Who Benefits from Homework?

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/families/article/1822238/schools-worldwide-consider-homework-ban-partly-ease-burden-pupils

Homework is so inextricably linked to school that it’s hard to think of one without the other. But increasingly educators and child development specialists are examining the practice of assigning homework to children and considering whether it is truly beneficial or potentially harmful. A growing trend to abandon homework altogether for children is building momentum around the world.

The Guardian reported this week that one of Britain’s most prestigious schools, 162-year-old Cheltenham Ladies College, is considering banning homework to “tackle an epidemic of teenage depression and anxiety.” Public School 116 in New York City recently banned homework for students up to grade five having found no link between assigning elementary school homework and success in school. The Kino School in Arizona has a no homework policy for all grades even through high school, and contends that learning remains joyful for their students. Even some of New York City’s most prestigious private schools like Dalton and Spence have reviewed their policies to lessen the nightly burden on their students.

Myriad books on the subject are cropping up on bestseller lists. The most prominent of which include, The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, of Brooklyn, NY, The End of Homework by American Educators Etta Kralovec and John Buell, and prolific author Alfie Kohn’s, The Homework Myth described in the Atlantic Monthly, as “a stinging jeremiad against the assignment of homework which the author, a prominent educator, convincingly argues is a wasteful, unimaginative, and pedagogically bankrupt practice that initiates kids into a soul-sucking rat race long before their time.”

The primary arguments against homework are that it reinforces a sedentary lifestyle, leads to frustration, exhaustion and stress for children, gives them little time to do other constructive things, can lessen children’s genuine interest in learning, burdens teachers to design and grade homework and parents who have to monitor and often spend time doing homework instead of more engaging activities with their children and that it is pointless, since there is no evidence that it leads to improved performance later in school.

Parents like homework because they believe that it reinforcing learning at home, reveals what children are learning in school, establishes good routines and habits, and it helps shape the afternoon hours after school for the families.

While these points seem reasonable, most of the benefits are accrued by the parent rather than the student, and the actual effect is not what parents think. Good communication between teachers and parents can show parents what children are learning without requiring the child to do busywork at home. In fact, busy work can overwhelm struggling students and bore high achievers, dampening their interest in learning. Parents reason that homework should help, but no study shows that it actually does.

In our busy and frenetic society, the primary benefit of homework may be simply that it keeps children engaged in seemly constructive activities after school and reduces our own anxiety that they might not be learning enough in school. In certain subjects, like Chinese, an argument could be made that practice and wrote memorization is the only way to do it, but the optimal quantity and quality of assignments beyond the classroom even in these subjects is unclear.

Perhaps the homework debate is not so much a yes or no, but what kind? Annie Murphy Paul described in a 2001 NY Times article the concepts of spaced repetition, retrieval practice, and interleaving as three research-based strategies that demonstrate positive results when applied to homework. More research into these specific techniques and others like them could influence schools to more consciously design interesting and engaging extension activities that truly benefit students’ learning.

Reading for pleasure is the one area of “home work” that educators and researchers agree is essential for children on a daily basis. This practice has the biggest impact on future success in school. Children should be encouraged to select their own books and should not fill out reading logs or be rewarded for reading except, perhaps, with more books. Developing an intrinsic love for reading is the most essential determinant of future happiness and success in school.

In lieu of homework, creative projects can be helpful in reinforcing concepts, extending learning and engaging children and parents in the learning process. Working collaboratively, teachers, students and parents can identify after school activities that are active, creative and fun for kids, and a much better use of everyone’s time.

Heading into summer holidays, many parents look forward to more unstructured time with their children, time to stay up late and not have to rush home to do homework. What if parents could look forward to that time throughout the school year as well, knowing that in this case, less really is more.

