Saturday, March 9, 2013

End the Madness

Yesterday, we, the faculty at Cary Academy, watched the documentary RACE TO NOWHERE. The film was followed by a faculty discussion on its content and what it might mean to us as educators and parents. A lively discussion evolved centering mostly around the stress of excessive daily homework and grades.
The film quoted research that showed that there was no correlation between the time spent on homework and achievement when middle school students spent more than one hour on daily homework.  What are the implications? If a student has 6 core subjects (yes, I dared to count world languages and arts as core subjects - but more on that in a different post) and every teacher assigns 15 minutes of homework, the student will have to sit for 1 1/2 hours completing homework. Ok, so art teachers don't necessarily assign homework on a regular basis, but teachers that do assign homework often, may also consider 15 minutes of homework not enough. My school has checks and balances in place to monitor the amount of homework our students have. Students give feedback in the form of surveys, and we ask parents during conferences twice a year to gauge their homework load. Generally, we manage to stay within a 1 1/2 hour limit, but if research says that there is no positive correlation after one hour, we must scale back. Why? Because our children are stressed, overbooked, and over-structured. We are stripping them of their right to be children. We are rushing their development and pressure them to excel at everything they do. Aside from childhood diseases like measles and chickenpox, I remember being sick only a few times in my entire childhood. Yes, there was the occasional runny nose or sore throat in the winter. But other than that I was a model of good health. One might argue that genetic disposition may have contributed to this, but truly, I don't remember any of my peers being sick either. Today, in my classes, it is normal that at least one student is either missing due to illness or at the nurse for dizziness, headaches, tummy aches, etc. When my students talk about their schedules, I can't help but feel their anxiety and understand why they may not be as prepared as I would like for them to be. Yes, it is rewarding to be on the state or national stage for your dancing, singing, skating, soccer, etc. skills, but the amount of time the average student spends on extracurricular activities just does not allow time for homework. I am willing to give "no homework" a try. Isn't it our duty as educators to do what we as professionals know is in the best interest of our students? 
Of course there may be some that argue that in order to get our students ready for the rat race, we better prepare them for it early. Let's talk about that. I don't know many adults that are not stressed and overwhelmed with their daily duties and tasks and struggle with work-life balance issues. I have decided to get up at 5 a.m. during this spring break because I have such a zest for life that I do not want to sleep it away. Really??? Truth is, I have so much work piled up that break is the time to get caught up, to get my head at least a little above water, even if it's just for coming up for quick air. And this is exactly how I am model life to my daughter, my students, and others that are observing. I am stressed! So along with assigning less homework to allow students a more balanced life, we, the teachers have to work on balancing our own lives. How do we do that though when there are increasing daily demands on us? I am hoping someone will get the message. Overworked teachers aren't necessarily the best role models for a balanced life. 
On the other equation of homework is achievement. Achievement as in grades, AP scores, SAT scores, end-of-year scores, class rankings, and ultimately the acceptance to a prestigious college. What is the purpose of grades and test scores anyway? What do we value when we make qualitative assumptions based on quantitative data? We need a bottom line that can be used to judge performance, that of the students and that of the teachers. Grades are used to show the relative position of one child within, let's say a class. If a student has an A, presumably, she has mastered the content. Of course, if we really wanted to give feedback to the student and the parents, we could write a short comment instead. We could focus on how the student went about learning or completing a task, rather than the end product. We could help her to be a reflective learner, rather than a consumer of education. Last trimester, I wanted to see what happens if I did not include a grade when I returned assessments, but merely marked areas that needed attention, wrote a brief comment with positive feedback, and then graded on a separate sheet using a rubric. The students' reaction was very telling. As soon as I gave back the first assessments, students started saying, "You forgot to put my grade on the test." When I told them that it was intentional, they wanted to find out how they would ultimately know what they made. I responded that instead of wondering about the grade they received, I wanted them to go through their assessment, discuss its outcome with a peer, and then assess their own learning with a rubric. They followed my directions, did what I wanted them to do, but I could tell, there was still this nagging feeling of the unknown grade in the grade book. After they were finished with their reflection and self-assessment, I revealed my rubric assessments to them. What a relief it was indeed. What did this exercise accomplish? My students were forced to reflect on their own learning and verbalize what they did well and where they had room for growth. I was disappointed that they still wanted to have a "grade", but after all, we have been training them to study just enough to get that glorious A. So I continued with my practice throughout the trimester, eventually replacing the A, B, C, D columns in the rubric with stars. Today, students immediately look at the feedback provided on their assessments and start correcting and talking to their peers about it. Conversations like "Can I get 5 points back if I turn in my corrections." don't really take place any more. It was really not that hard to get them to distance themselves from "grade mania". This experiment is a work in progress. I will write about it when I have new insights.
The Framework for 21st Century Learning calls for core subjects to foster creativity and to teach life skills to our students. Creative thought, though, requires downtime, unstructured time, and reflection. This is counter-intuitive to the rat race culture for which we are preparing our students. I think all educators and parents should watch the RACE TO NOWHERE and start an open dialogue amongst each other and between the different constituents of education. 

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