Shabbat of Sanctity Dirshu’s 20th Anniversary International Convention
By: Kelly Jemal Massry
The seed for this article was planted on Erev Hanukah,
when I got an email from my daughter’s third grade teacher.
“Dear Parents,”it said in bold, capital letters,
“NO HOMEWORK OVER HANUKAH.
ENJOY YOUR VACATION.
ENJOY HANUKAH WITH YOUR FAMILY.”
The email contained no exclamation marks, but I was supplying them in my head. Enjoy my vacation… from homework! Enjoy Hanukah with my family? Well, I certainly would if homework were suspended for the week! It truly felt as if a burden had been lifted. I felt a new lightness of being – joyousness was starting to pervade! And it got me thinking – if my feelings about a temporary homework ban were so pronounced, what did that say about homework in general? Was homework really doing all that it should to serve our children? And if it wasn’t, should it be lifted?
Something told me that even educators might be on board with my way of thinking. After all, whenever they did eliminate homework – be it because of winter vacation or a Jewish holiday – they made it seem as if they were giving us a gift to be cherished. Perhaps we should reevaluate the standard practice, then – especially if it was something that not even the teachers themselves were enjoying.
Of course, I did not want to be too hasty. I needed to scout the field, talk to parents and educators, and examine the research before I came to any conclusions. First, I spoke to Rachel Khasky Levy, a speech language pathologist who homeschooled her children for a two-year time period. She did so after her son was diagnosed with dyslexia and his place of learning no longer suited his educational needs. While he was enrolled in school, however, Rachel remembers there being a fierce battle over homework, and the administration doing nothing to alleviate it. “Certain schools are very antiquated and set in their ways,” says Rachel. “It’s hard to get them to change their policy. Parents, too, are defensive about homework – they’re fighting for it.”
As a parent, Rachel leans decidedly in the other direction. She believes homework does an injustice to children, who have been contained all day and, after school, just want to be free. “They’ve been learning all day,” she says. “They’ve sat in a chair for eight hours, and then they’re sent home to do more of the same.” We can visualize it, can’t we? The child, straight-backed and serious as he puzzles over his homework, never being given a break from what is strenuous mental activity?
Equally concerning are the problems homework presents, which make themselves known only moments after the child has taken out his school books. “It’s said that homework should be done independently and for only a certain amount of time,” says Rachel. “The reality is that homework is never done independently and never takes that ‘x’ amount of time. It’s believed that by doing homework children are reviewing what they’ve learned in class that day – but sometimes the assignments are similar, but not the same, and the child gets confused.” This is because children are not necessarily capable of applying the material across contexts – and the moment they reach that bump, you can bet that a parent is going to swoop in. “When homework comes prematurely,” writes Heather Shumaker of Salon, “it’s hard for children to cope with assignments independently. Kids slide into the habit of relying on adults to help with homework or, in many cases,do their homework. Parents often assume the role of Homework Patrol Cop…which undermines one of the purported purposes of homework: responsibility.”
Indeed, those in favor of homework posit that it teaches maturity, self-discipline, and responsibility – but the reality is just the opposite. “Rather than independence, homework that children cannot do on their own teaches dependence and clinginess,” says Rachel. Given homework like this, they internalize the idea that they can’t do it, that they can’t learn, that they can’t complete what should be a simple task by themselves. What does that do to enhance a student’s self-perception? Absolutely nothing.
“If you want to teach responsibility,” Rachel suggests, “assign homework that a child can do with pride, without asking an adult for help. Let them complete anything they’re going to need help with in school.” The research actually supports this suggestion. “For elementary-aged children,” Shumaker writes, “research suggests that studying in class gets superior learning results, while extra schoolwork at home is just… extra work.” Add to that this shocker of a statement made by homework research expert Harris Cooper of Duke University: “There’s no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.”
What the evidence does show is the negative impact homework has on children’s attitudes towards school. “That’s what’s worrying,” states Shumaker. “Homework does have an impact on students, but it’s not a good one. A child just beginning school deserves the chance to develop a love of learning. Instead, homework at a young age causes many kids to turn against school.” It goes even further than that, as their surly and resistant attitudes seep into the home. “In thousands of homes across the country, families battle over homework nightly,” Shumaker writes.“Parents nag and cajole. Overtired children protest and cry.” Rachel concurs: “I find that on so many levels homework creates strife in families as opposed to bringing families together.”
