Homework helps children learn time management — but it can hamper a balanced life.
Traci Groff could sense her daughter Katherine — a busy, conscientious sixth-grader who attends Highcrest Middle School in Wilmette — needed to escape the temporary throes of a challenging homework assignment one night.
Katherine was nearing the 90th minute of her study session. Exasperation had replaced focus.
“It looked like she would have to spend another hour or longer on what she was doing,” Traci Groff recalls. “She appeared overwhelmed.”
The mother of two then intervened, encouraging Katherine to head to the basement and execute handstands for at least five minutes. Katherine got up, descended stairs and assumed the heels-over-head stance.
Following the break, she returned to her homework as a wholly different person: refreshed, eager, resolved.
The 12-year-old finished what she was doing in what had to feel like breakneck speed — 20 minutes.
“She got the blood flowing to the brain and had a whole new outlook,” Traci Groff says.
The 2009 documentary “Race to Nowhere” cited the over-scheduling, over-testing and relentless pressure to achieve among students in the United States. A study by the University of Michigan a decade ago found that homework for six-to-17-year-old children had increased about 50 percent since 1981 to nearly four hours a night, putting tremendous pressure on first-graders. On the North Shore, how much homework is too much for a middle school student who has logged about six hours a day in classrooms?
“Spending six hours at night doing homework is unhealthy,” says Glenbrook North High School Principal Paul Pryma. “Spending three hours is unreasonable.
“These young people have lives,” he adds. “Young people need to have the joyful curiosity of learning, something all of us could use … older students, parents, teachers, other professionals. You don’t want too much homework to discourage the curiosity of learning at such a young age, and what concerns me is the push for standardized test accountability is palpable in Illinois and might turn learning into too much of a chore.”
That age-old skill — effective time management — is what parents want to see their children develop, especially when their children have to juggle homework, extracurricular activities and family time after the bell signaling the end of the last period sounds.
Music to Greg Kapsimalis’ ears is, well, music he hears at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis. The Glenview resident and New Trier High School assistant varsity boys basketball coach accompanies his daughters to the Christmas Concert each year at the college during the crazy-busy month of December. Alexa, an eighth-grader, and Maddie, a sixth-grader, attend Attea Middle School in Glenview.
“It’s mostly manageable, the hours they spend on homework at night, and Attea does a good job of encouraging its students to be balanced,” the father says. “But when one of our daughters is going at it for more than two hours … that’s when I begin to notice some strain. You never want too much homework to cut into family time, so that’s why I like to plan activities — around this time of year — to allow our daughters to spend four to five consecutive hours with the family.”
Triplets Alexandra, Haley and Lauren Zarek of Lake Forest are 12-year-old sixth-graders at Deer Path Middle School. They typically open their school-issued Chromebooks and do their homework at the kitchen table for approximately two hours per day, sometimes longer.
“What I like noticing is the interaction going on while they’re doing their homework,” says their mother, Casandra. “If one gets stuck on something, she asks her sisters for help before asking me. They like to be together at home after essentially being separated at school all day.”
Lauren Zarek — an avid reader, musician and athlete (cross country and track) — only feels stressed about her homework when she has to complete it before school the following morning.
“That happens maybe 10-15 times a year,” she figures. “What I try to do every day is finish all of my homework before dinner so I don’t have to worry about it when we’re eating together as a family. If I manage my time well, that’s what happens.
“I often take advantage of study hall [30 minutes, after her last class] at school to start my homework.”
For Emily Lorenz, a seventh-grader at Wilmette Junior High, a normal homework session lasts between 60-90 minutes. A commitment to dance keeps her at the school until 4:30 p.m. three days per week.
“I think her volume of homework is realistic; it’s a sufficient amount of time,” says her mother, Terri, who dubbed herself an “overachiever” back in her school days and loved doing homework while growing up in Lincolnshire. “The school’s administration works hard at helping the students manage their schedules and develop their coping skills. It’s a big focus — time management. And parents are thankful for that.”
Alfie Kohn, the father of two children, has written more than a dozen books about education and human behavior, including “The Homework Myth.” He claims there is no research that shows homework in elementary and middle school has any benefit. A 2012 study, digital correspondent Kelly Wallace cites at CNN.com, found no relationship between the amount of time spent on homework and grades, but it revealed “a positive link between homework and performance on standardized tests.”
An earlier homework studies analysis, she adds, concluded homework reaches the point of diminishing return at “around 90 minutes” for junior high school students.
At Montessori schools, where creative thinking and innovation is championed above rote learning, homework is rare. It often doesn’t start until seventh grade. According to the website of Forest Bluff School in Lake Bluff, because students “have not been overwhelmed with homework from the age of six, they approach their at-home assignments with fresh energy and interest.”
Katherine Groff — the ace student/standout handstand artist from Wilmette — manages to find time in her days to play travel soccer, travel field hockey and the violin, as well as attend bible study classes, youth group meetings, Girl Scouts get-togethers and church orchestra rehearsals.
The commitments are staggered throughout the week, thankfully, and she shoehorns a good night’s sleep in between dinner and breakfast.
“There’s a lot there, yes,” Traci Groff admits. “But she makes good use of her time in the car by doing homework on her way to field hockey [in Northbrook] and on her way to Bible study [farther west].
“Parents in this area want their children to be challenged,” she adds, “but they also want their children to become well-rounded individuals who live whole lives, happy lives.”
Pryma has spent 35 years of his life in education, positively impacting all kinds of young lives as a teacher, coach and administrator. In his mind, standardized test scores have little to do with the number of hours students devote to homework each night; they’re more likely related to what goes on in classrooms each day.
“If a student is engaged and enjoys the process of learning, good scores will follow,” Pryma insists. “Students that are inspired to want to learn … the artistry of teaching forms that inspiration, helps that inspiration come into play.
“What I’ve noticed from the students today is they’re reading more, writing more. And their writing — it’s better than ever, even in the tweet-text-email-Facebook culture we’re living in now. They’re communicating complex ideas electronically in a minimal number of words.”