Guest Blogger: A Father’s Lament

Today’s guest blogger is John Painter, the editor of readingtonparents.org. On that web site, you’ll find interesting articles on a variety of topics, including: scripted learning, cheating, and homework. You’ll also find a pretty decent homework policy from the Readington, New Jersey, School District. Here, the father of two describes the all-too-familiar trials of a family immersed in homework hell.

A Father’s Lament
by John Painter

It is 6:30pm this Tuesday night, and we are knee deep in homework. My wife, a teacher, is helping my fourth grade daughter with her assignments while I help our sixth grade son with his. The glasses and serving dishes from dinner are piled up in the sink, although we have moved to paper plates as a way to save time. The kids are 11 ½ hours away from starting another school day, and my wife and I are an hour less than that away from our respective Wednesday workdays. Without our direct involvement in this homework, our kids will get “stuck� at some point. Sometimes the reason is because the material has not been covered well or at all in class, and frequently it is because the assignment is unclear.

My fourth grade daughter is mispronouncing the word “tranquility� as she attempts for the umpteenth time to recite the preamble to the US Constitution. I’m trying to focus on my son’s homework, but my blood is boiling and I’m having trouble staying focused. The assignment for my daughter is to memorize the preamble and to recite it publicly in class. There are so many facets to the wrong-headedness of this assignment that I struggle to contain them in some reasonably organized criticism.

It isn’t as though we are not patriotic. I spent time in the US Navy, and my father will always be a US Marine. My mother and grandmother were active in the Daughters of the American Revolution and my daughter can trace both sides of her family tree on this fertile soil back before any federal American government even existed. As a youth I was taught by my grandmother to stand with my hand over my heart each time an American flag passed by in a parade. My children feel the same stirrings. We usually watch the movie form of the play “1776� each year around the fourth of July, and my daughter can tell you a thing or two about John Adams.

My back is up not because I don’t think the preamble is worthy of study, but because I don’t think my daughter is learning anything about the ideas, the principles or the sacrifice behind the words she is memorizing on this Tuesday night. And, that is not all.

This assignment will take up time each night for about two weeks. It is the worst of instructional practice rolled up into one. It stresses rote memory over authentic understanding. There is no attempt by the teacher to help my daughter or her classmates to relate to these words or to understand the import of the ideas. That, apparently, will be up to me if I see such I need. And I do. Yet, if I am now to undertake some form of impromptu home schooling on this subject, I have been placed at a disadvantage before I start. My daughter has already been shown by this example that history and these words are the dry and distant rant of a faded people and that perfect recitation is more important than figuring out what “tranquility� or “posterity� means. After spending the time examining cue cards made up by my wife, replaying the meaningless words in her head before bedtime, and stressing about how she will perform in class—how much appetite will she have for my private lessons? Why must I be put in this position in the first place?

And that brings us to another facet of this tragedy: the public recitation. Some children are very good at memorizing meaningless words, but others are not so good. When the time comes to recite this preamble in class, some will beam at what is evidently the vigor of their brilliant minds and some will be crushed at their failure to perform. Both will have been a victim of a disservice by the teacher, since memorization skills are not evidence of brilliance and a fear of public speaking is not evidence of failure. I wonder out loud to my wife if we have been magically transported back to yesteryear when rote memory, recitation and “jug to mug� teaching was the norm. If I open my daughter’s backpack will I discover a slate and some chalk?

Oh, and by the way, this is not my daughter’s only assignment this Tuesday night. She has spelling to study, which consists of several workbook pages from a nationally marketed program. The workbook has exercises to find spelling words in word puzzles and to draw lines between word definitions and the spelling words. I notice as she solves the puzzles and writes in the spelling words in the provided lines she spells some of the words incorrectly. Mind you, the spelling words are right there on the page for her to copy, but she is so distracted by the word games and other fluff, that she misses the point: learning how to spell or how to recognize misspellings.

Next up is math homework on this Tuesday night. Again, the homework consists of workbook pages from a nationally marketed math program, this one called “Everyday Math� which is a form of the so-called “Chicago� math program. My daughter is frantic now; glancing at the clock and heaving her little chest with big gulps of air that eventually escape her lungs like rats from a sinking ship. This program is supposed to bring lots of options to the table so that kids can use the method with which they are most comfortable to solve a problem. In practice, the program merely confuses students, in no small part because the adult teachers and parents teaching the program find the methods clumsy and time consuming, which they are.

