assignments.

Time and timers are additional tools. I’ve found that most kids grossly underestimate the amount of time needed to complete assignments. Use a timer to compare estimated and actual times, or to say, “You have 7 minutes to complete this assignment.” For some reason, numbers other than ones that end in zero or five grab kids attention better.

My kids are telling me to end this post with, “See, that’s why homework really does suck!” But they all concede that we have a lot fewer tears, screams and tantrums these days when we are continuing our learning at home.

Image of father helping his daughter with homework courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.