80 thoughts on “Open Dialogue Week

  1. What is the purpose of school?

    Traditionally minded folks might say the purpose of school is to impart to kids a set of basic skills and knowledge in core subjects like math, language, and history. More progressive folks might say the purpose is to keep kids interested and engaged, and impart the skills that will enable kids to pursue their own interests. My own dream school would meet both of these goals — give the kids a strong foundation in core subjects, while keeping them engaged and helping them to pursue their own interests.

    I doubt that anyone, in designing a school system from scratch, would announce that the purpose of school is to teach kids how to go to school. And yet this is apparently the purpose of the schools we actually have.

    Check out this description of middle school, from the web page of a private school our daughter won’t be attending:

    “Our Middle School … transitions students from the self-contained, sixth grade classrooms to a fully departmentalized eighth grade program that includes grades at the end of each marking period.”

    You might think I’m quoting out of context, but I can assure you that the admissions interviewer said the same thing, at great length. The purpose of middle school is to teach kids how to handle middle school. Why? Most likely, so they can handle high school next year.

    We’ve all heard this: “our kids need lots of homework this year, because they’ll have a lot more homework next year!”, or “the kids need to practice test-taking skills this year, because they’ll be taking a big standardized test next year!”

    So, it’s not just about teaching kids how to go to school; it’s specifically about teaching kids how to go to school, not this year, but next year.

    Curiously, I have never heard the preparation theme expressed in terms of actual content. No one has ever said in my hearing, “the kids need to be able to write a coherent sentence by the end of this year, so they can start writing essays next year”, or “the kids need to be solid on their basic multiplication skills this year so they can work with decimals next year”, or “the kids need to understand the consequences of WWI by the end of this year, so they can study WWII next year”, or “the kids need to learn basic rendering skills this year, so they can study perspective next year.”

    Now, there’s plenty of room for reasonable people to disagree about what content our kids need to learn, and at what stage. But I can’t believe that anyone in their right mind would design a system of education that imparts no content whatever. So why are our schools filled with content-free projects like posters, dioramas, and “character in a can”?

    The grandmother of school for the sake of school is, of course, college admissions. Many parents believe that the entire goal of K–12 is to put together a good college application, as shown by the following dialogue:

    Me: “Did your son get a good education at Quaker schools?”

    Other Mom: “Yes! He got in to the University of Chicago.”

    The suburban fairy tale goes like this: a child should attend “good” schools K-12, exhibiting total compliance with all school demands, and learning all the essential school skills like raising her hand to answer the teacher’s question, turning in homework on time, guessing the correct entry of four multiple-choice answers, filling in the bubble completely with a number 2 pencil, and packing the day with high-status classes and activities, including an unusual sport like fencing or crew. This will result in a boffo college application, which will vault the child to a high-status, competitive college. On graduating from the high-status college, the child will walk in to a highly paid job and live the American dream.

    If this fairy tale ever made sense, it certainly doesn’t any more, in the worst recession since the Great Depression. We’re going to see a generation of burnt out young people graduating from their expensive colleges with thousands of dollars in debt, just to live in their parents’ basement, unemployed or underemployed. And then we will ask, what is the purpose of school?


  2. Thank you FedUpMom for that well formulated question….it has been on my mind for quite some time too. It disturbs me too that I never thought about it until my child was actually in school and I was dragging my tired self to work everyday, and trying to keep all the balls in the air. Then and only then, did I stop to think….”What are we doing here? ” “Is what she’s being exposed to for 9 hours of the day really good for her?” “Hold on a second. I only get to see her for 2.75 hours per night and I’m supposed to do school work with her???? I don’t think so”

    We aren’t in the public system but I still look at how she’s developing and worrying that she’s going to turn out like me…a good girl who pleases people. I don’t want that, but I do want her to understand the value of getting along with others but fighting for more fairness in the world. I want her eyes open to the whole thing, not just the slice that somebody decides is valuable. And mostly I don’t want the system to tell her that I don’t matter unless I’m doing what they tell me to do. What I say does count and it should count, and be respected.

    I never thought for a second that I’d even contemplate this, but I’m not sure a university education is even that valuable anymore. Will it be in 10 years time?


  3. My daughter is a first-year teacher of 7th grade remedial math and reading. She recently asked her kids “Why do YOU think you have to learn to read?” The response; “To get good grades so we can go to college” Now, most of these kids will never get to college and they KNOW it. They are mostly from underprivileged homes, and certainly won’t have the grades to get scholarships. Even if they could manage the maze of financial aid hoops, they certainly aren’t about to subject themselves to 4 EXTRA years of torture (which is all school has been to them so far). So, how much motivation do you think they have to improve their skills?

    My daughter (a product of homeschooling) told them otherwise: You learn to read because: 1) once you can read, you can learn anything else you want to. 2) reading can take you anywhere you want to go- around the world, or to a fantasy world. 3) so that you can stay informed on politics and laws. An UN-informed public has no ability to shape their own government and ends up living under tyranny.

    These kids had never heard any of these reasons in 7 years. Or if they had, it had not made an impression on them. If my daughter can only mange to get these ideas drilled into them, she will have done them more good than any reading lesson she teaches them.


  4. Brava Wendy….you have taught your daughter well. Those students of hers are very fortunate to have a teacher like her. There has to to be that connection to LIFE! It has to make your life better, or else, why do it? Exactly….

