Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Race to Nowhere

On Thursday I traveled to see the film Race to Nowhere.  I wasn't quite sure what it was about before I went, but knew that it was centered around education and the damage that is occurring to learning.  As it turns out, the movie was specifically about homework and stress that children are under to perform well on tests.  These are two issues near and dear to me, as I have been on quite a journey developing my philosophies on them.

According to Race to Nowhere homework has become a detriment to childhood and family life.  A strong case was made as to why homework should not be given to children. 
  • Stress: children are overwhelmed by the amount of homework that is being assigned; anywhere from 2 to 7 hours. 
  • Time: children are in school for 7 hours a day and many participate in extracurricular activities which demand their time as well.
  • Sleep: children are in school 7 hours a day, participate in extracurricular activities for about 3 hours a day, and still need to eat and sleep.  Many are foregoing sleep so that they can do well on their homework.
  • Drugs, Eating Disorders, Cutting: because children are foregoing sleep to complete homework they often need assistance to stay awake and/or sleep once they finally have time to sleep.  Many are cutting or have eating disorders because of the stress.
  • Family: because of the workload on top of a child's responsibilities they often do not have time to spend with their family (or friends).  This also means no more playing or free time.
Homework is a controversial issue.  Some parents expect it while others dread it.  There is plenty of research on homework available.  I think that Alfie Kohn and Sarah Bennett provide an abundance.  They, along with my years of experience, have prompted me to approach homework in the following way:
  • I invite my students' parents in at the beginning of the school year to discuss many things, one of which is homework.  I share with them my thoughts on homework, listen to theirs, and explain how I attempt to create intrinsic motivation and a love of learning.
  • I spend the first weeks of school getting to know my students.  This time allows me to discover my students' strengths and interests which helps me determine how to best create a love of learning for them.
  • I guide my students to develop habits.  We spend the first weeks learning the routines of our classroom.  We create a common language of what it looks, sounds, and feels like to read, write, inquire, and calculate.  Doing this provides opportunities for us to talk about how we can extend our learning beyond the classroom.
  • I provide my students with one tool that I have found to be invaluable: Pack-N-Read.  We use this tool to store the books we are reading along with comprehension strategy cards, a Reader's Notebook, and a Math Activity.  We not only use this during Reader's workshop, but the children take it home with them daily.  Doing so allows them to decide if they would like to continue their school day and how.
  • I have a website that my students can access in and out of the classroom.  At the beginning of the school year we do a series of Guided Discoveries to see what the website offers and how to use it.  This provides the children with yet another option of things to do at home. 
Spending the time do this empowers the students to make choices for themselves everyday.  Because we reflect on everything we do, they know what they are excelling in, struggling with, like and dislike.  This helps them make decisions as to what to do at home, if anything.  Some nights my students choose not to extend their academic day because they have scouts, basketball, piano, a family event, etc.  It is not that they don't want to, they just don't have time.  They know that it is important to have down time as well, because we spend time each day doing this in our classroom; Quiet Time.

While I may not have 100% of my students engage in extended learning everyday, it does end up being 80 - 100% on any given day.  I have more students engaged in extra-curricular learning today than I did when I assigned homework, demanded that it be done, and provided extrinsic rewards for completing it.  It is difficult to say what one thing has made the difference.  I believe it is the combination of my current practices.