Monday, October 31, 2011

How Much Homework Is Too Much?

It's Halloween today, and I'm bleary-eyed—not from getting ready for the holiday, but from helping my youngest son practice his Spanish presentation.
It wasn't a huge deal of an assignment. Just two minutes about someone deceased—he chose President Kennedy—for a Day of the Dead celebration in his Spanish II class. However, he also had homework for English, algebra, physics and Western Civilization—on a weekend.
He's a freshman in high school, and it's been a rough transition for him. His four older brothers and sisters all went to public schools, and they were whipped into shape early by homework drills: endless math sheets, word searches, posters. I gave up ever trying to clean off the dining room table, because somebody was always doing a project--or having a breakdown because a project wasn't done. Sometimes it was me having the breakdown.
These four older children all went to great colleges. Three have now graduated and actually have jobs, amazingly; the fourth is in her senior year and working on her college thesis. Good for them, right? And great for us, too, of course.
Did all of that homework get them there?
I have no idea. I never would have questioned the idea of homework—it was drilled into my head, too, that you should always have papers to keep you busy, even if it meant staying up until midnight to get it done—except that my youngest son went to a Montessori School. The Montessori philosophy was, hey, if you need to review something, here's some homework that can help you. Otherwise, go outside and play, cook dinner with your family, or draw a picture.
“He wouldn't be having so much trouble with high school if he'd gone to a 'real' middle school,” my cousin grumbles.
Maybe. But the thing is, our youngest son isn't really having trouble with high school. He loves his teachers, comes home repeating incredible stories about Chinese philosophers from his Western Civ class or trying out new physics theories. He loves to practice Spanish. He is making friends and shaving minutes off his time at every cross country meet. He's a successful high school student in every way—except for that struggle over homework.
The thing Montessori taught him—and me, too—is that there are lots of important things to learn in this world. Maria Montessori, in fact, had a theory that kids in early adolescence shouldn't even go to a traditional school, but to a farm school, where they could exercise their bodies as well as their minds and become truly engaged in the world. They should do community service and—gasp--hold down a small job, all as a way of stimulating intellectual curiosity.
Instead of doing homework, our son would rather be practicing flips on the trampoline, hiking with his dad and me, working in his father's wood shop, fiddling around on the bass guitar, and, of course, playing video games online.
“Computer games are ruining our kids,” a friend suggests.
Really? Why? Because he's playing games online with a team of kids from Canada, Spain, Germany, and the U.S.? Because they Skype and learn how to work on team strategies together, learning about how each of them lives along the way? Is that why those games are bad?
“He's always fooling around,” my mother argues.
I suppose that's what it looks like from the outside. Having been through Montessori, though, makes me question whether doing seven hours of homework on a weekend is necessarily more valuable than doing everything else that commands our son's attention.
Don't get me wrong—I'm highly impressed by my son's high school instructors and curriculum. And, given what research show about brain development—that our brains are the most plastic they'll ever be until age 16 or so, which means that whatever those brain synapses are doing during middle and early high school years truly impacts what kind of thinker your child will become as an adult--I'm delighted that our son is stretching himself in many different directions.
It's just the homework that gets me. Why isn't it enough to focus on academics all day, and then give it a rest?
In the incredible documentary “Race to Nowhere,” we see a series of students who have been crushed by homework, while parents and academics wonder how they can keep students engaged and inspired. Duh. If homework kills the creative buzz, why are we still letting it bleed into evenings, so that there's never time for a game of cards, never mind chess? Why do our weekends have to be spent figuring out physics vectors instead of hiking in the White Mountains?
The counter argument, I know, is that homework teaches accountability, reviews topics covered in class, and prepares your child for college. In college, though, students are older and more motivated to organize their time. (Plus, let's not kid ourselves, there's more free time in college than in high school.)
Meanwhile, what message are we sending by piling on the homework in high school?
Here it is: Stress is good for you, kids! See how stressed Mom and Dad are? That can be you, too! Stress is what you have to look forward to in college and beyond. Forget friends, fun, family, or even sleep! You'd better focus on school if you want to get ahead—so that you can take on even more responsibility later!
Really? Is that what we mean by preparing children for a lifetime of learning? Sounds like the School of Hard Knocks to me.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What Your Car Says About You

