The viral “no homework” debate — or debacle

AE Houseman, image credit: Wikipedia
AE Houseman, image credit: Wikipedia

On Tuesday, a Facebook post about a second grade teacher (yes, she was from Texas) who said research didn’t support her giving homework went viral.  All over the country, parents and others began the cry:  “Down with homework!” On Twitter Friday night the #ditchhw thread lit up with opposing teacher factions.  Many claimed that homework was indeed, useless. wrote that she “Tried to find research that said Homework prepares kids for college… couldn’t find it.

Others, like  Kelly Gallegher @KellyToGo said “Homework is not the problem.  Stupid homework is the problem.”  I asked my husband, a Latin teacher,  what he thought was up with this idea of giving up on homework.

“Homework is useless?” or “Homework is a panacea?”  Neither.  As Houseman taught, you have to sit down and look at every individual instance on an individual basis.


First Day Jitters

It was last night that I had to admit the truth: I was in a panic about going back to teaching in the morning. “How can I be so scared?” I wondered. “We’vestress just finished two weeks of professional development, my room is all set up. This is my eighth year, I’m the grade chair, and I’ve been told I’ve been given the gifted class!”

My husband was wondering the same thing. “It will be fine,” he said with conviction, a  conviction I could not share.

Anxiety. How would I get through the day? What if we ran out of stuff to do? What if, more scary, I forgot to do something important, such as putting the right dismissal tag on a student? That could mean sending a kid home on the bus when they were a walker.

What if the class ran away? It happened to me once. I was walking a group of kindergartners back to the building from enrichment class and the leader, then the rest of the class, for some incomprehensible reason just bolted. I got them to stop in only about 50 feet …. the literacy coach instructed me that in the future I would walk backward in front of the class.  Oh what a memory.

“Stop this!” I told myself. I put all the teaching materials I could think of in my teacher cart and went to bed early, setting the clock for 5 a.m.

By the time I got in the car, I felt like one of those guys in the troop transport boat on D-Day, traveling across the English channel not knowing what I was going to face. I got into class and looked around, put out the work I had prepared. I turned on the computer and the projector. And I waited for the kids and their parents. When they came I got the parent information sheets filled in while the kids did the “all about me” paper I’d set out.  Then the moment of truth: I called them to the carpet.

They enjoyed doing the finger play “this old man” to open up carpet time. They understood the first of a number of discussions about classroom management and procedures, and like most every class I’ve ever had on the first day, they seemed to believe that being a good student means sitting quietly. They will learn that this is not my way. They liked the book The Kissing Hand and they diligently worked at doing a four way organizer about it. By that time I had determined that they were pretty normal over all and they were responding to some of my regular teacher questions and games. In the afternoon, we practiced the dismissal and read First Day Jitters, about a teacher who is scared to go to the first day school.

“But teachers don’t get scared!” They said.

Believe me, teachers do get scared of the first day. I remember the movie Hope Floats, where the lead character says “Beginnings are scary and endings are often sad, so it’s good to stay in the middle… ” True of school, as of life. But now the year has begun and I can stay in the middle for a long long time. It’s good to be over that first day.

. And yes, I put the right dismissal tags on everyone, thank God!

The Emotional Experience of a Child who Can’t Read

Reading isn't easy for everyone

Reading isn't easy for all children
Reading isn’t easy for all children

Outside:  “I’m just fine!”  and then inside:  “I’m stupid!”

Each year there will be one, or two or three children in the class who really struggle. For these children, the usual process of reading instruction is an exercise in frustration. Students who can’t read are keenly aware of their situation. Although they are often taken from the ranks of those who are physically overactive and sometimes disruptive, many other students who can’t read sit quietly and pretend they understand because they don’t want anyone to know that they don’t. I have seen this phenomenon in children as young as 5 and 6 years old.

Children know very soon when others understand a concept and they don’t. One common response is to disrupt the class because that is something they can do. Other young children keep hoping they are just about to understand and will generally claim they do understand.

With common methods of reading instruction (one-sound worksheets, choral reading, sight-word look-say), these students often find ways of covering up their lack of knowledge, such as copying worksheet assignments and mouthing responses that they don’t actually know.

By third and fourth grade poor readers are adept at pretending they did work they didn’t do and pretending to read passages they can’t read. If a teacher decides to try to instruct them at their level with exercises that address their learning needs, many at first will be rebellious because by this time they believe they are hopeless.  But when they see that they finally understand the work they will often be happy and begin to manifest enjoyment of the work.

Students who struggle with reading need more time to learn the skills of reading than other students.  Still, every student can be helped and it is just about the most rewarding teaching you will ever do.   Without a dedicated reading teacher of some variety these students will not “just get it on their own” some day. Sometimes it is a parent or other family member who finally figures out what is wrong and takes the time to create the understanding, but usually it is the child’s teacher. For more information about what you can do to help a child who can’t read, visit Teach Reading Classically.

