Hard Work…it really is good for kids!

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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.” 





Power Up

No phone, no lights, no motor cars,
Not a single luxury,
Like Robinson Crusoe,
As primitive as can be.” ~ ~from Gilligan’s Island theme song

There is nothing like twelve days without electricity to remind you of your place in this world.

And if you are still not convinced,the power comes back on and you see the photos and footage of  devastation and human suffering.

At the height of Hurricane Sandy, just after the lights went out, the night sky glowed with green and blue and red auras, creepy remnants of transformers and live wires. The wind ruled the trees, snapping trunks. Surging tides devoured the shore.

And then there was only darkness and quiet. We live above a busy and noisy railroad crossing, but train service had been suspended. The parkway beyond the tracks was closed due to downed trees and flooding. Everything had come to a screeching halt.

For people used to instant results commanded by flipping a switch or tapping a screen, standing still is torture, being quiet a crime.  We have come to measure existence through perpetual stimuli: electronic beeps validate relationships and colorful icons convey emotions.  Our HD televisions keep us company even when nothing of interest airs.  Texts and emails keep us connected.

We want our MTV!

This is the only world our students know.  Their fingertips caress touchscreens out of habit. If they can’t contact any of their six hundred thirty-two Facebook friends, they are restless.  When cell service is disrupted, they are lonely.

Technology has given our students access to the world.  The miracles of microchips and fiber optics make it possible to introduce our students to places they would never visit, people they would never meet. In one class, they eavesdrop on surgeons making delicate incisions and take a walk through Anne Frank’s secret annex in the next. They can plug into a presidential town hall meeting and send the commander-in-chief a message about the state of foreign affairs.   Digital technology has shrunk the globe.

     Technology, though, has made the personal worlds our students inhabit smaller, too.  They spend as much time with their screens as they do in conversation and paradoxically, the same click of a mouse that opens the window to so much has closed our kids into isolated chambers where communication consists of abbreviations and emoticons..  Kids used to instant responses lose interest in tasks that require sustained concentration or effort.

Don’t get me wrong; I love my modern conveniences: my  cell phone, lights, motor car and most of all these days, I love my generator.

And clearly education has to adapt or die.  But finding the balance between instruction and entertainment has become a challenge.  Districts investing millions in technology demand to see their dollars at work  and too often what ends up in the classroom are bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors.  The kids are having fun, but are they learning? It is sometimes hard to tell the difference; far too often, it doesn’t even seem to matter anymore.

There are so many things technology can give and there is no doubt that our students must be skilled in using these digital gifts.  But there are so many times when learning isn’t about a link to somewhere or someone else.  If you don’t believe this, then you haven’t examined the Common Core Standards which are all about reading and writing the old-fashioned way: closely, slowly, for detail.

Twelve days in the dark have restored appreciation for what electricity has given us.  At the same time, twelve days in the dark remind me of the value of communication skills: reading, writing and, my favorite, plain old conversation.