Yes, I know it sounds stupid, but I cried all afternoon over selling a car.
Not just any car, mind you. This was my 2003 Honda CRV, a beat-up red car with probably enough forgotten food in it to sustain a family of five for a week. At 200,000 miles, the air conditioning had stopped working, only one door lock worked, the shocks were gone, and the brakes needed replacing. All signs pointed to the inevitable: it was time to get a new car.
Yet there I stood, weeping as if someone had just dumped my new Porsche into a river.
“You always cry when we sell a car,” my husband pointed out. “I still don't get it. You're going to be driving a better car. I would think you'd be happy.”
I am happy. I hated worrying about that car breaking down on some dark, nameless road while I was driving my children and elderly mother around. But I am sad, too. A car isn't just a car. It has a life of its own. Or, more accurately, your car contains your life.
For example, one of the first vehicles I ever owned was an ancient, wheezing Renault that my brother kept going with pliers and duct tape. But, whenever I drove it, I felt like a French actress, able to live on croissants and love. It represented who I thought I might become someday: a woman of mystery with many lovers.
The car I owned when I finished graduate school? That was a green Pontiac Sunbird with a six-cylinder engine, courtesy of my mother. She was understandably horrified when I informed her that, with this car, I was going to drive across the country—by myself—to start a new life in San Francisco. That adventure included getting stopped by the police in Colorado because I was driving 90 mph.
“If you were my daughter, I'd throw you in jail just to teach you some common sense,” the cop growled as he wrote out a ticket worth half my month's rent.
That ticket was worth every penny. My Sunbird symbolized my cowgirl self. It was a symbol of freedom and frontier daring—especially when I took that stick-shift dragster up over my first hill in San Francisco and landed with a cinematic thud on the other side.
Next came my sensible working woman's car, a powder blue Honda Civic: good on gas and easy to maintain. I invited that car to come back East with me when I married my first husband.
When I divorced and married for a second time, I added two stepchildren to the two children I already had. This meant buying a car that could fit us all. I went for an Audi Quattro wagon with a clever rear seat. The kids fought over the privilege of riding backwards and making faces at all of the drivers behind us. That Audi represented my determination to remain oh-so-cosmopolitan, giving a nod to my blended family status while stubbornly refusing the stigma of a minivan. I should have stuck with Hondas: that Quattro proved to be such a lemon that it cost more than our mortgage in monthly repairs.
Still, I cried when I sold it. I cried when I sold the Sunbird, the Civic, and even the Honda Odyssey, the beloved (and reliable) minivan I bought after I ditched the Quattro.
Why, why, why the tears?
Because a car isn't just a car. It is who you are, at least for the moment.
Inside your car, there are crumbs on the carpet and sticky wrappers forgotten under the seats. More importantly, there are those conversations you had while driving, the children soothed, the teenagers listened to (or lectured). There are great vacations, the time your best friend told you she had cancer, the year you got divorced, and the summer you landed the job of your dreams. All of those memories are there, embedded in that car as if trapped in amber.
When I sold the Sunbird, I grieved because I had reached an age where I would no longer rocket along the highway at 90 mph. Saying goodbye to my Honda minivan meant no more car seats—and no more babies of my own. So sad.
The Honda CRV? That had the college stickers on the back window. As I watched the guy drive it away from the curb, I wept for the trips I had made to those colleges, with or without my children in the car, mourning the fact that my kids had nearly completed the long, sad, happy process of becoming independent.
With one more child still at home, I now have a new car that I trust and love—a blue Honda CRV. I may not go 90 mph, but I can still plow through snow. This car has already taken my family to Prince Edward Island and back again. Once my new car was covered in that familiar red dirt, I started to feel at home in the driver's seat.
My new life has begun—and adventures await.