Virtual and/or distance learning is a new frontier for many children and their parents. Parents have a lot of extra work that they need to do when they’re overseeing their child’s distance learning. Some parents remark that the workload is too much for their child, that their child has too much homework. For example, in one evening, a child might be assigned a few chapters to read in a book and then asked to write a five-hundred-word report on what they’ve read. Now how can a parent know what their child can reasonably do, especially if they have a learning challenge? And how can they communicate their observations to the teacher?
I recently conducted a Zoom video interview with educator and reading specialist Faith Borkowsky. I thought I’d share some highlights from the video interview here on my blog. This week, Faith offers some words of advice to parents who wonder if their child has too much homework, and a few thoughts about what parents can realistically expect from this school year.
The following information is from the video interview with Faith Borkowsky. You can watch the whole interview below or on my Don Winn YouTube channel.
Don: Faith, can you tell us your thoughts about what a reasonable amount of homework might be?
Faith: All right, so, a couple of things going on. First let’s talk about the word reasonable. What does that really mean? Reasonable for grade level—you know, appropriate grade-level work? Or just reasonable in general?
I’ll give you an example: when my son was in elementary school, I remember that he came home every night with lots and lots of math problems for homework. He did not have any learning problems, but he was being given about fifty long division problems. At his age—I think it was about third grade—that to me was unreasonable. I wanted him to go outside and play; he was an active kid, he needed to get out and move. He was having a hard time just sitting there doing the work, and he understood long division. When a teacher can see that a student has mastered a skill in five to ten examples, it’s not necessary for the student to complete fifty examples. That’s unreasonable in my mind. And that has nothing to do with a learning challenge.
Sometime there’s just busy work. I think a parent needs to sort out what is busy work and what is reasonable for a typical learner at grade level, and then decide what a parent can do when a child struggles, a child with learning challenges.
I think this also goes back to foundational skills—foundation, foundation, foundation. So if, let’s say, a child is in fourth grade and has trouble with handwriting, has trouble with reading the words on the page, and has difficulty reading the words at a good pace, well of course when it comes time to do homework that requires that child to respond to something they’ve read, or just keeping up with the workload, it’s going to be awful! It’s an overload on working memory. And I think that’s what a parent would need to say to a teacher—“How can we work together so that you could know if my son or daughter understands the work and can do the work? Are there ways we can get the information—for both of us—without this being torturous?”
So the first thing we would want to do is figure out where the gaps are, could we get this child help to fill in those gaps, to make everything a little bit easier. And this is where having accommodations would be helpful—not to have the child depend on the accommodations, and not to use this as an excuse, but to fill in some gaps while the child is strengthening those underlying skills.
Realistic Expectations for this School Year
Don: In these unprecedented times, what realistic expectations would you encourage families to have for their child during the school year?
Faith: That word realistic is tricky and here’s why: for years, people have used the term “realistic expectations” when talking about children living in poverty. And they would throw their arms up and ask, “What do you want? The children come from a family where the parents are uneducated, they don’t have breakfast, they don’t have their basic needs being met, what do you want us to do? This is the situation.” And I don’t want COVID to become another one of those terms where we say, “Well, what do you want? It’s a pandemic. We can’t help it.”
My feeling with all of that is, yes, there are challenges. It is difficult. This doesn’t mean that we use this as an excuse; it means we have to find ways to still build connections and get kids to where they have to be, but maybe not in the same ways we did before. Maybe that means that there needs to be more communication between school and home, more so now than ever. Maybe we need to provide “wraparound” services for parents, bringing in mental health professionals and really looking at community school models of education, which have been around forever, but they’ve never really taken off. So maybe the time for the community school model has come. I don’t know, but I do think there is a problem when we use the term “realistic expectations” because that’s almost code for, “You know what? This becomes the reason why everything has gone down the tubes.” No. We can’t allow kids to fail because we’re in the middle of a pandemic. We have to be creative. Maybe there should be more team teaching going on at the elementary schools. “I have a strength in this area, you have a strength in a different area, we need to work together more and use our strengths.”
Maybe parents can make use of “parent pods” and make arrangements like, “I’ll take the kids for baby-sitting or outside to play, while maybe you have a strength in this area, could you help my child?”
I think we just have to be more community-centered, bring community awareness to this, and that’s what I’m trying to do now with an organization called Teach My Kid to Read. It’s a new nonprofit. The founder is Marion Waldman. I met Marion a while ago and she and I connected about trying to get the word out to parents. And that phrase—”teach my kid to read,” that’s all that parents want. Bottom line: we don’t need a million experts debating this anymore, we know what works. We don’t need to belabor the point of certain terminology. I’ve mentioned this before, I don’t really care what you call it. Simplify it, make it as easy as possible for people to understand—that’s the kind of language I try to use in my books, Failing Students or Failing Schools and If Only I Would Have Known. I believe simple is best; keep it simple, and let’s not complicate the issue. We just want to teach kids to read. And so Teach My Kid to Read is about bringing community awareness to parents early on, and using libraries as a resource for this information, as well as hopefully, pediatricians, daycare centers, and preschool teachers.
We need to get the word out early, and we need to provide training and support for parents who cannot afford private tutoring. This is just unfair, and the schools are not responding fast enough. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t work with the schools, but in the end, we need to bring this to a community level. There are areas across the country—black and brown communities—where they are not well-served, and they cannot easily go out and get expensive reports by a neuropsychologist or hire parent advocates. So, I’ve said this before when we talk about Black Lives Matter, we need to do more. It’s easy to put up a sign in windows, store windows, that says Black Lives Matter, but I think we need to be doing way more for black and brown communities, and people across the country, I don’t care what color you are, the word needs to get out, and we need to get parents into the libraries, using the libraries, keeping libraries well-stocked with decodable books. If the schools are not stocking them, they need to be in libraries so that parents and teachers have a choice. That’s my long answer.
Don: Thank you so much, Faith, for sharing your experience and observations. I’ll be sharing one more excerpt from Faith’s video interview over the next few weeks. Look for the previous post “Reading and Learning Challenges at Home” and the upcoming post “Affordable Ways to Make Learning Fun.”
Also here’s a list of decodable books.
Faith Borkowsky is the founder of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching with over thirty years of experience as a classroom teacher, reading and learning specialist, regional literacy coach, administrator, and tutor. Ms. Borkowsky is a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner and provides professional development for teachers and school districts, as well as parent workshops, presentations, and private consultations. Ms. Borkowsky is the author of the award-winning book, Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention and the “If Only I Would Have Known…” series. She is also a board member of Teach My Kid to Read, a 501(c) non-profit organization with a mission to support and empower students, teachers, and parents through education so all kids, including those with dyslexia, learn to read.
Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.