Hard Work…it really is good for kids!

Image result for images of homework

In a district where I once worked, middle school homework was the instructional equivalent of the Great Butter Battle. Though during my early years there we were told we weren’t assigning enough homework, trending conversations have been about too much.

Turned out that homework was just too hard. Kids had too many other activities: sports, acting lessons, cooking classes, voice training. And when they did finally get settled in their rooms–where they had access to computers, smart phones, televisions, and video game consoles–they were simply spent.

Image result for images of a clock face Fueled by parent concerns– likely fueled by tween complaints– the superintendent responded by limiting homework to ten minutes. Ten minutes.

Ten minutes is an eternity when Dr. Tim is drilling your back molar. When your express train is delayed ten minutes, making you unfashionably late for a meeting, it can be kind of a big deal. But not much happens in ten minutes for a 7th grader planning an analytical essay or solving for x. And what takes Johnny ten minutes to complete might take Susie twenty. So the Ten Minute Rule temporarily put homework out of its misery.

The problem was that we were proud of our status as a high performing district. We were sending our middle school kids to compete in demanding high schools, where by all measures, they arrived academically very well prepared.  Image result for images of homework

 

Homework was giving our kids a three-fer: content review, skills practice and while the stakes were still low, an intro to personal time management.  Image result for images of a bargain

But Wait…There’s More

And now experts who know about these things suggest that time spent on academics can keep kids from discovering more dangerous pastimes.  An article in Monday’s New York Times by Austin Frakt cites a paper published by the Journal of Health Economics that concluded hard school work is actually good for kids. Who knew? https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/30/upshot/worried-about-risky-teenage-behavior-make-school-tougher.html

 

The paper focuses on advanced math and science classes, but it isn’t difficult to make the leap into the humanities, too. Deconstructing transcendental poetry, communicating effectively en espanol,  defending Truman’s decision to use nuclear weaponry can be every bit as challenging as derivatives or the periodic table.

In states where tougher academic standards have been phased in, statistics suggest that kids seem more able to avoid cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. Image result for say no to drugs

 

And we thought homework was just a three-fer!

The simple story here is kids who are busy with homework have less time to sniff out dangerous activities.

But it is also about setting kids up for success down the road. In middle school, where it is oh-so-safe to commit the occasional age-appropriate faux pas–and who among us doesn’t remember doing that?–kids facing the challenges of reading, writing, speaking, computing and listening are developing positive habits while navigating around bad ones. It doesn’t require an advanced degree to know that good habits are that much harder to form once the bad ones have taken root.

And if this isn’t enough, when we send kids the message that they are responsible enough, they are capable enough to do the work we ask them to do, we are telling them we believe in them. When we stay with them, even when they mess up–as they and we certainly will–we tell them they are not alone on this journey.

The Ten Minute Rule eventually faded away–as did the superintendent who decreed it–but the homework conversation continues. Kids hate it. But kids often hate spinach and flu shots. Poet Shel Silverstein envisioned technology that could take the bad taste out of homework, but as yet, science has not produced a homework machine:

The Homework Machine/ Oh, the Homework Machine,/ Most perfect/Contraption that’s ever been seen.” 

 

 

 

 

God Bless the Children

We heard of the horror in Newtown during eighth period, at the end of the day.  The halls in our own school were Friday afternoon quiet. In classrooms, our teachers were hoping to make the most of every instructional moment, our kids hoping to hear the clock click to 2:43 announcing the weekend, and everyone feeling very safe in a place where everyone should be very safe.

The loss is unimaginable. 20 kids, all between ages of 5 and 10.  20 kids who went to school this morning and who will never come home. 20 kids, each with a family, each with a life as yet unlived.  Maybe they looked forward to singing a song in music today.  Maybe they were worried about a Friday spelling test. Maybe they almost missed the bus. Maybe they had play dates scheduled for this afternoon and basketball practice on Saturday morning. Maybe their families already had holiday gifts wrapped and hidden in the hall closet.

Radio and television news feeds us continuous information– all piecemeal–because we are hungry for details.  No, not out of any morbid need for gruesome facts, but because acts this heinous demand that we know why. Why would this 20 year  old killer–hardly more than a kid himself–fire upon a classroom full of kindergarteners?  There is something in us that makes us think if we know why, we can make sense of this unthinkable evil.

The fact is there is no possible way to make sense of it. Reporters and anchors and television experts will try.  Police investigators and psychiatrists and  politicians will try.  And quite honestly, we need them to try. We need to try ourselves, even as we know it is not possible.

Sometime in the next day or so, a portrait of the shooter will emerge.  It won’t be pretty. It won’t matter, either, though, because in the end, anything we learn about him won’t tell us what we want and need to know, won’t definitively tell us why.

There is no why.

There will be tales of heroism, too.  Already we have heard of the teacher who brought her first graders into a classroom restroom and kept them there, refusing to open the door even when first responders pushed badges under the door, all the while reassuring these scared fifteen kids that she would take care of them, that she loved them, that it was going to OK.

The best we can do as adults is make the kids in our lives–our children, grandchildren, neighbors, students–feel safe and secure. Let them know we love them. Hugs and kisses all around.  For their sakes and for our own well being, we have to be sure we tell them that we will be here to care for them. It is our job to protect the young and vulnerable.  Forget synthesis and differentiation and metatcognition; forget all the rest of the educational alphabet soup and bureaucratic drivel that has seeped into our classrooms and now drives what we do.

