Homework: A Mile in a Student’s Shoes

By Jason Yaffe, Director of Academics

It all started when a Greenhill parent suggested that I should read Karl Greenfeld’s “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me” (Atlantic Monthly, October 2013). I was intrigued by the idea behind the article and wondered what insight Greenfeld might gain from following his 13 year old’s homework, completing all of her assigned work alongside her for an entire week. Ever since encountering that piece I have been revisiting the purpose of homework and the value it can have to a learner. As a teacher I have forever viewed homework as an opportunity to solidify a skill or concept, extend the learning beyond the classroom, spark interest in the material, and optimally challenge my students. However, I never fully know what unfolds when my students take on their assigned work outside of the classroom. Since I can’t accompany my high school students home, I took a page out of Greenfeld’s playbook and recently put on my parent hat so I could shadow my own two Greenhill students at home. While Greenfeld plows through countless pages of Angela’s Ashes each night and stumbles his way through polynomial worksheets, my own experience was full of pleasant surprises, and brought about a greater level of empathy for my children’s learning experiences, and solidified my belief that when structured appropriately, homework is an extension of the classroom.

Homework for my youngest son in Greenhill’s Primer program constitutes daily study of a poem, weekly journal entries, nightly readings, and a handful of math problems each week. On the days when I sat with him, he was engaged in responding to his teacher’s prompts in his journal. The prompts were filled with wonder and relatedness, creating an opportunity for my son to map his own direction with his responses. He worked through phonetically spelling out his words and turned to me often to fill in the letters. With dinner quickly approaching, it took all my might to not provide him with the answers! When he pleaded with me for the correct letter, I tried to be patient and accept the fact that what he was writing (“I we wnt tu the Giants Stadm. I wnt tu the beech.”) made sense to him, even if it had spelling and grammatical shortcomings. Memorizing and understanding his poem each day has become a family bonding experience. He is an emerging reader who first sees and hears the poem in the afternoon at home with a parent, and then revisits it on the way to school in the morning as he, his older brother, and I take turns with the lines, sound out words, or fill in missing words. It’s been fascinating to watch the two siblings actually take a genuine interest in each other’s homework as evidenced by my oldest son’s love of the Primer poems. Yesterday it was “My Dog Lives on the Sofa.” Just recently he has shown interest in trying to read the poem. Poetry exploration empowers the students and provides a sense of pride when they are finally able to recite the poem. It also teaches valuable word play, especially when the poems rhyme, and it inspires an early love of poetry, often through silly, approachable works. Homework is not a painstaking task for my youngest son, even though it sometimes is less of an immediate priority for him when he can play baseball in the yard or explore playing the piano as a young musician.

My oldest son is in his first year in Greenhill’s Middle School and with that transition, there was some anxiety before the school year began that was partially fueled by hype around homework. “I’m going to have soooo much work,” he whined as ten year can, adding drama to even the smallest challenge. He quickly realized this Fall that his afternoon study hall at school gives him time to meet with teachers for help with homework and also a large window to complete some assignments. As a result, his homework load is far more manageable than he imagined it would be. My informal experiment started last week when we began reading from his History Alive textbook and taking notes on the Sumerians. We both learned about the advancements that ancient civilization made in making wheels and developing arches. The lesson was extended the following day he came home and observed him assemble supplies to make a primitive wheel out of cardboard and an arch from Legos. When it came to math, I fretted about working through word problems adding fractions with unlike denominators because of my own struggles as a math student. However, I was pleasantly surprised by my understanding of fifth grade math. Just out of curiosity, I asked my son to explain the mathematical concept and with that helpful reminder, I moved forward with my work. Another assignment last week came in the form of creating sentences using nouns, adjectives, and verbs from a given list for Latin class. Lucius, my son’s Latin name, jumped at all of the choices he had and reminded both of us that his teacher encouraged wacky sentences (“Tosta crustula caeruleus est.” The toasted cookie is blue. ) so long as the grammatical concepts of subject/verb and noun/adjective agreement were present.

