To Stretch Without Breaking by Assistant Head of School and Head of Middle School John Gifford
I had two Class IV students in my office last week. “How’s the Upper School?” I asked. “Great," they responded, “It is so much easier than Class V.” I smiled inwardly, remembering the week before when another Class IV student had reported that their HHC class assigned more work than all of her middle school classes combined.
I have been thinking a great deal about workload. In part as response to a thoughtful parent’s concern, but in truth I think about it every year. Each fall I engage the middle school faculty in a focused conversation about schoolwork. We discuss the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’ and I’m inevitably deeply impressed by how thoughtful they are about what they ask of their students.
Students corroborate my sense of our assignments. At admission events, panels of students are always asked to describe their homework and, to a student, they describe work that is unlike what they’d received before: “No ‘busy’ work. Hardly a worksheet to be found.”
When the group of students go on to describe not the quality of the work but the quantity, an age old conundrum rears its ugly head: their responses vary a great deal.
The faculty survey their students on the topic often – especially at the start of the school year when students are finding their academic “sea legs." During the first week of my own class, I ask students to report how long an assignment took and the responses ranged from 15 minutes to an hour and a half. The mean and median were both about 30 minutes. When I did the same more recently, the expanse of responses was tighter with the “high” at 45 minutes and the “low” remaining at 15 minutes.
For teachers, one of the challenging aspects of assigning work is that the reasons for the variety of responses are so varied themselves. One student spends 15 minutes (even though she should spend twice that time) because she can’t sit still. Another student spends far too long (even though he should spend half the time) because he is a concrete thinker (think: “type-A”) who is unwilling to risk any stone remaining unturned. Add the students who spend a short time because they can, they are exceedingly efficient. Then there are students who spend more time because they really need to, as they are learning the ropes…it is one of the greatest challenges for educators.
Our goal is to challenge without overwhelming, to stretch without breaking. True challenge not only prepares our students for the trials that will come at Nobles and beyond, challenge is also the greenhouse for self-esteem. (I believe that self-esteem is developed through victories that are hard-won rather than handed over. That, however, is another Parents’ Newsletter piece all together.) Like farmers tending to seedlings, teachers and parents should not eliminate all discomfort but they can work to control the environment for the young to support them as they gain in strength.
Teachers set a baseline that they feel is fair for the majority and then they work with individual needs. They attempt to challenge the student who is breezing through while supporting the student who is struggling. They work to communicate clearly and encourage students to “say uncle” when they are stressed. Teachers can only uncover the areas that are in need of support when students (and the adults in their lives) communicate with them.
In the meantime, we will continue to study the issue of workload. We will evaluate, learn and tweak accordingly. For example, from December 1 through 4, we are asking all middle school students to meticulously chart their time. We hope to get a better and more complete look at the broad spectrum of Nobles Middle School students.
What can parents and guardians do?
If your child is struggling to get his or her work done there are a number of things you can consider.
1. Make sure to share what you are seeing. You might start by gathering some of your own impressions. Take a week’s worth of notes on how long your child is working on homework. Try to ascertain which subjects seem to be taking the longest. Notice the types of tasks that take the longest. Try to evaluate how efficient your child’s process is. After a week, talk to your child about it. See if they can report out what is taking a long time and why. Work to get them to bring up the topic with their advisor (remember, we are working to build self-advocacy!) Once your child has tried a conversation with the advisor, you can follow up to see if all that should have been discussed was discussed.
2. Evaluate the space. Some students are better suited in the quiet of their room. Others will use it as a hideaway so that they can play video games. You should love and forgive your child, but I suggest you should not completely trust them. (Those games…or the chance to “chat” with friends is simply too compelling!) Technology is a huge part of the sleep deprivation that young people suffer from. I applaud the parents who have their kids charge their phones/iPads etc. in their parents’ bedroom. Save them from themselves! With distractions in mind, perhaps they are better off working in the kitchen with your “passive supervision.” Maybe you work out a deal that they can earn their way out of the kitchen once certain assignments are complete. Be creative.
3. Is it time to give up an outside of school activity? I know that Nobles asks a great deal of your children. I know that many outside of school activities are wonderfully enriching. All that said, your child’s overall stability and growth rests on an academic foundation at Nobles. If a student is struggling to get his work done it becomes hard to find success in other areas as well. While a hard decision (and I understand that this is easy for me to say from my perspective!), it might be the right decision to pare back on or eliminate outside commitments.
Workload, balance, efficiency…these are thorny problems for adults and young people alike. They are issues that are never more obvious and highlighted than in the first semester of the school year when new strategies are learned and adjustments seem constant. Students will probably never achieve the Nirvana of perfectly managed workload, but it does get better. It gets better through trial by fire as students, with the help of the adults in their lives, learn how to manage the complicated challenges that they face.