Should homework be required during school vacation?

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email [email protected] or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My second grader has been doing hybrid for most of this year, and his school is getting ready to return to full-time, in-person instruction after spring break. Despite the challenges, I think he’s been doing well. At times it’s a struggle to get him to focus, but I think that’s pretty normal for an 8-year-old. He’s been feeling pretty emotional, though, and he’s been pretty hard on himself whenever he makes mistakes.

He’s in the gifted program, and his gifted teacher tells me that he can be a perfectionist. His grade level teacher, however, told me at a conference that she doesn’t think he’s making enough effort, is easily upset and frustrated, and that he hasn’t made as much progress as she wants him to. She gives the students quotas for how many lessons they should complete, and she suggests that students who don’t get them done should work over spring break.

My son is a good student, but he hasn’t met her quota, and I feel like kids should be able to enjoy their time off. I know his teacher is just trying to keep kids on track, but I’m concerned about how much pressure she’s putting on my child. I know he’s working hard to keep up with the amount of work assigned. I know I’m not the only parent who worries about the workload. Should I approach his teacher with my concerns, or let it go and privately tell my son to just do his best and not worry about it? I’m worried all of this will even be more to handle when he’s back at school full-time—my son has already told me he’s fed up with this teacher.

—Isn’t Our Best Good Enough?

Dear Isn’t Our Best Good Enough,

Yes, it is.

Tell the teacher that you’ve decided to give your child the vacation he deserves. Your son is far too young to be learning that vacations are only partial escapes from the demands of the work day. This is always the case but never more true than in the midst of a global pandemic.

I would thank your son’s teacher for her concern but inform her that vacations are a time for human beings of all ages to rest, relax, and recharge. That is what your son will be doing because that is far more important than any arbitrarily determined quota that your district has assigned.

Then, release yourself of any worry or guilt over this decision. It is unquestionably the right thing to do.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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I am a high school English teacher, and this is my fifth year teaching. I’m wondering if you have any advice about classroom management in a virtual space. My school is hybrid this year, but I have some students who attend school entirely virtually.

When online students don’t participate or don’t meet expectations, I try to check in with them via private chat, but I often don’t get a response. If they don’t respond, I email them, and sometimes their parents, after class. I struggle with these emails. For example, if a student hasn’t participated in a breakout room or responded when I send them a private message, I may try to follow up with them later.

I haven’t met many of these kids in person, and while I try to establish a good rapport with them online, it’s not the same as having them in my classroom. I worry that I am being too harsh or that the proper tone isn’t coming across. If they were at school, I would pull them aside after class and could have a quick conversation, but having to comment on their behavior or participation over email seems to drag the issue out, and I worry that it gives students more anxiety since it’s in writing. If I email parents, it often becomes a game of tag between communicating with the student and parent. Any tips on how to make this less stressful and more effective for me and my students?

—Anybody Out There?

Dear Anybody,

You have my sympathy—I relate to this problem and so does every other high school teacher I know. My advice? Stop emailing and put your energy toward trying new break-out room strategies and building relationships.

There are lots of great ideas out there for how to manage break-out rooms (like here and here). I have found many of these tips to be successful, such as assigning a clear task for the group to complete and then share when we come back together as a whole group. Some of my colleagues have had success letting students choose their group-mates (with your approval, of course) and then setting up permanent break-out rooms. That said, temper your expectations: there will still be students who log into Zoom and then fall asleep, leave the room to go make a snack, or watch YouTube instead of participate. And there will also be some students who cannot participate through no fault of their own (their audio isn’t working, their connection is slow, their Chromebook crashes, etc.). Don’t beat yourself up, just keep doing your best to offer good instruction.

While managing participation in Zoom is challenging, building relationships can feel even more daunting. Yet, as I’m sure you know, positive student-teacher relationships are the bedrock of learning. One strategy that has worked well for me is creating individual break-out rooms so that I can talk with students one-on-one. For example, my students recently wrote an essay, and I made individual break-out rooms so we could have writing conferences. I always start the conversation with small talk (“How was your weekend? How did your debate tournament go last Friday?” etc.) before moving into the academic conversation. These discussions help me to get to know my students and build rapport. While some students are still reticent, most will open up when I’m the only one listening.

Pick a new strategy and give it a go! Afterward, get feedback from your students on which of these strategies is working for them. At the end of the last semester, I gave students a survey and received lots of great information; some students also shared what other teachers are doing that they find helpful.

Finally, don’t underestimate Zoom fatigue: it’s ok to mix it up, especially with older students. Sometimes we stay together in Zoom for the entire block, but there are also days where I do a short Zoom lesson and then give the students asynchronous work (which also allows time for me to have those individual conversations). My students told me they appreciated having a change of pace on the aforementioned survey.

