The Honeymoon Is Over: Twenty Things Your Child’s Teacher Wants You To Know

school-216891__180And the survey says . . .  an informal poll of teachers representing various grades, school districts and both the public and private reveal what teachers want parents to know now that school is in full-swing!

The Early Years

Your child is excited to see you at pick-up.  Get off your cell phone.  In a few years time, they won’t want a bear hug and to be smothered with kisses in plain sight of their friends.

Remember, “school clothes” and “play clothes”?  Unless your child wears a uniform to school, school clothes should be play clothes.  Don’t send me a note about how paint splatters stained an expensive shirt.  Learning can be messy!

That includes footwear!  Yes, I know those red-glittery Mary Janes are adorable and that Crocs are a favourite, but appropriate footwear for running around the gym, they are not.

When a four year old has to pee, they have to pee yesterday.  Fiddling with the likes of zippers, toggles and buttons means that there will be an accident that I have to cleanup, while simultaneously teaching 19 additional children.

The same goes for snack containers.

Don’t badger me at drop-off and pick-up.  I know you have concerns.  I read your emails and listened to your phone message but let’s arrange a time to talk without the ears of other parents and children around.

The Tween & Teen Years

I am not calling/emailing/texting/courier-pigeoning you if your child didn’t do his/her homework.  Especially, if they are in grade 12.

It’s okay if your child makes mistakes.  Let them.  That’s how they will learn.

I know when you do their homework.  It’s no great mystery that you did it when their report on Mayans is thirteen pages, double-spaced, APA formatted and bound in a Dou-tang when in-class it’s a miracle if I can get a legible and coherent three paragraph response.

Stop comparing your kid to another’s kid.  Furthermore, stop comparing yourself to the other parents.

Let kids be kids.  They feel enough pressure to grow up quickly.

Stilettos for a grade 8 Graduation are not appropriate.  Neither are skimpy dresses.  Or professionally done make-up.

It’s okay if your kid doesn’t have a boyfriend/girlfriend.  There is a lifetime for relationships like that.  What’s more important is your child being a good friend to others?

Learn to say “no” to your kids! Believe it or not, they want you to!

For All The Years

Teach your child to be independent.  Teach them to put on their own shoes, pack their own packs, return their own forms and manage their own projects.  When you do things for your child that they can do for themselves, you’re doing them a disservice!  Chances are they are capable of a lot more than you are giving them credit for.

Buying your child a new agenda, backpack, iPhone, computer, fancy jacket, boots, running shoes . . . .  the list could go on . . . just because they lost the first doesn’t teach them responsibility.  Did they even check the Lost and Found?  Chances are, no!

Sometimes it is inevitable that you will need to book an appointment for your child during school hours but book these with discretion.  Haircuts are not critical and do not count!

Remember that I am a human being too.  Sometimes I make mistakes.  Don’t trash talk me in front of your kids.  Cut me some slack and I will cut you some too.    

Spend time with your kids.  Turn off the TV, the computers, and the social media and just be together.  Go for a walk, play a game, make dinner together.  Your child will perform better in school

Most Importantly . . .

Your child is not a genius.

The Homework Window

040I’m not a big homework fan.  I’m not a big homework foe.  In my life on my own four of five weeknights with my three boys (7, 5 and 2), homework is mostly another pesky thing I haven’t been getting around to.

But it’s interesting that we’ve been talking about it on 4Mothers, because I have just recently suggested to my oldest son that he stay up just a bit later than his brothers so we can do some “homework”.  Apart from a bit of reading, he actually hasn’t been assigned any homework.  But he actually really likes practicing his writing and doing worksheets, and would probably benefit from the extra practice, and I was feeling a bit lame about not following an expressed interest.

So we’ve been implementing this new homework window.  It’s not ideal learning time, being at the end of the day, and it’s early days.  But it’s been going really well anyway.

Still, I’ll confess to a secret:  I’m not carving this time out just for the homework, maybe not even primarily for the homework.  When I noticed that my oldest didn’t seem to need quite as much sleep as his brothers (and I would prioritize sleep over homework for sure), I saw an opportunity.  A window of time, brief but available, for my son and me to have some time alone.  A period for him to have my attention, undivided, to help him read a book, practice writing, or add some numbers together.

Or to put together a little Lego.  Last night, after labouring through a book that would normally not be a challenge, my son asked if we could “just chill”.  I had used this expression earlier as a possibility along with homework for our time together – he heard it and he wanted it.  And I did too.  He requested that I sit next to him while he built a Lego plane, even though he can do it alone.  It was late and we didn’t finish it, and cooperative first child that he is, he didn’t complain.  It was really too brief a period, but at least we had it.

