Homework for the holidays – that's what used to really bother Genette Morin, a single mother of four.
One year, one of her daughters got homework all the time. "Some days it was a little, and some days a lot," she recalls. "But over the Christmas holidays, she had homework to do every day. I wasn't impressed."
It wasn't just the holidays. In general, the Scarborough mom finds homework for four kids difficult to keep track of, and resents that it cuts into family time.
However, she's pleased that relief is on the way.
It was complaints like hers, from both students and parents, that prompted the Toronto District School Board to review its homework policy.
What it found defied what generations of parents and teachers have believed about the benefits of homework. And it has led other boards around the province to review their policies.
Even Education Minister Kathleen Wynne agreed last spring that if homework is leaving children with no time to play, or families struggling to spend time together, school boards should be doing something about it.
So the Toronto board has put new limits on homework: None over the holidays; none for students in Kindergarten; mostly reading for older elementary students; no more than an hour a night in Grades 7 and 8, and no more than two hours a night for high school students.
The Dufferin-Peel Catholic board has also drafted a revised policy. Superintendent Marianne Mazzarotto says the policy "addresses timing, scheduling and the quantity of homework."
"It would certainly look at some of the issues such as holiday time," she adds. "We're trying to look at a good balance."
A national study released earlier this year found Ontario students spend an average of 40 minutes per night on homework, almost 10 minutes more than their peers across the country. Many of those who took part in the study reported stress, burnout and family conflict because of it.
School boards usually expect about 10 minutes of homework will be assigned per grade per day, meaning a student in Grade 4 would have 40 minutes per night.
But the Toronto-based researchers, Lee Bartel and Linda Cameron, concluded that while there are benefits to assigning homework from Grade 7 onwards, it does nothing to boost academic success for younger students.
Instead, the best thing parents can do is read with their children every night, suggest the pair from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
Their work reflects several studies in the U.S. that suggest homework isn't helping children learn better or more. A handful of American elementary schools have cut back or entirely banned homework.
"Kids are at school for 6 1/2 hours ... and some are on buses at 7:30 in the morning and get home from school at 4:30 or 5. That's a very long day, and then they are supposed to do homework?" Bartel said last February.
Morin says she feels the pressure when all four of her children, ages 10 to 15, have homework on the same night or projects due at the same time.
Still, she believes some homework should be sent home throughout the week, "just to keep them on their toes."
Margo Cowie, who has been advocating homework changes for a long time, said it wasn't that her two children – now 16 and 18 – were getting too much homework all the time, but that it was intruding on family vacation time.
She's pleased with the extensive consultations the board held with parents, teachers, trustees and staff before making changes.
"What they came up with was what pretty much all of the stakeholder groups wanted," she says. "Parents are talking about it, they are liking what they see and what they hear."
Find the rest of our back-to-school section here.
Growing Up In A Family In The U.S. Illegally
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Now, the story of Alicia Martinez. That's not her real name. We're not using it because of her family's fear of deportation. Her story is a case study in the complexities of illegal immigration. Martinez is a U.S. citizen. She was born here. Her parents came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico with her older sister who was a toddler at the time.
In this story from WNYC's Radio Rookies, Alicia reflects on the difficult emotions on growing up in a family that is not supposed to be here.
Ms. ALICIA MARTINEZ: Zero becomes a 10 so what's 10 minus 9?
Unidentified Child: It's one?
Ms. MARTINEZ: Yes.
I'm in the living room helping my 9-year-old cousin with his homework. He was born here like me and his parents are illegal, just like mine, but he doesn't know it.
Do you know what your parents are? Illegal immigrants.
Whenever I hear people using the word illegal, they always emphasize it, as if it's a dirty word. But I'm doing the same with my little cousin.
Was your mom born here?
Unidentified Child: Mexico?
Ms. MARTINEZ: Yeah, like my parents. It's that they came here without permission.
Unidentified Child: From without permission?
Ms. MARTINEZ: Yeah. And if the government finds her, they'll put her in jail and then they'll send her back to Mexico.
Unidentified Child: Don't say that because you're making me cry.
Ms. MARTINEZ: Oh.
I know he's probably too young to understand all of this, but I don't want him to find out from kids teasing him at school.
Okay, okay. Calm down. It's all right. Come on.
