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Taking the Work Out of Homework

This post was co-written by Barbara's House Executive Director Gaby Rattner and John Grasso, retired principal of Riverside Elementary School and the former interim principal at Hamilton Avenue School. He is a member of the Barbara's House Board of Directors.

Let us say at the outset that we will not attempt here to resolve the ongoing, fierce, and important debate about the value of homework and especially the value of homework to elementary school children. Sufficient to note that the debate is valid, that homework is a strong cultural bias in our society and that we subscribe, therefore, to the theory of “everything in moderation.”

Most school districts across the country do as well. They generally follow these guidelines: reading every night for 10-50 minutes depending on the grade; written homework for 10 minutes per grade increasing by 10 minutes for each grade ( gr. 1= 10 minutes, gr. 2= 20 minutes etc.).

What is important to note and to celebrate is that education has become more differentiated as teachers work every day to address the varied needs and interests of the 20 individuals in their class. In a sense, we have returned to the one-room school house model of meeting each student where they are with a personalized menu that satisfies each child’s curiosity, challenges their capabilities and fosters their imaginations, all while adhering to state and national curricular standards.

This type of education benefits all and well prepares our youngsters to become the next generation of innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs by building the types of skills that will be needed in the world they will mature into. But assigning traditional homework is difficult under such circumstances. If the class is truly completely differentiated, then homework assignments should logically be developed separately for each child and graded against that child’s particular capabilities. This is a lot to ask of today’s teachers.

Against this changing backdrop, Barbara's House has offered after school homework clubs in four Greenwich elementary schools for over 20 years. Each club is led by a social worker or counsellor skilled in assisting clients with emotional, behavioral and academic needs. The club leaders partner with a teacher from that school who is able to reinforce classroom lessons and assist in finding the desired solutions. [Note: today’s math is not our math, never mind our parents’ math, so this partnership is invaluable to our students’ success.]

Our primary goal is to make sure that students are able to keep pace with their classmates by turning in completed homework each day. We monitor progress throughout the school year and work closely with classroom teachers, school psychologists and other faculty and staff to create a support team for each club participant.

The schools in which we work are Title I schools, those with large concentrations of low-income students. Our students often struggle with language barriers, learning challenges, food insecurity and numerous other contributors to what is called the achievement gap.

So as with all Barbara's House programs, homework clubs are provided free of charge. We are grateful that our work is supported by the Fairfield County Community Foundation, the Sirvaitis Foundation, the Greenwich United Way, the Greenwich Department of Human Services and generous private donors. We offer this program in an effort to level the playing field so that all children start the next school day with their previous day’s work completed.

For our students, homework clubs can be an oasis in a turbulent day. Take A, for example. As a fourth grader, A’s family became temporarily homeless. While living in a shelter many miles away, A let nothing keep her from school. And after school, she and three close friends did their work and giggled away in homework club. For another A, homework club is a place to bring academic and non-academic classroom problems and to work on solutions. Providing space and time with consistent, patient, experienced adult guidance is a key to making homework a successful experience.

Perhaps most important, while there continues to be homework, there are fewer parents and less time available for help. Families saddled with work, childcare and other responsibilities or facing language or educational barriers of their own, feel unable to help their children with homework.

Barbara's House’s homework club fills that gap, enabling each participant to return to school the next day with the work done and the satisfaction of feeling caught up with their classmates. Surely part of solving the achievement gap is giving each child a sense of achievement!

So as long as there is homework, we hope there will be Barbara's House Homework Club. We will emphasize a joy of reading, a feeling of accomplishment, and a sense of belonging. And we will endeavor to keep the work part in perspective.


This post first appeared in the Greenwich Sentinel.

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