First Monday (Advocacy is an Ongoing Process)

This coming Monday, November 2, is the first Monday of the month. As I suggest every month in this blog, I hope you’ll send a note expressing your thoughts about homework to your children’s teachers or, perhaps, to a school administrator or School Board member. Even better, join with a few friends and send a collective note. Ask for a public discussion of the problem. Ask the school to be responsive. If you need help in formulating a note, look in The Case Against Homework for some examples, or see the kinds of notes parents have been writing by browsing Moms (and Dads) on a Mission on this blog. If you do send a note, please post a comment and send me a copy of your letter. And if you get a response from the teacher or school, please let us know that as well.

Or, take inspiration from Kerry Dickinson, a parent from Danville, California, who successfully changed homework policy in her community and is still advocating on her children’s behalf. Here’s what she did recently:

Advocacy is an Ongoing Process
by Kerry Dickinson

This year after Back to School night at both the middle and high schools my boys attend, I sent each of their teachers an email. In the email I said I had just read a really interesting book called “Rethinking Homework” by Cathy Vatterott and I had some extra copies I’d like to share with anyone interested.

To my surprise I got a few emails back right away from teachers at both schools saying “sure, I’d like to borrow the book.” Well, just last week I got a nice letter back from my 10th grader’s geometry teacher. I received permission from him to reprint it:

Hi Kerry,

Thanks for the loan of the book. It generated much “rethinking” at lunch in the math dept. While many of us were initially skeptical about a new homework paradigm, we found ourselves agreeing with much of the book. We are opposed to “busy work” and grading homework for accuracy. I hope that my assignments are appropriate, both as regards length of time and amount of practice. In Calculus, I think it appropriate to give homework no weight, but in my classes, I need to reward the effort – about 10-15% seems right.

I feel bad when I see my students losing sleep to do projects of questionable value, and pledge that I will never do this. Sometimes, if I must spend more time on questions than I planned, or there is a short period for some forgotten reason, I may give more homework than you feel appropriate. If so, I apologize.

Thanks again

This particular teacher has been teaching at the high school for over 20 years. I was pleasantly surprised (and told my son so) that he was open to reading a book on homework and took the next step by sharing and discussing it with his colleagues.

My son hasn’t complained about his math homework this year, he just accepts it as a fact of life, but there have been years that math has been a real struggle for him. Even so, I think it always encouraging when a teacher (especially one who has been teaching for so long) is willing to re-think the homework he/she is assigning.

So what did I do after I received his letter? I emailed the principal letting him know how pleased I was that this teacher took the time to read and think about this book. I also sent another book to school with my son for the same teacher. This one is called “The Mathematician’s Lament.” It discusses how we kill the love of math by teaching it the way we do. It also gives suggestions for ways to teach it better.

(You can read more about what Kerry does and thinks on her excellent blog, eastbayhomework.blogspot).

26 thoughts on “First Monday (Advocacy is an Ongoing Process)

  1. Thanks for the push! I’ve just sent an email to my 4th grader’s teacher that we’ll not be participating in her book report projects this year, and instead, my daughter will do her reading through the online program that the District is offering. She responds better to that, and I’m done fighting.
    Instead of asking the teacher if this is what we can do, since she made it clear at the Back to School Night that the book reports are not optional, I just stated that this is what we’re doing and that we understand her grades might be affected. I’d been putting off talking to her about this because of that, so I just simply told her. I’ll keep you posted on her response!

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  2. Wow, that’s really cool. Doesn’t it feel better to take this active stance? No one can accuse you of being a disengaged parent. Because you choose a different path for your daughter than the prescribed one, doesn’t make the teacher wrong either (but she’s not likely to see it that way)..it just means that her prescription doesn’t work for your child or you.

    Do keep us informed on how it goes.

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  3. Hi April- Good for you! I sometimes think teachers and the prinicpal push so hard for total compliance because they know just one non-compliant student (and mother) will gather steam and start a revolution. The students’ classmates will tell their mothers, “So and So didn’t do his reading project.” Mom X will talk to Mom Y and find out there weren’t any serious repercussions. Before you know it, a revolt is in the works!