    That’s a great way to end my day…


  5. I happened to run into a fellow parent this morning, and she told me that her daughter had pulled an all-nighter just prior to turning in her Science Fair project. This girl (along with my son) is in 8th Grade!

    Yes, the project was assigned over a month ago. So what? Children are not skilled project managers. In fact, many adults who manage projects for a living are not skilled project managers (trust me on this one).

    How on Earth does a teacher imagine that a 14-year-old child will, unaided and completely untrained, be able to break down a month-long assignment into dozens of steps, and track the progress of each one toward an overall due date?

    And here’s another random thought for you. Has anyone else noticed that textbooks are getting bigger and bigger every year? Why is that? Surely the capacity of elementary and secondary students to absorb information isn’t growing to that extent. Here’s a wild guess. If you and I are textbook sellers, and we are both “pitching” to the Board of Education, and my book is 900 pages long, while yours is only 800, guess who gets the deal (assuming prices are relatively comparable)?

    Then, guess who goes back to the office and passes the word along to the authors that 800 pages isn’t enough. This could have set off an “arms race” in textbook size, plus, the bigger the book, the more money you can charge for it (all else being equal).

    All of this would still be (more or less) O.K. if no one cared whether or not a class finished the book in one school year. But, I am further guessing that that is often not the case. Can you imagine parents asking, “What do you mean, you aren’t going to finish the book? What are we paying you for?” Plus, authors of textbooks for the following years start to assume that prerequisite textbooks will have been covered in their entirety. And, makers of standardized tests start to assume that they can test on the full content.

    To the extent that any of this is true, we end up with a situation where it is physically impossible to teach all of the material in the time allotted. What’s the remedy? Rush over it, and assign the gaps as homework. True learning with in-depth understanding goes out the window in the mad dash to go through all of the material quickly enough.

    These textbook sizes are just crazy.


  6. @ Mark Wallace –
    Man, I can’t believe I hadn’t thought about that when it comes to the projects! My daughter was up until 12:30 the other night finishing a paper, and of course, I was just upset and frustrated that she’d waited until the last minute. (She’s in the 7th grade.) But you’re right: it doesn’t stop in college; it doesn’t even stop in the workforce! And let’s face it, sometimes it’s not procrastination, it’s just that things happen last minute and you only have so many hours to get it done.
    I actually think I learned more about deadlines from performing and Opening Nights: while we may delay the curtain by a few minutes from time to time, never do we say, “sorry, we’re not ready folks. Come back next Fri.” No, Opening Night is opening night and the show must go on. But of course, most schools don’t have the performing arts anymore. *sigh*


  7. WendyW says:

    She recently asked her kids “Why do YOU think you have to learn to read?” The response; “To get good grades so we can go to col­lege” Now, most of these kids will never get to col­lege and they KNOW it.

    This is one of the saddest comments I’ve ever seen. These kids are saying that they can’t imagine reading as a normal part of their own lives in their own neighborhoods. They see reading as part of a pipe dream, a middle-class life that they know is not for them.


  8. Re: the first comment, very interesting. That seems to be the point of the incessant shrieks for preschool now too, that without preschool the child will be hopelessly lost in Kindergarten! How long does it take to learn how to sit in a circle anyway?


  9. I watched my beautiful 6-year old son who was very happy in a Montessori kindergarten begin 1st grade at a very well-respected private school which was extremely traditional and structured. Silly me at the time, I was seduced by the campus which was huge, with a swimming pool, tennis courts, football field, baseball field, etc., not to mention woodshop and other guy stuff. He did his first report in 1st grade – including two drafts of an outline, drafts of the report, a bibliography and his own drawings. Need I say more?! He’s a very bright kid who clearly thinks outside the box. Being in the wrong learning environment for him nearly destroyed both of us. At the same time, his father and I separated. I watched him begin to unravel, and again silly me, I attributed it to the divorce as his dad was saying some really awful things about me. So, I had his teachers saying how incredibly bright he is, and yet homework time at home was absolute torture. Jump to 3rd grade when I had done some research about learning styles, teaching styles, my son’s gifts and not so gifts, and we left that school for a more progressive, hands-on type approach. I learned that he was not wired to listen for a long time while a teacher just talked and talked. He needs to be doing, he needs to be able to ask questions and get thoughtful answers. It was a good transition, but still not what I had in mind. Fourth grade was pretty good, 5th grade was all right, and 6th grade was trying to get them ready to leave for middle school where they would all have lots of homework. His teacher told me, “he needs to get organized.” When I replied he had his own way of being organized, she thought I was crazy, but it’s true. Being disorganized in someone else’s eyes just means you do it differently than they do. And I am a super organized person … but not when it is something I have no interest in. When it was time to see where he’d go upon graduating 6th grade, I again looked at a long list of schools. After hearing each school’s wonderful attributes, I had one question only: please tell me honestly about the homework expectations in 7th grade. Well, I finally got it right. My son is finishing up 8th grade now and we have both absolutely loved the last two years. There is very little homework for middle school. Why? Because the learning is actually done in the classroom! What a concept! It is a very small school, 5-12 grades, 8-10 kids in a class, classes are 80 minutes and alternate every other day, so that there are only 4 classes in a day, plus two 20-minute breaks. The school’s philosophy is that kids need time to pursue their passions whether they be sports, music, chess, whatever. And, they need a good night’s sleep. My son sleeps 9 hours a night on school nights because that’s what makes him feel best. Homework til midnight so that kids can pass a test and promptly forget everything they crammed in, just for a test, should be child abuse. His grades have always been very good, but with very little homework, his grades are even better, because they are “involved” and “interested” in the learning process. And, I’ve noticed that what he’s learned the last couple of years has actually stayed in his head. So, I wish I had learned much, much earlier how ridiculous it is for young children to have so much homework, because I would have been a much better mom. But, I learned it when I did, and we were able to heal the past and go forward. I’m sure I get the award for the longest comment, and for that I apologize. Keep doing what you’re doing, Sara, parents need to learn this stuff early so they won’t have to watch their kids suffer like I did.


