If not for homework, said David McLeod, he and his wife would not have known how their son was doing at school.
Callum, 7, was in Grade 1 last year at Willingdon School, a French immersion school in the English Montreal School Board.
Through homework, “we could see what he was learning and what he was having trouble with,” said McLeod, a former junior high school teacher who is now involved in game design and production. His wife is a CEGEP teacher.
Ultimately, Callum had a very successful year at school and won a prize in his class for French.
“And I can thank the homework in a way,” McLeod said. “It gave us an opportunity to say, ‘OK, what got in the way of your getting this done at school?’ ”
To Roslyn School principal Nick Katalifos, homework is necessary.
“I think homework gives kids an opportunity to practise what they have learned in school,” he said. “And it’s also a good thing because it is an opportunity for parents to see what the kids are working on.”
Homework is also a way for teachers to see “where their students are at academically, what they understand and what they don’t understand,” Katalifos said. Roslyn is an EMSB elementary school in Westmount with 620 students.
Most educators believe homework can encourage good study habits that endure, as a 2010 report on homework in elementary schools from the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation observes, and can also promote independence. The report of the Conseil, an arm’s-length advisory body to Quebec’s education ministry, observes also that homework involves parents in their children’s education.
The report notes as well that teachers concede homework has a potential downside, too — that it can actually decrease a child’s interest in learning, that it leaves kids with less leisure time, and that having parents intervene in homework can lead to conflict.
Callum’s success at school came at a cost. He’d come home tired and hungry after being picked up from an after-school program some days as late as 6 p.m. That’s a long day. Between dinner and homework, there was often little downtime before bedtime.
“All the time spent before the kid is in bed is homework time,” McLeod said.
And the homework was often frustrating for Callum, who has special needs. Most of his homework was material he had not completed in class and “we noticed he was having extreme difficulty with the instructions. They were in French and he didn’t understand them. It took him most of the year to understand enough French to be able to do his homework,” McLeod said. “If your child doesn’t understand why he is doing something, it’s sort of a futile exercise.
“It took us most of the year to make homework not a struggle. When you are learning a second language, it takes more effort — particularly when stuff goes over your head.”
McLeod said he believes there are good reasons for certain types of homework. But Callum “has two qualified teachers as parents, and at times we were both scratching our heads” over what he was expected to learn from some homework assignments. Although they are trained teachers, they are not native Quebecers and not all that comfortable in French. They figured it out, but it took “some detective work,” McLeod said. And they have just one child. He wonders: What of parents with two or three children — or more?
“Even fully bilingual parents with two or three kids can’t follow up with all of them,” he said. “That seems to be a big issue.”
And he and his wife are concerned about larger class sizes at school “and less and less time for teachers to check individual homework. It is falling more on us.”
There has been considerable discussion among parents about how much homework is too much, McLeod said.
“Should kids be resting their brains and come back fresh in the morning? Parents seem to feel a lot of pressure. People don’t have any spare time. It’s a perpetual storm.”
Homework is a kind of tradition in Quebec and elsewhere, but research has yet to show any causal relationships with educational outcomes at the elementary level, as the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation report observes.
As well, homework can cause stress within households now that work and family arrangements are so much more complicated for many than they were a generation or two ago. As the brief notes, there are considerably more families in which both parents are in the workforce, more after-school daycare services, more single parents and more blended families. It can make for all kinds of time crunches.
Furthermore, homework assignments “can also present hurdles for parents with low levels of education or parents whose mother tongue is other than the language of instruction, as well as for children with learning disabilities and their parents.”
At least one Quebec elementary school, Collège St-Ambroise in the Saguenay–Lac-St-Jean region, undertook a pilot project in which the school’s 320 students had no written homework during the 2014-15 academic year. Students’ academic performance was found to be virtually unaffected and the project was deemed successful enough that it is continuing this year.
School principal Édith Aubut told the monthly newspaper Montreal Families that the idea for the ban grew out of the wish to maximize the engagement of students in the classroom and that students came to school more eager to learn because they “weren’t overburdened with the stress of unfinished homework from the previous night.”
Although the students had no written homework, they were still required to read at home and were also responsible for work not completed during class time, Marie-Ève Desrosiers, communications officer with the school’s board, the Commission scolaire de la Jonquière, explained to the Montreal Gazette.
For such a program to work, teachers need to find innovative ways to teach and engage students and to make sure their class time is used optimally, she said, adding that planning the program took a few years.
“And the teachers really believe in it — even more after a year,” Desrosiers said. Parents follow what their children are learning in special notebooks.
St-Lazare resident Lisa Fougère believes that her two children had too much homework in elementary school. And she questions how useful it was.
“It seemed to be a make-work project — and to what end?”
At the end of the school day, the last thing her son and daughter wanted to do was more of what they’d been doing all day, she said. Fougère was at home for much of the time they were in elementary school — both are in high school now — and she did not relish the role of disciplinarian she felt obliged to take on, particularly with her son.
The homework “becomes a thorn between you,” she said. “The more you push, the less he wants to do it.”
