First Person

Parent blog: When you hear "I hate homework!"

Mom and literacy coach Ilana Spiegel confesses that she hates what homework can do to her household but says there are ways to eliminate daily battles.

I hate homework. Well, maybe it’s not homework I hate but the yelling, tears and endless procrastination that accompany homework in my house. It is when I think of homework as less of “work at home” and more of “continued learning” that I see a shift both in my ability to support my kiddos and in their willingness to comply.

Just the other day, my oldest, Max, a high school freshman, asked why on earth he needed to learn and practice factor labeling and dimensional analysis for a physical science class (yes, it was uttered with more than an ounce of adolescent angst along with the pragmatism).

He wanted to know not only the purpose for the work he was doing, but where it lived in the real world.  After I googled exactly what factor labeling and dimensional analysis are, I told him that his most favorite aunt and uncle who just finished med school probably use it all the time in figuring out medication dosing. My answer must have satisfied him because he went back to work.

But, really, why do homework?

Max and my other three kids raise a good question. Why do they need to do homework of any kind?

For a while I tried the, “It is exercise and food for your brain.” That worked about as well as, “Because I said so.” Once again, when I made the shift from “work at home” to “continued learning,” I began to realize that in the elementary and middle school years, homework should serve two purposes – to reinforce a skill taught at school and to communicate with parents about what is being taught.

At these grades, homework is neither busy work nor a time to learn new concepts. Math and spelling homework should provide an opportunity for your child to get more “reps” at a math technique or spelling concept that she has already been shown at school and has yet to master. Ideally, it should be specific to what she needs as a learner, based on formal classroom assessments and anecdotal observation. Science and social studies homework should involve reading or re-reading similar content that was explored in class.  Written reflections about what was learned and what your child still wants to know are reasonable for any subject.

The bottom line is we do homework to continue the learning we began in school so we can ultimately take it into the world with us.

Once high school starts, the work in school might be continued by applying what was learned to a new situation. Take, for example, Max’s factor label homework. One side of the paper was similar to what had been modeled and demonstrated in class. When Max cried, “He never taught us this” when he turned to the second page, he was right. The second set of problems required the students to apply what they had learned to similar, but not entirely the same, problems. The expectation as kids get older is that they can apply what they know to new situations.

Tools to support your child’s continued learning

Regardless of whether or not you are sitting in another room doing your own thing, or right next to your child giving immediate feedback, the space in which your child continues her learning should have all the tools necessary for work:

  • A hard, flat surface
  • Pencils, pens and highlighters
  • Rulers
  • Paper and sticky notes

In our house. we have four distinct work areas. Charlotte, my middle schooler, prefers the solitude and comfort of her bedroom to do  work. Jack, my fourth-grader, gets more anxious about what he is missing when he is in his room so you can often find him at the kitchen counter or table. Max, the high schooler, tends to use the “kids office,” or our formal living room which has a low wooden table and lots of lamps. Ruthie, my kindergartener, prefers a lap desk in the family room with a pencil box of supplies.

In addition to spaces, tools like planners are invaluable. For some kids, the simple act of writing down assignments is enough.  Others might need slips of paper and notes reminding them what supplies they need to bring home to fulfill the assignments.

Time and timers are additional tools. I’ve found that most kids grossly underestimate the amount of time needed to complete assignments. Use a timer to compare estimated and actual times, or to say, “You have 7 minutes to complete this assignment.” For some reason, numbers other than ones that end in zero or five grab kids attention better.

My kids are telling me to end this post with, “See, that’s why homework really does suck!” But they all concede that we have a lot fewer tears, screams and tantrums these days when we are continuing our learning at home.

Image of father helping his daughter with homework courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.