Monday, June 13, 2016

How the System Failed My Son: Part Four -- A Moment of Hope

No recap. Just go back and read the previous posts here, here, and here.

4th grade was better. He had a good teacher that year, a teacher we had been looking forward to him having because of what we knew about him from when his older brother had had the same teacher. He began to enjoy school and quit asking if he didn't have to go. Not that he was being challenged, but it was at least interesting. He also started 6th grade math that year, which was still too easy, but at least it wasn't depressingly easy.

Well, it wasn't depressingly easy at school, at any rate. At home was another story. See, going into middle school math meant a certain amount of homework to go along with it. Unnecessary homework. It's not that he hadn't already been having unnecessary homework (and I would argue that nearly all homework is unnecessary (in fact, I have)), but it had been relatively small amounts of unnecessary homework. 6th grade math stepped that up to levels that became depressing, because, again, it amounted to busy work for him, and he hated doing it. Because he hated doing it, it became a huge ordeal every fucking day. Every fucking day that has lasted for years. That year to this one, in fact.

This homework thing is part of the system that has failed not just my son but is failing pretty much all students in the United States, right now, and we refuse to give it up because, well, it's how we do things. If there's one thing Americans are good at it's taking something that is failing and doing it harder and more intensely and hoping for a better outcome. Homework is a system that has proven to be a failure and, yet, we just continue to give students more and more of it.

As an aside, my kids' school, many years ago, now, did actually take a look at homework and considered doing away with it. That's what the research shows: Homework should be so minimal as to be almost non-existent. Except reading. Reading should be assigned and promoted, because kids need to be reading. However, when it came down to it, the teachers couldn't agree to drop it. Why? Because assigning homework is what they knew.

So... He did better at school, but the homework he was having cancelled all of that out and, rather than his level of dislike for school going down, it just sort of simmered there at the same level. But, other than spending hours on homework every night, the year went well.

About a week before school started the next year, the year he would have been in 5th grade, we got a call: The school had just received back the results from the STAR test from his 4th grade year and he had, essentially, scored a 100% on it (like a 99.5% or something). He had always had high STAR test results, scores in the high 90s, which is why they had done an academic review in 3rd grade, but they couldn't ignore the 100, and they wanted to skip him to 6th grade. Of course, we said "yes."


I mean, of course, we said "yes." Along with the request to skip 5th grade was also an apology for not having listened to me about him for the last several years. Yeah, the principal said something to the effect of, "We should have listened to you. We're sorry. But we'd like to move him up to 6th grade this year." And, actually, they had to know right then because school was going to start in a week.

In hindsight, that was probably the wrong year to have done that. Not because he wasn't ready but because we had finally found a teacher he enjoyed, and he would have had the same teacher in 5th grade as he'd had in 4th grade. We did, briefly, consider that, that he would have to leave that teacher's class, but we figured it would be better to get him more closely aligned to where he was academically.

But the 6th grade teacher, as nice as she was and as much as he liked her, was not engaging in the way his 4th grade teacher had been, and it wasn't long before he'd moved back to being bored with school because nothing interesting was happening, and they weren't doing anything that he didn't already know. Not in the core classes, at any rate. There was some history he wasn't familiar with, but there was nothing in math, science, or English that he didn't already know.

There were two saving graces for him in 6th grade:
1. He was in the middle school musical production of Alice in Wonderland, and he discovered a love of musical theater.
2. I went in once a week to teach creative writing, which he loved. [I discovered that my son is a brilliant writer, which was a surprise. Not that it was a surprise, but just how brilliant was a surprise. At 10, his writing had a fullness to it that most high school students never achieve. It was way beyond what I was doing at 10, that's for sure.]

The problem with all of this is that once the perception becomes a belief, it's really hard to shake. My son's perception of school was that it was a waste of time, and, by the end of 6th grade, that had become a belief. A solid belief. He couldn't see a point in it and found nearly all of the work beneath him. But, still, he had a successful year in 6th grade and, probably, other parents would have been unconcerned with what was going on. People tend not to worry about their kids' performance at school when they're bringing in A's.


  1. Your point about Americans doubling down on failure is well-taken.

    I think I might've gotten my disdain for homework from you originally. I know that for years I've thought "Why are the schools delegating some of the teaching to parents?" I'm pretty smart, but beginning about 5th grade I had to go look up various scientific and mathematical concepts to help explain them to the kids.

    And as I've said before: bad teachers are a part of the problem. We teach teachers the basics of how to educate, but not how to engage students in learning. I always think, when I see teachers portrayed on TV, how little the good teachers from my past are like the 'good' teachers on TV. My teachers didn't dress up in costumes or engage in wacky stunts or do silly stuff. They simply loved what they taught, loved teaching it, and tried to convey that level of interest to students.

    To this day, I love Charles Dickens not just because he's a good writer, but because my 9th grade English teacher loved him and passed that on.

    1. Briane: The worst thing for me with helping with math homework was when they had some new "trick" they were doing in math and which they were required to do. So one of them would ask me for help with a particular type of problem, I would show her (because this happened with my daughter a lot) her how to do it, and she would tell me I'd done it wrong. What I done was demonstrate the straightforward way to do the problem, but they had some method they had to use that, really, just complicated the problem and hadn't existed when I was in school. It always made me feel like these things had been made up so that someone could sell a new math text to schools.