All About Audiobooks

Karen White working in her home studio
Karen White working in her home studio

It helps to have friends with some of the coolest jobs in the world.  Karen and I have been friends for fifteen years, since our first children were born and we figured out parenting together with our beloved mommy group in Los Angeles.  Now she’s in North Carolina and I’m in Hong Kong, but we keep in touch and still compare parenting notes on everything from the allowable length of shorts to young adult fiction, teen dating and whatever else comes up.  

Full text of the article is included below, or here’s a direct link to the truncated version in todays South China Morning Post: Why audiobooks are good for multitaskers, travellers and young readers

What bibliophile among us has not at one time or another proclaimed, “I wish I could get paid to read books!” For award-winning professional audiobook narrator Karen White, this childhood dream came true. Expecting her first child sixteen years ago, White parlayed her classical acting training into a career that fits perfectly around family life, providing her flexibility, recognition, independence, a professional community and yes, she gets paid to read books.

White is part of a select group of industry-represented professional audio book narrators.  With more than 200 books recorded, she credits training in classical theatre, her foundational experience working with directors in studios, and her voice training as key components of her success. Professionally recorded audiobooks require incredible stamina, rigorous practice and years of experience to be able to understand, absorb and produce a book with consistency and believability.

“Changes in technology have made it possible for me to work entirely from home.  When I started recording audiobooks, I had to go to a studio and work with an engineer and director.  Now, I have a built-in studio in my house and the newer software allows me to edit as I go with a click of the keyboard.  High internet speeds mean that I can upload large files directly to the production companies. It’s not easy work, but I love it, and it allows me to have a career as a performer and still be there when my kids get home from school.” White said.

The audiobook business is gaining an increasingly impressive foothold in the traditional book industry as technology makes production of and access to audiobooks easy. With better recording and distribution tools, both self-publishing and self-recorded audiobooks are on the rise. And this provides a wonderful resource for busy families with continual access to technology and a proclivity to multitask.

While the feel of a paper book in the hand by the beach is unique, audiobooks offer some practical advantages in certain circumstances, especially during the summer. They are portable and can provide much needed entertainment for the inevitable delays in summer travel. Those long car rides and crowded MTR commutes with kids are made instantly painless by a great story, and provide a rich common topic to discuss at meals.

I like to listen to audiobooks while my son is at his sports lessons. Listening to a story instead of reading it myself enables me to keep an eye on the ball and appear like I’m riveted, but to occupy my mind in a more active way at the same time.

Gretchen Rubin, author of the Happiness Project, advises in an on-line article that readers should use audio books “if you’re trying to form a habit, it’s also a great way to use the Strategy of Pairing. If you don’t particularly enjoy going for a daily walk, but want to get that exercise, try pairing your walk with an engaging audio-book. The time will fly.”

Several resources exist to access high quality audiobooks. First, be sure you are downloading from a reputable site and that you select an unabridged version. Sometimes the author reads his or her own book, but professional audio book readers bring characters to life in an exciting and subtle way that can add a richness to a story that makes for an enhanced experience.

To find great audiobooks, many turn to industry publications like AudioFile Magazine, or to successful audio book bloggers like Audiobook Jukebox, Literate Housewife, Guilded Earlobe, AudioGals to name a few.  The website Goodreads is a treasure trove of information about books and also has an “audiobooks” section that offers everything from book recommendations to technical advice.

A paid subscription to Amazon’s audible.com is the gold standard of audiobooks, but at a subscription rate of $14.00 USD per month, it is expensive. They do offer a subscription-free service, but do not advertise it. Audible also offers Whispersync technology, which enables one to bundle the audiobook with the purchase of a kindle book relatively cheaply.  Whispersync then allows you to go back and forth from e-book to audiobook effortlessly. Downpour.com is a reliable alternative if you don’t want to pay a large subscription fee.

A few terrific audiobook programs are geared specifically to young readers. Subscription-based Tales2Go has over 1,700 titles available for children, and allows up to five devices, so the whole family can use one subscription. Audio File currently has an incentive program called SYNC designed specifically for young adult audio book listeners. It gives away two complete audiobook downloads weekly, including a current Young Adult title paired thematically with a Classic or required summer reading title, to listeners ages 13+ during the summer session. Not all of the titles are available for download outside of the US, but many are.