Hang in there! Summer will be here before we know it, and I am hopeful that next fall will bring more normalcy.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

My grandson is 12 years old and has an IEP. He used to have seizures, but is now on medication and so hasn’t had a problem with seizures for a year. But because of his seizures, he has forgotten much he learned at school. His reading is a struggle, and spelling is even more of a struggle. What can I do to try and help him with this? I’ve tried tutoring for him, but I haven’t found anyone with enough patience.


Dear FIN,

What can you do? Connect him with experts. Folks who are not trained in this specific disability will not be able to handle your grandson’s needs.

Memory loss is a medical consequence of seizures, therefore your first stop should be your grandson’s doctor. The doctor may prescribe medication to help but will likely also refer him to a neuropsychologist, who will give him tests to determine the breadth and scope of the issue.

Once the neuropsychologist understands the roadblocks to your grandson’s memory, you can work together to remove them. The neuropsychologist might suggest your grandson see a psychotherapist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, and/or tutor who is trained in Exceptional Children (EC). These experts can determine which strategies will help improve his memory and offer you exercises you can do with him.

Speaking of EC, I assume he has an Individualized Education Plan at school. If not, request testing for learning disabilities post-haste. He should be receiving specialized education, push-in services, pull-out services, accommodations, test modifications, etc.

Most importantly, tell your grandson that this challenge is extremely common in patients who have seizures—he’s not alone. Remind him that his memory problems don’t mean anything about his intelligence. If he’s doing the best he can with the hand he’s been dealt, that’s enough.

—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

My daughter is in second grade in a large, urban public school that’s been fully remote since spring. In first grade, she tested as an advanced learner overall but especially in reading/verbal aptitude. We got the results a few weeks after schools went remote, and she hasn’t received any specific advanced learner programming. She’s doing well, though she has a tendency to do the bare minimum. For example, when she does a reading worksheet she’ll answer questions using the shortest possible sentences, then read a chapter book until the next lesson starts.

I’m not too worried about her not pushing herself since she reads constantly, and her teachers say she’s on track. But there are areas where I think she is behind. Her work is all done online so she rarely writes anything by hand. Her handwriting is awful and slow (she makes each part of a letter shape by shape and hasn’t progressed to more fluid writing). Occasionally she still makes some letters backward, and her writing is a mix of upper and lower case. I would love to work with her on these things but by the end of the day she’s burned out and extremely resistant. I’ve encouraged her to write letters to friends, and she does occasionally, but it takes a lot of nagging.

Should I be making her practice? Ideas for how to get her onboard? There are other areas, like telling time, where she also needs more practice and is similarly resistant to my teaching her, so general strategies would help too. But writing seems the most pressing.

—Pencil Pusher

Dear PP,

I think that one of the biggest goals that parents of young kids undertaking an extended period of virtual learning should have is to support them in getting through it with their confidence and interest in learning relatively intact. It sounds like your daughter is, generally, doing fine, and under the circumstances, fine is great. All you can ask for, really. Nagging, resistance, and conflict is not what either of you needs right now, especially if it might sour her on an educational experience that sounds like, all things considered, is going pretty well. So in general, I’d follow her lead and tread lightly. I do think there are a couple of things you can try, but in going forward with them, I’d make sure to keep it light and low pressure.

Since she’s doing everything online right now, it wouldn’t surprise me if her fine motor skills have lagged some, which is probably contributing to the laboriousness of her writing. Fortunately, there are lots of fun activities you can offer that will help strengthen the small muscles in her hands and fingers and improve her general dexterity without her ever cluing in to the fact that she’s doing a therapeutic exercise. She could try making jewelry—stringing beads, tying knots, and braiding bracelets with embroidery floss are all great. You could offer her a book of sticker mosaics, a Lite Brite (those are back now!), or a relatively simple diamond puzzle, which will have her carefully placing and arranging small objects with accuracy. LEGOs, clay, playing Jenga—really, whatever floats her boat and gets her to practice skillfully manipulating things with her hands would be great to encourage.

I do think you can prompt her to keep working specifically on letter formation, but there are a lot of ways to do so without making it a chore. (You definitely don’t want to sit her down with a page of handwriting drills at the end of her school day when she’s drained and resisting!) I would offer some interesting materials—bath crayons, shaving cream, a bit of paint squished around in a plastic baggie, the black paper you can scratch to reveal colors underneath, even dragging a paper clip through Play-Doh or slime—and prompt her to try some letters, especially if you can model it for her. I wouldn’t ask her to practice any more than five to seven minutes at a time, quit while you’re well ahead, and then just let her play. I think that some consistent but quick practice that she enjoys will, in the long run, get you farther than a real nose-to-the-grindstone work session that she fights the whole time.

I’m crossing every extremity that your district reopens in the fall. You can definitely raise your various concerns with her teacher then, and perhaps ask for an evaluation by an occupational therapist—but also know that it is not possible for kids or teachers to be hewing to the typical benchmarks right now, and everyone’s going to need extra support in something or other by the time this is all over. She’ll be okay.

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

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