If you have not taken part in a student’s homework experience, I highly recommend it. Even if you only participate in a few of the assignments as I did, the gains are plentiful, ranging from developing a better understanding of the curriculum to hands on learning and practice being resilient. If approached with wonder and curiosity, more times than not, being present alongside a student doing homework can be anything but the drudgery we might remember from our own school experiences.

While I know that each teacher’s approach to homework is slightly different, I was thrilled to see that my sons’ assignments – across subjects – were designed to solidify classroom concepts and extend learning. Trying, and sometimes struggling with, concepts is a critical and necessary part of learning. You can imagine the confidence that comes when students are able to accomplish hard tasks on their own. It’s easy to assume from articles like Greenfeld’s that homework is overly arduous, burdensome and of little value. But when set up intentionally, homework can further learning and have tremendous value.

Volunteering: Education for the Real World

By Sally Rosenberg, Director of Community Service & Service Learning

On the bus ride back from delivering Meals on Wheels last week, the Kindergartners, and their confident eighth grade buddies, played “I spy”. It made me think that I get to play “I spy” with 1280 kids every year and how I would love to share what I have spied from time to time. Here’s a sampling:

And the wheels on the bus go round and round….

From the other side of the world our visitors from Taiwan spent the day with me seeing a different side of Dallas. In the morning we volunteered at the North Texas Food Bank. Results: 9,360 cans of beans, soup and corn boxed = 7,740 pounds = 6, 450 meals. They were impressed with what fifteen of us could accomplish in just under two hours. Then it was off to serve lunch to 496 clients at The Bridge. Their words as we reflected:

  • It was much harder emotionally than physically.
  • If we could stay longer, we would surely like to do more.

And the wheels on the bus go round and round….

Saturdays I spy Upper School students currently involved in political campaigns, helping at local carnivals, on various youth boards, cleaning up area lakes and last year at almost 400 non-profits for a total of almost 25,000 volunteer hours. Of those, over 2000 were given each Saturday from 9:00 – 12:00 and during Spring Break to help change the trajectory of a child’s education at a local elementary school. The principal credits our volunteers with taking her students from the 50% range to well above 85% in Reading, English and Math on state testing. We’re back this year with more volunteers and better skills. Here’s what some of our kids say about this experience:

  • Mentoring/Tutoring has made me take a hard look at myself as I examine the privilege that I’ve grown up with, both in terms of my educational and socio-economic background.
  • I find myself thinking about “my kids” who are struggling quite a bit during the regular week, often jotting down ways I could explain a particular concept to them as I think of it in class or in the car.

And the wheels on the bus go round and round….

Back at school, my office phone rings and I spy an alumna name on the screen, calling to tell me that he is involved in a non-profit and perhaps I could offer a little advice. I love these calls. Most of these regular calls are from past students that I rarely “spied” volunteering when they were here as students. They were too involved in other things. I knew they would give back when time allowed, because we opened their hearts to the idea and gave them ample opportunities to learn about the joy and responsibility of volunteering. We all can’t do everything.

And the wheels on the bus go round and round….

A stroll across campus, I see the donation boxes full of school supplies, the cans stacked high and ready for the sixth grade trip next week to the food bank, the super hero underwear overflowing from bags in Fifth grade ready to go on their service adventure. But it’s almost time to wave to the seventh graders as they walk across the far field to tutor at our neighbor school and for me to spy in on the fifteen Eighth Grade Service-Learning elective students. They are matched with individual classrooms throughout our Pre and Lower School. They provide written reflections for me periodically. Many say things like this:

  • I don’t want the Second graders to be afraid of the kids that are older than them. I want them to know that Greenhill is full of very generous and kind people.
  • …After seeing what a teacher has to deal with I am thankful for my teachers and my parents.”

And the wheels on the bus go round and round….

