Like Grandfather, Like Grandson

My eighth grader, typically an A student, received a C- on his notecards for a research paper on World War Two. He reads a lot and loves history, so his knowledge about the subject before the unit was already fairly impressive. The teacher said he hadn’t followed the instructions regarding the sources to be used. He relied too heavily on a single source, which might lead to bias.

True. A good lesson for my son…. maybe.

I read the 75+ notecards, which were full and demonstrated knowledge of the topic, but he did rely heavily on one source – a rather long book that most of his classmates wouldn’t have bothered to muddle through. He had more than double the number of notecards required (or matched by most of his classmates). Had he completely erased this book from the project, he would have still had enough other sources, notecards, and information.


But after days of stewing on his behalf, I remembered a story my father told me. It involved another history lesson and a teacher whose name he remembers even now.

My Dad, according to the tale, was taking a high school essay exam for a class that covered the American Revolution to Teddy Roosevelt. The final essay was to list any books (and the authors) he had read that addressed that timeframe. Excited to share, he went straight to that essay, and was so absorbed in making his list that he barely had time to complete the rest of the test.

He listed 57 books and their authors.

Like my son and his C-, if you’re a rule-follower, his grandfather should have bombed the test. But his teacher, the one whose name stays with him now that he is a grandfather, was so tickled to have a student that passionate about reading and history, that he upped his grade to a B.

When I first heard that story, as a girl who was very good at following directions, I remember thinking, “what kind of ding-dong does that?”

My father. My son.

And even though the “ding-dong question” still hangs in the air, I love that they are both so passionate about books and history.

Another lesson: history, at least in families, repeats itself.


Effort Grades and the Secret Seeker of Knowledge

I would have loved Effort Grades when I was in middle school, because I would have cleaned up.

In fact, I remember the first time I discovered how happy a teacher might be if you went beyond the assignment. It was fourth grade. We were supposed to write a two-page story, and I was so excited to have writing homework that I ended up handing in a 10-pager with illustrations. If Effort Grades had existed back then, I would have received a “1”.

Most girls in my class would have too. Almost every time.

Effort Grades are about neat handwriting, raising your hand, adding to the conversation, handing in homework, being respectful, and seizing the opportunity to share what you know with your classmates.

So easy!

So, it is a complete mystery to me that a child chooses not to let his teacher know that he loves what he is learning. It perplexes me that he might choose not to do the extra credit. Or do the homework.

But over the last two weeks, my son – whose teachers express frustration regarding his effort and focus and consistency –  has spent hours teaching himself German history.

A research paper for which he chose the WWI Battle of Cambrai (aiming for the minimum page recommendation) and a WWII simulation game in Social Studies inspired him to investigate further on his own. He has watched numerous documentaries and what seems to be hundreds of short videos online to fill out his knowledge. He has talked us through the dysfunctional alliances that led to WWI, mistakes they made in WWII, what their navy was like, their innovations, their showing in past Olympics, their impressive ability to bounce back.

Of course, none of it is captured in any assignment he turned in. He will get no credit for it.

“Was all that research part of the simulation game?”


“Then does your teacher realize how much you know?”

He shrugged, “I don’t think so.”

“You should tell him!”

But apparently, that wasn’t the point. And no matter how much it drives me crazy, I’ve got to respect that, for him, the assignment and grades aren’t going to be what drive him. It’s just the knowing what he wants to know.


Serious, Seriously?

On Monday, my son’s Spanish teacher emailed me to let me know that he was upset. He had forgotten about a quiz scheduled for that day, even though it was posted on her website and announced in class.

On Tuesday, he went to Freshman Registration Night at the high school he plans to attend next year. His schedule is going to be really tough. So while his teacher had recommended Spanish III, I suggested taking Spanish II, so he isn’t slammed from all sides.

Nope. “I should take Spanish III.”

“I don’t know,” I shook my head, imagining another four years of nagging and checking up on him.

“Mom, it’s time I took school seriously.”

Well, you can’t argue with that… until an hour later when I received a late-night, bail-out email from his Social Studies teacher, saying that he “probably knows this, and has yet to start… but please remind him to…”

“Aw man, I forgot!”

He didn’t even remember that it was his turn to bring snack today. How can you be a serious student when you can’t even remember snack?!

Honesty: Not Always the Best Policy

Today, I sat with my son’s seventh grade English teacher at Parent-Teacher Conferences while he read some of my son’s responses to questions the teacher had asked about the class. He was trying to gauge how his new students were feeling, whether they were keeping up, stressed, having fun.

How are you feeling about La/Lit?

My son wrote something along the lines of “I like class, but I hate reading and writing. It is sooooo boring.”