    My daugher just finished a reading report and poster on a dull mystery book assigned. The kids are all giving presentations (but can’t give away the endings or they fail!). Think of all the time it takes for 20 odd kids to give presentations. Teacher doesn’t do much during this time but passively listen (less taxing).

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  4. What a waste of time for the class to sit through all those poster presentations…and I continue to be amazed about the school your kids attend Disillusioned. They fail the project if they give away the ending? How stupid is that? Give it away to whom? They all read the book???????

    Oh I get it…….they’re supposed to create some marvel of a poster that entices Hollywood producers to buy the rights to this book and turn it into a blockbuster film!!!

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  5. PsychMom- Very funny! The directions for the presentation read, “Pleae speak in a loud clear voice. Maintain eye contact with other students. Do not give away the ending of the book and most of all have fun! I always chuckle at the irony in these directions. My daughter is in third grade. Most adults hate public speaking and wouldn’t find this assignment fun.

    Thanks for letting me vent.

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  6. Sadly, my 10th grade daughter just finished a “character in a can project.” Busy work from beginning to end, but still time consuming. She would have much preferred writing an essay. I talked to the teacher about his work at parent/teacher conferences and I sent a note to the principal about the quality of assignments.

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  7. Sara- On a serious note. I know plenty of mothers who have tried to engage the teachers and principal in discussion re: the quaility of the take home projects. They all get stonewalled. The principal is imperious and runs the school as her own public military school. During conversation, she will casually mention what good friends she is with the superindendent and school board.

    Because the test scores are so high, the administration backs her. Most parents are intimidated and fear retribution to their children.

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  8. To Disillusioned….
    Sounds the same as the teacher asking for Volunteers…..You, you and you.

    In 1965, there were the kids who couldn’t speak in front of the class without dying. Has the teaching profession not figured out the way YET to help kids feel confident in public speaking?

    I was totally shy as a kid but what brought me out was a teacher who told me I was an excellent writer and that I should read what I wrote, to the class. It was more the encouragement that I was good at writing that worked…it had nothing to do with speaking in front of the group. That confidence came all much later.

    Now, they need a hook to get me off the stage….shut up already!

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  9. Here’s a chilling thought. The young man who went berserk and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech last year, and then took his own life, was a former student in my county’s school system. Reports began surfacing that the boy had trouble with public speaking (duh, he was selectively mute) and would freeze when called upon.

    It’s been reported from fellow classmates and others, including his parents, that teachers ridiculed him publicly when he could not mouth the words to perform the presentation. He was humiliated, embarrassed in front of his peers. Not the best tack for a kid who is socially isolated and unable to make friends easily.

    I’m not pointing this out to somehow suggest (heaven forfend) that your children will be so scarred by the experience that they will some day let loose and gun down entire classrooms. Please, of course not.

    But there’s a lesson to be learned here. There are so many children who dread public speaking. My child was one of them. Don’t get me started on the ENORMOUS classroom time wasted on these presentations. My daughter reported that the teacher often didn’t even listen, after scolding one boy for reading, and spent spent the entire time checking and responding to emails.

    What a deal. The teacher wasted days and days on these presentations the kids had stayed up half the night for (yes, even in elementary) and during those periods, did not have to teach.Imagine how my child felt. She’d slaved over this mega-project, giving up whole weekends. She sweated through this oral presentation; prepping, timing, making note cards. Then she’s called upon, usually last, the kids bored and hyper by now, she timidly walks up, swawllows hard, begins speaking softly, looks to the side, and sees her teacher deep into her computer screen.

    The worst part was being graded on those oral presentations. My daughter would work so hard on these projects. They were multi-piece assignments, encompassing a report, dreaded outline, drawings, either a diaorama or poster and a prepared oral report with notes. My daughter would do a beautiful thorough job but froze during these oral moments. The teacher at parent-teacher conference (and she was a nice one) told me she would downgrade my daughter so she’d have something to aspire to. But my daughter is shy, more so then than now and a poor oral grade was not going to turn her into Bill Clinton.

    Surely there must be some other way to help kids who lack confidence. How about just leave them alone and let them blossom at their own timetable?