How to plan your home school using a personal weekly schedule for each student

img008This is how I simultaneously held my two homeschooled daughters accountable and set them free.  And I was spending only the first hour of the day actually instructing them; the rest of the time they worked independently.  They did not do all the subjects every day; in fact in some years they did not do all the subjects.  But most subjects they did at least once a week.  For an incentive, I wouldn’t give them lunch unless they were done with math, their journal, their foreign language and grammar lessons.

Here it is:  the weekly homeschool template.

Religion:  Take credit for morning devotions, prayers, or other gathering.  In a secular school they call it morning meeting.  In a religious school it’s family prayer.

Math:  I’m assuming you’ve got a math book.  Generally, math is the hardest subject to get focused on and that’s why we did it first.  Put in the page and lesson the student will do on each day.  My girls checked their own work with the teacher guide.  If they got less than 85% they had to redo the problems they missed.

Now, for English:  I have long been an advocate of the almost completely free reading time scheduled in minutes.  This plan is for once the child reads independently.  If that is not yet occurring refer to 7 steps to get a struggling reader or any child to read.  You would do this lesson right after morning meeting.

They might have a grammar book.  If they have that, write down the pages.  Also, my kids had to write a page of journal every day and a book report on Fridays.

History and Geography:  At times we used a textbook like the Greenleaf Guides.  At other times they read novels or made maps. 

Handwriting:  I assigned handwriting daily for years in a handwriting book.  The kids remember it, for the most part, fondly.

Science:  We didn’t do too much of this but we did try to do an experiment every week from Mr. Wizard’s Supermarket Science.

Music:  This was for those years and students who did music lessons.  Also, I would play guitar and we would sing.  They got credit for doing that too.

Art:  At times we had used an art how to book or other art projects.

Foreign Language:  If you’re doing it.  We had a tutor come at times.

Put down the Chores – dishes, make bed – that the child has to do.

Every Sunday night or very early on Monday morning I’d sit there with all their books and set out the week’s work for each student on one of these sheets.  And as adults, I noticed they are real self-starters.

The 4 Parts of the Reading Process



In my observation there are four discrete processes the student goes through when they process text.  For the struggling reader, the first step is figuring out where the reading process is breaking down.  Generally in my experience that will be in (1) and (3).  And usually when there’s problems with (3) the phonics have not been nailed down one-second-response tight. The “word caller” has not mastered (4) and the child with a fluency problem has trouble with (2).

Another issue:  The struggling reader perceives that he or she is falling behind and gets discouraged.  It’s important to make sure that the child receives emotional support in order to continue.  I always find it helpful to remind all students that around 4th grade a lot of kids stop trying so hard and at that time it is possible for those who were lagging to catch up and pass kids who learned more quickly.  It’s a kind of tortoise and hare effect, and yes, it really does happen.

Classic Children’s Novel: On the Banks of Plum Creek

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder has had a great impact on my life.  My own family, like the Ingalls, was rather unconventional (pioneers were, by and large, rebels to society to some degree) and although there were huge differences between our life in a suburb and the Ingalls’ life on the prairie, there were similarities too.  To this day as we drive across the country, I imagine the pioneers in their wagons as if they were beside me.

I used to ride my horse outside of town in the farms and woods and I always thought, “This is what Laura saw when she came to the prairie.”  Taking care of horses was a big part of my life so I used to think a lot about the days when horses were work animals and could be needed for family survival.  I wished I could ride to school in a buggy instead of a car!

The genre of Banks of Plum Creek is historical fiction.  Although it is based on Laura’s life, there are many details from her life that have been changed or not included.  In fact as an adult I did a study on Wilder’s life and found that, in fact, the real Ingalls family was much burdened by troubles, most of all when an infant son, Freddy, died.  I realized that in the novelization of her life Wilder failed to report heartbreaking hardships including the loss of several homes.  It also appeared to me that Pa was rather improvident, something Wilder skipped over entirely.  Laura herself had two children but the younger, a son, also died in infancy.  She tried to write the history of her young marriage to Almonzo, but never finished it, stopping after their house burned down. The pain was apparently too great.  The book, The First Four Years, was published posthumously but has a somber feel compared to the others in the series.

Asked to list a book which had impact on my life this week, I chose Banks of Plum Creek.  Perhaps because at times when I had to pull myself together and just get through things, I have always thought of the character Laura and the author Laura and  about what they had to do to survive.  If they got down their life’s road, I figured, I should be able to get down mine. And then I go on, reminding myself that I am a daughter of the pioneers, and that on some level, all Americans, from recent immigrants to Native Americans who  crossed the land bridge from Asia 10,000 years ago, are somehow pioneers inside.


Ready for School to Begin?

One of the most memorable things I ever saw on Facebook was a picture of a man hiding under the bed with the caption: “A teacher after they hear someone mention that school is starting next week.” Then there’s the other side of the coin:  this week, as school gets ready to begin, I see a lot of posts on Twitter talking about “Great things you can plan to do in your classroom next year.” And where am I?  Somewhere in the middle.