  10. So did anyone else read the NYTimes front page article yesterday about elementary school recess being taken over by professional recess coaches? God forbid children should learn how to deal with social issues independently by actually dealing with social issues independently. Now it’s becoming just one more part of the school day that requires nothing more than blind obedience. http://nyti.ms/9PmAiu


  11. I read Sherri’s comment and was struck again at how little the school system knows about children. I hear the same about my 8 year old…that she needs to work on organization. It’s absolute nonsense. What they really mean is, they have to be just like me, an adult. Even 14 year olds may not be particularly good at putting things in a nice orderly progression and to have the foresight to do tasks in a timely fashion. Gosh even some adults have trouble with that…It’s tax time folks….how many of you will be doing your taxes on the last day?


  12. I’d like to just chime in (for now) and say, with others here, that the idea of carefully planning out and time-budgeting multiday assignments is a red herring — though it’s taken me some time to come to that realization. Not that I was any good, ever, at doing it! But I have been nearly swayed more than once in dealing with my daughter’s homework issues by teachers’ arguments to the effect of, “Well, she had X number of days to do it.”

    What I would say to those teachers now is, How are YOU helping my child to manage these expectations? Are you working with them to help them learn how to budget their time? Suggesting ways in which they can approach the assignment? Breaking it into INTERESTING components? The reality seems to be, the teachers assign the homework that’s due, say, in a week, and then just wait to see who trips up.

    There’s a real irony in this because I suspect teachers think these multiday projects are the kind of “engaging” assignments some of us are hoping for. But their just an excuse for more bad homework and unreasonable burdens and expectations put on our children.

    In the extreme, my YOUNGER daughter — 2nd grade — was penalized for not remembering to bring a homework assignment to school for two days running (NOT not DOING the assignment, mind you) by losing a recess! I nipped that one in the bud, thank goodness!!


  13. I am on this site for reasons similar to Sherri’s. Like her, I learned a lot, but a little too late for my oldest.

    In elementary and middle school, teachers brought the hammer down on him about organization and homework, and I was co-opted into that. I’ll never forget our homework battles in 2nd through 7th grades, and I will always, always regret how I hung him out to dry then. For what? It wasn’t about building character, it was about power and compliance. Somehow, he did learn all along — mostly I think by reading on his own — in spite of how he was treated by the adults in his life.

    I attended a PTO sponsored workshop on “Getting Your Child Organized” at the time and asked the “expert” if it was possible that there were developmental reasons why some students — many of them boys, according to a NYTimes article at the time — did not stay as organized as teachers expected them to (in the middle school here, teachers conduct “binder checks” that become part of the grades). She looked at me blankly, and said, “No.” She was wrong.

    I know better now. Thankfully, he is now thriving in 9th grade and enjoying a learning process where there is, so far, much less emphasis on grinding out homework. I hope the parent/child rift that the early homework battles caused has healed, but I don’t know. I feel we really let him down.

    Unfortunately, my two younger children are still caught in the worksheet/homework mill.


  14. I agree Fred. With assigning projects to young children, I wonder too, who do the teachers think is going to pace the kids on getting these things done? Do they think that the child brings home the piece of paper and lays in down in front on Mom or Dad and says, “I have to do this”? That does not happen in my house.

    Do they think I will ask everyday, “Are there any assignments or projects you’re supposed to do?
    That doesn’t happen in my house and won’t ever.

    I’m not getting e-mails from the teacher about assignments that are due….and I don’t care to.

    So all this planning and step by step work is supposed to be happening…..magically. My kid doesn’t even know it’s supposed to be happening.

    I wonder too. How are kids supposed to learn how to organize themselves?


  15. To April’s comment, you are so right! As a writer, I was a pathological procrastinator right through college — I can’t tell you how many all-nighters I pulled — I even sought out a therapist at one point!

    But one of my first jobs involved having to write on deadline for a monthly publication, and — like you and Opening Night — there was never any question of not getting it in on time. Problem solved!!

    The bottom line here is MOTIVATION — POSITIVE motivation!!!!


  16. I got my son’s homework reduced. He’s in 1st grade and his homework load was reasonable – a few small assignments on school nights. However it was just too much for him. He was spent after a 7 hr school day and couldn’t concentrate. The homework was meaningless. I anticipated resistance but to my relief his teacher was supportive. She was aware of the studies regarding homework. She says parents have asked for more homework; never less. Now my son is only assigned a some reading during the week and sight word practice. I would prefer no homework at all in elementary school, but this is a good compromise. My son is classified and does benefit from the reading practice.


  17. Akalori makes a VERY key point. On many nights, my fifth grader’s homework load is by most measures “reasonable,” too — nothing like the 40 math problems frequently cited in Sara’s book; in fact, I was able to convince the math teacher to occasionally allow my daughter to complete a timed-delimited assignment rather than the complete set of problems.

    And YET, the homework is often TOO MUCH FOR HER, she is SPENT, and the homework is MEANINGLESS!!