Several websites offer free downloads of varying quality, but one resource stands out above all, and that is OverDrive.com, which gives access to library collections around the world via a downloadable app. Check with your school librarian to learn how to access the service. And for those who use a CD player, most libraries have large collections of CD copies of audiobooks to borrow.

June is audiobook month, so be sure to check the websites listed for promotions and events near you.

Expat Exodus

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Tuesday’s SCMP article is not yet on-line, but here’s a photo and a longer version of the text below:

Tuition for many international schools was due at the end of March, so by early April, word began to spread quickly among the expatriate community about who will be leaving Hong Kong this summer.

The emotional perils of June for expats is well documented. This is the month when groups of friends gather repeatedly to say farewell. Those who remain feel abandoned and claim that it is much worse to be left than to leave. After eight years as an expat, I am all too familiar with this feeling. I bid adieu to upwards of twenty families every June. These were people who touched our lives, to whom we felt close connections and with whom we shared meaningful experiences. Farewells can take an emotional and sometimes even a physical toll.

But what if it’s your turn to leave this year? Leaving gracefully is an art, but there’s a whole lot of work that goes into making it happen. As soon as the decision to move is made the list of tasks grows a mile long, and emotions start to flare. While it’s essential to get things done, it’s also critical to take the time to express gratitude and to celebrate the time spent in Hong Kong and especially the friendships you’ve made along the way. Taking this time is even more important to help your children transition gracefully.

One of the benefits of having said goodbye to so many wonderful friends over the years is that now I know people around the globe who have the benefit of hindsight having successfully orchestrated an international move for their families. I recently polled several of them to gain insight and advice. If you are leaving, these tips may help smooth your way. If your bidding farewell to friends this year, here are some suggestions that will be truly meaningful.

Photographs of all sorts are by far everyone’s favorite gift and memento to help with the transition. Take lots of photos! One friend recommended using a Polaroid instant camera to take photos at a going away party and paste them immediately into a book with messages from the friends at the party.

Many of the schools make framed photos or picture scrapbooks for each of the departing kids. Most tell me that their kids regularly look at these long after they have settled in their new home. My teenager still has a collage hanging in his room that was made for him by his friend when we left London six years ago.

Celebrations are important for children too. Pool, beach and club parties are popular, as well as more elaborate foot massages, simulated driving, and tram parties. A must in planning a party is to be inclusive. Design a party that is simple and fun, and focused on the children playing together and not the activity. This is not the time to hire an entertainer or organize a craft.

Loosen the rules before you go. Let bedtime lapse a little, indulge the sleepover requests and always say yes to the play date offer. Be easy on them and yourself. Make sure there’s ample unstructured time to spend time with special friends, especially as the departure date nears.

As a family there are things you can do to prepare too. Make your family “bucket list” of things you want to do in Hong Kong and document your adventures along the way. Consider printing family calling cards with your new contact information that kids can hand out to friends. List the great things about Hong Kong and the new place.

Gratitude is a central element of leaving well. Don’t forget to say thank you to the people who have been a big part of your life. Try to think ahead, because when it gets busy toward the end, expressing gratitude is the first thing to go.

The key factor in the success of the move, however, is not the parties or memory books, but your attitude as the parent. You must focus on the positive, especially if one spouse is less excited, and get on board with the plan.

Most people think it’s harder for kids than adults to transition, but judging from the responses, it’s the parents who seem to have the most difficult time. One mom who left last year said, “Stay upbeat even though you are stressed and crying on the inside. Kids take their cue from you.” Another friend advised, “Hike, drink the rose, hug the friends, let the movers pack, don’t think about your possessions.”

