Moms (and Dads) on a Mission: More from Plumsted, New Jersey

In The Case Against Homework, there are dozens of sample letters to teachers and administrators which you can use as a jumping off point (or copy verbatim) for your own letter to your child’s teacher. Today, I am posting a very lengthy letter by Diane Hewlett-Lowrie, whose comments and letters I have posted before, here and here and here.

The reason Diane’s letter is so lengthy is because she’s written several letters before and hasn’t yet received the kind of response she’d like. In this one, she touches on everything, from the importance of play, to “nature deficit disorder,” to obesity, to the lack of research showing a correlation between homework and academic achievement. If I had had this letter when I was writing The Case Against Homework, I would have included it.

And, don’t forget that today is First Monday.

Dear Teacher
by Diane Hewlett-Lowrie

Please let me say, first and foremost, I admire your dedication to teaching. As you know, I was a classroom teacher for a couple of years (one in second grade) and it was the hardest job I have ever had. [My son] enjoys being in your class and, so far, seems to like the Weekly News Report assignment. I would like to revisit the issue of homework with you and try to explain, as best I can, my reasons and rationales for desiring no homework for [my son] at this age. I know you are bound by certain rules, but maybe we could reach a compromise together.

I understand that, in the USA, homework has been viewed as a necessary part of the education process for many, many years and that it is expected that school kids will do homework – because everyone has always done homework. I was brought up in Scotland and I don’t remember getting homework (except reading and spelling words) until I went to High School (age 12) and even then I don’t remember it being a burden on my life. I went on from High School to complete one undergraduate (B.Sc.) and 2 graduate degrees (one, a Master of Arts in Environmental Studies, with a concentration in Education). I say this not to boast, but merely to illustrate that the lack of homework does not necessarily result in a poor student.


I have read many studies and books about homework. Harris Cooper of Duke University looked at all the research studies on the effects of homework, from 1987-2003. Dr Cooper is a proponent of homework, yet even he could not find a strong correlation between achievement and homework for young children. In his 2006 study, he states “For students in elementary school, the average correlation between amount of homework and achievement was nearly r = 0.” That indicates that there is no relationship between achievement (scores) and amount of homework for elementary school students.

More and more, we are hearing about the vital importance of “free, unstructured play” to a child’s overall development. Unstructured free play has been shown to improve coordination, stamina, critical thinking, imagination and problem-solving skills. Add to that the social and emotional skill development as kids are left to “figure things out” with their peers. In 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that “free and unstructured play is healthy and – in fact – essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.”

We are also hearing about “nature deficit disorder” – a condition described by Richard Louv in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods”. Nature deficit disorder is not a medical diagnosis; it is a way of explaining what can go wrong with our children when they experience life disconnected from nature. This generation of children is growing up “plugged into” a virtual world where they come face to face with nature only via a screen. Many 12-year-olds today, if left in a woods to “play” would not know what to do. They would not know how to play without an adult telling them the rules. They would not know how to climb trees, build forts, or stay away from poison ivy. It is outwith their realm of experiences. My son and many of his friends do not have “nature deficit disorder”. They know what to do outside; they have been exposed to a healthy and natural life of camping, hiking, playing in rock pools, swimming in lakes and being allowed to make up their own games in the yard.

For the first time in history, this generation of children has a shorter life expectancy than their parents – mostly due to obesity caused partly by inactivity (stuck at a computer screen?). There is a rise in rickets because of the lack of exposure to sunshine. It is expected that a high proportion of today’s teenagers will suffer greatly from osteoporosis in later life because of the lack of exposure to vitamin D required to lay down sufficient amounts of bone mass during their adolescent years.

To alleviate negative implications of a sedentary, indoor lifestyle, many child advocates are calling for parents to urge their children to get outside again! The National Wildlife Federation has a campaign to persuade the Surgeon General to issue a call to action to encourage children and their families, for the sake of their health, to spend one hour every day outside, playing in nature.

There is a growing international movement to get children outside and into nature. When we were in Scotland, we saw an amazing commercial on TV which showed a robot coming out of a house into the garden. Slowly, as the robot touched grass and worms, and felt rain and mud, he turned into a happy little boy. It was a commercial for clothes detergent; it was awesome! (You can see it at www.persil.com Go to “See our new TV Ad Campaign”.)