There is a great deal of focus on the amount of time homework can take and how it cuts into time children would have for other activities, said Roslyn’s Katalifos. “But I do feel the priority for children has to be education and that you have to focus on that first and foremost.”
Another advantage of homework is that “it teaches kids how to schedule their time at home and organize themselves,” he said. “I understand the notion of watching over the kids to see that the homework is getting done and, once in a while, to lend a hand — but some parents tend to cross the line and sit there glued to the child and in some cases do the homework,” Katalifos said. “That is not the purpose of homework.”
Students in upper grades are expected to devote more time to homework than those in Grade 1, although “we avoid trying to give a specific number.” He is “blessed with a very experienced staff” of teachers who are realistic about what their students can do.
“I also firmly believe in common sense, and I don’t think it is necessary for kids to be bombarded with too much homework. They put in a long day at school and, although school should be the priority, kids are involved in other things — in sports and in the arts — and these are good, healthy activities.
“I think it’s possible to have a healthy balance, where the kids do a bit of work at home and have time for other activities. The goal is not to weigh down kids with hours of homework so that they sit there all night long working,” Katalifos said.
“If a child is spending three or four hours on homework, that may be a sign that a child is having a tough time with content.” At that point, parents need to let the child’s teacher know; for that to happen, lines of communication between home and school must be good, he said.
Everyone is busier these days. “We know that parents have less time than they used to to work with their children on homework,” said Steven Erdelyi, head of school at Solomon Schechter Academy, Montreal’s largest day school, with 600 students from junior pre-K through Grade 6.
“And the children are busier as well. They are going to hockey or ballet or swimming after school, so sometimes by the time they get home, it is late and that creates stress for the children and their parents.”
Erdelyi, a former high-school teacher who was principal of Hampstead School and vice-principal of Westmount High School before joining Solomon Schechter, believes there is still a need for homework.
“I don’t think we should be telling teachers not to assign homework,” he said. “But it has to be useful, it has to be effective — and it has to be in moderation.”
Like Katalifos, Erdelyi believes that weighing students down with homework will not help them. “Homework has to be manageable,” he said.
Students at Solomon Schechter, a private school, learn English, French and Hebrew. For 65 per cent of the students, their first language is English; for most of the rest, it is French. The school has a policy on how much time students should spend on homework — from 20 minutes for students in Grade 1 to an hour for Grade 5 and 6 students. Homework is not assigned on weekends or holidays.
Homework is assigned in the student’s second language, Erdelyi explained, and in math. Repetition is used only in math homework, he said — and not for everyone.
“Some students can understand a concept and don’t need repetition. But for others, the repetition helps them. We try to differentiate the homework, to assign more for children who have difficulty and less for others.”
Homework also has to be relevant for the students.
“We have to make sure homework is not given just for the sake of homework,” Erdelyi said. Math homework, for instance, involves more situational problems, such as how to budget for a vacation.
“Our goal is to try to find that balance,” he said.
In reaching out to parents to find out what they think about the homework assigned to their children, “we get mixed feedback,” he said. “We have some parents say there is too much homework; others say there isn’t enough.”
Sometimes, he said, these are parents of children who are in the same class.
“There are parents who feel that in order for an education to be truly rigorous, there has to be a higher amount of homework,” Erdelyi said. “I don’t agree.”
Published Monday, March 5, 2018 6:13PM EST
Last Updated Monday, March 5, 2018 6:25PM EST
Two women are speaking out after their children brought home school work that they say included a racial slur.
The homework assignment from Academie St-Clement in Town of Mount-Royal asked students to use the word “negre” in a grammar exercise.
While “negre” can be translated as “negro,” it can also be used in a far more pejorative way, comparable to “n---er” in English.
Nathalie, the mother of one of the 11-year-old girls, said her daughter was very upset.
“She was like ‘Mom, we’re not supposed to use that word, right?’” she said. “And I said, ‘No, we’re not supposed to, it’s a bad word.’”
Nathalie’s daughter, who asked not to be identified, said she went to her teacher, who defended the choice of words.
“I didn’t think he would react like that,” she said. “He acted like it was a normal word.”
Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations Director Fo Niemi said the assignment was made even more offensive by the nature of the other words the students were asked to use.
“The whole document refers to objects and animals and this one is right after the animals,” he said. “That’s the only word in this document that refers to people, that’s why we think there’s objectification and a very insidious form of racism at play.”
The parents said they plan to lodge an official complaint with the Marguerite-Bourgeoys School Board after spring break. The school board refused CTV’s request for an interview but did issue a statement.
“Regarding the document, it was not created by the CSM but by a publishing house,” they said. “The school board will make recommendations to the publisher to remove the offensive words from the workbook. The CSMB does not endorse in any way the use of such an expression.”
Jerome Coulombe, director of publisher Editions De L’Envolee, said the assignment has been in use since the 1990s and he would have removed it had anyone complained.
“If they would have called me and told this word is in your book, I would have changed it right away,” he said. “It’s not like I said ‘I won’t change it, it’s fine.’ I’m not even close to saying that, so I do think it’s overblown…. They’re going to hurt us a lot and this really is a mistake that happened 20-something years ago and at the time, things were different.”
Coulombe said the document and the offending word are being pulled immediately.