I spent much of yesterday plowing through The Case Against Homework. That's what I was doing around 2:30, parked across the street from my daughter's school (anticipating her 3:05 p.m. dismissal), when a funny thing happened: my Blackberry buzzed with a comment from Sara Bennett, one of the book's authors. She wanted to thank me for linking to her StopHomework site in this post. So I dashed off a quick email reply, telling her I was reading her book AT THAT VERY MOMENT to prepare for the conference this morning.
And do you know what she did? She emailed me back -- with suggestions and links to documentation that could help me in our meeting today.
Don't you just love the InterWeb?
The facts and figures in Sara's book (co-written with Nancy Kalish) are staggering, especially the chapter linking our children's huge homework load (up 51% since 1980) to obesity (because kids who spend three or four hours a night doing homework are expending the same energy as kids watching TV for that period -- and chances are, it's not the TV that is keeping your kids sitting still every evening), which touts the educational benefits for physically active kids. A sampling (paraphrased from the book):
Homework is the number one reason overweight kids say they have no time to exercise.
A 2004 study of middle schoolers published in the Journal of Orthopedics reported that some subjects were carrying backpacks that equaled 43 percent of their body weight... and that 64% of the kids suffered from back pain.
A child's brain can't handle multitasking until late teens or early 20s. So why do we make them juggle assignments from multiple classes each evening?
Even more eye-opening were the stats correlating physical activity and brain development in children:
A huge 2002 California of Education study found that students who scored higher on state physical fitness tests ALSO scored higher on stadardized reading and math tests.
The journal Adolescence published a study in 2001 which found that high school students who exercised achieved better grades than those who didn't, plus they were less depressed, had less drug use and enjoyed better relationships with their parents.
Here's my favorite:
Decreasing time spent on academics so that physical activity could be increased had no negative effects on academic achievement, according to a CDC review.
So what did I do after reading the book (which includes practical strategies and resources for changing the homework culture in a school and/or school district), the author's emailed advice, and the wise words of my friends?
I came to the conclusion that coming into this meeting all fired up about how outrageous the homework load is would be of little help. That is a fight that needs more than 24 hours preparation, and would be more effective done by a coalition of parents.
This meeting had to be about my daughter, her two teachers (who team-teach four academic subjects plus one elective) and my husband and me. We needed to establish a relationship, let them know we appreciate them, and ask them to be our partners in helping Megan feel less stressed about her school work. If we went in all pissed off and demanding, we would get nowhere. They are veteran teachers, and I think they are good teachers.
We laid out the problem. We all agreed that Megan has limited time to do the work. We all could see that something has to give. No solutions there.
But we were successful in one area: Just by looking at her scores, these teachers were unaware that our daughter even HAS a problem. "She's at the top of the class," one of them said. "She has very good grades," the other one concurred.
Her teachers now know the price our daughter pays for those good grades and how hard she pushes herself. "You need to help her to learn how to step back and relax a little," one of the teachers advised us. "If she expects to be perfect in everything all the time, that could cause her problems later on."
Bingo. He's absolutely right. We need to work on this. And perhaps, knowing this about her, they will take that into account? One can hope.
Other little successes: They told us if she had to turn something in late once in a while, we could write them a note explaining. (I didn't follow up to ask if she would then receive a 0 on it, which is what has been happening and is then factored into her grade. If that does happen, Sara Bennett emailed me the link to an interesting article. And now that I've begun a relationship with the teacher, I might feel more comfortable sending that link to her.)
Another little success: They LOVED the idea of trying to get PE waived. After all, a gymnast training 16 hours a week doesn't need another hour a day of PE. She needs a study hall. The teachers know of kids who successfully petitioned for this accommodation in the past. But they were unaware of a new state law (or is it a District policy? I honestly don't know!) that not only makes this harder to do, but undesirable, because if you are successful in getting a PE waiver, the student must replace it with another course for CREDIT. And this defeats the purpose.
At any rate, that's my next mini-battle. The teachers suggested that I skip talking to the Principal and go directly to our local District (LAUSD is so huge that it's divided into eight distinct local districts!). I've asked Megan's coach to give us a copy of a letter he's used successfully in the past, describing why taking PE on top of their gymnastics training could actually harm kids. I've set up Megan's annual pediatric checkup on Tuesday, and I'm hoping to get her doctor to write us another letter. Then, I call the District.
As for the continuing issue of homework: The little cluster of moms I hang with each afternoon outside the school all have their own gripes. I'm laying the groundwork now for the bigger fight to come.