I’m teaching first grade again so I don’t have to obsessively worry about the curriculum. I know what I will be teaching. I have decided to order some nice baskets from Really Good Stuff for the table groups. I have decided to start the year with 100% class jobs for everybody. We will be continuing our phonics and independent reading tasks for sure. I will try to go over First Days of School by Harry Wong, the absolute guru of classroom setup and management.

But as I reflect on all these things I also reflect that there’s just a lot I don’t know about what this year will bring. And I’ve never been able to get into planning before the year starts. That’s because I’m never sure what I want to try until I see the students. Before I see them, I am unsure what they will need. Once I see them, I am inspired. It’s then, in the first weeks of school, that I will do the design and setup that others are apparently doing now. And honestly, I think I’m right. To teach a child you have to know the child.

Six steps to Help a Child Choose A Book

A large number of students don’t have a problem with this skill.  The seem to naturally know how to look at books, decide whether they’re interesting, try to read them, and follow through if the reading is working.  But some students have to be shown.  Like reading itself, the skill of evaluating books for personal use is one that can be developed.  Here are the steps for helping a child, who is not confident about books and reading, find a books for him or herself.

  1. Sit down with the child and the books that are available.  In a home, this would be the family bookshelf.  In a public library, you can find easy readers, novels, or you can go to a specific spot in the nonfiction shelves (countries of the world, WWII, animals.)
  2. Suggest the child look at the books.  But if he or she doesn’t seem very anxious, start getting out the books yourself and see whether you think they would be interesting and that the child would be able to read them  Get about 6 books.  Ask which one looks good.
  3. Tell the child to check the cover front and back for relevant information.  If it looks good, he or she opens it up.
  4. Now have the child read the first page.  Try not to say “oh that’s too hard, forget it,” or “that’s boring.”  or “that’s easy.”  When the child is done ask whether he or she likes the book and can understand it.  Ask if this book would be something he or she might like to check out or keep in a book basket or bag.  If it is, put it aside and keep looking at books.
  5. If the child insists on taking books that you know will be a little challenging (a very common mistake for children learning this skill) gather some easier books together so that when book fatigue sets in on the hard ones the child can read the easier ones.
  6. If you repeat this process a number of times, children will become comfortable with finding books, will identify preferences and learn what they like.  As they practice book selection on their own, they will work toward the goal of becoming lifetime readers.

Is there a canon of children’s literature?

Well yes and no.  There is the list of Caldecott winners, and Newberry Award winners, given each year.  And there are books that are just known as great children’s literature — Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit.  But overall I know of no real consensus on a children’s canon for schools or as a check list for homeschools.

Wikipedia lists some 100 classic children’s books from the 19th and 20th century, but it seems to be missing a number of my own favorites.  I mean Three Billy Goats Gruff isn’t in there.  And I bet others would agree that there are books they would consider truly great that aren’t there.

The lure of talking about “what is a really great book,” is profound.  But in all this desire to rank and categorize books as major and minor, I think something is being lost.  Certainly we don’t want to find ourselves reading “minor” books when “major” ones would be better.  But in the mystical transaction between writer and reader, there is no third party.  In a very real sense, someone else’s opinion about the book doesn’t really matter, your own does.  Books which have made a profound mark on me were quite honestly nothing special to friends.  There are a few books which have made a profound effect on a large number of people, but the question of how profound an effect the book has to make on how many people is amorphous.  There is no answer.  It becomes like talking about, as they used to say, angels dancing on a pin.

So I guess, no, I don’t believe there is a mystical list of classic texts for children that everyone should have read before they were 18.  There are more popular and less popular books.  But until you’ve read them, you won’t know how popular the book is for you, and really that’s all that matters.

So what should you do?  Develop discernment in you children regarding book selection.  Whether in a classroom or home, the method is the same.  I’ll write about that tomorrow.

Newbery Winners and Caldecott Winners from the American Library Association Website



Classical Education: Just for the Smart Kids?

“Why do some people not like classical education?” My daughter asked at dinner tonight.

“Well I think it’s that it’s perceived as being an education for the high achiever, and thus, elitist.”

“Is that true?”

I only paused a second.  “Absolutely not.”

One goal of this website is to demonstrate how classical methods such as learning the basics to mastery and concentrating on the finest possible literary texts can help all students.  In fact, for struggling readers, the intensive phonics program may be the only way to get an adequate understanding, because these are the kids who are left behind by look-say (though it worked fine on my husband,) and whole language (which many classrooms use today.) At times it has been  common for theorists and publishers to focus on methods that only work for the more able students, then claim that if everyone uses them, all students will be more able.   This isn’t pedagogically sound.  Classical education emphasizes mastering the basics, whether it takes a long time or a short time, then moving on to refinements.

Ancient methods — Urban Classroom