Monday, November 16, 2009

Thinking about homework

I have been struggling with being the mother of a middle school student - specifically a seventh grader. There is some truth (I am discovering it, now) to the rumor that children can be difficult when going through middle school. My middle schooler is a good kid, and I hope that when the craziness in his body and mind pass, we can get an older, more mature version of the boy that we love so much. But...will he live?

One element of concern for Matt and I as parents has been the constant battle with our son about doing homework - he hates it, resists it, and then nags me in the morning to get to school early so that he can finish up those assignments that he didn't do. This drives me nuts. I have been working in middle school for so long - and yet I am facing my biggest challenge ever, at home. Now, I spend my mornings nagging eighth graders to do their homework because they need to pass the eighth grade - and I spend my evenings nagging my kids to do their homework because I want them to be successful in school.

Leaving my college classroom at 8:30 pm, I happened to bump into a former colleague of mine. I asked her if she missed Jefferson - and she did. "But," she commented further, "I don't miss all of those problems that you have."

Huh? I was surprised by her response. After all, we've got problems...but what was she talking about in particular? "Well," she said, "ninety-eight percent of my students turn in their homework every day." I have to admit, I was shocked. That is an amazing number.

"Really?" I responded. Intellectually, I knew this, but having the point driven home so quickly, even brutally, made me question my understanding.

"But, our parent issues are so totally overwhelming," she continued. "I get 14 or 15 emails from parents daily that want instant replies. I'll take that, over no homework!"

Saying goodbye, I walked to my car with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomache. Why are students at Williamsburg doing their homework? Why are the students at Jefferson not? And then I thought, are Matt and I not serving our children well by having them go to Jefferson? We made the decision to send them to Jefferson for many reasons - we did not ever question the quality of the education that the kids would get. So, is it something about the culture of Jefferson that causes students NOT to do homework? Or is the peer pressure higher at say, Williamsburg or Swanson for students to get their homework done?

Duh - there are obviously a couple of big factors that could really impact my student's homework completion and academic success. First - the ever-present poverty level - Jefferson's is at about 51%; What does this do to the academic success of students? There seems to be less homework completion for those students coming from a low-socioeconomic background - is it because a value of education is not a part of a particular family culture? Second, what about the parents - can parents make such a difference? How can parents support education of students - speaking personally, most of the time this is reflected in homework completion and studying for tests and quizzes, and an unwritten, unspoken value of what an education can provide. What is the responsibility of the school staff to substitute, compensate, and/or replace the roles of the parents and provide that kind of academic support?

Or perhaps Matt and I are thinking about this all wrong. Are we asking other cultures to conform to the white, middle class values that we grew up with? Is this fair? Is this wrong? Patricia Yurrita and I have spoken about the Latino culture and some of its cultural expecations about education: In Latin America, schools are the happens at school, not at home...parents will support anything - but they don't spend time on it at home. What about other cultural expecations? At what point do our goals for middle class education for all of our students - 'cause we all say "college" to our students - come into conflict with the culture and possibly the expecations that students have grown up in? What takes precedence?

The more I think about this and the students with whom I work and the children in my home, the more I begin to think that this is really about making consistent and clear - teaching - studentship skills to our students - to provide that necessary emphasis on the skills that are necessary to be successful in an academic world - because it is unfair to assume that they are going to be instilled with these skills in their homes.

So - lucky Patrick. He has parents at home that are going to nag him and make him do his homework - and this may make him different than some of his classmates. And, in the long run, we are ultimately pleased with the choice we have made to send Patrick (and next year, Rebecca) to Jefferson. The choice will serve him well.

And - lucky eighth grade students. They are going to be loved, nagged and organized until they begin to show some understanding that these are skills that will serve them well in the mainstream culture of the United States of America - the culture in which they will be looking for jobs in the not far-distant future.