I'm almost 17 and we still haven't had a serious family conversation about the fact that my parents and sister are undocumented. That's half my family. What would happen if my parents' job got raided? What would happen to my younger brother who's autistic?
My parents only talk to us seriously about deportation when they try to scare us to do well.
Here is my report card.
I'm showing my report card to my mom. I got an 89 average, but she immediately asked what happened to the 95 I used to get. If I don't do well, my mom nags. You better do well in school. Why else did we come here? The government could throw us out. Then, my mom compares me to my older sister who's always at the top of her class and wants to be a doctor.
Unidentified Female #1: I'm thinking of either being a doctor or a pharmacist.
Ms. MARTINEZ: But she can't even work in the U.S. because she wasn't born here. My mom says I should do even better because I have everything on a silver platter. But piled high on that platter are all these responsibilities. There are a lot of things children of undocumented immigrants have to worry about.
ALEXANDRA: My name is Alexandra.
Ms. MARTINEZ: Like Alex who's only 13.
ALEXANDRA: Soon as I hit 21, like, you know, I need to get my parents' papers and everything.
Ms. MARTINEZ: She's the first in the family who can work legally. So when she slacks off at school, her undocumented sister pushes her to do better.
Unidentified Female #2: Sometimes I do get really pissed off, like how bad my sister was doing in school. And it's like, you have all of these opportunities and you're just throwing them away, you know. It's like she can tell you, I was so mad.
Ms. MARTINEZ: My sister and I, well, we've actually never sat down and talked about that.
So you never resented the fact that me and (unintelligible) are citizens? Maybe when you were younger?
Unidentified Female #1: I don't know if resent was the word. It was either in junior high or in high school where it actually hit me that, you know, I was undocumented and that you guys were citizens. I think I felt some sort of anger towards Mom and Dad. Just the fact that if they had known the consequences for me, because of how my life is now, of the difficulties that I've had.
Ms. MARTINEZ: We live on Staten Island and there's a lot of tension over illegal immigration. If I'm in my neighborhood, I feel fine. But when I step outside, I definitely feel unwelcome.
(Soundbite of horn blowing)
Ms. MARTINEZ: Some people just assume everyone in my situation is an anchor baby like this random tall white guy at the Staten Island ferry terminal.
Unidentified Male #1: Yeah, well, people cross the border just to have their babies born here, become citizens and then it's like they're automatically, like, grandfathered in.
Ms. MARTINEZ: Sometimes, I do feel like an anchor baby because as soon as I can, I will file for my parents' legalization. I don't want us to be separated. But at some point, when I was growing up, I admit I was mad at my parents for coming here. I was mad that they had to work so hard, that we had to wait in line to get free food, that we had to lay low.
Professor CAROLA SUAREZ-OROZCO (New York University): This kind of conversation's tough, isn't it?
Ms. MARTINEZ: This is Professor Orozco. She's the co-director of immigration studies at NYU. I didn't want to spill my guts out to her. She was a stranger. But that's what I found myself doing.
It's hard watching my sister, like, struggle to be something amazing. And I don't know. It's just because like sometimes I feel like I don't even want to go to college. My parents, they just, like, they want me to fill these, like, high expectations and I feel like I just don't want to disappoint them. I don't know. It's just...
Prof. OROZCO: Your parents, like many immigrants, frame immigration as, we did it so you could have a better life. It feels manipulative from the kid's point of view. I think immigrant parents come to have a better live for the whole family, themselves and their kids included.
Ms. MARTINEZ: For a whole week, I try to get the courage to talk to my family about all the feelings I've been having. Finally, in the kitchen, I started talking and so did they. I asked them if they came to this country so my siblings and I could be their anchor babies. They had no idea what that meant. When I explained it, my dad said he wasn't even thinking about trying to become a U.S. citizen. He just wanted to find a job so he could get money to eat or a place to live and to provide for others back home.
Unidentified Male #2: (Speaking foreign language)
Ms. MARTINEZ: In the end, my parents say they don't even want to stay here. They want to return back to Mexico in three or four years and my sister is thinking about leaving with them. I can't believe it. Without them, I would feel lost. If that's what they want, then I'll have to be okay with it. I'd just like to talk about it more.
SIEGEL: That's 16-year-old Alicia Martinez. She told her story for the Radio Rookies program at WNYC. Radio Rookies teaches teenagers to report about their lives for the radio.
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