He had written a similar statement in a letter to his sixth grade teacher, but I made him delete it, explaining then that telling an English teacher that you don’t like to read is not only stupid, but not nice. He is the sweetest kid on the planet, so fortunately everyone gets that he is not being purposefully disrespectful.

He just doesn’t get it.

Do you feel comfortable with the teaching style used in this class?

My son wrote (and unfortunately, I think I have this one close to verbatim), “Your teaching style doesn’t really work with me, because you make everything more complicated than it has to be. Maybe you do that for the kids that struggle.”

I put my head down on the table.

And the teacher, who I respect immensely, laughed, “And that’s not why I gave him an F on his note-taking.”

You know I’m gonna be breathing down his neck at homework time…

… and we might just have to work on ditching the honesty thing. Too much of anything makes you look like a ding-dong.

Do I Have to Read the Book?

My fourth grader had a homework assignment to read a detective book and then create a Most Wanted Poster for one of the characters. As part of the assignment, he had to respond to some questions:
• What was the reward?
• What was he wanted for?
• Where was he last seen?
• What did he look like?

Since we are working on independence and taking responsibility in your work so that you can take equal pride in it, I have been encouraging him to do his work on his own with only a quick check when he is done.

He has had a great attitude about it. He stops himself mid-sentence before blaming me when he gets something wrong. And after waking up too early one day last weekend, he sat down without a word from me, and completed the detective story project.

The problem? His responses looked incomplete to me, but I struggled to find the right questions to ask. He was confident he was done and would get a good grade.

So I skimmed the book yesterday while he glared at me, found the right questions to ask, and he fleshed out the assignment.

I really do not want to read all the books he chooses for his assignments. Secret Agent Jack Stalwart: The Caper of the Crown Jewels was one of the worst detective stories I have read. Why, when there are so many good books for fourth graders, this one is an option for a big school project, I wish I knew. My guess is the teachers want them to like what they are reading. My guess is also that he picked it because it looked pretty short, easy, and he’d read a Jack Stalwart book before. He likes to know what he is getting into.

When I read out loud to my kids, I tend to choose stories that push them intellectually, engage their imaginations and entertain me at least enough not to fall asleep before they do. I wish he would choose books for himself that did the same…

…especially if I am going to have read them all to make sure he is comprehending what he reads, and doing a better job on his assignments.

While I want to encourage him to be independent, I also believe it is my responsibility to teach him to work hard, think about what he reads, and flesh out his assignments in ways that will help him succeed in school as he grows up. He has a great teacher and goes to a good school, but I believe that many smart kids can skate by without learning as much if their parents are not checking their work and pushing them to do better at home, where the teaching can be one-on-one and specific to the child’s needs, strengths and developmental abilities.

I will continue to encourage him to do the work on his own, but I plan to be ready to help him stretch. In his parent-teacher conference this year, his teacher pointed out that he was not providing complete answers. I asked if she thought that was because his reading comprehension is not strong, and she said no. She thought he wasn’t trying. When I asked if she thought I should read the books he reads, I already knew that I was going to start no matter what she said.

Of course, I know fourth grade is about independence. And I don’t want to stand in the way of him developing that. A strong sense of independence will take him much further in life than a good grade on his Jack Stalwart book report.

Still, I do not want my kids to hit eighth grade without knowing how to absorb what they read (because then they won’t enjoy it) or to study or to know when they have really done a great job. By helping him see what he needs to do to create a good answer, I do not feel like I am standing in his way. Some kids get it instinctively. Some kids are driven internally. But if you know you have a smart kid who is not necessarily pushing himself to do well, who tends to take the easy way out, then it seems you have a role to play, even if it lasts longer than your friends or his teachers or parenting experts would like you to play it.

And even if you really don’t want to read his book.

Thinking-Out-Loud About Homework

The debate regarding homework – and the amount of it – is hot. No matter who you talk to, or which side of the debate they are on, all you have to do is mention the amount of homework your kid has, and it looks like everyone in the room needs to take their sweater off. Their face flushes. The pulse in their jugular is suddenly more apparent. They can’t help but interrupt you as soon as you stop to take a breath. They weigh in.

And I am just as guilty as the rest of them. The thing is, I have no idea what’s right in regard to homework. So, I am trusting that my sons’ teachers do. And if they’re a little off, my guess is, the boys will be fine. And yet….

“My third grader gets his homework done in five minutes while eating snack. He should get more!”

“My third grader has 45 minutes of homework every night. It’s going to be the death of me.”

“My third grader would have ten minutes, but he cries for 30 because he doesn’t want to do it. Shouldn’t they be allowed to play after being at school all day?”

(By the way, that’s me depending on the day.)

Then from one set of experts, “Your children need more down-time. They are stressed. They will not know how to make their own choices when they grow up, because they haven’t had free time as kids.”

