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New York City
November 2002

In Praise of Homework
By Dorothy A. Hutcheson

Homework has been much in the news. Last year several articles appeared about the hopeless drudgery of it all, the astronomical amounts assigned to even young children, and the backlash brewing among parents in high-achieving school districts who were fed up. I am often asked to defend Nightingale’s homework policy (is it too much?) in sessions for prospective parents, a surprise because in previous years parents wanted to know if we were asking students to do enough.

At Nightingale we ask parents to be in a partnership with us, to help us know your daughters, and to support the school’s academic standards. One of Nightingale’s “Goals for Parents” specifically tackles the subject of homework by asking parents to “establish schoolwork as a priority at home and provide time and space for study.” The idea is to help girls become increasingly confident and independent in taking charge of their academic work. Clearly this isn’t an easy or automatic process, as I frequently hear teachers complain about parents doing too much and their students doing too little. Mrs. Mansfield in the Lower School wonders whose homework it is; Mrs. Kingson in the Middle School refers to the “hidden hand” on student assignments, and in the Upper school, Ms. Mann reports an increasing incidence of parents, not their daughters, calling to complain about specific assignments.

All of this comes in a context of our anxiety that our daughters are over-scheduled with activities and deprived of the luxury of being bored, a topic that Anna Quindlen so eloquently described in a Newsweek column, “Doing Nothing is Something.” Many of us recall our own childhood filled with a lot more time on our hands. Maybe it wasn’t really all that simple then, but, like Sorensen, I am hard pressed to recall my parents paying much attention to my term papers or math homework.

How do we move from that excitement of the first grader eagerly announcing that she has homework to do (her weekly spelling lists and nightly reading) to a weary ninth grader sagging under the weight of her far-too heavy backpack, telling me in the halls that she didn’t get much sleep last night? Are we assigning too much?

Nightingale’s homework policy is simple and straightforward. In the Lower School students are learning how to learn, and part of that means managing to do some assignments at home and managing to bring them back to school. It’s not supposed to be perfect. We expect that there will be bumps in this process as students forget papers at home or crumple them in their backpacks and fail to put them in the folder on the teacher’s desk. Nightingale should be a safe place to make mistakes, recover from them, and start over the next day. When I see Lower School parents rushing into the lobby well after morning drop-off with missing assignments in hand, I wonder who’s learning what? The sky would not have fallen in if that English assignment were not handed in, and the well-intentioned parent is robbing his/her daughter of an important lesson.

In the Middle School, teachers give weekly syllabi so that students begin to balance long-range and nightly assignments. Beginning in Class VI, when girls take six academic subjects, teachers work together on a schedule so that a student does not have homework in all six subjects nightly and so that her tests and major written assignments are spaced accordingly. We try not to give them more than they can handle successfully. This is all part of a careful foundation that provides students with experience in managing things themselves. If all goes well, students will be ready for each new step of increased independence.

ývery September I tell new parents to step back and avoid the tendency to micro-manage their daughters’ inevitable bumps along the way at Nightingale. When a child comes home with a problem–with a teacher, a friend, or an assignmentĐavoid the tendency to rush in and fix. The parent’s first response should be to listen carefully and then ask, “What do you want to do to handle this?” Whether the girl is 6 or 16, this technique works because you signal to your daughter that you have faith in her abilities and that things aren’t always perfect.

On the homework front the same strategy works. Pull back if you are too involved. Give your daughter the time and the space and your confidence in her own abilities. Keep the long-term goal in mind–an intellectually curious and self-reliant young woman©even as you negotiate the daily ups and downs and wonder if she’ll ever have the maturity to be on her own. As for my house, I’m looking forward to a better weekend.#

Dorothy A. Hutcheson is Head of the Nightingale-Bamford School in Manhattan.

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