The more I move along in my life, the more I want the things I do to have overlapping functions and benefits.  Our new homework routine hits the mark.  It helps me support my son’s reading and skills development, but it also creates pleasant associations with formal learning, acknowledges the fact that he is older and distinct from his brothers, and opens up a little pocket of one-on-one time that both of us truly crave.  We are both eager for this time.

If it wasn’t a multi-faceted win, I’m not sure I would do it.  My kids are still quite young, and I’d rather they dream than drill.  But our little homework window is working well so far, and I’ve been thinking of ways to improve upon it.  Maybe make a little tea?  Maybe a candle at the table?  But I think my best idea is to just sit down and do my own work alongside my son.  Maybe talk a little.  I love his company, and it would be such a nice way to let the curtain down on the day’s activities.

Oh, and the homework might get done too.

The Three Rs of Homework: Review, Reinforce, Reflect

writing-104091_640Has it begun for your kids yet?  Now that the school year is well and truly under way, are your kids facing minutes or mountains of homework?

Homework is such a divisive topic, both among parents and between parents and kids.  There are plenty of parents who are adamant that homework has no place in their family time, and they do not want their kids to come home with it.  Then there are those who just don’t want to have the Big Argument with their kids over getting homework done.

I heard a really persuasive argument recently, though, about the value of making homework an established part of your child’s at-home routine: a much greater chance of success at university.  Research shows that students who reach university without having had to do homework in the middle and high school years have a much higher failure rate in their first year classes.  Why?  Because those who had a firmly-established homework routine were much better equipped to manage their time once they reached university.

So, what is a successful homework routine?  Until the end of Grade 8, the suggested time spent on homework is about 10 minutes per grade level per day.  (10 minutes in Grade 1, 20 in grade 2, etc., and 70-90 minutes for the middle school years.)  Homework should never be busy-work and should always in some way help the student to reinforce what has been learned in the classroom and to review their knowledge so that it sticks.  Even if homework amounts to nothing more than pulling out the agenda to confirm that there is no homework, the student is still learning the habit of reflecting on his or her learning responsibilities.

And if there is no set task to do as homework?  Are they off the hook?  The guidance counsellors at my son’s school suggest that if there is no set task for homework, then that time should still be spent doing something that fits the category and promotes the discipline of homework.  Think of the three Rs and ensure that whatever you choose, it helps your child to review, reinforce or reflect on the school day.  The most obvious choice is to read for pleasure, but they also suggested

  • at-home art projects
  • journaling
  • reviewing class notes
  • organizing their binders
  • looking at their agendas to anticipate work that may be coming
  • practicing a skill
  • and even doing on-line brain training at sites like lumocity.

(In other words, conscious, active, and engaged participation in learning, not passive consumption of media.)

What works for your family?  Your kids?  Any tips to share to make homework more enjoyable?

Finding Time to Volunteer

help-686323_640I’ve recently become a stay-at-home-parent (and blogger – see my stuff here!). Briefly, I’ve taken a one-year leave of absence from my paid work as a bank lawyer to spend more time with my children, and re-set the rhythm of our family life. On my blog I talk about  lots of personal things, and argue that the world needs to see stay-at-home work as valuable work, and that we should not bifurcate our view of the parenting function in a gendered way.

In one of my first posts, I responded to an item from a SAHM that got a lot of attention in the mommy blog world when she wrote about why she regretted her choices. One of her issues was that she got “sucked into” a world of volunteering. Though I kept my original response levelheaded, what I really thought was “WTH? If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it!” I linked this piece on how to say no to volunteering and all the issues that go along with saying yes or no. It’s an excellent article, worth reading anytime and especially in the context of the current 4Mothers1blog series.

As I was getting ready to leave paid work for my leave, almost everyone asked me “What are you going to do?” Though I found the question a bit frustrating – hello, didn’t I just say I’m going to be a stay-at-home-parent? – I know what they meant.

What in the world would I do with all that extra time? Ha. I am finding out that, as anyone who’s spent more than one day as a Stay at Home Parent (SAHP) knows, there is actually not a whole lot of extra time. Taking care of the daily activities and to-do’s of running a household take hours every day, and not in one nice chunk that can be carved out. That care is fragmented throughout the day, leaving few opportunities for non-SAHP projects.

And that’s my main point – if you have time, find something you love (as Nathalie wrote earlier in this space this week) and volunteer to your heart’s content.

But first, make sure you have the time! If you plunge ahead and accept too much, you will soon feel squeezed and resentful.

