Homework that Involves Parents is the Best Homework

My views on homework are complicated.

To put it shortly: I think it’s overly assigned, and usually unnecessary.  This is, of course, dependent on the subject, objectives, and level of the class you teach, but in general…I’m not a fan of giving homework for homework’s sake.

That being said, there are always some units or situations in which I will always assign homework for my English/Language Arts students: whenever a unit or text allows them to engage their parents or family in meaningful dialogue.

Simply stated: I love making my students talk to their parents when possible.

What I aim to do with these assignments is to bridge that seemingly impenetrable gap between school and home.  I also hope that students get the opportunity to engage in conversation about school that goes beyond, “hey…can you help me with my homework?”

So how do I do this in my ELA class?

I look for texts,  that revolve around parental perspectives, for example, Carol Anne Duffy’s poem, “Before You Were Mine.”

Here’s the poem (I explain it below if you don’t want to read it):

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Homework that Involves Parents: 

The poem is about a speaker looking at pictures of their mom and wondering about their mom’s identity before they were a parent.  After we do the usual jazz with poetry analysis and discuss the surface, and deeper level of the poem, I give the students one week to complete a homework assignment…

1.  Go home and find a parent
2.  Tell that parent your English teacher is making them do this
3.  Explain the poem in as much detail as you can
4.  Ask your parent for a picture that they feel embodies who they were BEFORE they were a parent; Ask your parent to explain why they chose that picture
5.  Bring the picture to school 

When it’s time to do the “show and tell” of pictures, I start off with sharing a picture of my own mother.  Here was her picture:

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Schoolwork: 

After students have their picture, you can adapt the assignment to any level you see fit…

Students can construct a narrative around the visual, using it as a prompt.  They can practice descriptive writing based on what they see.

You can use the visual as a first step in visual analysis by having students break-down the composition of the picture, and connecting aspects such as color, body language, and facial expressions to the mood, tone, and effect of the visual .

In a more advanced class, you can have students write a compare/contrast essay where they compare the visual to the poem (sample of this is below).  If you teach IB: Literature and Language, this is a great introduction to Paper 1 for HL classes.

Or you can simply have them orally share and discuss the pictures of their parents.

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Another poem I use is “Registers” by Michael Laskey

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After analyzing the poem, which is about a dad dropping his kid off at school on the first day,  I have the students read this prose piece featured on momastery.com which is a parent’s point of view of the same event: watching your kid walk into the world of education and “adult” life.

Homework That Involves the Parents:  

I give the students a script of questions that they should ask their parents.  The questions can be multiple choice or open answer.

For example:

1 .  I had to read a poem and article in class about a kid starting school from a parent’s point of view.  How did you feel on my first day of school?
2.  What fears, expectations, or excitement did you experience? 
3. Did you base those fears on your own experiences in school?  
4.  How did you feel about school growing up?

Schoolwork: 

Once again, you can adapt the writing activities however you see fit…

Have students compare/contrast the interview with their parent/guardian with the poem or article.  This is good for developing their ability to lift or quote text as well.

They can examine the figurative language in the article and poem, and create their own simile or metaphor that depicts their parent’s point of view.

And in more advanced classes, students can write a poem from THEIR own point of view about how it felt to leave their parents behind on the first day of school, or students can write a comparative essay between the similarities and differences of all three texts.

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Depending on your subject and content area, whether it’s a novel study, poetry exploration, or media unit, it’s possible to find ways to get students to talk to their parents or families about what is going on in the classroom.

Reminder: Once again, these assignments completely depend on the culture and climate of your school and student body, and it is to be noted, that all of these assignments can be adjusted for students who do not have a relationship that enables them to complete these assignments as set.

So just give it a try.

Find ways to foster conversations about your class between your students and the people they consider family. You just may end up learning as much about your students as they end up learning about their parents!

It’s a win win. Or, you know, as many things in teaching go… it doesn’t work out at all. Still worth a try.

How We Can Redirect the Language of Victim Blaming in Our Classrooms

During my sixth year as a teacher, I finally got the opportunity to teach the novel, Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.

In case you’ve never read it, it’s a pretty spectacular novel to teach for many reasons:

It allows students to relate to characters and cultures that were otherwise foreign to them,  it allows for exploration of the significance of Western occupations in the Middle East, and it’s all set amidst the backdrop of a universal topic: the quest for redemption.  Oh, and the movie is  awful…so the students never bug you to watch it.

