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.


Snow Day!?!

William Kurelek (1927-1977) -- Balsam Avenue After Heavy Snowfall (1972), image courtesy of http://www.canadianart.ca/online/features/2008/11/27/auction-recap/

UPDATE: I’ve got to hand it to David Sukhin. The TDSB has closed schools for the day, for the first time in (I’m told) thirty years. Me, my office is open — so I’m off. Enjoy the snow day, everyone!


From an email apparently circulating among U.S. Elementary school students this week:

If you want it to SNOW tomorrow, do the following tonight, please.
Wear your PJ’s inside out and backwards.
Lean a paper plate against your window-sill.(It can be anything that’s made out of paper or plastic, if you don’t have a paper plate)
Pull a cat’s tail.(Not too hard!)
Flush an ice-cube down the toilet.
Put a spoon underneath your pillow.
Make sure you do this so we can have a DELAY or NO SCHOOL!

A massive winter storm is forecast to slam into southern Ontario tonight and tomorrow morning, and Toronto is expected to receive between 20 and 30 centimeters of the white stuff. Meteorologists are saying that this is the biggest storm to hit the region since 2008. Of course, this being Canada, the impending blizzard is all any one has talked about since it was first predicted a couple of days ago. The question most parents are asking (as they frantically try to figure out exactly what they’ll do if this does come to pass) is naturally, “do you think the kids will get the day off of school?”

If your children attend a Toronto District School Board school, I send encouragement to you, and my condolences to your children. If my past experience is any guide, you’ll be up early tomorrow to dig out your car. The crunching sound you’ll hear all over the city tomorrow morning will not be from the snow under foot. No, it will be the sound of the hopes of children all over the city (that they too, might possibly stay home like their suburban cousins) being crushed under the treads of a snow plow.

Growing up in the old city of Toronto, I could only wish to experience the mythical event known as a “snow day”. A whole day off from school because of snow? That was something that happened in Simcoe, or Burlington…or Buffalo. But if you lived in Metropolitan Toronto, you were expected to make it in to school, no matter how high that snow might be. I recall being dismissed early “for inclement weather”, as it was described to us then, but to have a whole day of school canceled? Those days were (and are) few and far between, the last during the January, 1999 storm when then-mayor Mel Lastman called in the (yeah, we know, we know…) army to dig out the city.

The decision to close TDSB schools is made by the Director of Education, and notices of school closures and bus cancellations will be published early tomorrow on the TDSB’s website. Local media will report on school cancellations for all Toronto area schools as well.

If you can’t wait until morning to find out whether schools will be open or not, you’ll be happy to know that U.S. grade eleven student David Sukhin has devised a “Snow Day Calculator”, which predicts with complete accuracy (says he) whether a school will close for a snow day. The site relies on weather data, user-determined information (such as the level of hype surrounding the storm) and algorithms of David’s own to come up with a percentage chance of a day off. David Sukhin clearly didn’t grow up in Toronto, as the site gives me a 99% chance of a snow day.

I say, one percent’s good enough for me.

If, as I predict, your children are heading to class tomorrow, my suggestion is to set the alarm a bit earlier than normal (if you haven’t already) so that you can leave with enough time to get everyone where they need to go as safely as possible. Of course, if local conditions where you are make it unsafe to travel, common sense dictates that you stay put, regardless of whether  school is open or not.  Regardless, stay warm and stay safe!