Thursday, October 29, 2009

Evolving Involvement

By Pam Kenney

Every fall parents of upper elementary and middle school students struggle to define the role they should assume in the home/school academic partnership. How much homework support should they provide their children? How should the responsibility for their youngsters’ learning and academic success be apportioned among teachers, parents, and children?

There are educational theories to support a variety of answers to those questions, but my response is predicated on one strongly held belief: Parents turn over too much of the responsibility for academic achievement to the school and assume their children will excel with minimal parental input. As students move through the elementary grades, parents typically ease up on their involvement in homework every year. In fact, as a child’s homework load increases from the fourth grade through middle school, his parents need to be more vigilant about monitoring and supporting his at-home study time than they were when he was younger.

When students are in kindergarten through the third grade, the focus of the curriculum is reading, writing, and math, and homework is usually straightforward. For example, parents are asked to provide a quiet study area, listen to their youngsters read, quiz them on math facts and spelling words, and ensure that completed work and library books are in their backpacks. By fourth grade, the academic curriculum has expanded. Most children are fluent readers; formal reading instruction begins to account for less teaching time, and more emphasis is placed on reading in the content areas (social studies and science). Math teaching zeros in on problem solving in addition to computation. Pupils are asked to study for comprehensive tests and to complete long-term projects at home. In addition, classroom teachers are focusing on building organizational and study skills and helping students internalize the habits of responsibility and diligence started in the lower grades. It is at this point that parents must step up, not scale down, their participation in their child’s academic life.

The task of completing homework assignments in the fourth through the eighth grades is often more time-consuming and difficult for the majority of children than in the earlier grades. Parents become increasingly less sure how to help or how much to help. In general, 9- to 14-year-olds need a lot of homework support from their parents. A common school policy on parental help is that teachers want their students to complete homework that is assigned primarily to reinforce a skill (a math worksheet, e.g.) on their own. Requesting that you not help your child with this kind of homework, however, does not mean a hands-off approach. Most teachers do want you to check his math and reading homework, for example, and have him correct wrong answers. If it is apparent he hasn’t grasped a concept, it’s usually better to send his teacher a note than to attempt to teach him what he doesn’t understand. In math, particularly, children are taught methods to solve problems that are different from how their parents were taught, and parent/child conflicts over the “right way” often produce angry outbursts and tears of frustration.

Most parents are familiar and comfortable with giving their children the help described above. The role of parents is somewhat different, however, when dealing with science and social studies homework, and many falter when children bring home assignments in these subjects. Here are some suggestions on how you can, and should, support your student as homework becomes less straightforward. The teacher may work with her class on a unit about ecosystems, for example. Although perhaps 50 minutes a day are spent on the material in school, additional at-home reinforcement is necessary to ensure mastery. Your child needs to devote time after school hours re-reading lessons, answering study questions, preparing for quizzes and tests, and working on projects. It is an unusual child who is able or willing to do those things on his own without being taught how. With guidance from the school, it is the parents’ responsibility to tell their children what is expected of them at home and to provide the support they require to carry out those expectations.

It goes without saying that parents can’t have appropriate expectations unless they know not only what their child is studying in school, but what organizational skills and study procedures are in place there, too. What is paramount to your child’s academic success, then, is your willingness to become informed about what and how she is studying in school and what her homework assignments are. It means becoming familiar with her assignment book, finding out when tests are scheduled, and working with her to make an at-home study schedule for tests and projects. It means checking not only that she has completed daily homework assignments, but that she understands what she’s doing and, if she doesn’t, writing or emailing her teacher to tell her so. It means requiring that she re-read that day’s science assignment in case there’s quiz even though she tells you she read it in school and already knows the material.

Above all, the prevailing atmosphere in your home must be that homework is a family priority. You must be willing to sit with your fourth through eighth grader and talk about what needs to be done and how to go about doing it. For many families that means reducing the number of after-school activities their children participate in. It may mean that some of your evenings will not be spent on activities you enjoy. Today, upper elementary and middle school subjects are not easy in public or independent schools. Your child will not be successful if he doesn’t work diligently in school and at home every day of the school week. He will not be successful if you expect schools to provide from 8:30 to 3:00 everything he needs to progress academically. They can’t do it. You must be an active participant; it’s one of your most important jobs as a parent.