One night this week, my daughter crossed over frantic into meltdown. While my wife switched to homework duty with my son, I sat down at the kitchen table with my daughter in an attempt to shut down the reactor before the damage took out the core. As the pitch of her voice became higher and the tears began to flow, I reached for the last safety button available to me as a parent. We will cheat. I put my hand on her shoulders and assured her—over a backing chorus of “yeah, but…!�—that I would help her get through this homework. As subtly as I can, I scan the monotonous workbook pages and begin to “suggest� answers. In rapid fire succession we move from problem to problem, with my pointed hints the fulcrum for the next problem. The meltdown averted, she closes the workbook and moves on to practicing the preamble and to her assigned reading.

The 1999 census figures for my township in New Jersey show a median household income of $95K and the 2003 figures for my county show a median household income of $84K. I live in an area that is among the most expensive and the wealthiest in the country. Our schools are funded through property taxes. My fairly typical four bedroom house is taxed at about $11K each year and the bulk of that money goes to our school system. I point this out because it seems to me that if a school system like ours with all the advantages of wealth, of involved and college educated parents, and of access to the best available pool of educators cannot figure out how make homework useful or productive: maybe we have a bigger problem here.

It is now about 9:30pm on Tuesday night and our kids are in bed. My daughter has collapsed into a fitful sleep but my son is reading in bed, trying to keep up with his reading assignments. He doesn’t enjoy the assigned books or find them relevant to his life or his interests, but nobody asked him or his classmates. This assigned reading doesn’t count against his reading quota, either. He must read certain hundreds of pages in a certain period and he is graded on that goal. His teacher doesn’t care if he is reading “Dick and Jane� or Edgar Alan Poe. The content makes no difference in the quota system, only the page count. Parents regularly cheat by signing off on false page counts. Instead, we tell our son that we don’t care what his grades are as long as he enjoys what he reads and truly understands it.

My wife and I, released from homework duty, finally have time to do what we need to do this night. My wife, the teacher, readies her plans for the next day and cleans up the dishes. We talk about the homework but I know not to push too hard. As a caring teacher caught in a distorted school system, she is a stranger in a strange land and she doesn’t like to be reminded how poorly our children and their peers are being served by this system. All she can do is close her classroom door each day and become a buffer between her students and the stupidity in the school building.

As a contractor and small business owner, I have spent a long day using my hands to build character into the homes of my clients and now I need to handle the accounting and the designing for the next day. I descend into our basement office, bleary eyed and exhausted from the day. At around 5:00am the next morning I will awaken before the alarm and start to think about the most appropriate moldings, about cash-flow, and about how I will ever help my two children thrive in a system stacked against authentic learning and healthy development. The moldings and the cash flow I can handle.

4 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: A Father’s Lament

  1. Wow, John, I feel like a really read an earful. I think I will really be looking at homework more carefully. Of course the only way I see it today is through the eyes of a sub just passing on the assignment. I try to ask if there are any questions before the students leave the school, but I strongly doubt if any of them really look over the work until they actually start the assignment.

    I do remember studying with my own kids for tests back in the stone age and occasional complaints of too much homework. I had one over-achiever, one under-achiever, and the last somewhere between. As for rote memorization, I think there are times when it is beneficial. I still recall some of the things I memorized as well as some memorized by my kids. I do agree with you that it is not for every student. Is the entire class memorizing the same thing?

    Just an aside, they don’t use slates today, they’re white boards and markers!! 🙂

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  2. Read alfie Kohn’s book, The Homework Myth (or Myth of Homework). Check out his website alfiekohn.com.

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  3. I wish our family could move to your school system. We have the very opposite. I would like to remind you that all your time will pay off in the end. You will look back and be thankful of all the time you got to spend with your children.

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  4. No Sandy, they won’t.

    All the great things my teachers predicted their pressure would make happen in the future, it in fact destroyed any chance of happening. Nothing but wreckage was left at the end of this criminal abuse.

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