  2. Kids in America do far worse than kids in other countries, yet they have far more of those special tests and homework than we ever did at their age. That should be telling them something...

  3. I think I mentioned this before, but one of the things that I don't understand about all of this excessive homework, aside from the obvious of unnecessary stress for kids and taking away time for them to be them, is the fact that this does nothing to help prepare them for the real world. Most people go to work 8-5ish, and then they come home and they're done for the day. They've earned their rest. Rare exceptions pop up with people having to sometimes take some work home with them, but it's not like you go to work 8 hours a day, and then come home and work for 4 more hours (unpaid) while your family relaxes or has fun, every single day. That's not acceptable for an adult, so why is that acceptable for a little kid?

    1. ABftS: I talked about that somewhere, Maybe it's in the post I linked or in one of these posts that are coming up; I can't remember. But, then, very little of school anymore does any preparation for anything other than more school.

  4. You also have to understand, it's perfectly normal to be bored at school. Listen, and I guess this is the part where I once again realize that I'm apparently decades younger than some you other bloggers in this little community, twenty years ago, homework was already very much a thing. This is nothing new. I had it in grade school, I had it in middle school, I had it in high school, and I had it in college. I always hated it. And yeah, I was more often then not bored in school. I think I last really enjoyed it in kindergarten, with a few sporadic flashes in later years. But the thing is, the most engaging teachers I ever had also failed miserably in actually teaching me the subjects that so impassioned them. Enthusiasm makes for a fun classroom, but amounts to little in terms of actually learning something. Teaching is not a science. It can't be perfected. All you can really expect is that the teacher presents the material. The rest is in the length of the class, the length of the day, the student's own enthusiasm...We tend to overlook that the student has a role to play, too. You just skipped a grade in this post, and this still wasn't good enough. It's not the schooling at this point. It's that your son was never going to fit well with this routine, no matter how it was presented. And so we return to my first statement...

    1. Tony: Sure, I understand that it's normal to be bored at school, but there is a HUGE difference between the kind of boredom that it exists because you simply want to be doing something else and the kind of boredom that exists because you're being required to do something pointless. Let me re-frame it:

      For many kids (maybe most), it's not actual boredom that's at play. It's the schoolwork requires more effort than they want to put into it, so they would rather be doing something fun. That's not actually boredom; it's escapism. [I'm not talking high school, here. That's different.] Boredom, though, is when you're being required to do something tedious and, often, pointless. So in 1st grade while all the other kids were -learning- to add and subtract, my son was doing multiplication and division (because we'd had a conversation which lead me to show him the concept (then he started doing it on his own)). In 1st grade, while all the other kids were learning "See Spot run," my son was reading Harry Potter.

      That's not the "normal" boredom of school. And there's no way to tell a kid in a way that they're really able to understand, "You just have to do this thing because you just have to do it." It's like a punishment to the kid. At least adults can understand that they do the crummy jobs they do because they want the paycheck. Kids don't get a paycheck for going to school.

  5. My son has only had homework a handful of times, which is nice. I'm worried that he'll get slammed with homework next year for his first year in middle school, and shut down. This stuff comes too easily for him as it is, so he tends to be lazy about the work out of boredom. I guess we'll see soon. My daughter had a homework sheet each day, but it was maybe 15 minutes of homework, and for her, practicing the math they were sending home was beneficial, though often involving tears. Other than that, they push reading, which my kids already do, so no biggie.

  6. I hear that in Norway, they have almost no testing or homework in schools, and they routinely come out on top in terms of education. It's almost like rote memorization doesn't actually teach anything!

    Seriously, I don't remember a single homework assignment that wasn't just to prepare me for a test. And I don't remember a single test that was actually useful in the real world. No wonder your son was bored.

    1. Jeanne: That would be because rote memorization doesn't teach anything.

  7. Oh, boy, do I understand. My kids are 36 and 29 now, but I spent years bitching and complaining about waste-of-time homework. It didn't do any good. It never went away. When the younger one went to a prep school for high school, she had some homework, but it was worth doing. She learned from it. All that time spent on homework in public school meant that my kids couldn't read and couldn't play. How were they supposed to be kids? I wish I had known about the prep school sooner. I would have talked to my son about going to school there. He might have had a more meaningful high school experience, though at least he loved marching band, concert band, and jazz band. The prep school was up to almost 30k a year by the time the second child hit her senior year. Almost all of it was paid by scholarships, but we had to make the commitment to get her back and forth to the place and to pay for her text books and other items. It was worth it. I'm sorry for your son's difficult experiences. I considered having my daughter skip fourth grade, but she was already kind of young for her class (got moved to first grade from kindergarten in October) and the kids who were in fifth grade that year were well known for their exceptionally bad behavior.


  8. I don't remember much homework when I was a kid back in the late 50's and the 60's. I always had time to do stuff at home and outside. I always did well in school even though I pretty well schlepped through any homework I did have.

    My kids' homework kind of annoyed me because I was a single dad with a job with long hours. They were mostly on their own with school and they did pretty well for the most part. And they seem to be doing fine as adults.

    I think homework should be minimal and an individual's pursuit of what and how much they want to learn should mostly be up to them. Maybe a course in motivation and organization might not be bad for kids to learn.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out