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Smartmom takes on homework, except when it’s been assigned

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Smartmom was in one of her rages after attending Tuesday night’s discussion at the Seventh Avenue Barnes & Noble with the authors of The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It.

And it wasn’t just because she forgot to take her anti-depressants for a couple of days (though that didn’t help — just ask Hepcat).

Smartmom was in a rage because the book’s authors, Nancy Kalish and Sara Bennett, confirmed something that Smartmom has felt for a long time: homework is ruining everyone’s life.

There is almost no evidence that homework helps elementary students achieve academic success, and there is little evidence that it helps older students. The authors draw on academic research, interviews with parents, educators, kids and their own experience as parents at a Park Slope private school.

So what gives? If the research is so convincing, why do the schools persist in assigning super-sized amounts of homework?

In a word: parents.

Most parents are unaware of the research and blindly believe that it’s good for their children because the teachers and administrators say so.

But that’s not the only reason. Parents want bang for their buck. From the Apgar to the SAT, Slopers want high scores and high achievement from their overscheduled kids.

For many parents, the amount of homework their kids do is a badge of honor. Read the subtitles: “My kid spent the whole weekend doing homework” translates as “My kid is going to Harvard.”

But guess what? If the research is correct, your kids can be super-achievers without homework. In fact, one of the best predictors of academic success is the family dinner table, which many local kids rarely have time for because they’re, you guessed it, too busy doing homework.

But not all family dinner tables are created equal. Sure, Smartmom’s family loves to discuss string theory over pasta primavera. But some dinner conversation is just not all that elevated.

A teacher did speak up during the discussion at Barnes and Noble and defended “well-thought-out homework” as beneficial for kids who won’t find enrichment at home. And many parents, she said, think scads of homework is a great way to limit the amount of television their kids watch.

But what’s so bad about television, anyway? Less homework would mean that Teen Spirit and OSFO could watch multiple episodes of “The Simpsons,” where they can learn just about everything they need to know about western civilization. And who can disagree that “House” offers a top-notch education in medical ethics and cell biology?

So who’s right? A teacher on the front lines or Kalish, a journalist, and Bennett, a lawyer, who have spent the last few years trying to debunk an activity that they said is detrimental to family relationships?

Since first grade, Smartmom and Teen Spirit have had nightly battles about homework. Buddha knows, she is not proud to admit that when Teen Spirit was in third grade, she slapped (yes, slapped) him in the face when he refused to write about a memory in his writer’s notebook.

“I don’t have any memories,” he said.

“Of course you have memories,” she said.

“Not any that I want to write about for homework.”

For those who are familiar with these kinds of homework battles, the book offers practical advice about how parents can change homework policies at their schools.

At the Berkeley-Carroll School, a private institution in Park Slope, Bennett, a criminal defense appeals attorney, challenged the school’s homework policy after discovering that her children were doing four hours a night. And she wasn’t afraid to be dubbed a troublemaker when she organized a parents group to discuss the situation.

After the reading, Smartmom felt like throwing out every bright red homework folder, marble notebook, homework organizer, and reading log in the apartment. Especially, the ubiquitous reading log, where students are required to document the name of the book and author, as well as the number of pages, they read.

The whole idea of making kids accountable for what they’ve read is a surefire way to turn kids off to reading altogether. And that’s not a good thing, when reading is the single homework activity that is associated with academic success.

Smartmom found herself very excited, even agitated, as she discussed Bennett and Kalish’s book with Hepcat, who had also been at the reading.

“Parents of Park Slope, unite,” she shouted out as if processed by the revolutionary spirit of the anti-homework book.

“You have nothing to lose but your children’s homework folders and years of fighting about something that is useless and stupid!”

Standing on the green leather couch with her finger in the air, Smartmom suddenly heard Teen Spirit’s voice.

“Mom, Does this mean I don’t have to do homework anymore?” he asked softly.

“What are you kidding?” Smartmom replied.

“But you just said homework is useless and stupid,” Teen Spirit said.

“I said no such thing, buddy,” she replied. “No such thing.”

Louise Crawford, a Park Slope mom, also operates “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.”
Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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