Summer Homework Blues
Coping with the tears, fights, and stress
Rona Sue London
On the last day of my son Matthew’s seventh grade year, he jumps into the car full of exuberance, imagining the long, lazy summer stretched out before him. I share his enthusiasm, pumping my fists in the air as we high five each other. Summer, here we come!
We’re halfway home, rocking to tunes on the radio, windows rolled down, when his elation suddenly fades. Defiantly, Matthew shoves a thick stack of papers in the front seat. “What’s this,” I ask. “Summer homework packets,” he grumbles. I glance at the passenger seat and my ebullient mood quickly dissolves. There is a 10-page packet for math, 13 pages for Spanish and two books to be read for language arts with an accompanying essay to be written. As I look into my mental crystal ball and foresee days of fighting about the purpose of summer work, I find myself trying to justify something in which I am not certain I see value.
Leslie Seidman, human resources director for Play Keepers, a before and after care program for children, says she has extremely mixed feelings about summer homework. “I realize they don’t want the kids to lose everything they have learned over the year, but I think the kids need to chill a little over the summer. It’s too time consuming and adds a lot of pressure when they shouldn’t have pressure.” Her daughters, Rose, 6, and Eve, 9, agree. “Summer is all about having fun and going to camp!” Eve has been out of school for two weeks and hasn’t begun her work, which includes Hebrew and math packets and a Roald Dahl book with a report. Shortly, she will be off to sleep-away camp for the first time. Leslie comments, “When Eve gets home from camp we are really going to have to structure time for her to get it done. We will probably have to cram it in and have an end of the summer scramble, and it won’t be fun. I think teachers should just say ‘read books’ over the summer.” Seidman wonders if summer assignments are just busy work that teachers assign because they think parents expect it. “Frankly, I don’t know how much Eve will get out of any of it.”
Some parents do expect summer homework. “Rebecca absolutely needs summer work.” Tamie Flax and her husband, David, feel that summer work is important for their daughter, Rebecca, a tenth grader at Pikesville High. This summer she has only a single book of required reading. Tamie wants the work to be more comprehensive, saying, “I wish they were assigned something from each of their subjects.” Flax says that Rebecca will be taking the assigned book, “Siddhartha,” to camp where she will be for a month. She doesn’t expect Rebecca to finish it, but it will give her a head start.
Most of us have heard about the concept of “summer slide” — the loss of academic knowledge that tends to occur over the summer recess. Beth Strauss, principal at New Town Elementary School in Owings Mills, says Baltimore County has a new policy that middle and high school students cannot be assigned required work over the summer. The decision was made as a compromise with parents who wanted summers free of homework. Instead, teachers assign work in June and merely suggest that it be done over the summer. Officially, it is not due back until October. In Strauss’ school, the librarians offer reading lists and children are given questions that encourage reading for content. The teachers often give math practice problems as well, offering prizes to kids who turn in the answers at the start of the school year. Strauss says, “I feel strongly that summer work is a very good thing. Students tend to lose a lot of ground. I can’t afford to have my students fall three months behind, especially in reading.” A mother of three, she maintains, “I always make my kids do their work over the summer. It makes them stronger students. My children don’t resent it because in our house, it is the norm.”
No parent wants their child to forfeit the academic gains she has made during the school year, but do ten pages of worksheets really rectify the situation, or does it only serve to assuage the insecurities of parents, teachers and administrators?
In a scenario where a child reads a book that doesn’t interest him in June, will it impact his reading ability in September? The answer, according to researchers, is a resounding ‘Yes.’ Summer reading, most say, is vital. Statistics have shown that students who read at least six books during the summer, stay at the same reading level or improve, while kids who don’t read, fall one full grade level below their peers. And data shows that summer learning loss is also pronounced in math and spelling. What’s less clear is whether requiring particular books or worksheets is the best way to halt the summer slide.
Hedy Rosman, whose children, Sophia, 15, and Ethan, 13, attend McDonogh thinks the school gets it just right. She believes the summer work, which is not graded, is reasonable and well-thought out by the administration. Summer math work at McDonogh assesses if there is a need to revisit certain concepts during the upcoming school year. This summer, Sophia is assigned “A Chance in the World” by Stephen Pemberton, a book the entire upper school studies together; “A Chance in the World” will introduce the upper school’s theme for the year. Sophia is also required to read a book specifically for her English class. Ethan has a short math packet with an answer sheet, is required to read three books off of a long list, and must write a paragraph about the main characters from each. He is strongly encouraged to keep a log of other books he reads during his vacation.
Josh Wolf, principal of the middle school at Park and father of three, sees the issue very differently. Park’s philosophy, says Wolf, is that summer homework is not developmentally appropriate. Rather, the Park’s school librarians, with input from faculty, compile an extensive reading list from which students choose one book. Wolf says, “Kids lives are overscheduled and they spend a good part of the school year stressed out. Sleep time and down time are important. That is when creativity blossoms.” When asked about the summer slide, Wolf responds, “Of course there’s a slide, but they’re gaining a lot that can’t be measured. There is an insane amount of social and emotional growth during the summer. We encourage our students to engage in the world during the summer because if kids are inspired, they become inspired adults. Through the process of education they learn to balance, and it is in this way that they become successful.”