And from the other experts, “China is kicking our butts because their children work harder than ours.”

Remember when I wrote about wine as a great parenting tool? Well…..

Anyway, I would like to change the focus of the conversation. The time it takes to get homework done is irrelevant, because each child has their own pace of learning and accomplishing tasks. One can complete the assignments in five minutes, while another in the same grade takes 45.

The real question is what work they are being assigned.

In my third grader’s class, there are two levels of homework. The first level, which takes place every day, is basic practice. Two or three grammar sentences, two word problems, 15 minutes of reading out loud, a spelling worksheet, and practicing math facts for a weekly test. The time it takes to complete each day depends on my son’s mood.

I believe in practice. But this seems frenetic and lacking in focus. Homework for homework sake. Even if they alternated grammar and word problems, giving more of one on the days that subject was assigned, it would feel more valuable. And feeling valuable is important. Believing that what your child is doing feels valuable (because most of us parents, including me, have no idea what the best approach to homework is) gets parental buy-in. And our kids sense parental buy-in. If we are on the same page as their teachers that what they are doing is all-important to their success, they will try harder.

Back-to-School Night is a wonderful time for teachers to explain the approach to homework, rather than the time it will take. When parents ask how long it will take, the teachers can easily redirect us to why they are doing what they are doing. We are asking the wrong questions. The teachers should feel free to tell us that, then explain how each piece of the daily assignment will benefit our child’s learning.

The second level of homework in my son’s third grade class is wonderful. It has my complete buy-in.

Once every three weeks, the children are assigned a “job” that they must research, write about, create a visual, and report on in front of the class. These “job reports” require parental involvement, and they are time-consuming.

The children pick something related to that field that inspires them or excites them. They learn research skills, organizational skills, writing and speaking in front of a crowd. They become the class expert on their given topic, which instills confidence both academically and socially. My son and I have studied Vincent Van Gogh (artist), the Black Eyed Peas (musician), CNN reporter Gary Tuchman and his coverage of Haiti (broadcaster), and we plan to study the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII (inventor) next. Classmates have reported on everything from the piano, Beethoven, Jackson Pollack, and news coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Others have invented their own “homework help” contraptions and made guacamole.

Maybe I like it because I love to do research and write myself. And it’s really fun to work with my son and learn more about the things that inspire him. Maybe I like the “jobs reports” because they ask the kids to take their learning a step further, to think beyond the classroom.

I have no idea how much homework our children should be assigned to keep them sane or to maintain an edge over China in the future. It is true, though, that no matter how long it takes our child to complete the work, we just can’t help ourselves from weighing in.

Parent-Teacher Conferences

As your children move into higher grades, it seems that you get invited less and less to volunteer in the classroom. If you have boys, like I do, they tell you less and less about their days.
“How was your day?”
“It was good.”
“What was the best part?”
“Learn anything cool?”
“Mom, I’m too tired to talk about it.”

Those of us who are used to being involved, loving, helicopter moms start to feel left out. We need a secret window to check in on our kids as they move through their days, laugh with their friends, struggle on a math test. So the Parent-Teacher Conference is an eagerly awaited event. This, we think, is going to be that window into the lives of our children. The teacher will tell us if he is naughty, if he has friends, who they are, where he fits socially and academically with his peers, if he leads by example, if he talks too much or not enough. We will, we imagine, walk away from our conference with a picture of our child that we can carry with us through our day while they are busy moving through theirs.

So when a teacher says that “everything is going great, he is just where he needs to be, he is a bright kid and so sweet”, you feel cheated. You want more. Does he make you laugh as much as he makes me laugh? Is he a little bit ahead of where he needs to be? Who is he most comfortable sitting next to? Where does he excel? Where does he lag behind? I want specifics so I can have that picture I came for.

And then you talk to the other parents who just had their Parent-Teacher Conferences too. The ones who heard what you heard — that all is going so well — are as upset as you are. Is her teacher lying? Does she not know my child? What does she mean when she says…..

Of course, the parents who heard that their child is struggling in math, or having trouble sitting in his chair, or talking too much, or bullying other kids on the playground — well, they are heading to the nearest margarita bar. But they have a more specific picture, something to work on with their child, a role to play in the day that is no longer ruled by mom or dad. They — the ones who got bad news — are the lucky ones.

So if you teach, if you know a teacher well enough to offer advice, tell them this: the Parent-Teacher Conference can be your gift to parents. Paint a picture for us. Give specifics. Hand us a goal for our child. So we can keep feeling like we are there, catching every victory and little defeat like we used to when they were little. That is really why we are sitting uncomfortably in those kid-sized chairs, excited to hear what you say next.