    I have to say, it feels more challenging to go in and ask for homework relief when the homework load is “reasonable,” which perhaps illustrates the slippery slope of calling any homework “reasonable” or having arbitrary rules such as the 10-minute-per-grade rule.

    I make my case (and that of other parents, too) to the school principal tomorrow morning. Stay tuned.


  18. Growing up I always questioned why I had to do homework. My parents never made me do it, but I never thought to try and opt out and so from 4th grade on, my grades suffered. On the flip side though, I always did really well on tests and quizzes, in-class assignments and the like so I never did poorly enough that I was held back. I also got in trouble a lot when I was caught reading under my desk while the teacher was explaining something I already understood (or when it was something I didn’t find interesting). I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned from this site as well as from the books I’ve found on the subject. I even got some first hand experience trying to get a first grader to do a single worksheet while baby-sitting (even I preferred playing with the tinker toys).

    On a happier note, has anyone read the news about the No Child Left Behind Act? Apparently, instead of forcing teachers and students to have to meet reading and math levels, there will be a more general measurement having to do with how prepared they are for college or a career. I’m hoping that this will lead to fewer state-mandated tests and therefore less teaching to the test. The article even said it was part of an effort to bring history and the arts back into schools. Maybe it’ll mean less homework too. Here’s hoping!


  19. Now you see, that seems like a contradiction to me, to say that homework is meaningless and reasonable…how can that be?

    What does reasonable, meaningless homework consist of?

    I think what happens is that the homework seems “doable” to us as adults….maybe we even can see a point to it…but our kids can’t. And if our kids can’t then, why do it? That’s the point when the scales flip over to the “parent-as- teacher” side of the scale and we are expected to start ‘splainin”. And that’s where I fall down because I am not good or patient enough to do it the way a teacher would.

    Good luck tomorrow Fred. We’ll all be anxious to hear how it goes.


  20. Ah, Wendy. So it takes a homeschooler to tell kids why they are in school. What the meaning is, why they learn. But of course. That’s why we homeschool!


  21. I think the “reasonable” applies to the quantity, but a reasonable quantity doesn’t make homework more or less meaningful. I guess the bottom line is that there’s no amount of meaningless homework that’s reasonable!!

    I’ll have more to say on some of this, but right now the thermometer says 56 degrees, I’m supposed to be on spring break, so I’m going to blow off my Stop Homework homework! 😉


  22. A little about me.
    I have taught for 15 years in grades pre-k to 8th grade. The last 8 years I have focused on middle school science. I taught in Los Angeles Unified School District for 7 years and then helped start a charter middle school and have always served limited English proficient, at risk students in Van Nuys, San Fernando and Pacoima, California. When I made the jump to focus on teaching one subject in middle school from elementary I was in shock. Not because of the so called “bad kids” or the lack of materials, especially for a science class, but because the students had no life in them, no passion, no spirit. They tried to tear me up! I knew the last thing they wanted to do was read a science text, answer questions and take tests, so I had to develop something different and fast. So I literally threw the textbook and all the worksheets I had been given by the science department chairman out the window and told the classes they are going to be responsible to construct their own class they way they wanted it. Homework was the first to go, they didn’t believe me. Ha! I showed them. Then we eliminated all tests and quizzes. They all wanted “A’s” I said “OK everyone in my class gets an A, what do I care I do not get paid more or less for bubbling in an A or C or F. I didn’t sign a contract that stated I couldn’t do that, but then I suggested that they grade themselves, a form of authentic assessment. I’ll talk about that later. No texts, no homework, no grades, no worksheets, I had the same results from each of my 5 classes. The kids were in shock, they still didn’t believe me. Now what? That night, it all came to me, I couldn’t sleep, hell I didn’t sleep for days.


  23. The next morning, the science department chairman stormed into my classroom. He was claiming I had no right to do what I did, and that he was going to write me up. I told him to get the F out of my classroom. By lunch I had a note that the principal wanted to see me. Swell, I learned the person who was in charge of helping me was a cry baby. But I had an ace up my sleeve. What no one ever knew was that the principal use to work for my father for over 10 years in another department of Los Angeles Unified School District, the Title I Non-Public School Program and it was because of my father that he was able to become an administrator. He did not hire me, he had to accept me because they were moving the 6th grade to the middle school and I volunteered,. When I went to meet him it was just luck. Anyway, he told me he didn’t want to know what I was up to, just to go for it. He told me he had my back, and that I wouldn’t have to deal with cry baby anymore, but I better watch out how the other teachers perceive what I do.


  24. Anyway to make a very long story short, the first year we tried out a ton of ideas and by the second year this is what we developed. The classroom is a laboratory, it does not look like a classroom, We got rid of all the stupid individual desk/chairs with their half desktops and replaced them with large tables, small tables and we built lab benches and counters. We created six to seven various small work spaces for small groups in the classroom, otherwise known as centers, in elementary school. Each center or station, was designed for a specific purpose. The students would become scientists, and we identified what scientists do. The students said scientists, ask questions, do research pertaining to their questions, conduct experiments and field work, network with other scientists and finally communicate what they learned. So, the stations were designed with that in mind. Furthermore, rather than having tests, we decided that the students would create projects or should I say “products” and then present their findings. We developed a research station with all sorts of books about various science topics, I took over half the books form the school’s library and I went to libraries all over different cities to get books at various reading levels. Every classroom had only 2 computers, and no internet access, but luckily my classroom was across the hall and down a little from the computer lab, so on one weekend I got the janitor I open the computer lab and I ( by the way the janitor and plant manager are the single most important people at the school, treat them with respect and buy them gifts, they got me my tables and many other favors) I ran a line from the computer lab into the ceiling rafters into and down the hall into my room). It would have taken school union workers about a year to get approval.