As an English teacher, I totally nerd out when I get to teach it.

However, it was just this year (four years after I started teaching it), that I realized the novel also opens up discussions addressing an unexpected topic… the language of victim blaming.

If you’re not familiar with the novel, the plot is set into motion after one of the characters, Assef, brutally rapes one of the novel’s protagonists, Hassan.

Now, nothing in Kite Runner puts the blame of the assault on Hassan’s shoulders.  Hassan is clearly depicted as the victim and is written about with a great deal of sympathy and compassion throughout the novel.

The victim blaming, weirdly enough, only happened outside the fictional world of the book, when both the students and I would get into discussions about the events of the novel.

It was during one of these discussion that I was reminded of a Ted Talk by Jackson Katz that I watched during the summer:

In the video, Katz explains how even the structure of our language is set up to blame victims.  The video does a great job of explaining this, but to summarize his points, he,in essence, says that we, as a society, tend to frame the discussion about sexual assault and abuse around the victim, rather than the abuser.  And when you make the victim take ownership or agency in their own assault, that…is victim blaming.

Victims don’t act in an assault.  They are acted upon.

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Student work framing the abuse around the victim

So I began noticing this syntactical pattern in the conversations the students were having…someone would refer to “the part where Hassan got raped.”  And another kid would reference an event that happened, “after Hassan was raped.”  And while I was listening to conversation go on, it dawned on me that the way the conversation was framed, around Hassan, sounded so scarily natural.

So, I posed a question:  I asked the students if Hassan, in fact “got raped.”After a quick pause, one kid said, “no…Assef raped him.”

I’m not sure if it resonated with any of the students beyond a superficial level, but for the rest of the unit, anytime Hassan was discussed as the subject of the assault, I would redirect the conversation so the ownership fell on Assef’s shoulders. And from time to time, a student would catch themselves mid-sentence and redirect themselves.

Yay.

Then, a few weeks later, while discussing the play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with another class, the same re-direction on my end happened anytime a student referred to “Blanche’s rape,” as the climax, rather than “Stanley raping Blanche.” Or anytime a student judged Stella for re-entering an abusive relationship, I asked if it was worse to be the one returning to  abuse, or the one creating it.

 
And when another group of students were discussing the play, An Inspector Calls, and mentioned the time, “Eva Smith got pregnant after she was raped,” well… they were re-directed towards making sure the conversation focused on the character of Eric, since he was the one who raped her.

I’m not going to lie…there didn’t seem to be many light bulb moments during these discussions. No kid put their head in their hands and said to themselves: “My God…how could I not have seen this!”

For the most part, I’m sure I just annoyed them.

And yeah, this doesn’t just apply to Literature teachers.  Many educators, at some point, will be able to re-direct the conversations and discussions that happen in our classes whether they are about the topics we teach, students in the school, or current events.  Heck, most of us, myself included, need to re-direct our own unintentional forms of victim blaming when we talk. This applies to all of us.

But as a Literature teacher, I am shocked by how deeply engrained victim blaming is in our language: If you think about it, through books, plays, and stories…sexual assault and abuse is turned into a collective experience for the reader and audience. And yet even when readers are given the context, intentions, and motivations behind an assault, our language and our students’ mostly still defaults to victim blaming.  It’s awful.

And yeah…I know, I know…most of the times in a lot of schools I’ve worked at, the kids don’t even have the books, and if they do, they don’t read them.  And when they do, they hate them, and don’t want to discuss them at all.  I get it.  We, as teachers, already have a laundry list of “big ticket items” to deal with.  So what am I getting at?

What’s my point?

My point isn’t that we should stop reading the ALARMINGLY high number of texts that pivot on sexual assault in our classes.

My point is that we can start using these texts to address the very real problem of the unintentional use of language that blames victims rather than the assailants who victimize them.

My point isn’t that this type of re-direction in our classes is going to change the prevalence of victim blaming in society.  I’m not that much of an optimist.

My point is that if we re-direct these types of conversations enough in the context of our classes, eventually, maybe, one kid out of the thousands we teach in our careers, will re-direct these types of conversations outside of our classes…in like…the real world.  Where it really matters.