A Tenth grade English class takes a day to judge poems and essays written by the clients of The Stewpot for their annual Halloween talent show. The winners will receive cash prizes. This job is very important and the students understand that. They take the task seriously. The next day, the class again pauses from their study of The Scarlett Letter to reflect on what they had done and what they had learned about the clients who wrote the pieces – all of them homeless.

“What words do you think of when you see a homeless person on the street?”

Bum, scam artist, sad, desperate, lack of morals, lonely, pathetic, scary, dirty, poor.

“What words would you use to describe the authors from reading their works?”

Religious, appreciative, lovely, educated, seemed normal, found beauty in simplicity, determined

“What made their works original?”

Spark of creativity, new perspective, made you think, entertained you, moved you

“What do you think they wanted you to know or think about them; or about being homeless?”

They are vulnerable, they are nostalgic, they feel alienated, they have hope in and believe in a divine  power or something bigger than themselves, that it is not their fault, they long for comfort, sometimes just a smile, and a world of peace.

 I thanked them for their hard work and thoughts and reminded them that none of the clients at the Stewpot, choose the life of homelessness. They grow up as kids playing outside, going to school, enjoying life, with dreams and aspirations, just like each of us. As the class turned back to The Scarlett Letter I thought Hester probably didn’t plan the twists and turns that her own life took either.  Service Learning. Something to think about.

And the wheels on the bus go round and round….

Back on the bus, after our Meals on Wheels delivery, we seriously discussed why the clients confined to wheelchairs, with various disabilities, really aren’t so different than we are, and in fact, how we are similar. That was followed by:

  • Hey, we are hungry too!
  • My heart feels so good right now.
  • We really are lucky to help these clients live independently. I’d like the chance to do this again.
  • I remember this building, knocking on the doors and pushing the elevator buttons from when I was in Kindergarten, Mrs. Rosenberg. That’s pretty cool.

You bet it is!

Encouraging service is an important part of our mission. I spy our students practicing, through volunteerism, the lessons and big concepts they have learned about respect and compassion.

Greenhill. Education for the real world.

And the wheels on the bus go round and round….

Urban studies students experience Dallas in a whole new way

By Emily Wilson, Creative Services Manager

Adventure was in the air on this particularly bright and clear September morning. I boarded the Greenhill bus bound for the DART station with the Upper School urban studies class, led by Becky Daniels, Greenhill Legend and US History Teacher. Also chaperoning the trip were Assistant Head of School Tom Perryman and US English teacher Eve Hill-Agnus.

Downtown Dallas was our destination and, yes, we could have taken the bus all the way there. But that wouldn’t have allowed us to truly assimilate into urban culture and city immersion.

Students boarded the crowded southbound DART train, shuffled down the standing-room-only middle aisle, grabbed nearby handholds… and away we went. And that was only the beginning. Upon reaching our stop downtown, the students’ standing balance would again be challenged… driving a segway.


IMG_4658That day we all learned that there is no better way to explore Dallas’ urban center, to get up close and personal to the sidewalk life of a vibrant city, than to ride a segway through downtown streets. Ms. Daniels had each of her students research a particular landmark of the city and designed a segway tour to visit these landmarks. Each student then spoke about their assignment to their fellow students.

Mastering the segway took a bit of balance practice, but after a few laps, they were off! Some landmarks of the urban tour included Pioneer Plaza, City Hall designed by I.M. Pei, the Giant Eyeball, Thanksgiving Square, and the JFK Memorial. After lunch in Klyde Warren Park, the students dropped off their segways and finished the day at the The Old Red Museum of Dallas County History & Culture.

IMG_4659It is Ms. Daniels’ hope that her students will take experiences like this and start to understand what makes cities come alive, from their origins to current day, and exploring the nuances of urban life. “I want them to realize how much cities have to offer, how urban centers fit together, and how much history and activity there is to find if you know where to look,” she says. Despite Dallas being many of our addresses, students often don’t know how much there is going on downtown. For example, Ms. Daniels explains, Dallas has the largest contiguous arts district in the country, and its public transit capabilities are greater than many people think.