  25. Now we had a real research station, my students could also communicate with real scientists (doctors, rocket scientists and geologists in the field, using e-mail and eventually video conferencing. We created a microscope station, with the ability to capture images on computer and print them. I bought special microscopes and special cameras with money from the principles special account. He granted me about 10K worth of materials that year and in subsequent years did the same, but I also went out into the business community door to door and raised over 60K worth of materials in 5 years. My biggest donor was a porn production company in Van Nuys, they wrote me a check for 10,000K and I had an interesting tour. We built a electronic probe station for experiments, with temperature sensors, O2 and CO2 gas sensors and all sorts of sensors the hook up with a computer that log the data in tables and graphs that can be printed out and saved (see vernier probes web site). We created an ecology station with over a 100 animals and plant growing racks with special grow lights. We have various ecosystem tanks and a real pond in the lab. Student did genetics experiments with plants and animals that have a life cycle of a month. We build a 10 foot long stream table to simulate the effects of erosion, a student decided to fill it with special orange/red sand from the pet store and we instantly had the surface of Mars. That in turn, led to another student team to design a eyeball camera mounted on a special coordinate graphing mechanism above the stream table and we had a way to simulate how the mars global surveyor mapped the planet. We took the images we produced in the classroom to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the scientist thought the picts were real. We designed many different stations using real scientific equipment and supplies.


  26. We then created work processing stations where students organized the information they had been collecting at the research station and experiment stations, and all that information, graphs, pictures, emails, drawings, wonderings, leaf samples, all kinds of stuff were kept in a scientific journal, a real working scientific journal, not a diary. The students also had their info on disks and videotape. Students had the choice of creating multimedia productions or video documentaries as their final product. We also created a assessment station where the student groups and myself reviewed the groups progress toward the goals they constructed at the beginning of their project and make new goals, the groups also got approval for the experiments they wanted to conduct.


  27. Well, what was I doing during all of this. I went from station to station, answering questions where I could or guiding the students with out giving the answers, taught them how to use the equipment, but mostly spent most of my time searching for the things they requested for their experiments and products. As the years went on I would have previous students as TA’s, 3 to 4 in my class who would become teachers and my classes really could run without me. One day I was just sitting on top of a lab bench watching the class buzz, and the principal walked in with the superintendent of the school district. I didn’t move are say a thing, they walked around and the students started explaining what they were working on. The superintendent said one word to me “wow”. Needless to say I got a note to visit the superintendent in the principals office after school. He wanted me to become a science curriculum advisor for the district and teach teachers, but he even realized it would next to impossible to replicate what my students and I created.


  28. The students completed 3 to 4 team projects throughout the school year. Those projects revolved around the type of science I was teaching that year, biology, physics and earth sciences. The students chose their own projects from hot topics in the news to what ever ideas they generated. For example, in one group one of my students had cancer, so the group focus were on topics about cancer, ranging from how cells and heredity worked to stem cell research and causes and cures that were being work on at the time by real scientists. My middle school kids knew more about stem cells than President Bush. Another group loved the mars rovers, so they got into robotics, designed their own robotic rovers and built martian terrains to test them and got to actually work with the real scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Everyday they would enter the classroom and go directly to the station that working at that day with a rotational schedule, they could split their group of 3 to 4 and specialize in different areas and work a different stations when needed. We never had enough time, it would just fly by, then the kids had a few min. to clean up, discuss what they accomplished and make decisions for the next day.


  29. I will spare you all my thoughts on the NYT article, found here http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/15/education/15recess.html but I have commented and wrote about this topic more times than most people change underwear, Until you’ve in the school and witnessed the horrors of recess, you should really give the professionals the benefit of the doubt on this one,

    Chances are, recess now is not what it was when you were in school and fro a certified Physical Education teacher, I’m telling you that what they have done is no easy task. And, if you still doubt it, read the parent comments and how happy the majority of them are with the change in the situation. Sometimes you have to dig deep into the idea and decide that you are going to learn as much as possible before making a decisions and not rely particularly on how ti was when you were in school. I can promise you, now school, recess, the classroom, physical education…none of that resembles the school you and I attended.
    And as I said, I’ve wrote that same story (just not as eloquently and with no statistical data) on many of my blogs a a guest blogger and even commented in many places, including here.

    I was interviewed by Parenting Magazine on this topic, please step back and let the professionals do their job. With that statement, don’t slam me until you’ve read my position on homework because I don’t believe that the school officials are always right and I certain disagree with most homework policies but this subject is directly in line with my area of expertise and I know what I know here for sure.

    Stepping off my soapbox briefly as I will be remounting it as I add a blog post about this on my education blog.


  30. I never assigned homework, but a funny thing happened, the kids were taking books home, they were meeting together after school, they spent time gathering stuff for their experiments, they yearned for more. Not every single student but most of them. Many of these students came for some pretty messed up homes. Some were Jr. gang members. Some just came to the US and some had parents in jail or on drugs or with 6 of them living in a one bedroom apt. But guess what, I had no discipline problems what so ever. I let the kids chew gum and eat and drink in the class (boy, did I piss off some of the other teachers) and the kids were for lack of a better word on-task 95 percent of the time. They also kept the lab spotless. When I had a substitute, he or she didn’t know what to do, they had never seen anything like it before in their lives, I just left a note saying, just sit back and relax you don’t have to do anything. The kids ran everything and even learned how to solve problems, they help each other and encourage each other and were having FUN. I would get students who were failing and telling their other science teachers to F off and they would assimilate into our classes and become happy and productive.


