Marina Koestler Ruben

Marina's Blog

Read on for more about education, tutoring, and learning.


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Should We Limit Homework?

In "New Recruit in Homework Revolt: The Principal," June 15th's New York Times reports on the movement to reduce and/or ban homework, on the grounds that students are overworked, should be able to spend their free time playing or with their families, and aren't benefiting enough to justify the work.

Some schools have handled the alleged work overload by setting time limits for homework.  For example, kindergartners might have a ten-minute homework cap, with each grade's load increasing by ten minutes.  Of course, different students need varying amount of time to complete homework, which complicates this system.  

My high school didn't stick to these types of time limits for homework.  During my senior year, we certainly weren't limited to 130 minutes of homework.  The amount of homework varied by course load.  And shouldn't it?  Doesn't it make sense for a student in a more intensive class to spend more time on a subject?  

The article actually mentions my former high school:

Ridgewood High School in New Jersey introduced a homework-free winter break in December.

This kind of policy seems logical to me, though the article made an interesting point from a parenting perspective:

 In Coronado, Calif., the school board rejected a proposal by the superintendent to eliminate homework on weekends and holidays after some parents said that was when they had time to help their children

I'm not sure what I think about this.  How much should parent availability factor into a school's decision about assigning homework?

My Letter to the New York Times

On June 8, the New York Times published "Push for A's at Private Schools is Keeping Private Tutors Busy," in which Jenny Anderson details the ubiquity of high-priced tutoring services in New York City's private school circuit.  

Private SAT tutors have been de rigueur at elite New York private schools for a generation, but the proliferation of subject-matter tutors for students angling for A’s is a newer phenomenon that is beginning to incite a backlash. Interviews with parents, students, teachers, administrators, tutors and consultants suggest that more than half of the students at the city’s top-tier schools hire tutors, an open secret that the schools seem unable to stop.

Hiring a private tutor to coach one's child through school is a pricey proposition.  But, for many families, the $795 they may shell out for an hour-long session is not their biggest cost.

What is?  Read my letter to the Times to find out.  (See the last letter on the page.)

Parents and Children, on the Same Track

For me, "tutoring" a child doesn't necessarily mean that you're working on homework--or anything officially academic.  It's more a style of interaction.  It's what happens when a parent learns to engage with a child intellectually and encourage in that child a love of learning.

So what does tutoring look like?  A few possibilities: Discussing the local election over dinner.  Caring for a bird that fell out of a tree in the yard.  Playing guitar and recorder duets.

First and foremost, especially with an older child, it's important for the child to feel comfortable spending time with the parent and to know he or she can communicate openly.  

Dominique Browning explores this issue in a New York Times article, "Mothers and Sons, on the Same Track" (Travel, June 3), where she writes about a cross-country Amtrak trip she takes with her two sons, ages 22 and 26.  On the trip, Browning tries to create an atmosphere that will allow her children to feel respected and valuable.

Browning lays out what she learns.  Among her most relevant points:

1. "Turn it over to a younger power."  She puts her sons in charge of planning the trip: tickets, lodging, itinerary.  Even young children can research and plan a trip, whether cross-country or down the street.  Let them research it, map it, and take pride in sharing their plan with you.

2. "Don't say everything that pops into your brain" and "No more corrections of any sort."  The latter is extreme, but Browning's point is good.  When motivating and engaging with your children, try not to be overly critical.

3. "Do interesting things together.  Do anything together."  Self-explanatory.

4. "Listen and do nothing.  Or, do nothing and just listen."  Browning watches her children as they interact with another guest in the dining car:

I began to see my children as if they were guests at my table, rather than creatures who needed molding, or scolding or holding, or anything at all from me besides ... listening.

The Benefits of Being Alone

In How to Tutor Your Own Child, I emphasize the educational value of simplicity, silence, and boredom.  Along those same lines, I was struck by this quote about the benefits of aloneness from "The Writer as Psychotic," an article by author Philip Yancey:

Brain scans reveal that aloneness is central to the creative impulse; sensory deprivation allows the synaptic loops in the inner brain that lead to creativity.

I think Yancey's point holds true for everyone, not just writers.  While schools often emphasize group work, it is the absence of interaction--and of other stimuli--that can provide the space we need to create, allowing us to fill the void with something new.

Here are a few other ways that children can benefit from being alone:

  • By learning to eat at restaurants alone, visit museums and attend performances alone, and mingle at social events alone, children gain poise and confidence.
  • Completing tasks in groups can mask areas in need of improvement; but solo practice of skills--cooking eggs, tying shoes, changing a tire--can identify weaknesses and ultimately lead to the development of stronger skills.
  • Making decisions together teaches compromise, but making decisions alone builds independence and the ability to reason.

Are there other ways that aloneness benefits children or students?

Discussion Questions -- Oprah's Documentary of the Month: "Sons of Perdition"

The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) has a documentary-of-the-month club.  Last night, as June's film, they premiered Sons of Perdition, "the story of polygamy's exiled youth."  (Note: This is entirely  different from Road to Perdition, the 2002 film by Tom Hanks.)  

Sons of Perdition is a 2010 documentary that tells the story of Sam, Bruce, and Joe, teenage boys who have run away from Warren Jeffs's polygamist Mormon sect.  They struggle to find jobs, schooling, and homes in the outside world while still trying to communicate with and liberate families members who still live under Jeffs's control in Colorado City.
For parents thinking of watching this film with children, it's most appropriate for high schoolers and above.  Here are a few questions that can get you talking before/during/after the film:
1. Can you think of any valid reasons to exile a teen from his home?
2. In what ways do you think these teens improved their lives by leaving the sect?  In what ways are their lives harder?
3. In one clip, Warren Jeffs says, "Walt Disney and the Care Bears and all the little creatures are lies" and are "frivolous" and "useless."  He says that children should hear truth.  What do you think about Jeffs's stance?
4. What do you think about Sam's decision not to be adopted?
5. If you haven't already, read about the Amish tradition of rumspringa, the period of time when Amish teens consider whether to join a non-Amish community.  How would an Amish teen's decision and exploration of "mainstream" society compare with the changes that these Mormon teens underwent?
Oprah's July film will be Serving Life, about an inmate-staffed hospice program inside a maximum security prison.  August is Life 2.0, about online interaction between users of the virtual computer world of Second Life.

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