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  10. PsychMom, to prove your point, that shy 6th grade kid who would rather have been swallowed up by the floor than have to get up in front of 32 kids, ran for office this summer. Without prodding, she wrote an impassioned elegant speech. ADD – now you see it, now you don’t. Didn’t see it on that one; she focused and wrote and wrote and wrote, I couldn’t get her to stop.

    She’s still shy. She got up, read from her sheet, looked up and delivered an amazing speech.

    What’s this obsession with leadership and public speaking in elementary? I’m not saying don’t give the kids a turn, keep them from reading aloud? But these endless presentations, all year long, that turn into no more than one big popularity contest, I see big problems with it, all around. From time wasters to putting undue pressure on children.

    Reading a report allowed is one thing. Asking the kid to speak extemporaneously, using only notes as a guide as she attempts to persuade her peers; this just might be too much too soon for too many kids.

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  11. HomeworkBlues- Agreed. Fortunately, my daughter’s confidence re: public speaking far exceeds her skills. I was working in the classroom when some of these oral presentations were given. During a presentation, one of the eight year old girls started to cry and the teacher told her she had to go to the principal!

    Again, I am just confounded at how many of the parents think these nutty oral presentations are confidence building. The surreal culture at my daughter’s elementary school always stuns me. I sometimes think it is so insular that everyone has lost touch with the outside world!

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  12. Disillusioned writes: “During a presentation, one of the eight year old girls started to cry and the teacher told her she had to go to the principal!”

    So she was punished for becoming anxious about public speaking? Oral presentation is not an academic skill and should not be graded or such.

    When Cho mowed down all those students at VA Tech, word began surfacing about his school experience. Students began recounting an abusive middle school teacher. The school denied it but students, on condition of anonymity began speaking up, what they witnessed occurred.

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  13. And now I am correcting my corrections. “Should not be GRADED as such.”

    As said, my eyes hurt today, they are stinging. I’d better stop while I’m still ahead. If that. :).

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  14. HomeworkBlues- Agreed the kids should not be graded on oral presentation but they are. I often wonder about the “cruel to be kind” personality types that gravitate towards teaching in elementary school. Also, many seem to truly believe the platitudes re” “something to aspire to” etc.

    I really enjoy children and love to see them learn but I honestly don’t think I could give an eight year old an F on a paper and feel o.k. with it. It seems as if many teachers are proud of being mean spirited to children.

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  15. Disillusioned, I am really glad you jumped on board this ship. You have such insightful and intelligent thoughts. The same of course goes to FedUpMom and PsychMom, and kudos to all the others who contribute here as well.

    We have scratched the surface here in a way I don’t quite see on other educational blogs. And FedUp, we travel in the same circles. I’m a fan of Kitchen Table Math too.

    We first came together to lament the burgeoning homework load and progressed to analyzing teachers and the motives behind some of this madness. And we should continue to lament useless homework. Anger stirs people, complacency doesn’t move a thing.

    Disillusioned, I too am disturbed by some teacher behavior. We know there are good teachers but there seem to be too many incompetent ones. I’ll leave you with this. When I homeschooled, parents began to detail their reasons for leaving public school. Some parents kept saying over and over, yes, there were bullies in school. But the worst ones by far were the teachers.

    It is a seriously unexamined problem. And because of tenure and protection from the higher ups, who in a match up, will always take their side against yours, you have the luck of the draw.

    But you don’t have to take it sitting down. The key game plan is finding ways to put your foot down and make your child come first. Protect her first. You will see this teacher for the rest of the year. The fallout will last long after as FedUp quotes, your child is a fading yearbook photo.

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  16. Character in a Can–Choose a character from the book (Frankenstein). Draw a picture of your character and cover the can with the picture. Inside the can, put 10 slips of paper with quotes from the book which show something about your character. Draw pictures of 5 objects that symbolize your character. (The last time my daughter had a project like this was in first grade.)

    Believe it or not, doing a project like this can be as time consuming, or even more time consuming, than writing an essay.

    Personally, I’d rather the teacher assigned the kids an essay and then gave them time in class to work on it. He could even show them how to write an essay! That way, when the kids got to grad school (where I used to teach legal writing and analysis), I wouldn’t have had to teach them the basics.