  31. At the end of the semester the students presented their projects and products on a special evening, with their parents, guest scientists and the principal in attendance. Followed by a pot luck dinner. No awards, or special recognitions, just a nice time and yummy food. For 5 years I gave A’s to all my students. I had a battle with a group of teachers who couldn’t handle it, but there was nothing they could do because all it says on my contract is that I had construct some type of assessment system and I did. The students had to justify why their earned their A. As time went on, we started adding a lot more field work, such as working field trips to the desert to climb into the San Anders Fault and get rock samples, or local canyons and tide pools to do plant and animal studies or even spend the day with a scientist at one of many local biotech companies.


  32. I never attended science department meetings and some whole school teacher trainings after the first year because I had no time to waste. I made enemies with more than a few teachers because I didn’t conform and even almost got into a fight in the middle of a whole school meeting where the teacher was saying I couldn’t do some of the things I was doing. Another teacher tackled me before I landed a punch. I made some really good friends too, but nobody really saw that there are other way to teach. After a few more years, I saw a new charter middle school was opening. I took a video documentary I made about my program and they hired me on the spot. Same type of kids, incredibly small environment, and I was on the same page as the rest of the teachers. I actually got to work with the same group of kids 3 year in a row 6,7 and 8 grades.


  33. I have a 9 year old daughter and currently home school her. I have taken a leave of absence for probably a few years to be with her while she is still a child, my wife was also a teacher and has been a house mom since my daughter was born. So it is now my time with my daughter, but I will love the day I jump back in it. Furthermore, before anyone asks how we can afford for both of us to not work, 3 years ago I won 2.3 million after taxes in a poker tournament, paid of the house completely and put all the rest into CD’s that are still drawing over 5% today. Anyways, I use to do teacher training and even some consulting work. During one of the trainings, a teacher actually asked me how do I keep my students to from putting their hands in the stream table and playing with the sand. OMG! The day I left the public middle school I went into the science department chairs classroom and took his file cabinet of worksheets, the whole file cabinet. I figured at least the student would be watching videos for the rest of the year rather than filling out those stupid things, he field a school police report accusing me but had no proof. I don’t have time to dick around with the teaching sheep.


  34. What an afternoon.!!!!!…I figured there was a lottery win in there somewhere…..write a book, man…I am just blown away.
    Thank you for being a teacher.


  35. This thread began with an interesting question about what kind of education we want our children to get. I agree with FedUp Mom to a point, that students can learn basic information (and skills, I would add), as well as how to learn (or how to be a lifelong learner).

    However, all my experience, background, and what I do now — working at a top-tier progressive liberal arts college — tells me that the latter is more important. My college, Sarah Lawrence, is built on the whole premise that deep engagement based on self-directed inquiry produces the best education. Students created their own academic paths based on their interests; the faculty is there to guide them and help provide them with valuable information along the way.

    It’s an interesting question that comes up at home for me, too. My wife often laments about the “holes” she perceives in her essential store of “information.” She went to a radically progressive alternative school from K-12, whereas I am mainly the product of NYC public schools and thus had a more conventional education.

    But I’m not convinced I have that much greater a “storehouse” of raw data floating around in my brain than she does. Maybe a name here or a date there or a major historical event or whatever. As I’ve said elsewhere, including on my own blog, my ability to recall facts and put them in context today is overwhelmingly shaped by interest and enthusiasm. I’m sure I can’t remember what’s the difference between the Seven Year’s War, the War of the Roses (was that a movie?) or the Hundred Year War. But if I had a reason to learn about those things (again), I could, and if my interest was piqued enough, then I’d remember — just as I can cite events in the life of John James Audubon (my particular, peculiar) interest nearly to the month.

    I stunk at math throughout most of my education, no matter how hard the schools tried to drill it into me. But when I went to graduate school many years later, I aced statistics because I was motivated to learn it and even loved it.

    (to be continued)


  36. Most important, my wife not only had the tools to learn, but the ability and habit of questioning. For me, that has been a much more hard-earned task. And I think ultimately this has to do with politics. (So please don’t mind if I bring it into the conversation.) Conventional education — of the kind I got, and my daughters are getting now — is inherently conservative and unquestioning, hence the emphasis on conformity.

    I’ll bet my wife didn’t have the usual lesson on “the first Thanksgiving” that so many of us get and my daughters slog through every year, it seems. In the last ten years I’ve read enough to know that most of that story is apocryphal, and even if it weren’t, it presents one version of a much larger story, and a sanitized one at that. What’s more important, really questioning “Thanksgiving” or being able to recite the date the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock (1620, and I only remember that because, if you’ve ever been to Plymouth, every pebble in every gift shop is a “Plymouth Rock” with 1620 stamped on it!!)?

    Another tacit assumption of education alluded to by FedUp Mom is that a good college education will lead to “success,” whatever that is. Even more perniciously is the ad-nauseum repeated homily that we have to produce good sci/tech students so that they can compete in the “global marketplace.” But it is quite right to ask how that could possibly be true when even jobs at the near white-collar level are now virtually all offshored and done in India or China. If students can do anything, it’s learn how to examine reality!

