Claire Needell Hollander is an ELA enrichment teacher at a Manhattan middle school and the mother of three daughters, all public school students.
For those not directly affected by the damage wreaked by Sandy, boredom was the enemy over the past school-free week. Lucky were those households with a stockpile of good books, or access to a bookstore whose doors remained open. Alas, most of the books for teens at my local chain bookstore are dystopian novels and paranormal romances. Few and far between are the thought-provoking realistic young adult novels like "Kind of a Funny Story," by Ned Vizzini and "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie.
While there is nothing wrong with spending leisure time reading fantasy books, they are mostly devoid of real world knowledge—unlike realistic novels, like "Sold," by Patricia McCormick, that may introduce students to other cultures.
There is so much information flying around about whether homework is worthwhile or not, it's hard to know where to start. Just last week, the French president said that one of his educational reforms is to do away with homework because some students get help from parents at home, while others do not. A 2006 Duke University study, based on a review of 60 homework studies, found that homework is most beneficial for students in 7th-12th grades, especially when there's not too much of it.
Some schools assign a lot of homework while others don't give any. Some teachers within the same school give more than others. And some parents demand it while others hate it. Beliefs about what is important differ from school to school, classroom to classroom, household to household. Who is right?
I always assign homework. Beyond the debatable academic benefits, I think it teaches a life skill: responsibility. Some teachers hand out a packet on Monday that is due Thursday or Friday. I like to give homework each night so my students get used to bringing their work home, completing it and bringing it back the following day. I might assign some work on Monday that is due on Friday, but for the most part, it's an evening ritual and I stay away from weekend assignments Do I assign hours and hours of busy work? Countless pages? No. Never. As a 1st - 5th grade teacher, I never assign more than an hour, and for younger kids, just enough for them to practice a skill at home.
By now, you have sent your sixth grader off to middle school, and come to realize: the lives of you and your child have begun to diverge. Their friends are scattered among several schools. They go to and come home from school on their own. Communication from the school is directed towards them, not you. Things are happening, but on your end? Silence.
Perhaps you walked them the first day and watched them go in or maybe they set off on their own. Either way, by stepping into the building they’ve crossed a threshold, one that emphasizes their burgeoning independence. It’s like you’re in the rearview mirror.
Sending an 11 year old off to middle school is a lesson in humility. We must now prostrate ourselves before our children to get any sense of what their day must be like. We beg for scraps of information. Because really, aren’t you curious? By the end of elementary school we are used to, even a little burned out by, all the notices and graduation events.
But this? You are a bystander. You don’t even have good seats.
Is it Meet The Teacher Night? Back To School Night? Curriculum Night?
Whatever your child’s school calls it, parents generally arrive with high expectations and leave disappointed, feeling that they didn’t get enough time with their teacher or weren't able to ask enough questions because they didn’t know what to anticipate.
Let me explain what you can realistically expect. Your kid’s teacher(s) will introduce themselves and hopefully provide an overview of the year. No, you’re not going be able to drill your teacher about how your child is doing after 10 days in school or why the cafeteria is so loud, but you can anticipate getting a pretty good idea about what is going to happen in the classroom.
I took one look at my high school freshman last year – sprawled out on a sofa, soccer cleats still on, papers and books everywhere – and knew there was only one solution to helping him survive in a large and sometimes overwhelming New York City public high school.
Her name was Danielle, and she just happened to be on her way over.
I have enormous empathy for bewildered freshmen and their parents. That’s why everyone needs a Danielle, or a friend or older sibling with proven strategies for success and superior organization skills.
For the last five years, my son’s schedule has been packed to the max. His extra hours were filled with extracurricular activities so that he could be that well-rounded, competitive person that top colleges seek. His every hour was accounted for, calculated, manipulated – by me.
I first noticed, and was nervous about, the competition that my son would face when I reviewed resumes for internship positions for a white-glove firm I used to work with. One student wrote a paper for NASA when he was 21, another, was a double math and chemistry major in college at age 17, and yet another, a high school senior finalist in the Intel competition who was doing research at Cooper Union. The achievements were endless and impressive. I thought to myself, how will my boy compete with that?
The tiger mom within me roared, and I threw my son into all types of activities to see which would stick. It started with my dreams of him becoming an Olympic ping-pong player. He trained, heavily and expensively, with a professional coach and entered competitions until Chinese kids half his height and age began to beat him. Then he tried basketball where he chipped a tooth. I once even claimed that he was Hispanic (he is half Chinese and half Italian) so that he could compete for a minority music scholarship at Juilliard. We backed out of the audition right before his turn, when I became ashamed of my dishonesty.
Yeah, I know, overboard. My son informed me the same.
Thank you, dear parent, for providing classroom school supplies. But in addition to the paper, felt-tip markers, pencils, tape, baggies, folders, notebooks, Kleenex, toilet tissue, hand sanitizer, bandages, splints, slings, surgical sponges, latex gloves, lice combs, coxsackie detection kits and four bottles of cabernet that we requested for the classroom, we’d like to recommend you stock up on a number of items for your own home.
-- A damn good pencil sharpener: Sure, this seems simple, but this crucial item actually will be difficult to find. The solid, trusty pencil sharpeners with those finger-swallowing rotating blades that you recall from your own school days have gone the way of Atari Pong. In their place are battery-operated bits of cheap plastic that put safety ahead of sharpness. They’re no match for the hardwood in a No. 2 Ticonderoga. To find the Real Deal, we suggest you scour antique stores or salvage yards, or perhaps bring a screwdriver and a sack with you next time you visit your old school during homecoming week.
I know you’re busy. I know you work three jobs, are taking care of an aging parent, are getting a divorce, have health issues, have kids in two different schools and you breathe a sigh of relief when your kid goes to school in the morning and you know someone else is in charge, if only for a little while. I get it. But I do need one thing from you. I need to know you’re there.
It doesn’t need to be much. A signed permission slip, submitted on time. A response to a question or a question sent to me about an assignment, or even a critique. Just something to let me know that there is a living, breathing parent out there that is keeping an eye on their child and their classroom life.
My son's transition from The Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters to Bard High School Early College was rough on us both. The homework grew exponentially from an hour a night to four-plus hours a night. Subject materials moved so fast it made him dizzy – and me desperate to help him.
Math was the subject he struggled with most, as his stellar A+ grades dipped to a solid C. The math learning gap was huge between 8th and 9th grade, with terms like the Latus Rectum likely to befuddle many parents. We knew he needed outside help by the third week of 9th grade.
Learning how to help was a process. We went to our neighborhood math guru, a friend and professor of math sciences at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, to break down mathematical terms into simple speech. We set up a schedule for my son to go to his school's math lab for help. We procured a tutor. But knowing how to utilize a tutor was also a learning experience.
Drugstores and variety stores have already started displaying school supplies for September. To help those families that cannot afford to buy supplies, Volunteers of America is launching its annual Operation Backpack, to collect backpacks and stuff them with school supplies for students who are homeless or live in domestic violence shelters.
Last year, 8,000 backpacks were collected and filled with requested school supplies and distributed to children.
Want to participate? The website lists ways that people can help:
In July and August corporations and other organizations are holding drives to collect items. In August, volunteers will be sorting supplies at a huge space in midtown.
You can host a drive at your office, community organization or place of worship, or you can purchase supplies from a wishlist online. Items may be shipped to: Volunteers of America, Attn: Kristin Kelly-Jangraw, 340 West 85th Street | New York, NY 10025.