For all these reasons, and because recess seems to have shrunk to 10 minutes per day, when [my son] gets home at 5 o’clock, I want him to spend as much time outside as possible. We live on a dead-end street. [My son] and any number of 6 other children migrate outdoors with a variety of bikes, scooters, planks and ramps. When tired of bikes etc, they build forts, they invent games, play flashlight tag, search for bugs, shoot hoops and otherwise keep themselves quite busy. Parents watch from a distance. I see the enormous benefits of this type of activity to the health and development (social, physical, intellectual and emotional) of my son.

[My son] takes karate lessons two nights per week with an excellent instructor. He asked me why he was in karate and I told him “Self-discipline, self-confidence and self-defense”. In addition to those skills and physical exercise, he is learning to listen, follow instructions and be respectful to adults. Without giving up too much personal information, taking karate is helping [my son] in many, many ways and I do not want him to be forced to give it up because of the school’s demands on our time.

I also like to cook real meals and have dinner as a family around the table most nights of the week. (Frequent family sit-down dinners have been shown to improve communications between parents and children and help keep kids off drugs.)

But – oh my goodness! The pressure for us 2-parents-working-with-child-in-afterschool program to get everything we value accomplished in the 3.5 hours between getting home and bedtime is enormous! Sometimes I drive home quite happily, looking forward to seeing my family, thinking about what’s for dinner and suddenly the word “homework” pops into my head. Instantly, I deflate. It is depressing. Homework turns what can be a fun family night into a stressful one. (Please know that I try to keep my true feelings about homework from [my son].)

Last Thursday, we spent a total of 45 minutes on homework. Math = 15 minutes; Spelling words practice and memorization = 10 minutes; and, Word Works – reading the poem, and writing all the words = 20 minutes.

All this and we only managed a few minutes of real reading – the only kind of homework that has actually been proven to increase achievement in elementary school students – because [my son] was exhausted.

Schedule for Thursday:
8AM Leave for work and school. (… for 9 hours)
5:00 PM Get Home. Mum cooks. Dad cleans up a little. [Our son] plays outside.
5:30 PM Eat dinner
5:55 Start Homework (15minutes)
6:10 Leave for karate. Take spelling words to learn in the car on the way to karate.
(10 minutes)
8:00 Return home. Have bath.
8:25 Try to finish written homework
8:30 Supposed to be bedtime, but homework is not finished, so late for bed again.
8:45 Homework finished (20 minutes more)
Bed at last. [Our son] read one page. Dad read for ~ 15 minutes
9:00 Lights out

The latest research studies on how brains function indicate that our brains need “rest periods” to be able to absorb and process new information and commit it to memory. I think modern education tries to cram too much in there and doesn’t give enough time for assimilation. To learn better, our kids need to relax a little more … Doing homework may be counterproductive to a good day’s work at school!

My son’s best friend loved Kindergarten and first grade, but the second grade homework burden proved too much for him. His 20-minute assignment took about 2 hours to complete. He was tired when he got home from school and just needed to switch off, relax and rest his brain for another day. Homework burned him out. His family, tired of the homework wars, took him out of the public school system and are now in their second year of home schooling. I do not want the same thing to happen to [my son]. I want him to continue to want to learn…

Every night since [my son] was a baby, we have had a bedtime routine that includes taking a bath, followed by quiet reading, talking and singing songs. It is a nice, relaxing “down time” in an otherwise hectic world. We actually get a chance to chat about “life, the universe and everything.” That quality time is being eroded by the time it takes to complete homework. Although some say that homework time is parent/child time it is not good parent/child time. It is time fraught with frustration. It takes time and effort to pull a 7-year-old boy away from a physical activity he loves and needs to sit at table, switch his “school brain” back on, think up some sentences and write.

For all the reasons stated above, my first wish and desire is that we not be required to do any kind of schoolwork at home at all. My husband and I really do not like how much time it takes out of our night – about a quarter of the total time we have together as a family. I would prefer to spend that time reading. (On Monday, I wanted to take [my son] to the library, but we didn’t have time because we had to do the “Weekly News”.)