Working with children at home can be trying for many parents. Children who aren’t used to having their homework supervised will initially balk at parental interference. They don’t want their parents involved, of course, because they know their days of a cursory reading of assignments and the slapdash completion of a math sheet are about to end. It takes effort to do your homework well, and exerting that effort is the last thing a lot of students want to do. However, if you are calm, matter-of-fact, and consistent in your insistence on solid effort at home, your children will slowly but surely realize that the conscientious completion of homework actually makes studying less arduous in the long run. For example, re-reading content area assignments nightly makes studying for tests relatively easy.

To parents who are worried about their children’s grades, I say this: During one nine-week grading period, become more involved with your child’s school experience. Work with him on his homework; help him set up a study schedule and a quiet place to work; quiz him for tests; talk to him about what he’s learning in science and social studies. At first he’ll probably fight you every step of the way, but keep telling yourself that you’re the parent, and you’re in charge. I guarantee the effort you and your child expend now to establish good study habits at home will pay off. His grades will go up, which will enhance his confidence and self-esteem. Someone once said nothing succeeds like success. And my experience with children tells me that when they start to do well in school, they are so buoyed by their success that studying becomes more enjoyable and less of a chore. Diligence can become a habit, and if our children are going to do well in high school and college when their parents’ influence inevitably weakens, it’s a habit parents must instill in them now.


Dave said...

Yes, parents should be involved. Your post provides some good insight on how they could be.

But no, that involvement shouldn't be limited to being an "enforcer" and "answer checker".

Your quote, "If it is apparent he hasn’t grasped a concept, it’s usually better to send his teacher a note than to attempt to teach him what he doesn’t understand. In math, particularly, children are taught methods to solve problems that are different from how their parents were taught, and parent/child conflicts over the “right way” often produce angry outbursts and tears of frustration. " is a veiled reference to "Everyday Math" curriculums?

I can only discuss my experience, but my school district has failed with its implementation of the Everyday Math curriculum. Frankly, I resent the thought that I am "stuck in my ways" and couldn't possibly assist my daughter to 'grasp a concept' using a new method. I've been teaching concepts to her since she's been born. I understand there are different methods available. I'm willing to assist in the Everyday Math curriculum, even though I personally disagree with it. What I need from the school is clear, concise information regarding the days lesson, the curriculum, and the long-term plan for the spiralling of the information. I have received nothing. (it would also seem valid for the school not to invalidate "old" methods in their entirety, either.) I find the concept that the school is the only entity that could possible teach a subject/concept is flawed. I'm supposed to check answers on her homework, but then refer her back to the teacher if she's wrong? That's not going to happen in my house.

Home school students have thrived, even without instruction from 'professional' educators. With all the open-source information available, it is truly time that the current education system is deconstructed and replaced with a new paradigm.

And yes, part of that thinking is to maximize parental involvement in the process wherever possible.

Your post has many valuable ideas. Many educators have told me how much they fight to get parental involvement of any sort. But please don't discount all of us because of the ones who rely on t.v.'s and videogames as babysitters. Some of us have a brain, and want to be involved more than you suggest.

Pam Kenney said...

Thanks for your comments, Dave. I'll address your points about parent involvement first. I congratulate you for being a parent who is actively involved in his daughter's education. You are able to re-teach her concepts (let's stick to math for the purposes of this discussion) she hasn't mastered because of inadequate teaching and/or a poor math curriculum; and you have the ability to analyze the Everyday Math program well enough to recognize its flaws and try to help her succeed in spite them. Unfortunately, you are not typical. For the majority of parents, today's math instruction is so different from how they were taught in school, their attempts to help their children fail. I'm not in any way finding fault with or denigrating the parents when I suggest letting the teacher handle math questions that can't be solved at home. Instead, I'm trying to shield the parent/child relationship from the often emotional clashes that happen when parents try to teach multiplication, for example, with no knowledge of the "lattice multiplication" method. Sure, you can show your daughter how to multiply two digits by two digits the way you and I learned, but if she goes to school, and her teacher marks the problems wrong because she didn't follow the prescribed procedure, what have you gained? In your house, I imagine you would use the experience as the basis for a great discussion. In many households, though, both the parents and the child are frustrated.

You don't like Everyday Math? On this point we are in agreement. I'm a former teacher and principal and have followed the rise and inevitable fall of Everyday Math (I call it Chicago Math) around the U.S. for years. Its rapid spiral approach engenders superficial coverage combined with little mastery. High achieving math students find it too easy; other kids never master concepts because the curriculum flits from one to another so quickly they don't have the time to internalize what they're learning. Unfortunately, more Maine schools are jumping on the Everyday Math bandwagon every year.