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Lesson learned: Some schools ban homework, replace it with daily reading

Lesson learned: Some schools ban homework, replace it with reading

Houston, kids reading paper, August 2017
Students in Marion County, Florida school district will be asked – asked, not required - to read for 20 minutes each day. Courtesy of kidsforpress.com

Where was this rule when I needed it? The school district in Marion County, Florida has decided … no more homework for elementary school kids.

Instead, students will be asked – asked, not required - to read for 20 minutes each day. And no assigned reading list. The students can read anything they, or their parents, deem appropriate. Or just fun.

Batman comic books don't count, although I don't see why not.

The idea is, and I think they're on to something, reading is time better spent, and more important to future life success, than doing homework. A Marion County school board spokesman said, “If you can read well, everything else comes.” 

Heidi Maier, school district superintendent, told the Washington Post, “Some kinds of homework might raise achievement, but if so, that type of homework is uncommon in U.S. schools.”

No homework? From now on, we will refer to Heidi Maier as “the greatest superintendent in the history of American education.”

This “reading instead of homework” rule applies only to elementary schools in Marion Country in Florida, the land of crazy. But I think Texas should pick up the ball and carry it all the way through high school. Of course, with some adjustments. Homework should still be assigned, but stop piling on 2 to 3 hours per class every day. We’re turning our kids into over-homeworked wrecks. I’ve seen it in my house. Some kids can handle it, but many feel overwhelmed and just throw up their hands.

Borrowing from Bill Maher's "New Rules" rule, ease up on homework and make reading mandatory. That would have helped me, that’s for sure.

I’m lucky, I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up – a journalist, or whatever you call what I do. I knew from all the times my father came home from work, picked up a newspaper, and started arguing with a columnist. Like the columnist was sitting there in our living room.

Let me see who’s making my father crazy? I like him already.

It was Jimmy Breslin, the gritty New York writer. I got hooked on reading him. There was one person in our living room whom I wanted to be like – and it wasn’t my father.

I stayed a Breslin fan after I began working for a newspaper. He used regular words and short sentences. He wrote like normal people talk. He could take serious subjects and get his point across with humor. That’s talent.

I met him – almost – one night after a Knicks game in New York City. I went to the restroom at Nathan’s hot dog joint in Times Square, and Breslin was standing there, doing his business. I didn’t introduce myself or say hello or anything. That’s respect.

School is supposed to prepare young people for a career, right? Each morning, my high school would pass out newspapers to those who wanted one. And each day in study hall, the teacher would take away the newspaper if you tried to read it. That made a lot of sense. Like reading a newspaper was a waste of time.

Instead, we were supposed to study chemistry or math or third-year Latin, subjects I had no interest in and no skill at, and would have flunked if not for the kid sitting next to me.

Thank you, kid who sat next to me.

True story: the first day of senior chemistry, the teacher said, “This is the only class you’ll take where you’ll use this information every day for the rest of your life.” Or mumbo jumbo like that.

I have never used anything I learned in chemistry, which wasn’t much. If somebody asked me to “pass the sodium chloride,” I’d throw the salt shaker at him. Same with math. I can keep score in bowling and I know how to figure out earned run average in baseball, and not much else. I have a calculator on my phone to fudge my expense report.

Instead of prohibiting students from reading a newspaper in study hall, my school should have encouraged it. Here's another idea for Texas schools. They should build a required class around current events, with a newspaper as the text book. I would have loved that class. Maybe if students knew more about today’s news, they’d send fewer whack jobs to Washington later when they can vote.

The Houston Chronicle has a program called “Chronicle in Education.” Every school should jump on it.

I once interviewed Jack Paar, one of the pioneers of late-night TV talk shows. He must have been 80 at the time. PBS was doing a retrospective of his career, or he had written a book, or something. I wanted to meet him because it was Paar, not Ed Sullivan, who introduced the Beatles on U.S. television. I wanted to talk to him about that.

I remember what he told me that day. “You will have many experiences and joys in your life, but the one joy that never goes away, that will make you happy until the day you die, is reading.”

Then he trashed the Beatles, said they had no talent, and I thought, “What an idiot, get a better toupee that costs more than $1.98 and we’ll talk.” I hope he didn't read my interview with him. It wouldn't have made him happy.

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