Guest Blogger: Don’t Let Play Disappear Says School Psychologist

Today’s guest blogger is Nini Engel, a school psychologist for almost twenty years in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area. Nini, a mother of three daughters, ages 21, 18, and 13, became a homework reduction advocate four years ago when her middle daughter’s new high school assigned upwards of 4 hours of homework per night. The last time Nini wrote here was almost three years ago. Take a look.

Don’t Let Play Disappear
by Nini Engel

I’m writing as a school psychologist, as a mother of three daughters, and as a former child. We need to value the complexity and deep worth of play in our children’s lives and our own. I’m concerned that play is being crowded out of our schools and homes. Several years ago, I came to this website and the homework debate as a concerned parent of a sleep and play-deprived adolescent.

As a psychology undergraduate, I took a folklore class at the University of Pennsylvania, entitled “Play and Games,” taught by an engaging New Zealander named Brian Sutton-Smith. While my friends teased me about whether I was playing Clue in class, the experience was a pivotal one in my education. Children and young mammals play. Humans play house, war and school; dogs pretend to hunt. “A nip connotes a bit but not what a bite connotes,” was the quote that stuck. That, and the concept of “flow,” Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of a state where we are so engaged in activity that our surroundings, the passage of time, and ego awareness cease to register. We play and process our emotions; we play and try on different roles; we play and master skills and fears. We need play and play has intrinsic value.

In a balanced world, children could learn and work hard to master real skills, but still have time to run and pretend at recess. Play could infuse education and make it less boring, but there are still times when children and adults have to work. Those of us lucky enough to have work we love, even experience “flow” when we’re earning money. However, in civilized societies we assume that no one has to work all the time. This assumption varies from culture to culture and shifts in historic periods, but we give at least lip service to leisure.

I want to argue that afternoons, evenings and weekends should primarily be safeguarded for play, family interaction, and developing the responsibilities of being a member of a household unit. I know many upper-middle class families where teenagers have few family responsibilities because their homework loads are too heavy. I admit that my teenagers are frequently members of this group. When am I to teach them how to cook, to balance a checkbook, to organize a family celebration? When can we play cards or Scrabble, chase the dog around the backyard, or sing around the piano? I want to raise intelligent, educated, ethical children who can relax and enjoy the fruits of their labors. Otherwise, what is the ultimate point of all this work?

For $99 a Month, Students Get Math, English, and Science Tutoring from a Network of Teacher in India

According to an article on Newser, tutoring has been outsourced to India. For $99 a month, students can get unlimited help with English, math, or science from TutorVista, a network of Indian teachers. Demand for the service is so high that the company is hiring 1,500 more teachers in the coming weeks.

Teacher: Thanks for the Test Scores!

I stumbled across Accomplished California Teachers, a new teacher leadership network for the state of California, which is housed under the umbrella of the School of Education at Stanford University. Every time I read something by a disgruntled teacher (or parent), I wonder why it’s so hard to get education on the right track.

Dear Teacher
by David B. Cohen
from Accomplished California Teachers

Dear Teacher,

I just want to take a moment to thank you for all that you did for me when I was in your class. Now that I’m out of high school, I really appreciate it even more. When I started your English class, I knew that my test scores were kind of low, and I was really committed to improving my performance on two of the subtests. You saw that potential in me, and even more. By providing me with chances to read anthologized literary excerpts and random workplace documents, all followed by multiple choice assessments, you showed a commitment to my learning, and my test scores that spring really proved how far I had come. I was totally comfortable dealing with any readings chosen for me, and comfortable choosing the answers to other people’s questions. I also remember that you showed us how to answer the questions without even doing most of the reading, and that sure did help on the test!

Do you remember my sister? She was in your class a few years ahead of me, and I was just talking to her about your class. She couldn’t even remember what her test scores were – probably because she usually has her nose in a book, when she’s not writing in her journals or on her blog.

My sister just graduated from college, but as for me, I don’t know if you heard, but I’ve taken a break from school. I tried it for a year, but none of the instructors cared as much as you did, so it was hard to connect. A lot of times they assigned us really long readings and didn’t even give us any points for doing all that homework. Then, we had to write essays on these ridiculously hard questions where you couldn’t even find the answer in the books. I did my best and put together my five paragraphs and everything, and I still got low grades. When they don’t tell you how to find the answers and don’t even give you the motivation, well… it just wasn’t for me. It’s just too bad that all those skills we practiced in your class don’t even seem to matter in college. I think I might transfer to another school, but for now, I’m just working and waiting for inspiration to come along.