While few good resources seem to exist to help children transition “home” or to a new country, here are a few to consider. For the youngest children, A Kiss Goodbye, by Audrey Penn follows Chester Raccoon’s process of saying goodbye. Alexander, Who is Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move by Judith Viorst uses humor and hyperbole to express the range of feelings that are typical with a family move. The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi is about a girl who tries on many names in her new school before settling on the one she likes the best; her own. Moving Day, by Ralph Fletcher, is a delightful collection of insights about moving for all ages.

One silver lining story, for teenagers especially, comes from my friend who said the best thing she did was encourage her kids to get on social media. “That’s the best (and only) way to keep in touch. Now they have a constant flow of news and photos from Hong Kong as a result.” If nothing else, technology might be your fillip to bring an ambivalent teen on board with the move. And, if all else fails, you can try the age-old advice given by my dear friend who slyly told me, “We just promised them a puppy.”

Who Holds the Power? The Writer.

Today’s SCMP Article on adolescent literacy, the link, or text below…

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1745385/dont-sell-short-power-pen

In advocating literacy, we have mostly discussed the importance of reading aloud with children. But there’s a second part we haven’t addressed as deeply: writing.

Writing is powerful. Consider this: history happens, but the one who writes it down becomes the arbiter of its future understanding. The writer shapes public opinion, provides context, persuades and inspires. We would know virtually nothing of the past were it not for writers. Time changes everything, but in books, it will always look as the writer wishes it to appear.

Writing has to be nurtured. Like reading, writing instruction in Hong Kong sometimes unintentionally prioritizes performance over pleasure and the need to develop a deeper insight into the world. The process of learning to write is so much greater than cultivating beautiful handwriting and perfect spelling. In fact, those skills are somewhat beside the point.

The writing process can be particularly therapeutic for teenagers who are trying to figure out who they are and what they believe. Writing allows one to express frustration, to explore connections and relationships and to develop consciousness. Writing only works when it is truthful and honest, and oftentimes the process itself helps the writer determine what she thinks about a topic.

Deborah Wiles, award-winning author of children’s books, spent nearly two weeks in Hong Kong working with students and teachers at both HKIS and CIS this month. She demonstrated how fiction can be as powerful a medium to convey ideas, inform and to convince, as is nonfiction. “Think of the power you have if you hold the pen,” she says. People become what you can imagine. For example, in her award winning, Love, Ruby Lavender, three crotchety aunties who had always reminded Wiles of chickens feature prominently as such in the book. Revenge is sweet when her real life nemesis younger brother appears as an unpleasant little girl in one of her books.

Wiles’ books are deeply personal, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it, as the creative and fanciful stories are every bit as imaginative as pure fiction. Set in her childhood homes and drawn from her stock of memories, they are her own stories, but not standard memoirs. Her history takes the form of young adult fiction, picture books and what she calls a documentary novel, a trilogy about the 1960s that defies categorization.

“I write so I can say I was here. So I can find like-minded souls to share the road with. You must tell the whole story of your whole life with your whole heart because that is how we create life.“

Writing and life is about paying attention, making connections and asking questions. She teaches aspiring writers to “know, feel, and imagine.” Writing can also help with grief. Writing helped her through the grieving process during a particularly difficult year of her life. Of the process of writing and recording her experience, she said, “I learned to carry my grief. You do not ever get rid of it, but you learn to carry it.”

The good news is that in one form or another, we are all writers. We write every day. Emails, business communications, term papers, thank you notes and the occasional one-off essay, we write to communicate, to persuade, to express gratitude and to inform.

In a New Yorker column this week, acclaimed author Andrew Solomon wrote, “What I’d really like, in fact, is to be young and middle-aged, and perhaps even very old, all at the same time—and to be dark- and fair-skinned, deaf and hearing, gay and straight, male and female. I can’t do that in life, but I can do it in writing, and so can you. Never forget that the truest luxury is imagination, and that being a writer gives you the leeway to exploit all of the imagination’s curious intricacies, to be what you were, what you are, what you will be, and what everyone else is or was or will be, too.”