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  17. Sara, you’re kidding, right? And this is tenth grade. Oh, boy. I agree on the essay thing. That was exactly my point earlier. Work on writing. And do it in class. Far more useful skill than dropping quotes into a can. Really?

    I will say this. My daughter never gets assigned that kind of stuff. She does get plenty essays, though. I only wish they did them at school.

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  18. HomeworkBlues- Thank you for your kind words. At affluent schools, I think there is alot that plays itself out that doesn’t have much to do with the kids. There are undercurrents of envy and jealousy between the “working class mom” teachers and the pampered stay-at-home mothers. I know in one of your earlier posts you touched on each group manipulating the other which I think is true.
    I know many stay-at-home mothers who left work before they could have a sense of accomplishment or esteem from their careers. They are constantly complaining about the teachers and the other mothers but never leave the school scene behind because they need to have a sense of belonging to some sort of group. On the other hand, a sense of “pride in accomplishment” is absent from teaching today. I think most teachers quickly realize this and become bitter and angry about their work.
    Unless you have an intrinsic passion about teaching, the only source of pride will come from high test scores for your school. So, by any means necessary (which includes bullying the kids), their goal has to be high test scores (an extrinsic source of accomplishment).

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  19. Disillusioned, well put. Yes, I did write a few weeks ago about how the two groups manipulate each other. Your working class versus pampered stay at home conflict is insightful. In my context, however, I was specifically addressing how moms and teachers manipulate each other. The mom brown noses the teacher to curry favors for her child and the teacher manipulates the mom by demanding full compliance in return for those favors. Moms commandeering PTA’s are unfulfilled career wannabes who left before they could make a real mark on their professional lives.

    Now on to teachers and their motives: I used to be baffled why some teachers clearly were so mean to kids. Often these were shy vulnerable children, not necessarily the incorrigible ones, if you can even condescend to call a child that. I had to believe that most teachers entered the profession loving children but that the public school system chewed them up.

    Now I no longer believe that all entered the field loving children. I still believe many did. But not all. And certainly not most. I used to think that. I no longer do. Some entered perhaps because they disliked adults even more, I don’t know. A friend who is a doctor told me many medical students once chose pediatrics, not out of a love for children necessarily, just because they preferred not to deal with adults. Little must they have realized that you DO have to work with adults as a pediatrician. They’re called parents!

    Too many people still enter the teaching field without a love for teaching or children. We should dissect further why and what happens to those who do. For every lousy teacher I’ve encountered, I know several more who are unbelievably good.

    I have more to say but it’s a day off from school and my daughter is still doing homework at 10 pm. I got back on to escape. Ha, I escape homework by talking about homework. Go figure. When you think about it, though, it does makes sense.

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  20. Wow, that “Character in a Can” project is really pathetic. What exactly are the kids supposed to learn from that?

    I absolutely understand how time-consuming that could be. Actually, the most meaningless projects always seem to eat up the most time — or does it just feel that way?

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  21. When I was in college, studying elementary education and special ed (and English because I had a crush on one of the English professors), it seemed there are three distinct types of people who go into teaching; those who love kids and love working with them, those who actually despise children and only want to control them, and those who think it’s an easy job that will do as a “second income” once they rope in that rich husband.

    Times have not changed much, have they?

    I can’t speak for the other two types but as someone who loves children and loves working with them, I can say that the reasons I left had nothing to do with parents or the children. Instead, it had primarily to do with the administration and a little to do with pay (since I was sans rich husband.)

    I looked forward to going to school every day. We had fun every day. I put in a lot of hours preparing and did my best to make sure that every child was where they were supposed to be. I had an excellent rapport with parents and the children. I miss it every single day.

    It’s not an easy job. The poor, disillusioned, “looking for an easy job with lots of time off” teachers are probably still teaching. They’re uninspired and dreadfully dull but they’re still there.

    The controllers either burn out very quickly or are still trying to maintain control over classrooms full of children. It’s like herding cats.

    And finally, the “real” teachers, the ones who do it because they love it, are often left by the wayside. They’re still out there. I’ve seen quietly inspiring a generation of children. They’re not glitzy, they’re not glamorous, they don’t get a lot of awards. They’re just happy to be teaching and those are the teachers I wish my daughter could get every year.

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