Monday, October 24, 2011

Easing Up On Homework

In the NYTimes, At Elite Schools, Easing Up a Bit On Homework.

I can't get very worked up about this article.   Apparently some elite NY private schools are starting to discuss the stress they put their students under, and talking about reducing some of the homework load.  It doesn't sound like any radical changes are in the works.

The comments, as usual, are more interesting than the article.  I liked the unintentionally hilarious account by a Dalton grad, (or as he calls himself, "a Dalton alumni" — don't get me started!) explaining that the great thing about his very expensive private high school was that he learned to get through Lit classes without reading the assigned books.  Ain't learning grand?

Dalton teaches you to learn, and to learn very very efficiently. For example, I never read a single book for English class because it was, in my opinion, a huge waste of time. The only time I would read was if there was a reading test, like the one on Macbeth. Besides that, doing all the reading was highly inefficient. The teacher doesn't grade you on how well you read the book; the teacher grades you on the paper you hand in. Instead of reading, I'd take great notes in class and sparknote the book if I could. Then when it came time to write the essay, I'd research what other scholars had said, synthesize what I found, then put my own spin on it. Took half the time.

Ovarachiever's footnote:  it is never right for a person to describe himself as an "alumni", because "alumni" is plural.  One person is either an "alumnus" (masculine) or an "alumna" (feminine). 


  1. Three somewhat random thoughts:

    1. Thanks for the footnote. I was pondering (amusingly) whether you were commenting on the use of the plural form or on how snooty this person must be to consider himself an "alumni" of a high school.

    2. I have mixed feelings on the quote. On one hand I have to give him credit for working the system efficiently, on the other he probably missed out on some good reading. This is what happens when schools turn reading into a chore.

    3. Off on a tangent here... Why do schools make students read entire works of Shakespeare? They're plays...meant to be seen and heard, not read. I find (and I think many others do too) that they're not at all enjoyable to read but come alive on stage. Why not watch the plays and then focus on selected passages to read and discuss?

  2. PsychMom follows up on Matthew's comment..

    Building on your comment on Shakespeare...I should be seen and not read. It's hard to read and what 12-17 year old, frankly, is interested in deciphering it.

    But I also wonder, why is Shakespeare so fundamental? Aren't there any other poets, or writers that are just as valuable to learn about? Is Shakespeare equivalent in importance to multiplication and long division in math? Can you not be considered a functioning human being without knowing at least one play of Shakespeare's?

  3. Matthew, you must be one of the overachievers that I write the footnotes for! I actually hadn't considered the snootiness angle. I guess for $40k per year, you get to call yourself an alum, but you ought to get the ending right!

    I don't blame the kid for working the system, exactly, but it's no advertisement for the school that he thinks learning to work the system is the whole point of education.

    PsychMom, I agree about Shakespeare. The way certain authors get enshrined as important is really a highly variable cultural decision. It's not like there's any objective way to call one author better than another.

    I guess there's a case to be made that kids should be taught some Shakespeare because he's part of our cultural heritage, and gets referred to and quoted a lot (I'd say the same thing for Greek and Roman myths and Bible stories, btw), but I can't say I'd be worried if my kids never read any Shakespeare.

    And why is it always the plays? If you want kids to be exposed to Elizabethan English, you could have them read some of Shakespeare's sonnets. It's a lot less work than reading the plays, and you could teach kids about meter and rhyme schemes, too.

  4. PsychMom adds

    The Bard and his words fall under the "it's good for you" category, without any real justification for it.
    Yeah, why not the bible or Homer, Chaucer, or Confuscius for that matter?

    And again, the kids have no choice. Why can they not read any play they want to?

  5. Reading this just makes me want to go back to homeschooling. At the moment my 10 and 7yo kids are struggling with reading at their interest level so they love being read to. I'm reading them books like the Hobbit that they could never read by themselves. But it's a struggle to fit in all the reading time they would like because of the freaking homework. I can prophesy that by the time they get to high school, the desire to read will have atrophied altogether. If you have 3 hours of homework, dinner, and you want time with your friends, reading for pleasure disappears.

    As for "why Shakespeare," all I can say is that as a (former) adjunct professor of English it was my experience that Shakespeare was just better than almost any other writer in the sense that even though it was hard the students loved it and they found it deeply meaningful. His plays seemed to teach themselves and to teach far more than just themselves. That was college. Maybe younger students would get that much from something else.

  6. PsychMom says:

    Yes, college-level,I can see college for Shakespeare, but not Grade 7. My first encounter with a Shakespearean play was Grade 9 and it was very difficult and we did not love it. That was 30 years ago. Now it's presented in Middle School.

    We're making a mess of this generation's childhood. It's joyless.

  7. I'm alarmed by what they're calling "better" at these schools. The message seems to be, "We found that the kids were about to have a nervous breakdown, so we decided to give them slightly less so they'll be a few more degrees away from a nervous breakdown."

    Only four hours a night instead of five? Three "homework holidays" a year? Wow, we're getting crazy here!

    I'm really not seeing where these kids are getting any time to relax or how they could possibly get eight hours of sleep a night. I'm guessing they play sports or do some other after-school activity or volunteering every afternoon. (Eleven hours a day of schoolwork isn't enough to get you into Yale, after all!) So if they get home at 5, they have 3-4 hours of homework to do, dinner to eat, and maybe chores to do. (Who am I kidding? Learning practical skills like laundry and washing dishes won't get you into Yale either.) At the earliest, they might be done with everything by 10, and if they're like every other teen I've ever met, they're going to want to get on Facebook or text message with friends or whatever. Notice there's no time in here to actually spend with friends.

    I hope by the time I have kids, there's room in our world for them to spend time just being kids and still find a job someday.

  8. I agree. I don't see any serious changes happening at the schools described in the article.

    It reminds me of another trend that doesn't impress me -- you'll hear of a school that notices their students are under too much stress, so they bring in "experts" to teach the kids "stress management". Um, how about inflicting less stress on the kids?