Creative writing is as important a process and skill to cultivate in adolescence as are all the traditional communications and persuasive tools. Parents, your child’s fanciful stories are a path to one of life’s most essential skills and must be nurtured and celebrated as such.

Let Them Be Bored

Here’s my February SCMP article promoting our upcoming visit by Dr. Madeline Levine to Hong Kong (a link to the SCMP, or the text below):  http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1721677/imagination-just-important-children-books

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“Use your imagination,” my mother exasperatedly replied to my whiny claims of boredom one day when I was little. “I don’t have any!” I dramatically exclaimed. But the truth is, my childhood was replete with unstructured time and full of imaginative play. I fear, however, that for this generation of students who are intensely scheduled, pressured and expected to excel in all areas of life except free time, that answer might just be true.

We all want what’s best for our children, but determining what that is and how to get there is not easy. In our best effort to shepherd them through this competitive, harsh world, we fight their every battle, smooth every bump, give them every advantage and then we wonder why they can’t do anything for themselves. Collectively, as helicopter parents of the fragile teacup generation, we view the nurturing years as a complex battle strategy of defense and attack, and we’re arming ourselves to the teeth.  It’s exhausting and ultimately not helpful for our kids.

A practicing psychologist and bestselling author, Dr. Madeline Levine has identified alarming rates of depression among teenagers who are adored by their parents and successful by any measure, but who are feeling empty and lost, with no sense of self, or purpose in life. Dr. Levine has dedicated her recent years of practice to identifying this alarming trend of performance-based, pressure-cooker culture among teens and offering alternative parenting strategies to help mitigate it.

Dr. Levine describes the problem in this way: “The kids I have seen have been given all kinds of material advantages, yet feel that they have nothing genuine to anchor their lives to. They lack spontaneity, creativity, enthusiasm, and, most disturbingly, the capacity for pleasure. As their problems become more evident, their parents become confused and worried sick.”

In her bestselling book, The Price of Privilege, Dr. Levine explains how parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids. Her second book, Teach Your Children Well tackles the contemporary narrow definition of success and provides practical suggestions for raising truly successful children in all aspects of life.

In addition to the work of Doctor Levine, many child development specialists, college admissions officers and companies are reexamining their true determinants of success. Perusing Stanford University’s Challenge Success website nets a treasure trove of research-based resources for parents and educators who believe that schools these days are too focused on grades and test scores. Instead, they should focus on creativity, adaptability, critical thinking, collaboration and communication leading to greater resilience, success and ultimately more meaningful lives.

Dr. Ron Ritchhart from Harvard University’s Project Zero was in Hong Kong last week speaking about how to develop what he calls “cultures of thinking” in the classroom and at home. He encourages the creation of environments where “individual and collective thinking is valued, visible and actively promoted as part of the regular day-to-day experience.”

Diane Frankenstein, a child literacy expert guides parents and teachers in the art of Conversational Reading as an excellent way to stay engaged in the lives of older children. Talking about books helps kids convey feelings, develop empathy and continue to converse in a way that is not so personal, but gets to personal topics. Far from a passive, solitary activity, reading can be active, social and collaborative, particularly when a carefully constructed discussion ensues. She advises, “Read a story. Ask a question. Start a conversation.”

More than an additional extracurricular activity, tutor or AP class, children need time to be bored and the space to think deeply about ideas, discovering who they are as much as what they can do. After all, there really is no proven formula for future success and happiness, so why make adolescence so unpleasant? Why not enjoy our kids and listen to them, try to make the best decisions we can for them while we have the luxury of being the decision-makers, but more importantly, try to plant the seeds for them to make good decisions for themselves in the future?

Dr. Madeline Levine will be in Hong Kong on March 11 to speak at the HK Convention Centre at 7 p.m. as a guest of Bring Me A Book. Tickets can be purchased through HK Ticketing.