Failing that, I was wondering, however, if we might be able to work together to lighten the load and be able to follow the policies as set by the Board of Education.

The Plumsted Board of Education Policy states that:

* Article 3. b. – [Homework] Lessons should be geared to the needs and abilities of students. The amount of time should increase from 1st grade through 3rd grade from ten to thirty minutes [per night] several times a week [This puts 2nd grade at approx 20 minutes per night.]

If we absolutely must do homework, then I would like to try to work within these guidelines.

First, as you know, the most important aspect of learning for any child is reading. We would like [our son] to spend at least 15 minutes reading every night – either independently, out loud, or both. Currently, there’s very little time for that. (We do not want to couple this with writing book reports. One of the quickest ways to put kids off reading is to require them to write a report about the book!)

Secondly, in regards to gearing the homework “to the needs of the student”, as you know, [my son] has problems writing. It hurts his hands, he holds the pencil the wrong way, he is slow, and he forms some letters incorrectly (backwards, bottom to top, clockwise, etc). I would like to help him master some of the mechanics of writing. Professional tutoring this summer helped a little, but he is slow partly because he has to stop and think about every letter. I know the 2nd grade curriculum does not really concentrate on this aspect of writing, so I would like to be able to help him with that at home. I would like to spend 5-10 minutes, three times a week on this.

Third, as I am a scientist, I would love to be able to “do science” at home. I would love to be able to spend a night in the kitchen, once a week, doing science experiments, or cooking, or planting, or composting – or anything that is hands-on and investigative. I know with NCLB, there is little time for exploratory science or real experiments during school time. It is a shame because young children are natural scientists. They are so curious about their world and constantly want to know “What happens if …?”

If [my son] has to do all the homework currently required, however, there would be no time for the learning experiences I have described above – and have a wholesome and happy life!

Therefore, if “no homework” is not an option, I would like to request a reduction in the requirements for homework to stay within the approximately 20 minutes specified by the Board. I would like to request the following be temporarily suspended for now: Writing weekly words 3 times every Monday, writing the list of words in alphabetical order every Tuesday, and writing sentences for 8 words every Wednesday. Maybe after a couple of months, if [my son]’s writing improves and he manages to write quicker and with more ease, some of this homework could be eased back in (again, I’d be happier with none!).

In addition, I would like to request a rethink on the Weekly News report. It takes 40 – 45 minutes to complete and no 2nd grade student that I know of can complete it independently or in less time (I asked some parents). What about changing it to a monthly report? (For the first time, [my son] balked at doing his report tonight. It was a struggle, but he finally did it. I was stressed out by the end and he was not happy either).

Both you and [the principal] told me at the beginning of the year to give it a try, and we did. Now that we’ve given tried for almost 4 weeks, I’d like to move to the next step. I have tried to rationally explain my feelings and my reasons for not wanting to do schoolwork at home. I have tried to back them up with reason and with scientific evidence. At this time, I would be really grateful if you could accommodate any of my requests (no homework, reduced amounts of homework to fit into the 20 minutes a night as per the BOE policy, and/or modified homework to suit the student’s needs). I would be willing to come into the school and discuss this with you and [the principal] if you’d like.

I thank you for listening and look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Diane Hewlett-Lowrie
CC [Principal]

10 Comments on “Moms (and Dads) on a Mission: More from Plumsted, New Jersey”

  1. HomeworkBlues says:

    Diane, EXCELLENT well crafted letter. What sort of non-response have you gotten thus far?

    Please keep us posted.

    October 6th, 2008 at 10:30 am
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  2. Anonymous says:

    Diane, this is an excellent letter and you make several valid points — but tell us all, is your son in school from 8 until 5? I find that part to be really terrible. I would expect a second-grader to be in school no later than 3:30 (3, really) if he started at 8 a.m. In addition, the hours of daylight are quickly waning — if he’s out of school between 3 and 4, I would hope that he’s getting outside then, right after school, and staying outside.

    October 7th, 2008 at 2:13 pm
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  3. Diane says:

    Anonymous – My son is in the afterschool program from 3:45 – 5PM because both parents have to work. They can do their homework there, but I rather he went outside to play with his friends after sitting in the class all day. Besides, he can’t do some of his homework there because it includes parental involvement or research studies.