If the case against homework is so overwhelmingly stacked, why assign it at all? What is the rationale behind homework, anyway? Sara Rosenfeld, the Assistant Principal of Barkai Yeshivah, sheds some light on the topic. “Homework is ingrained in parents as a rite of childhood,” she says. “Parents often correlate homework with academic rigor, so teachers sometimes assign a lot of work in order to keep children busy and parents happy. However, the research does not support this practice.” Parents do seem to be attached to the idea of homework. They appreciate that it provide a home-school connection, and that it gives students something productive to do with their after school hours. “All I know is, when there’s no homework, my kids are on their iPad all night,” says Lynda Levy. She makes a good point. In today’s technology-obsessed
culture, kids can easily lose hours to their devices, while parents, involved in other things, aren’t monitoring their activity. If we do scale back on homework, then, we must make sure it is replaced with something constructive. “I hate when there’s only a small amount of homework,” says another parent. “Then I feel like I have to entertain my kids for the rest of the night.” That’s an understandable admission. According to this parent, if homework were eliminated, instead of playing Homework Cop, she’d be playing Free Time Cop! But that doesn’t have to be the case. The key is not entertaining our children during this after school vacuum, but teaching our children how to entertain themselves. “Make a list of quiet independent tasks that the child can really enjoy,” suggests Rachel. “This may include Legos, painting, drawing, audiobooks, instruments, cardboard creations, and exercise. As parents, we need to help facilitate independence and move away from the idea that we need to entertain our children. This takes some training – sort of like potty training. It’s extremely annoying and messy at first, but once they learn, you have a much easier life.”
The research actually advocates for this kind of unstructured activity, stressing how important playtime is for children. “Play and exercise do indeed lead to increased academic performance,” says Sara Rosenfeld. “So given the choice between homework and time to play outside, children would be much better served with more play time.” A select number of parents find themselves inhabiting this worldview, relaxing their homework policies, once they see their kids gravitating towards the outdoors. “In the spring, all my kids want to do is be outside with the neighbors,” says Stefanie Sakkal. “I used to be a stickler in making them do homework first, but I changed that last year and let them go play. I think it’s so important for them to have time for that too! There needs to be a balance.”
If homework is assigned, researchers recommend no more than ten minutes a night per grade level (So my third grader’s homework should take no more than half an hour – and I can tell you it takes us double that.) (Notice I said “us” not “her.”) In an article entitled Is Homework a Necessary Evil, Kirsten Weir writes, “too much homework can do more harm than good. Researchers have cited drawbacks including boredom and burnout towards academic material, less time for family and extra curricular activities and increased stress.” Cooper lends his agreement. “At all grade levels, doing other things after school can have positive effects,” he says. “To the extent that homework denies access to other leisure and community activities, it’s not serving the child’s best interests.” Denise Pope, Professor of Education at Stanford University says it most succinctly: “Children need downtime in order to thrive.”
The question is, are our educational institutions allowing for downtime? Do administrations consciously make an effort to keep homework at a minimum so that children have license to explore other avenues of interest? Barkai Yeshivah is certainly working in that direction and my hope is that soon other schools will follow suit. The yeshivah requires students to read each night –
but that is the only built-in requirement. Homework isn’t always a guarantee. “At Barkai, teachers only assign homework when it’s meaningful and necessary,” says Sara.“The yeshivah school day is so long as it is, and we want our children to have time to engage in play and other meaningful activities.”
Feeling daring, I asked Rachel Khasky Levy, my initial interview subject for this article, what she thought might happen if our schools eliminated homework completely. Would we see fallout? Students suffering from a lapse in their learning and coming into school ill-prepared, as opposed to ready to learn? “I think the opposite!” Rachel said, and I can see how she might be right. It would seem that a child who’s had the time to relax and recharge would return to school reenergized rather than dulled. Much the way our bodies need nightly sleep to refuel, a child’s brain needs to given rest after a full day of exertion.
Assuming this article has you convinced, what can you do about it? How can we as parents – laypeople, not educators – act to change the current practice? “Parents should come together,” urges Rachel. “Parents don’t feel like they have a voice, don’t feel like they know enough about the subject. After all, they say, ‘I’m not an educator.’ But parents have so much more power than they realize. Hopefully parents will feel empowered by this article and be an advocate for their children.”
As parents, let’s take a good, hard look at the research, and at the way our children present when commanded to do their homework. Rather than trying to persevere through the struggle, to achieve the upper hand and make sure that homework gets done, let’s perhaps consider that maybe something is wrong here. Because it shouldn’t be that hard. For both parent and child, coming home after a long day and seeing one another again should feel like a reunion of sorts. It should feel joyous, not as if we’re gearing up for war!
Here’s what I propose: Let’s privilege imagination over rote memorization. Let’s assign workouts instead of worksheets. And then let’s see if our children change, grow, and even thrive because of it.
Readers can contact Rachel Khasky Levy at: Racheljl1212@yahoo.com.