One of the reasons I decided to take a leave of absence and re-set my life with my children was that I found my priorities slipping, every day. The kids could always be “later” while I sent one last email or unloaded the dishwasher. I firmly resolved, before leaving paid work, that I would not take up any new challenges, learning opportunities, projects or personal activities during the year I would be on leave. My work would be my kids and family, and I knew that if I embarked on, say, learning Mandarin, it would quickly take up my time and my energy that I’d dedicated to SAHPing.

I believe being a SAHP means developing a new set of skills, or at least re-deploying old skills in a new way. Transitioning into that will take some time, like developing a new set of muscles. To have the time, the energy for that, means not taking on new items – at least not immediately. Much as I’d like to finally finish decorating my house – new rug here, non-IKEA dresser there – projects like that are firmly on the back burner for now.

Still, I have an exception, and it’s for a perfect volunteering opportunity. I’ve long attended the kids’ school council meetings. For the upcoming school year, I’ll run as co-chair. Before committing, I’ve done my homework – how much time is involved, what’s the nature of the work, how many meetings, what are the typical questions and problems we don’t see in the public meetings? I’m ready. Also, I think this volunteering opportunity dovetails perfectly with my goal for a LOA and SAHPing. I’m looking forward to being involved with my kids’ lives and school especially. I see this as a great way to integrate more into the school culture and community, something I’ve been missing since my oldest started junior kindergarten. For this, I will make time.

Volunteering will fulfill you in so many ways – it’s a way to exercise your brain differently, a way to give back to your community, a way to build your resume if you’re thinking of going back to paid work someday, a way to network, a way to make new friends…if you have the time!

Another Half an Hour

I just need another half an hour.

If I’d had another half an hour last night, I’d have been more present in the moment while helping one child with homework, motivating the other child to practice his piano piece just one more time and cooking two separate dinners (one for eldest child who’d had orthodontic work done earlier in the day and who was having trouble figuring out how to swallow with a new dental appliance in his mouth, and one for the rest of us).

If I’d had another half an hour last night, I might have had time to fit in a run. I’ve committed to a 10km road race in May. I have plenty of time to train for it, if I start training now. I just need to figure out when to slot in some running time.

If I’d had another half an hour, I would have gone to bed half an hour earlier. But the clothes in the dryer were still damp at 11 pm, and I didn’t want to leave them in the dryer overnight, getting wrinkled and requiring more of my time in ironing.

If I’d had another half an hour, I’d have finished this blog post last night, in the time between when I discovered that our old computer had finally given up the ghost and when my husband, working to deadline (in paid employment, need I point out our priorities) needed to use our working laptop again.

Do Laura Vanderkam and her ilk account for those small, incremental events that steal away portions of the day? By my count, I require an extra two hours every night to accomplish everything that I want to do: not well, not perfectly, just adequately. Even if I scheduled every waking moment, I can’t anticipate every contingency, and what kind of life would we all be leading if we kept to such a schedule?

Here’s our evening planned out:

  • 5:00 – 5:45: Commute Home (ETA 6:10 every second day because of transit delays; ETA 6:30 if youngest child needs to use the facilities for “pooping time!”).
  • 5:45 – 6:30: Change out of work clothing into workout wear in vain attempt to fake it until you make it. Commence cooking dinner. Children to commence homework and music practice.
  • 6:30 – 7:00  Dinner. (ETA 7:30 if any of the following events occur: (a) dinner burns because person cooking must also mediate a light sabre battle gone wrong; locate a glue stick needed for homework; engage in interesting conversation with a child who needs your attention; or (b) phone is answered immediately before dinner by child under age 18 who does not recognize that a 1-877 number (or worse, 1-234-567-8900) means someone we don’t want to talk to; or (c) “Pooping time!” delays arrival home to 6:30.  Dinner may be ready in 45 minutes or less on nights when both parents realize too late that they both forgot to defrost the pork chops; use emergency telephone code 967-1111 for rescue option.
  • 7:30 -8:30: Completion of homework. Showers. Reading. Family time.
  • 8:30 – 9:00: Tooth brushing. Pajama wearing.  Lights out at 9:00.
  • 9:00 – 9:20: One more chapter. Parent may or may not fall asleep on child’s bed whilst finishing said chapter; this is optional.
  • 9:20 – 9:30: Change out of workout wear, and into lounge wear (Really, this just means taking off my sports bra, but it’s important to acknowledge the day’s little victories).   Curse the winter for making it too dark outside for running.
  • 9:30 – 10:00: Clean kitchen, prep meals for next day, plan clothes, review work. Optional: talk to spouse about their day. End time may be delayed to 12:00 am in the event of work deadlines, overloaded dryers (12:20 a.m. if you do the “smart” thing and split the load into two) or anything spilled on the kitchen floor that requires more than a paper towel to clean up. Consider going to sleep. Maybe.