    So….I come back to this: As I embark on my homework crusade, there are some families (in this somewhat conservative town) who suspect that I really have a more political agenda. And while I don’t tell them this, in a way they are right. Homework is just a symptom of a larger issue about curriculum, school, and the purpose of learning.

    There is a reason that I insist on homework being engaging, every bit as much as on reducing the overall load. I realize “engaging” is a loaded and debatable term, but I want my daughters to learn how to think and question and follow their bliss. (Hey — Joseph Campbell was a Sarah Lawrence professor once!!)


  37. This week’s New Yorker has the absolutely perfect cartoon that sums up all of this! It shows a little girl sitting on the livingroom floor reading (books? comics?), and her mother standing over her, saying, “There will be plenty of time for playing after you get into college.”



  38. Teenagers need more sleep and less homework!

    The following is from a BBC article.

    ‘Sleep lessons’ for grumpy teens
    By Huw Willams
    Reporter, Good Morning Scotland

    Pupils at schools in Glasgow are being given lessons in how to sleep.

    The sessions, run by the charity Sleep Scotland, aim to teach pupils tips such as the importance of a bed-time routine and avoiding late-night television.

    Experts say teenagers who seem grumpy and uncommunicative could actually be sleep deprived because they go to bed after midnight – even on week nights.

    The advice for pupils is that they should be sleeping for more than nine hours a night.

    Researchers found that after going to bed at 2300 or midnight, teenagers were staying awake for hours watching television, playing on games consoles, or browsing the internet.

    Some pupils were getting as little as four or five hours sleep a night.


    One of the schools taking part in the project is Bellahouston Academy in south-west Glasgow.

    Fiona Patterson, head of health and wellbeing, said the survey results were “absolutely shocking”.

    “It doesn’t surprise. They can’t function on so little sleep,” she said.

    “ I went to my bed at ten-ish rather than eleven, and I do feel a little bit more awake ”
    Teenage boy
    Sleep Scotland says getting enough sleep boosts academic performance and sporting prowess. However going without can be linked to obesity and a greater risk of depression.

    Jane Ansell, director of Sleep Scotland, said: “You wouldn’t send somebody to school without having the right amount of food, so why would you send them without enough sleep?”

    The charity hopes to use the pilot project to develop a pack which could then be offered to schools across Scotland.

    Scotland’s largest teaching union, the EIS, have welcomed the study but say teachers already watch out for all aspects of their pupils’ welfare.

    A spokesman for Glasgow City Council said: “We are committed to providing guidance to young people so they can get the right amount of sleep and maximise their learning potential.”

    One 15-year-old who has attended the first of a series of sessions said he had tried going to bed early as a result of what he had been taught.

    “I went to my bed at 10-ish rather than 11, and I do feel a little bit more awake,” he said.

    “I wasn’t sleeping in French, as I usually do,” he added, “so my French teacher is pleased anyway.”

    Story from BBC NEWS:

    Published: 2010/03/15 03:32:21 GMT

    © BBC MMX

    Print Sponsor


  39. Fred — could you post your reports here? I have a lot to say but I’m torn about where to comment. I’d rather comment here.


  40. The recess coach topic is interesting. Given the right person in that job, I think it would benefit most schools…if the coach-led/facilitated games were VOLUNTARY, not mandatory for the kids. A fun, caring adult who sets up a game will automatically attract a bunch of kids, including some who might otherwise be lonely or bored. The school will be a happier place (even after recess) as a result. But you don’t need to force it.


  41. Well…

    Either I am the world’s greatest genius or the world’s biggest sucker. Or, let’s take the middle road and say that my second meeting with the principal was a qualified success.

    We met at 8:00 a.m. in her office; also attending at the principal’s request were the school’s guidance counselor and the phys ed teacher, the latter because he is an “important part of the school administration.”

    The meeting ended at 8:21.

    Right away the principal acknowledged that this was not a meeting about my children, but a meeting about the homework issue in general, as I had requested. So far so good. She then conceded that she understood there was widespread concern among the fifth grade families about the homework. Better.

    I then gave my brief overview, following a script (in my head) that I had prepared in advance: Two-thirds of the fifth grade families, and three-fourths of those who had responded to me, are experiencing similar homework problems and have expressed support for my meeting. We are continuing to have the struggles, tears, and late-night meltdowns, and my daughter’s attitude about school has become negative. Based on my conversation with other parents, these things, I believe, are representative of what many students and their families are going through.

    Next, I reiterated my requests for a reduction in homework quantity, taking into consideration the possibility of a homework day off a week and weekends without homework, except as the exception, rather than the rule; and for homework that was more thoughtful, engaging, and varied — rather than the endless slog of worksheets, textbook exercises, spelling words, etc.

    What happened then was a bit of deja vu from my first meeting with the principal. She said that she had been in communication with other families, had been hearing similar concerns, and was beginning to take steps to address them. (Interestingly, and coincidentally, a fifth grade parent told me yesterday that the principal had called him a couple of weeks ago to take an “informal survey” of how things were going for him and his son.) She said that the teachers had been meeting to discuss homework and were reading various articles and research on homework. The issue had even been discussed in a regional board of education meeting.

    And she said — again — that changing the school’s and teachers’ homework practices would be a “process” and would not happen right away. It would require the buy-in of the teachers. It would involve, she said, at least “a couple more meetings.”