One more thing – I saw on the news that they’re going to start paying teachers more if your students do well on tests. That should be good news for you! And why not? I definitely think you deserve it after all you did to raise our test scores.


Your former Proficient Student

Letter to the Editor from a Piano Teacher

As Quebec debates a new report recommending eliminating elementary school homework, a piano teacher wrote the following letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen.

To the Editor
From a piano teacher

So here we are again, discussing the same issue that has been brought up countless times.

A few years ago, I wrote a letter to the Citizen, suggesting that homework impacts negatively on home life and extracurricular activities. As a piano teacher I was seeing several students a week come in embarrassed and apologetic because they hadn’t had time to practise. Many broke down in tears because they were so overworked and stressed. So much for piano for fun.

This situation has not changed. I am still seeing children as young as Grade 2 sobbing in my piano studio because there’s just no time to do anything other than school work.

Teachers don’t seem to understand; projects, summatives and tests are piled on indiscriminately and each teacher expects the most from each student. Multiply that by eight subjects in elementary school and four in high school.

Who has time to practise piano and enjoy it? Who has time for gymnastics or karate? Who has time just to play outside? I hear complaints from all ages of four to five hours of homework, from immediately after school, break for dinner, back to work till bedtime. Is this necessary?

Not only are we a society of burned-out adults, but we’re creating the same world for our children! School trustees and teachers, please, consider abolishing homework so that kids can be kids, so that I can see my wonderful students come in smiling and satisfied that they are prepared for their lesson, and ready to enjoy it.

And parents, please, take a stand and fight for your child’s emotional well being.

Good for parent Diane Hunter who declared there would be no more homework in the Hunter home. I admire her.

Elaine Armstrong,


Day 5 with FedUpMom

(Today is the last in a week of posts by FedUpMom. I really enjoyed showcasing her voice here and would like to give others that opportunity as well. So please email me with your ideas. And, don’t worry. FedUpMom will be back a week from Friday, where she’ll answer some of the questions she posed about George Orwell’s essay on her first post last week. A big thanks to FedUpMom for her hard work.)

Guest Post #5
by FedUp Mom

Talent vs. Hard Work

Recently there’s been a cultural meme claiming that achievement is all about hours of practice. It began with the book Outliers, which I heard quoted so much that I never bothered to read it, and continued recently with articles in the New York Times.

On the one hand, I agree that talent takes a great deal of hard work to develop properly. On the other hand, I don’t believe for a moment that the biggest difference between me and Mozart is that Mozart got more practice. Equally, if you had taken me at the same age Michael Phelps was when he started swimming, and made me spend the same number of hours swimming that he did, I would never have gone to the Olympics. Why? I don’t have the build, the energy, the coordination, or the ability. In short (and how!), I don’t have athletic talent.

My biggest fear about the idea of hours of practice is that it will be applied unthinkingly to our kids, many of whom are already overworked.

If you are passionate about something, the hours of practice can fly by. There must be a balance that will allow our kids to find their passion, and spend their energy wisely and effectively.

Day 4 with FedUp Mom

(I’ve given FedUpMom, who has written several guest entries in the past, free rein to speak her mind for the past three days here on stophomework. Today is her fourth post. If you’d like that opportunity, too, please email me.)

Guest Post #4
by FedUp Mom

How the Homework Got Done

“The schoolmaster who imagines he is loved and trusted by his boys is in fact mimicked and laughed at behind his back.”

— George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys”

“Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” is a TV show wherein Gordon Ramsay, a famous chef, travels around to failing restaurants and attempts to whip them into shape. A recurring theme is the absolute cluelessness of the failing chef. “But the customers love this!” he’ll say, as he’s ladling up some revolting slop. “I’ve never had any complaints!” Gordon Ramsay points out, correctly, that most people don’t bother to complain; they vote with their feet, and simply never return.

I wish the bad chef could hear what his customers really say about his food. Similarly, I wish every teacher could hear what her students, and the students’ parents, say behind her back. I wish they could see how the homework actually gets done.

For instance, my older daughter recently came home with an assignment from the school librarian. It consisted of 20 random factual questions (e.g., “what year was the first World Series game?”), of which my daughter was supposed to answer 15. She was only allowed to get help for 10 of the questions, and each person who helped was only allowed to help with 1 question. She was supposed to find the answers in almanacs or dictionaries, not the internet. If she answered all 20 questions correctly, she could win some contest (dd: “I don’t care about the contest!”) My daughter was very tense and worried about how she could manage all this.

