Building blocks: Homework teaches lessons that go beyond the classroom
by Brett Buckner
Special to The Star
Aug 23, 2009 | 2086 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Seth Elston has the answer to a question in Pam Fitzgerald's first grade class at Faith Christian School in Anniston. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star
Seth Elston has the answer to a question in Pam Fitzgerald's first grade class at Faith Christian School in Anniston. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star
Teacher Pam Fitzgerald helps Gage Miller with his reading in her first-grade class at Faith Christian School in Anniston. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star
Teacher Pam Fitzgerald helps Gage Miller with his reading in her first-grade class at Faith Christian School in Anniston. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star
Homework — the necessary evil of the education system.

And while it's the students who need after-school assignments to not only learn but to mature, it's often the parents who learn the greatest lessons in both restraint and patience … not to mention a little reminder of what school was really like.

"It's their homework and it makes me feel dumb," says Leslie Smith, whose son, David, attends Anniston High School. "It's like every night I'm reminded of what all I've forgotten."

Most parents have long since been left behind by their children for the mere fact that they're in the process of getting an education, while their parents have already passed through high school, leaving a lot of that knowledge on their way to collect their diplomas.

"I'd like to be able to help him more when he gets frustrated," Smith says, "But I honestly don't know how. I just try and calm his nerves, keep him focused and tell him that getting the right answer isn't always the only answer, … as long as he tries and doesn't give up that's what really matters."

It's a philosophy that most teachers, from elementary to middle right on up to high school, will agree with. Students are given homework not just as busy work or punishment, but as a means of measuring how well the day's lessons have taken root.

"Homework is supposed to be practice," says Bill Green who teaches seventh-grade social studies, citizenship and geography at Saks Middle School. "And you never give homework on something that's totally new because that leads to frustration. You've taught the skill and the students have hopefully learned it, now's the time for them to practice it on their own.

"And their success shows the teacher whether or not to go back or move on."

According to a recent review of nearly 200 studies of homework and its effects by the so-called "guru of homework," Duke University professor Harris Cooper, there is little correlation between the amount of homework and achievement in elementary school and only a moderate correlation in middle school. Even in high school, "too much homework may diminish its effectiveness or even become counterproductive," Cooper wrote in The Battle over Homework.

Cooper recommends, and most schools contacted for the story agreed, that kids should be assigned no more than 10 minutes per grade level per school night — Monday through Thursday only. This means 10 minutes in first grade, 20 minutes in second, 30 minutes in third up to a maximum of two hours per night in high school.

Stress test

There are more things to be considered when dolling out assignments. Because for all their bulging backpacks, students often carry around responsibilities beyond the classroom, explains Pam Fitzgerald, who teaches first grade at Faith Christian School.

"There are only so many hours in the night," she says. "I believe that homework should be balanced against family time. In most households, both parents are working, so there's only so much time to get everything else done — getting everybody fed, bathed and in bed at a decent hour — throw two hours of homework on top of all that and something is going to be left out."

Sleep is often what's sacrificed, especially among active high school students who can easily stare down the barrel of two-plus hours of homework a night.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, 80 percent of teens don't get the recommended nine-plus hours of sleep per night. And at least 28 percent fall asleep in school, while another 22 percent fall asleep during homework.

Karen Phillips, whose son, Chandler, is a junior at Oxford High School, has no complaints as to the amount of homework he's bringing home at night. Chandler has been very self-motivated for most of his academic career, and now, doing his homework isn't so much a chore as it is an expected part of his daily routine.

"To me, it's very important to have prepared him early," Phillips says. "Once you set that precedent early on, they're much more likely to follow it through high school and on to college."

That is another point worth noting — children are under tremendous pressure to succeed and move forward academically. According to the American Psychological Association, typical schoolchildren today report more anxiety than did child psychiatric patients in the 1950s.

And while no one is blaming that entirely on homework, there's little doubt it can be considered a factor.

"We're a changing society that's putting much more emphasis on education," Phillips says. "There are a higher number of people not only going to college for not only their bachelor's degree but also a master's degree and many are pursuing a Ph.D. And we're all very competitive — and our children become part of that."

Life lessons

Homework isn't just about the individual assignments. It also teaches lessons that go well beyond the classroom, says Nancy Turner, who teaches seventh, ninth and 11th grade, along with AP English to seniors at Faith Christian School.

"There are a lot of life skills that are taught through homework," says Turner, who avoids giving excessive amounts each night, choosing instead to assign long- and short-term projects. "They learn all about time management skills and about putting the most important thing first."

And those lessons start early.

Though she's only 6 years old, Jayda Hyatt, who's a first-grader at Cleburne County Elementary School, is having homework most nights. It's usually reading assignments, spelling words and math worksheet, which for her mother, Carrie, is a good thing. And while it might only amount to 15-20 minutes per night, these assignments are preparing Jayda for what will be expected of her in the years to come.

"I think it teaches responsibility at an early age," Carrie Hyatt says. "When she grows up and has a career, she'll have to learn to prioritize because sometimes that work has to come home. And what Jayda's already learning is that work comes first and everything else — all the fun stuff — comes second."

As a teacher with more than 30 years experience, Fitzgerald understands the value of homework for both the long and short terms. But it should not be viewed as a labor for the parents.

"Parents need to be active and involved … as long as they know what they're doing," she says. "But there comes a time, when, if you're child's not getting it in the classroom, to consult a professional."

And yet most parents have experienced the tears and frustration as it spills out over the diner table. The instinct for any parent is to take over, to make it better and then just hope for the best, but doing it for the child — especially when homework involved — will only lead to greater problems in the future.

"I'd love to simply see more parents interested in homework and making sure the assignments are being attempted," Green says. "I'm all for parents trying to help, but the truth is, if they don't know how, it's really not going to do much good, especially come test time.

"Parents just need to offer help where and when they can and let the teachers make up the difference."

Homework tips for parents

• Make sure your child has a quiet, well-lit place to do his or her homework.

• Make sure the materials your child needs, such as paper and pencils, are available.

• Help your child with time management. Be positive about homework.

• When your child does homework, you do homework.

• When your child asks for help, provide guidance, not answers.

• When the teacher asks that you play a role in homework, do it.

• If homework is meant to be done by your child alone, stay away.

• Stay informed.

• Help your child distinguish between hard homework and easy homework.

• Watch your child for signs of failure and frustration.

• Reward progress in homework.

— Provided by Connect with Kids, a company focused on helping educators and parents teach life skills.
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