    Did you know that afterschool programs are becoming more academic – to support the curriculum and standards of the school? The day that my son has math class in afterschool is the day I figure something out to get him home right after school! Luckily, the NJ after-school organization (NJ School-age Care Cooalition) has adopted a “Get Outdoors” theme to their programs.

    October 9th, 2008 at 2:08 pm
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  4. Cathy G. says:

    Diane,

    What a well-written letter. You spoke my heart. My kids are now in 6th and 8th grade, and in advanced/gifted classes to boot. Their school system is excellent and we feel blessed to be a part of it (it’s a lottery school w/ a seamless K-12 experience) HOWEVER I feel that homework has robbed them of part of their childhood, as they are both beginning puberty and the teen years.

    We have actually given up music lessons so that the kids can “keep up w/ school and ONE OTHER activity” and they both choose sports. My daughter loves theater and music as well, but her “gifted” homework and love of softball trumps choice of free time for the arts…isn’t that disgusting?!

    Diane, please, what was the response from your teacher and principal??

    October 15th, 2008 at 2:15 pm
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  5. Sarah says:

    Wow. Excellent points made by all. Let me tell you that if this child stays where he is, he will end up like me: there will be gradually more and more homework every year until he has about five to six hours’ worth daily in high school. I am so glad he has a concerned parent who knows what she’s doing–my parents tried to help, too, but there were hardly any resources available to them and I had been conditioned by the system to resist any efforts they made towards getting me to do less homework. I hated it, but I was taught I had to do it.

    October 19th, 2008 at 6:10 pm
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  6. Anonymous says:

    Hi,

    We moved to US hardly 7 months back and currently my daughter is studying in 5th Grade in West Windsor School District.

    She takes average 5-6 hours of time to complete her home work. With this she is not getting any time to study and hardly has 6 hours of sleep every day. Not sure how long a 10 year old kid can take this….

    I mentioned to the teacher during the last meeting but no major help was offered. I called up couple of parents, all has the same concerns

    Is this normal here? what are the options to improve this situation? Will this be a specific teachers way of teaching? If I raise this concern to the teacher will it affect the credits to the kid.

    She was an excellent student back home….

    Appreciate your valuable comments.

    Regards,

    December 4th, 2008 at 2:18 am
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  7. Sara Bennett says:

    Anonymous: 5-6 hours of homework for a 10-year-old (let alone any student) is not normal and I’m glad to hear that you’ve already talked to the teacher about it and also contacted other parents. Since the teacher didn’t provide you with any help, I suggest that you, and a few of the other concerned parents, together go back to the teacher to discuss the problem. I would suggest you all meet with the principal as well. And, at the same time, I suggest that you immediately put a limit on how much time your daughter spends on homework. Have her stop after what you consider to be a reasonable amount of time and write a note to the teacher telling her why you did that.

    And, by the way, if you haven’t read The Case Against Homework, I suggest you do. Not only will you find out that homework in elementary school has no correlation to academic achievement, but you’ll read lots of suggestions for ways to combat the problem.

    Good luck and let me know what happens.

    December 5th, 2008 at 10:55 am
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  8. mom says:

    THIS IS GREAT BUT I THINK YOU SHOULD TAKE YOUR CHILD OUT OF SCHOOL TO GO TO A DIFFERENT SCHOOL BECAUSE THAT IS TO MUCH HOMEWORK FOR A KID IN SECOND GRADE

    March 25th, 2009 at 11:53 pm
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  9. Anonymous says:

    omg wow ur son haz 2 much hwk i onli hav 1 hour or evun lezz hwk a nyt sum daiiiz i dont evun hav hwk buh i fink datz 2 much cuz im duin 2 gsces 2 yeerz erli omg

    September 14th, 2011 at 12:14 pm
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  10. shauna costello says:

    i have had it with homework …I am a single mom , I work a night shift, homework gets halfway done until I get home and then another hour , we dont get to bed until midnight most nights and up again at 6am….this is killing any family time we actually do get to spend together its more like a war than a home life

    February 24th, 2015 at 10:59 pm
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