A few days later, students took the time to reflect on their experience. Their quotes say it all…

“There were so many places in downtown Dallas that I never realized existed!”
Remya Menon

“The Old Red museum was the perfect finishing touch because we all got to see how the “three tiers” (economy, politics and transportation) fit into Dallas’ history.”
—Grace Snyder

“Before today I could not see myself enjoying downtown Dallas during my free time, but after seeing for myself all the places to hang out, I think it’d be a great idea to go downtown for an event with my friends.”
—Kevin Gonzales

“I need to be able to navigate public transportation, and I definitely should know how to navigate my own city. This experience helped with that.”
—Jazmin Calixto

“I feel like going into a city for a class focusing on cities was a great form of field research, and it really enhanced our experience in the class.”
—Sam Cowger

“Loved the immersion.”
—WT Greer

“There is no comparison between looking at pictures of buildings and being told facts about them, and seeing them in person and learning about them on site. It was cool hearing about some of the architects and motives behind the buildings’ constructions because after knowing who was the architect for some of the buildings, you could tell certain attributes that are part of their own personal aesthetic. (Particularly I.M. Pei)  Thank you for giving us that experience!”
—Allyson Bigenho

“In school, we mostly learn about cities other than the one that we live in, so it was really interesting to learn about the history of Dallas and what makes it unique.”
—Jenna Reisler

“I had never seen Dallas City Hall or the Police Memorial. I even enjoyed learning about many places I had seen around Dallas, but knew nothing about.”
—Donovan Reilly

“My favorite part of the trip was seeing all of the interesting people who ride the DART. There was a diverse group of people!”
—O’Bryant Vincent

Motivating Students to Succeed

By Laura Ross, Head of Upper School

Each fall, Greenhill holds a special ceremony to honor students with high academic achievements. We recognize the students who have achieved High Honor Roll status for each trimester of the prior school year, as well as students who have been inducted into Mu Alpha Theta, our Math Honors Society, and those students who have been chosen as National Merit Semi-Finalists, National Achievement Semi-Finalists or National Hispanic Recognition Program Semi-Finalists as a result of their scores on the PSAT year before.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about motivation. What motivates students to achieve? What makes students stay after class to ask extra questions to truly understand a concept? What makes students go back over a paper that they know could be better with some extra editing? What makes students focus on test corrections in math until they truly understand their mistakes? We recently gave our Upper School students the HSSSE, the High School Survey of Student Engagement. The HSSSE measured a lot of things, and gave us the data in three dimensions: academic engagement, school engagement and emotional engagement. In other words – how much do our student feel engaged by their classes and teachers, their extracurricular activities, and the school and its people as a whole. The good news in the results is that our students had higher scores on all three Dimensions of Engagement than other independent schools whose students took the survey. Our students feel invested and excited about being at Greenhill. We were thrilled to see those results.

While the results were overall very positive, there were a few data points that we wanted to look at more closely. One of them was that, when our students were asked what motivates them to achieve – love of learning, engaging teachers, pride in their work, et cetera, one of the most common motivators cited were grades themselves. Students were motivated by lots of things, but chief among them appears to be earning high grades. I really wanted to look at this data more closely and luckily we get comparison data from the other schools who gave this assessment to over 300,000 high school students last year. We also gave the HSSSE seven years ago so we had that data to compare as well. When I looked at our data compared to Greenhill students in 2007, it was clear that the percentage of students who were motivated by grades had grown pretty significantly. However, it was also clear that we were not any different from the other schools, both public and private, who gave this assessment. The data was consistent across both public and private schools in the comparison data, and in the growth pattern since 2007. It probably won’t surprise anyone that American high school students are more grade conscious now than I suspect they’ve ever been.
At our parent program last week about the developmental needs of 9th and 10th graders, our school counselor, Ms. Singhvi, told a story about how when students come to her to say, “Ms. Singhvi, I got a 95 on the test!” she always responds by saying, “so what’s meaningful about that to you?” She said that students often get annoyed by this answer and say, “Ms. Singhvi, you’re just supposed to say, ‘that’s awesome!’” She said that she does this, not to annoy students, but to try to get them to think about why that result makes them feel good. She wants to challenge the notion that it should just be self-evident that a higher grade should automatically equal satisfaction. She wants students to really reflect on why this particular test grade is meaningful. Did the student try a different study strategy that really paid off? Did the student learn to manage some test anxiety by implementing self-calming breathing strategies that allowed him to focus better? Did the student go to bed consistently early the week before the exam instead of staying up cramming and recognized that a rested brain is better than an overstuffed tired one? What feedback did the 95 give her about herself as a learner?