Another half-hour? Multiply that by four, and we’d be golden. And lest you scoff, thinking that there’s no way anyone’s schedule can go so continually pear shaped as to necessitate two hours of contingency time, I have two words for you: Stomach Virus. Spilled milk.  Book Report. Hockey game. Stale bread. Dead line (ok, that’s one word, but work with me). Only the book report and hockey game can be planned for with any certainty, but they’re all equally likely to occur in any given week.

I wonder sometimes, whether it’s possible to have a “time deficit” the same way we speak of people having a “sleep deficit” — which, I suppose, is just a time deficit in a disciplined form. Don’t we all have this? A collection of things we should be doing, or want to be doing, in addition to the things that we have to do every day? Writing more. Exercising more. Spending more time with family. If the eventual outcome of a sleep deficit is that you crash, what’s the outcome of a time deficit? I suspect, it’s the same: a sudden, overwhelming urge to just lie down and NOT plan, not schedule. Not do. Just be. Or maybe to take a nap.

A half an hour should be enough.

Homework? Okay. Busywork? No.

inglenook community high school

Image by Jay Morrison via Flickr

For the first three years of school, Daniel had homework almost every day. Some of it was useful. Undoubtedly, Daniel benefited from being required to read out loud to us and to keep a log of what he’d read.  But I almost lost my mind when he was asked in grade one, over the Thanksgiving weekend, to prepare a two minute presentation on sources of energy. With speaking notes. To assist him, we were given a grading rubric by which to assess his work. It would have been more useful for assessing the work of a second-year university student. Then there was the time he was asked in grade one to build a “structure” from one hundred wooden Popsicle sticks. You may have heard of this assignment as if forms part of the provincial grade one curriculum. It was quite popular among the parents of our school.  At least, I assume so, since I don’t think many children are so intimately acquainted with the work of  Buckminster Fuller.

Let’s be clear: I do not dislike homework. Given that my boys are getting older, I’m aware that homework will become more and more important to their academics, and I’m not entirely upset by that. I like using their school work as a jumping-off point for further study or exploration — our trip to Montreal this summer was motivated, in part, by the fact that Daniel started core French this year — and if they’re struggling, I want to be able to help. Last year, Sebastian often found it difficult to finish his work during class time, and he understood that he was expected by both his teacher and his parents to take any unfinished work home to be completed. By him doing so, we were able to work with his teacher to come up with some strategies for helping him stay focused.  As I was the type of kid who asked her grade two teacher for MORE homework (and who was resoundingly laughed at, by said teacher), I still tend to hope that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree and that my kids will actually like learning, at any time and in different contexts. So far, so good.

But what I really dislike, and what makes me want to cross my arms, close my eyes, and shake my head, is what I call “busy work”: homework that is either (a) beyond the capabilities of the student without significant parental assistance (read: any project involving one hundred Popsicle sticks, and did I mention we commute by public transit?) or (b) work for the sake of work, simply because it’s “good for you”. Letting my kids run around after school, exercising their hearts and brains with their friends, is good for them. Photocopied worksheets handed out for completion each evening simply because “other parents want them” (as I’ve heard is done at other schools) is not.

When the Toronto District School Board revised their policy on homework a few years ago to limit the amount and type of homework to be expected of students, a cheer could be heard from our house. We’ve been pleased that since the new policy was introduced,  the boys’ teachers have been remarkably consistent in their expectations. Daily reading is a given. Daniel’s grade two teacher sent home “homework” every day, but it was just a short task that tied into the day’s learning expectations (example: How many chairs do you have in your house? How many legs is do all of them have, altogether?”). Sebastian receives a weekly homework folder, which contains work to be completed by Friday of each week. In each case, it’s manageable work that correlates directly to what they’re learning during the day, and that can be completed without requiring hours of butt-in-seat time at a time of day when my kids are at the point of having sat just about enough, thank you very much.

I know I go on and on and on (ad nauseum, undoubtedly) about how busy our days are.  Two working parents and two busy kids in day care means that we don’t have a lot of time for, well, “family time”. We listen to them when they come home tired and spent and ask if they could please just have some down time on the weekend. So when it comes right down to it, I want US to decide what we do with the time we have together. I don’t have an issue with homework taking up part of that time, but I’d be quite resentful if it was all of it, and even more so when the homework adds nothing to the time we spend together.

The Playground Is A Classroom

On the third day of school I picked up my newly minted SKer from the dismissal line.  While I was waiting for him to run into my arms, a mother of one of his classmates turned to me and said the kids had been to the playground and with a roll of her eyes said, “I can take her to the slide.  What about learning some letters?”