And we have to hug one another as well, reaffirming the significance of life, validating the possibility that good can somehow once again find a way to trump the evil that we have seen at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

I know the Newtown teachers and their students must go back to school, but I do not know how they will.

Thy Neighbor’s Talent

How well do you know the person who teaches in the classroom next to yours?

On Friday, our ESL teacher shared with our eighth graders her documentary about local individuals and the civil rights movement.   What she had called her “film” was really a professional work of art: an original idea, seamless transitions, perfect audio and above all, great interviews. That she produced this in her role as a member of the Board of Directors of the Westchester MLK Institute for Non Violence only adds to her stature.  Who knew?

I didn’t know.

I got to thinking: if this is one person with hidden talent, could there be other shy superstars out there as well?

We are a small staff and I was pretty sure I knew most of my colleagues well.

Yeah, maybe not so well.  Turns out that among my hard-working fellow educators are secret athletes, musicians, artists, professors, performers, photographers, poets, philanthropists, inventors.  Astounding that we should converge on the same building every day and that we should have such esteem for the work we do with students, and yet not know of talents  hidden behind those closed classroom doors.

Who knew that our seventh and eighth grade math teacher is an accomplished vocalist?  I know now.  Who knew that in addition to being two thirds of her way to a master’s degree in literacy a middle school TA is also a fine poet?  Who knew that our social studies teacher who runs half marathons for “fun,” helps her sister oversee an Autism Speaks event each fall?  Or that one of our special education teachers spends her summers as a professional development instructor? Who knew?  One of our middle school science teachers has skillfully checked the competition in an ice hockey league and another is an experienced diver who explores the wonders of sunken shipwrecks. Our reading specialist has been a respected professor at a nearby college.  The guidance counselor has used his baseball expertise to develop innovative equipment for catchers.  Our first grade teacher is a talented technology specialist with an artist’s eye for attractive design.

Who knew?

Among my colleagues are so many people with creativity, vision and committment.  I am so proud of being a member of this staff. So proud and at the same time, so humbled.

I am willing to bet that every school is harboring similar numbers of fugitives from fame.

So how well do you know the people you meet at the copy machine each morning?

Maybe you know they bring PBJ everyday for lunch.  Maybe you know they are compulsively neat or happily disorganized.  But do you know all the things—other than teaching—that they are really good at?

If we could tap into these diverse talents, we could bring collegiality to new heights, which is what happened on Friday afternoon: the ultimate in core curriculum instruction.   Maybe that should be the next big thing in education, bigger than more flawed student testing, bigger than new, improved teacher evaluations.

“Like” A Teacher Today

Yesterday, I checked in on a Facebook group, an alumni page devoted to people who attended my high school.  Along with catch-up chit chat and reunion info, someone posted a comment about our former math teachers.  Responses show teachers do make a difference.  So many years after we had all moved on, fellow grads still recall people who worked to make them math literate.  In my case, that was a task of mythical proportions.  Think Sisyphus. God love Mr. Roy Rich who gave me confidence to challenge/train my left brain to master both logic and geometric proofs.

Teachers Make a Difference

We all know them.  They are the people who taught us to share and to wait our turns.  They are the people who gave us the magic of reading, music, numbers, history, art and the value of fair play. They are the people who may not have loved us unconditionally as our parents did, but who none the less labored to make us our best.

Everyone can name their favorite teachers. Most of us can name our best teachers, too.   They weren’t always the sweetest, the prettiest, the gentlest, the funniest, or the easiest teachers, either. Kids don’t always see that.  As adults,  however, we know better. We know that  sometimes, the tough teachers– the ones who challenge us, who force our reach to exceed our grasp—are among the finest.

Now we need a public service ad 

If we all know them, if we all can name them, then why do we need this:

Ads like these run on my local network affiliates:  teachers featured in thirty-second sound bytes reassuring viewers that they do indeed work hard, love kids, and know their content.  Is that what teachers have been reduced to doing to assert their worth? Really?

Rationally, I  totally get it.  It is in our own best interest to publicly share the great work we do. I understand that we must be proactive. Education has become part of the political fabric of  the country in ways most of us never considered when we were studying pedagogy and child development.

Most teachers are not political animals.  Most of us simply want to continue what we do best: teach.  Yet, we seem to be forced into the fray, particularly during these challenging economic times. Tenure, pensions, living wages seem to be what outsiders resent most about teachers.   So, I understand the need to self promote.

But, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.  Part of me still finds it offensive.  (It’s that right brain again hindering rational thought!)   I wonder why we need to show and tell so much.  Is this our our Sally Field moment?  We want them to like us, really, really like us?  Watching television ads makes me feel that our profession has been somehow been cheapened, reduced to the same slick advertising copy used to hawk the latest electronic consumer good.

Like a teacher, today 

The teachers I know are professionals.  They take their jobs very seriously, well aware of the responsibility.   They have earned advanced degrees.  They work within a network of lifelong learners who share the vision of effective education as essential to the common good.

Teacher Appreciation Day has come and gone.  But it’s still OK to “like” a teacher today.