This comment really made me stop and think. I know I have not done a good job at this. When students, or even my own children, tell me they did well on something, I have exactly one stock answer: “That’s awesome! Congratulations!” I, and most adults I know, help to feed this idea that good grades automatically, and in every situation, equal awesome. However, I should know better. I work with teenagers every day and I know that for some kids that 95 was a result of obsessive studying borne out of potentially damaging perfectionism. Or perhaps it came from the fact that math comes super easily and the 95 didn’t actually require any real effort on the student’s part. Or perhaps the 95 came because the student gave up an extracurricular activity that truly makes them happy because they felt like they needed to get higher grades for college even though their daily life is no longer enriched by athletics, clubs or the arts?

These thoughts are not intended to minimize the achievements of our students. They are all achievers because they choose to be at Greenhill where they know they are held to higher standards inside and outside the classroom than many other places they could choose to be. Families make enormous sacrifices to send their children here and to help them find success. Some of the rewards of being at a place like Greenhill don’t become apparent until well into the future when our graduates recognize how much better prepared they are than many of their college classmates. Or maybe it comes when they realize as adults that they have learned a deep sense of gratitude for their place in this world as a result of their time at Greenhill. Sometimes high school is just hard. It can be emotionally draining and mentally taxing. However, what we can do as adults to help them is sometimes not to take the easy route by automatically saying, “That’s awesome” when they say they got a 95. Ask them the follow up question. Dig deeper. Help them understand that you care about what they learn about themselves by the learning they do, not just about the number that ends up on the transcript. Remind them that the adults in their lives see them as more than just numbers. I know that when we all take a step back and remember that these children, these amazing children, are possessed of many gifts, most of which, and perhaps the most important of which, cannot be quantified, we will take the time to not just say, “that’s awesome.”

Fitting-In in Middle School

By Susan Palmer, Head of Middle School

One of the aspects of the Middle School that I love is that students who have attended Greenhill since Lower School are intermingled with students fresh to our campus. The range of backgrounds brings richness to our classrooms that extends learning beyond what the teacher offers.

That said, we know that being the new kid in a sea of unfamiliar faces can be challenging. As a result, we try to check in with our new Middle Schoolers a few weeks into the year. Last week Mike Jenks, Assistant Head of Middle School, and I had one of our check-in lunches with these new Middle School students. Seeing Greenhill through their one month of experience was refreshing and caused us both to stop and think about elements and qualities of school that we see as inherent to the Greenhill experience. When we asked the students to share their favorite things about Greenhill, we got everything from the food to “nature and the peacocks.” We also got the following:

• Too many good things to share just one!
• Teachers teach differently than at other schools.
• You can play your instrument right here at school.
• There’s a mixture of “girl and boy” teachers.
• The Idea Lab!
• Making new friends.
• The homework isn’t busy work.
• The teachers are nice and willing to help.
• The grade level meetings in the pods.
• The groups mingle.
• The schedule and having classes with lots of different people..
• We are learning how to be independent.
• Discussion-based classes with lots of different teachers.
• Projects
• Recess
• The lay-out of the building.
• All the people.