Crap.  I didn’t know that our 4 and 5 year olds were applying to Ivy League schools tomorrow.  Why am I always the last to know?

My SKer inverts his letters, skips numbers when he counts to thirty and thinks that Terry Fox lives in the forest behind his grandparents’ house.  My pre-schooler would rather pick his nose than pick up a pencil and I am fairly certain I will have a struggle on my hands getting him to read a book, unless of course, he’s on a toilet.

But what my kids do excel at is, being kids.  They have wild imaginations that leave me eavesdropping from behind a wall, wishing that I had the video camera recording every sound that they make.

Sometimes the baby bathtub is a speedboat, and an old belt is the water ski rope.  Other times it is a racecar whizzing around the perimeter of the playroom.  One time it was a bobsled shooting down the stairs (I put a stop to that one).  Their new favourite game is playing dogcatcher.  The toddling baby* is the stray dog and the older two are “dog nappers” who surprise the unwitting mongrel and toss a net (blanket) over their capture.

The comment from the schoolyard mother made me bristle.  Sure anyone can take their own kid to the playground but would any sane person take them with 19 of their peers?  It’s on the playground where kids learn social skills.  They learn how to take turns, wait in line, and show compassion for others.

They create a bond outside of the classroom that can’t be replicated within the confines of four walls.  The way I see it, it’s like a company retreat.  Except the company is school and the employees are students.

What’s the point of good grades if a student lacks the social skills to apply them?  Furthermore, creativity and imagination need to be nurtured as they are born organically from childhood and simply cannot be taught by an instructor.

In terms of homework, I balance on the fence.  In the younger grades homework can actually be a communication tool between parent-teacher and parent-child.  Parents can reinforce what was learned in the classroom by engaging in discussions and enhance what is being taught by expanding the classroom walls to include the greater community.

We spent many hours this summer in the garden watching the tomatoes and cucumbers grow.  My son explained to me how root systems work and how tomatoes get their red colour.  We looked up answers to his questions on the Internet about what vegetables grow in Ontario during the summer months.  The seed, pardon the pun, for this learning was a school unit on plants.

I am sure that there will come a time when homework becomes a laborious chore for both of us, but for now and I hope for the future, I continue to look at it as an opportunity to enrich what he is learning.

And here is where I slide to the other side of that fence.  Homework that is rote and has no real application is dull.  Dull for everyone – student, parent and teacher.  Not only is it uninspiring but also it serves no real purpose.  In our face-paced society where parents are struggling to get dinner on the table, fighting with kids to complete tedious assignments does not sound like quality time spent – for anyone.

From my perch on the middle of the fence, I say that homework has it’s place but not at the expense of being a kid and bonding as a family.  There is so much more to life than grades and academics.  And I would say that I am not alone in my thinking.

Click here to read a great article from Science Daily and here for another from The Globe and Mail.

*(My guess is that boy #3 might make through school on a wrestling scholarship.  Just saying).

At Issue: Homework

Emily's meant to be doing her homework!

For the last couple of years, my boys have blessedly few formal homework assignments to complete after school. Friends of ours have told us that their children have significant amounts of homework, in the same grades and at schools in the same board of education (the Toronto District School Board’s policy is here, if you’re interested).

When homework is assigned, our expectations are clear: it gets finished before they’re allowed to use the computer, watch TV or play video games.  Most of the time we’re successful in keeping to routine, but even we fall down on the job once in a while and find ourselves hovering over our tired and cranky children, encouraging them to complete just one more question.  I’m sure we suffer through the same angst that other parents face when dealing with the struggle over homework: we wonder how to keep them motivated; how to underscore the importance of the task; and given how busy are our days, how to fit everything in.

The start of the school year, and the advent of new classroom routines with new teachers got all of us wondering: are you a fan of homework? Are you a “Tiger Mother” or decidedly more relaxed? Is homework a necessary evil?  Especially in the lower grades (where homework often takes the form of worksheets) is homework a valuable use of family time? How do you define “homework”, anyway? Reading with your children? Planned activities? Unfinished work from the day? Do you feel homework is more valuable for children in higher grades than for those in the lower grades? If your children are not yet school age, will you seek out a school where homework is an expectation? What’s your recollection of doing homework when you were a child, and has it affected your expectations for your own children?

This week, 4mothers1blog explores the topic of homework. As always, we encourage you to get involved in the conversation, by leaving us a comment or sending us an email at 4mothers1blog@gmail.com.

Photo attribution: Emily’s Meant to be Doing her Homework by squarepants2004j/auntyhuia on flickr.