    I asked how the process would proceed and what changes I could expect. For example, would there be a revision of the written homework policy? She was a little more vague about this. She said that before next fall she would expect some changes to be made, and that these might be reflected in the homework policy, or be announced in some form prior to that. The sense I got from her and from the others at the meeting — whether or not this is a dodge, I am not sure — is that changes really have to come with the agreement of the teachers.

    The phys ed teacher asked me to describe a bit more what the biggest issue was for the students and families that led to the tear-filled nights: Was it the quantity, or the nature of the homework, either too unimaginative or too difficult? I had to say that it is all three: the quantity, which is not always excessive, but frequently is, and partly a problem because it is unpredictable and uneven; the fact that the homework is unengaging and unimaginative; and the frequently difficult-to-interpret problems, particularly in the math textbook, which require constant intervention by the parent and discourage the student.

    I added that there were two other factors: the incredibly repetitious nature of the assignments — worksheets, textbook pages, spelling words, night after night; and, paradoxically, the types of multiday assignments that are passed off as “imaginative” or “engaging” but that challenge students’ abilities to budget their time, while they are given no support in doing so.

    I was gratified to get some positive responses to these concerns. All at the meeting agreed that there needs to be better support for time management, with teachers getting more actively involved in suggesting how much time an assignment should take, how it should be done, and breaking out assignments into manageable tasks. The phys ed teacher repeated the idea that students “need to learn time management,” which, upon reflection, I’m not sure I agree with; at least, for an 11-year-old, it’s an overblown concern, and I’d rather she have a sense of fluid time, fund, and the joy of childhood. However, I did not challenge his statement at the meeting.

    On the repetitious nature of the homework, and the overuse of textbooks and worksheets, the principal said that just yesterday the teachers had all attended a guest workshop on “inquiry-based learning.” (She gave me the name of the presenter, but I have forgotten it; will post when I get it.)

    I mentioned that a good deal of the stress of homework also comes from the fact that everything is graded, especially in mathematics, and I really thought that it is killing any joy in doing math. To that I was told that there were also regionwide discussions taking place in subject areas among all the teachers in a particular subject, and that they would be looking at the homework issue as well, considering factors such as what students need to know by the time they reach ninth grade. Once again I was reminded of the importance of teacher buy-in.

    At that point, there seemed to be no more for me to say, except to express my optimism that it sounded like movement was happening on this, that I would look for upcoming signs of progress, and that I was offering, as a former teacher, M.S.-level educator, and someone involved in higher education, to help in the process in any way I can, for example by meeting with the teachers myself to share some of my reading, research, and perspectives.


  42. In my report on the meeting, I said I thought it was (probably) a qualified success.

    Some will say that I’m just being jerked around by the school administration, and that is certainly a possibility. It’s certainly a legitimate criticism that I could have pushed much harder for concrete evidence of progress, or at least specific timetables and actions.

    However, right or wrong, I have accepted the principal’s assurances in good faith, and I have been willing to accept that the changes will not take place overnight — that there is in fact a “process” that needs to happen that will result in gradual, but measurable, improvements.

    I recognize the need to make sure this process is really happening and the results are real. I plan on following up with an e-mail to the principal asking that she give me periodic assurances and reports with evidence of changes taking place. Based on our meeting, I also will expect that there will be some real changes by summer, and that these will be reflected in the written homework policy in the fall.

    In taking this approach, I also realize that I am likely giving up the hope of significant change this year, in effect condemning my own daughter (and family) to a miserable fifth grade year. Again, this would be a legitimate criticism, that I did not express greater urgency and the need for immediate changes. But in taking the longer view, I am hoping I will achieve deeper and more lasting results, which will, I hope, make the rest of my daughter’s middle school career less unhappy and will also benefit my younger daughter when she reaches middle school. I will also not stop speaking up with teachers and, if necessary, with the principal in cases of what I have termed clear “homework abuse.”

    (One thing I forgot to add in my report is that, toward the end of the meeting, we discussed the fact that the abrupt transition from fourth grade to middle school is a major aggravating factor, something that all the participants seemed to agree upon. I will be following up to see if there are any structural changes made in the next year.)

    What if no meaningful changes take place? Well, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. In the meanwhile, I am willing to give it some time. As a legendary activist friend of mine says, “Endless pressure, endlessly applied.”

    I welcome comments, pro, con, or otherwise, on my approach and how I am handling the issue.


  43. @FedUpDad — your story reminds me of a favorite joke. It’s a wealthy father talking to his son:

    Son: “Dad, if you were born into a poor family, how did you wind up rich?”

    Father: “Well, son, I worked hard. We started with a small chicken coop, with just two laying hens. I peddled the eggs door-to-door, and after saving up the small profits for six months, I was able to buy another laying hen. I continued this way, putting most of the profits back into the egg business, until I married your mother. Two years later your grandfather died and left us a million bucks.”


  44. Hmm. That presenter’s name is Donna Santman. I googled her, and it seems her greatest claim to fame is a book called “A Teacher’s Guide to Standardized Reading Tests: Knowledge Is Power.” Not sure what I think of that, but maybe I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover — or title. Will have to give it a look.


  45. I’m considering looking into the possibility of starting a charter school for grades 6-12 in the East Bay (of California). But, we already have “good” schools here with high API scores and I’m not sure if I can sell my idea to enough people to make it a worthwhile endeavor. I’d like to know from readers who post comments on Sara’s website what, in your opinion, would an ideal 6th-12th grade school look like? I already have my own ideas, but want to generate more ideas from like-minded folks.

    Thanks in advance if anyone responds!


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