Naturally, I told her that what the librarian doesn’t know won’t hurt her. We then spent a few minutes answering the questions by looking them up on the internet. I personally haven’t opened an almanac in many years, and it isn’t because I don’t look things up.

When my daughter turns in her answers, the librarian will think her assignment worked. That is, unless she reads the stophomework blog.

Now, I could have gone in and complained, and I still might. But like the dissatisfied diners, sometimes I’m just looking for a quick exit.

Day 3 with FedUpMom

(I’ve given FedUpMom, who has written several guest entries in the past, free rein to speak her mind for the next week here on stophomework. Today is her third post. If you’d like that opportunity, too, please email me.)

Guest Post #3
by FedUp Mom

FedUpMom’s IEP

I wonder how teachers see mothers. To the extent they think about us at all, I think they see a faceless mass of willing volunteers, always at the ready to organize and supervise our children’s homework, track down and buy obscure supplies, and explain difficult concepts that the teacher neglected to address. With a miraculously open schedule and wallets to match, we are an army of Everymoms at their beck and call. This describes the “good” Moms, of course.

While most schools at least give lip service to the idea that different kids have different needs, there is no such leeway for Mom. No matter how busy, tired, stressed-out or opposed she may be, she is never allowed to shirk her duties as homework cop.

A child might get an IEP for her special needs, but where’s Mom’s IEP? If we ever return to the public schools, I want an IEP of my own. It might go like this:

“FedUpMom suffers from Battle Fatigue and Overloaded Irascibility Disorder. If she shows up in your classroom sounding off about homework, the best strategy is to back away slowly. Keep your hands at your sides and avoid sudden movements. Accede to all of her demands. Do not antagonize. Any false move on your part could result in FedUpMom pulling a nice package of test scores (her daughter) out of the district.”

Day 2 with FedUpMom

(I’ve given FedUpMom, who has written several guest entries in the past, free rein to speak her mind for the next week here on stophomework. Today is her second post. If you’d like that opportunity, too, please email me.)

Guest Post #2
by FedUp Mom

“I suppose there is no place in the world where snobbery is quite so ever-present or where it is cultivated in such refined and subtle forms as in an English public school. Here at least one cannot say that English ‘education’ fails to do its job. You forget your Latin and Greek within a few months of leaving school — I studied Greek for eight or ten years, and now, at thirty-three, I cannot even repeat the Greek alphabet — but your snobbishness, unless you persistently root it out like the bindweed it is, sticks by you till your grave.”

— George Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier”

I was in a meeting early this school year to discuss the search for a new Head of School at my kids’ Quaker school. There was one moment that will stay with me for a long time. For some mysterious reason, everyone around the table took turns stating their connections to public schools. “I went to the public schools!” “My mother taught in the public schools!” Finally, one of the PTA-type Moms summed up the discussion by saying: “See, we’re not elitist!” Everyone except me nodded solemnly in agreement.

Continue reading “Day 2 with FedUpMom”

Introducing… Guest Host for the Week, FedupMom

I’ve given FedUpMom, who has written several guest entries in the past, free rein to speak her mind for the next week here on stophomework. If you’d like that opportunity, too, please email me.

FedUpMom attained her FedUp status through the experiences of her older daughter at the local nominally high-performing public school. Currently, both of FedUpMom’s daughters attend a small Quaker school, in kindergarten and 6th grade.

Guest Post #1
by FedUpMom

“Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls and boys,
In our youth time were seen
On the Echoing Green.”

(from “the Echoing Green”, by William Blake)

“Such, Such Were the Joys” is an essay by George Orwell, about his experiences at St. Cyprian’s school. It is bloody brilliant, and only becomes more relevant with every passing year.

I know my recommendation isn’t enough to motivate you to read the essay, so I’ve decided to make it compulsory. You can find a book of Orwell’s essays at your local library, or buy it from Amazon. Buy it used; you know your family can’t afford to buy it new.

Or, you can read it online.

Answer the questions below and turn in your answers by the end of the week. All submissions must be signed by a parent or guardian, your local police chief, the superintendent of the school board, and the Pope.

(Or, use those finely honed school skills and answer the questions without reading the essay! I will never know the difference.)

All quotes are from the essay.

1.) “Over a period of two or three years the scholarship boys were crammed with learning as cynically as a goose is crammed for Christmas… At St. Cyprian’s the whole process was frankly a preparation for a sort of confidence trick. Your job was to learn exactly those things that would give an examiner the impression that you knew more than you did know, and as far as possible to avoid burdening your brain with anything else.”

Continue reading “Introducing… Guest Host for the Week, FedupMom”