Homework on snow days: At long last, sir, what have we lost?

An article in today’s Washington Post, in anticipation of the storm that has begun gathering over our nation’s capital, points out that some teachers are assigning homework over the snow days so students can avoid, according to one teacher, the “amnesia that sets in when these kids are out four or five days.”

W. T. … H.?

(I wanted to use a different letter, but this is a family blog. Right. I crack myself up.)

I have worked in or with schools for 25 years. For most of that time, I was an administrator, meaning: I was one of those people who carped about time that kids missed, who grew weary of families extending vacations that interfered with the school calendar or with parent conferences, who bemoaned situations when families didn’t do all they could to help their kids overcome learning challenges. In the battles between families and schools, I’ve often been the one defending the schools.

But … seriously? Kids might miss a day or two, or even a week, and so they get extra homework? I have long been aware of “summer learning loss,” the idea that students lose ground over the summer — especially poor students in families that do not emphasize language development (through reading) and math acumen (through real-world problem-solving and discussion). But I have never heard of such a setback after just a few days, and several Google searches failed to turn up any corroboration. What is the evidence for such a claim?

As teachers, it’s important to admit that it is not only our students who are victims of an overachievement culture. Teachers want to please and to be liked, even more than most people; it makes sense that we would want to help students and families achieve their goals.

At long last, though, have we wanted to help so badly that we’ve lost our sense of what those goals are doing to children? At long last, sir, have we lost our sense of decency? Do we really value a few extra math problems or vocabulary words over abstract concepts like whimsy, fun, or even occasional impunity for misdemeanors?

It’s not just that we value one over the other. It’s as if we use one to deny the other — to deny the very pleasures that make childhood so much better than adulthood — from a child’s point of view, anyway. Are we offended by the random injustice that snow days set us back — and must we attempt to “fix” every act of randomness that comes our way?

I am not a philistine, hopelessly defending the past against progress of any kind. I believe that education is one of the greatest gifts of civilization, that school is the job of children, and that they should work hard. But when we use snow days to assign extra homework, we have lost our sense of balance. We have become too much work and not enough play. We have employed the values and toils of adulthood as weapons to negate the values and joys of childhood. And we are soooooo surprised to find that most kids — even in “good” schools — say they don’t much like school.

Schools should be joyful places. Sometimes it’s okay for students not to like what they’re doing. But it’s another thing entirely to set up schools that are no fun anymore, and it’s certainly too much to think that kids who attend those schools, and sit with those teachers, will find school joyful.

It’s a snow day, for crying out loud. It might even be three or four. Show me the kid who’s concerned about falling behind after a few days, and I’ll show you a kid who needs to put down her pencil and get on the sledding hill. It might be nice if she saw some teachers out there enjoying the snow too.

Peter BravermanComment