These students were nervous about making new friends, grades, being on time, and homework, but they said that their fears quickly evaporated. And, being Greenhill students, they had suggestions for us about how to make Greenhill even better – ranging from more keyboarding practice to a drama class for sixth graders. These talented and lively newcomers have smoothed their own transitions with their willingness to embrace new experiences, and we are delighted to welcome them into the Middle School and I am excited to hear about their journey throughout the year.

Think of a Teacher that had an Impact on You

By Michael Simpson, Head of Lower School

I can’t tell you how many times in the last 22 years I have participated in a school meeting that starts with “think of a teacher that had an impact on you.” It happens a lot. Take a moment and do it yourself, now. Why did that teacher have an impact on you?*

It seems that when people talk about teachers who influenced them, they talk about teachers who were tough, or held high standards, or showed them special compassion, or demonstrated a passion and joy for their subject area. They don’t talk about the teachers who very efficiently taught them long division or helped them master the spelling of digraphs.

Maybe this is the year a particular child will learn long division, or finally master spelling of digraphs. Students will learn reading strategies, memorize basic facts, read maps, string together sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into compositions, hypothesize, write computer code, and learn the double clef. There are so many technical aspects of education to be learned over the years. It takes a long time (14 or 15 years!) to get it all. Those are the easy lessons, most of the time.

Yet our expectation is that our students get to have some hard lessons, too. Our teachers hope to make an impact on each child in an area of their life and growth that will benefit them profoundly. Maybe it’s by holding a child accountable for something that the teacher knows can be done better. Perhaps it’s helping a student discover and celebrate a special skill or ability. It might be encouraging an eight year old to take on a fear of public speaking, or helping her confront and change a way she interacts with others. We are dedicated to partnering with parents to teach these lessons.

Discourse between school and family is planned to share information and create a healthy communication between family and teachers so that the children can get all the lessons they need to learn, easy or hard.

* A gratitude exercise: Google that teacher. Find him or her and write a thank you note. It doesn’t take long, really and it’s just an awesome thing to do.

Short Snapshots of Time

By Kim Barnes, Head of Early Childhood

Like our Director of Academics, I am gifted daily with times to observe children. Through these short snapshots of time, I learn so much about individual children and children’s behaviors.

Last Friday was no different as I watched a few children on the Explorer Dome. Two children piqued my interest as they seemed to be very purposeful with their play on the climbing net. There, indeed, seemed to be a plan unfolding as each seemed to be questioning the other as they pointed down to the moon swing just under the middle of the net area. About the time I realized there was a plan, one of the girls dropped down on the swing. It seemed their plan was to climb far enough above the swing that they could easily drop down between the ropes to safely land on the swing. The first kindergartner dropped down easily and confidently, the second it took a bit more time and she moved a bit more gingerly as she continued to talk with the child on the swing. But, hooray, she landed well and they swung happily together for a few minutes!

The importance of teaching children to plan out their movements and even to help them break down what a task requires stood out. How often do I do this for children? Am I missing any tasks or jobs or skills that require a plan and would provide a model for future endeavors? In early childhood education, this type of planning is often called scaffolding and is probably most frequently used in social and literacy development. (Have a few stationary minutes in carpool? Google Lev Vygotsky.) However, scaffolding can be used in all aspects of a young child’s life and, frankly, in adult life as well. Take time to think about something that is difficult for you or that you might be afraid to try that you can break down into steps, which can be shared with your child, and then have the plan unfold step by step. Modeling this type of behavior will help a child accomplish things in small chunks and provide personal gratification as she/he moves forward with a skill.

Note – The operative phrase in the last paragraph is difficult for you. With any new endeavor, the gift of patience on the part of all parties is important as there is always struggle, even though that struggle may be short-lived. Scaffolding walks hand in hand with struggle as does the feeling of satisfaction and gratitude (hence the word gratification). Struggle is normal, healthy, and important to the development of each human being. Take time to embrace the struggle and scaffold what struggle in a particular instance might look like.