From My Mailbox: Letter From an Eighth Grade Teacher Requesting Help

The other day I received the following email from a teacher in a private school in Toronto, Canada.

Teachers: She’s really looking for advice and support from you, so please help her out by posting a comment.

Dear Sara,
As a veteran English teacher, I totally concur with your views about homework. I do not assign daily homework, only longer term projects in which there is student choice and which serve as extensions to the curriculum – endeavors designed to take them out of the classroom and apply skills and knowledge.

So here’s the problem. Parents in our school are demanding more homework. Our principal is leaning on us to assign more homework, according to the ridiculous formula of 10 minutes per grade level, i.e. grade 8 should be doing 80 minutes per night. It’s like these kids have to be putting in a set amount of time chained to their desks. By the way, our school runs from 8:45 to 4:10 – a very long day.

I refuse to assign hateful content questions and word lists to fill this arbitrary homework quota.

Monday on our curriculum night, when I do my spiel before the parents, I am ready to try to educate them on the homework issue. Any ideas?

10 thoughts on “From My Mailbox: Letter From an Eighth Grade Teacher Requesting Help

  1. Hi Sara and the teacher from Toronto,
    After reading your letter here are some ideas I can come up with off the top of my head:
    First, the nightly homework amount is, of course, a guideline for planning purposes, and ( I teach eighth grade English as well) the eighty minutes (we have 90 in our handbook) is for all the subjects combined. When you think about it, that is not that much work assigned. My students have about eight subjects. It should not fall all on you.
    You could also cite all sorts of recent data which shows how rote work assigned just for the sake of reaching that arbitary number does not help but rather hurts children. Sara has a great article on her website illustrating some changes, I believe, China has been making. Assign these articles and books as homework for your parents and administrators!
    I do think some work outside the home is essential for students approaching high school as they get ready for college. Like you, I assign long term reading and writing projects, creative, independent study options, etc. Spread out, it probably does come out to the twenty minutes or so nightly. The rest of the eighty is not your responsibility. Most of the time I find when parents complain that their children do not have enough homework it is because social studies, the languages, science etc. give barely any, and math and English teachers bear the brunt of this pressure.
    The most important reason I can think of centers around reading. When parents/administrators complain you do not give enough homework, ask them how much time do their children (AND themselves) spend on reading for pleasure. THAT is what will enable us all to succeed in life. Let them all know that part of your SCHOOL’s (not your) focus is that all students spend at least thirty of that eighty minutes reading for pleasure-as the parents read alongside them. I just gave a keynote address to my district on the opening day of school and one of my major points was that schools need to make promotion of literacy their number one initiative and that it cannot fall on just the English/language arts teachers. It was very well received.
    Hope that helps!
    Pam Kendrick
    Connecticut

    PS Sara: I am working on that book list for you. Yes, I am a district teacher of the year and am competing for the state next.

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  2. My district has the 10 minutes/grade allotment also. I teach 4th grade. I do assign homework to keep my job :), but I stick to the low end of the 40 minutes and let the kids start their work in class if they’re finished with everything else. 20 minutes of the homework time is to be spent reading for pleasure.

    There are always the parents who think their kids should be chained to their desks. I make my anti-homework stance and the reasons behind it clear at back-to-school night, but I also put in a sheet of “homework enrichment” activities that they can have their kids do in case they don’t feel I’m giving enough homework.

    I get far fewer complaints than the teachers who give a lot of work.

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  3. I think that the issues that are being raised are critical for all teachers to think about. I have a couple of thoughts:
    1. As an English teacher I used free reading as my homework assignments. Asking kids to read for the “required” homework time seemed the least intrusive and the most beneficial for building readers. It also seemed to meet the parents demands and the school policy.
    2. The larger questions of whether the district policy on homework is viable is ofcourse the more important question. I encourage teachers to call for workshops and community forums on homework as a way to begin the conversation. That conversation has to include parents as well as teachers, since as you see, it is often the parents who need to be educated on the problems of homework. There is a Canadian educator, Vera at http://www.readingwings.com who has just published a book on homework and who knows the Canadian issues. She would be good to contact to get started on the larger conversation. Best of luck!

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  4. I agree with the previous comments. I’m a school psychologist in NJ and a parent of three daughters. If you could encourage the parents to spend 20-30 minutes most nights reading anything- novels, the newspaper, comic books- that they enjoy, while sitting next to their reading children, you’d be doing more for their literacy than any assigned homework. Weekly trips to the library would be great, too. If children see that their parents value and enjoy reading, and talk with pleasure about their experiences, they are more likely to sign on.

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  5. Hello Pam and Sara,

    Holy Cow is this exciting that Parents want to discuss homework! The reality is that parents do not love homework–they love the idea of helping their students to succeed. They think homework does this when it does not. With a discussion on homework, we can share the research on what homework REALLY does…ruin attitude, increase stress, promote “others” assisting with homework. What parents want is strategies they need to support their kids.

    Their demands for an answer on more homework allows us to share best practice. Whatever the forum, I would ask for the following homework from THEM…be prepared to share:
    – One brilliant thinker who cited homework for their insights
    – One CEO, President, Nobel Prize Winner, inventor, writer, producer, or successful person who cites homework for their success
    – The meta-analysis that shows any academic success connected to homework

    Parents need to know research on the effects of too much work on students, their attitudes and ABSENTEEISM (see Dr. Alfie Kohn http://www.alfiekohn.com)
    I would share the research that shows playing outside increases their ability to focus for longer periods of time
    I would share the research that shows that vigorous playing before or after a learning task increases retention (Ratey, 2006; Cahill 2004)
    I would share the research that shows that the specials (art, music, P.E. and drama) will increase life-long success: academic and quality of life.

    Parents are looking to improve their children’s academic and long term success. Send THEM off with homework–A homemade dinner with the family every night, outside playtime, early bedtime, VERY limited television and computer time, and family reading time! They will never look back at the worksheets, they will be thankful for the new low levels of stress after work. My feedback has been that parents communicate the thanks for the new atmosphere and family interaction.

    Good Luck!

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  6. Alas, I am not a teacher. Perhaps I can offer some useful thoughts though. The previous poster’s idea of assigning parallel reading time with parents is solid, and it can be taken another step.

    Over this past summer I reinitiated reading out loud to my eleven and thirteen year old children just as we did when they were much younger. Sure, at first they balked and thought it babyish. Yet, I was so concerned about the poor quality of reading material they would tackle on their own or in school, I wanted to expose them to better works. We went through Call of The Wild and My Brother Sam is Dead without too much fuss. When we got to a new book by Richard Peck called On the Wings of Heroes, I found pay dirt. Here was a novel that was engaging and humorous for my kids–and yet, because of the alien subject matter of childhood experience in America circa WWII, it actually required adult guidance to help them understand the significance of ration coupons, blackouts, collecting metal and rubber, and the like.

    I daresay eighth grade is not too old for family read-aloud sessions, and you might do well to assign such a thing to your students. If nothing else, it would temper parental demands for more homework if they are involved too!

    One more thing. Oftentimes metaphors and comparisons can help bring a point home more effectively than facts and figures. Consider this one.

    In competition archery, students are often advised against practicing too much. Crazy? Here is a sport which requires a fluid familiarity with form, and a perfect, repeatable performance for every shot. One might think that endless practice is necessary to advance. However, the experts know that quality practice means that each shot must be a study in concentration, mental acuity, and solid physical form. When practice has gone on too long, concentration suffers and form is degraded. This has the opposite effect of quality practice–it reinforces bad habits and poor form. Performance suffers.

    In other sports and in music this same principle applies too. Time to recoup and restore the body and mind is necessary in many areas. Drummer-great Buddy Rich claimed never to practice! That may be extreme, but the fact remains that too much practice–like too much homework–can reinforce bad habits, can turn-off young students to the subject, and can have the opposite effect generally desired of practice. Homework is best if it is of high caliber and if it is of a duration which does not tax the concentration of a young student at the end of a long day.

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  7. Dear Teacher in Toronto

    I have great difficulty with the 10 minute formula.

    One thing I do is to point out that students who board buses at 7:00 am and get home at 4:00 pm, which is the case for many of them, have already dedicated nine hours of their day to school. Adults expect to work an eight hour day and, with few exceptions, do not take their work home with them. Why, in the name of all that’s reasonable, should we ask students to put in longer than eight hours a day at their job, which is school? And believe me, school is work.

    In Jr. & Sr. high kids have many different teachers. If no control is made on how much each teacher assigns and no estimate of the time it will take to do the work is computed, students often have to do more than eighty minutes to meet everyone’s expectations. Not all work at the same speed, nor do all know how to do the assignment or have parents able to help. There is nothing as unequal as the equal treatment of unequals. Assigned homework assumes that all students have ideal conditions and the necessary abilities to get the work done.

    Taking an hour and a half out of anyone’s evening (and it’s 2 hours in grade twelve) is an unreasonable invasion of private time. Just because students grow older doesn’t mean they require less time to do the things they like to do. In fact, I think the opposite is true. Adolescents have friendships, hobbies, sports, part time jobs and a multitude of other things they should be free to do in their out-of-school hours. Parents, too, should have time to pursue the things they think are important for their children to learn and do that are not part of school curriculum.

    I could say much more but this is getting too long. If you want to contact me directly, Sara will provide my e-mail address or phone number and I would be pleased to talk to you. I have published the only book in Canada that I know of, dealing with this subject. I go into detail on this issue in my book.

    Vera Goodman, author of Simply Too Much Homework! What Can We Do?

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  8. It sounds as if you have already received some excellent advice. As I sit to write this, what I want to say is quite simple. Thank you. Given your care and attention to your students, you will most likely be one of those special teachers that is long remembered. I applaud not only your courage and your conviction but also your consideration of your students and their families.

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  9. Dear Teacher and Sara,

    I would like to leave just a brief comment. After reading the above comments, there is not much to add. I am a 7th grade student at a private grade school. Our handbook suggests approximately 2.5 hours of homework for 7th graders. However, what with hordes of long term assignments and History Day, it normally takes more like 4 hours. The parents at school are constantly fighting for less homework. I actually embrace more homework because I know it is preparing me for high school, college, and beyond. Our Upper Grade Head hands out Homework Logs to my class. Each night we log in our minutes for each of our eight subjects as well as record any distractions, issues, et cetera. The Homework Log serves two purposes: to see what subjects take us students longer, and to appease the parents. I would suggest the same for your students. Some may take well above 80 minutes to do their homework while the others may vary. If you need to assign more homework, a simple reading assignment is always light and enjoyable. In the mean time, if you make it known to the parents that you are dedicated to their children and wish them the best, than they will probably not berate you.

    Good Luck!! CA Student

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