Monday, November 2, 2009

Letter from a Math Teacher

This year after Back to School night at both the middle and high schools my boys attend, I sent each of their teachers an email. In the email I said I had just read a really interesting book called “Rethinking Homework” by Cathy Vatterott and I had some extra copies I’d like to share with anyone interested.

To my surprise I got a few emails back right away from teachers at both schools saying “sure, I’d like to borrow the book.” Well, just last week I got a nice letter back from my 10th grader’s geometry teacher. I received permission from him to reprint it:

“Hi Kerry,

Thanks for the loan of the book. It generated much “rethinking” at lunch in the math dept. While many of us were initially skeptical about a new homework paradigm, we found ourselves agreeing with much of the book. We are opposed to “busy work” and grading homework for accuracy. I hope that my assignments are appropriate, both as regards length of time and amount of practice. In Calculus, I think it appropriate to give homework no weight, but in my classes, I need to reward the effort – about 10-15% seems right.

I feel bad when I see my students losing sleep to do projects of questionable value, and pledge that I will never do this. Sometimes, if I must spend more time on questions than I planned, or there is a short period for some forgotten reason, I may give more homework than you feel appropriate. If so, I apologize.

Thanks again”

This particular teacher has been teaching at the high school for over 20 years. I was pleasantly surprised (and told my son so) that he was open to reading a book on homework and took the next step by sharing and discussing it with his colleagues.

My son hasn’t complained about his math homework this year, he just accepts it as a fact of life, but there have been years that math has been a real struggle for him. Even so, I think it always encouraging when a teacher (especially one who has been teaching for so long) is willing to re-think the homework he/she is assigning.

So what did I do after I received his letter? I emailed the principal letting him know how pleased I was that this teacher took the time to read and think about this book. I also sent another book to school with my son for the same teacher. This one is called “The Mathematician’s Lament.” It discusses how we kill the love of math by teaching it the way we do. It also gives suggestions for ways to teach it better.

I wanted to post about this because I think it’s important to know that parents really can have an impact on teachers -- not all teachers are set in their ways. Some are open to new ideas.


  1. How refreshing to know that teachers are willing to rethink how they teach or how they assign homework. I have always been very supportive of teacher's as I believe they have one of the most challenging careers there are. Keeping kids interested and motivated is no easy task (ask any parent). I think it is great that this math teacher brought it to his colleagues for discussion, as we never know how it will inspire others to rethink/change as well. Last year my middle grader was asked to write a letter to a leader so he chose President (elect) Barack Obama. The letter he received back was so inspiring that I shared both letters with some of our family. My sister-in-law teaches in Toronto and she shared it with her class and her fellow teachers. What a ripple effect that letter had. It inspired an entire school (plus parents) to think about how they could be better citizens and get more positively involved in their communities. Sometimes sharing a seemingly small thing can make a huge impact on other's lives. Keep up your great work Kerry!!

  2. This is an exceptional blog, Kerry, as is the Math teacher's response to the book. Indeed, it is the "busy work" (e.g., coloring in a sheet full of tiny squares or diamond shapes after an hour of (5th grade) math computation) that throws the parents "over the top" after witnessing the mental exhaustion of our respective child's efforts.

    The (Math) homework (or often Social Studies) does not end with the real homework, as it too often is compounded by the need to color, draw, etc. as an added homework assignment requirement. I can see that the strict 50 minutes for my 4th grader homework last year which was to turn into 60 minutes 5th grade (grade and age appropriate) homework this year somehow has fallen by the wayside. By the time we add together the class assignments, the Science assignment, the (separate) Math teacher assignment, etc., we are well past any 60 minute parameter supposedly set by the district.

    I continue to read your e-mails and postings with thanks that you understand and judging by your e-mail distribution, others get the hardship often imposed on our children after a full day of learning. And no, I haven't ever given up my child's extra curricular violin, dancing, or horseback riding as that is precisely what keeps her (and me) sane after the daily school endeavors and homework sessions.

    Thanks, as always, for your undying dedication to serving as the voice of good sense and concern for our children and fellow parents.

    You are amazing and you are appreciated.

  3. This was a great read, Kerry! As a teacher and tutoring business owner, I know how homework can bog a student down. I believe there is a fine line between bogging a student down and making homework a useful tool to learn certain concepts. Tutors at my tutoring business, On Track Learning in Alamo (, assist students in homework to make sure they are understanding the concepts. Once the concpet is learned and the student is able to prove that he or she understands the concept, the tutor and student move on to study for the upcoming test. The student then has the option to finish his or her homework at the end of the session. This makes for maximum use of the student's time. There is nothing worse than a student who spends time on homework struggling to figure out a concept, fails on learning the concept, then has 50 more problems in their homework that they have to do by the next day. This can be extremely defeating to the student. Having a tutor can drastically cut the time a student spends on their homework as well as make sure the student understands the concept being learned.

    Thanks again, Kerry...I look forward to reading 'Rethinking Homework"

  4. I, too, have been teaching quite a while (17+) years and still learn new things to change and do and try and revise and consider and even just throw out. The one constant in a teacher's life should be change. It's such a dynamic job, teaching and guiding.

    Set high, reasonable, and valid expectations and children will strive towards that goal. Give only purposeful, necessary, interesting homework, and children will not feel it's drudgery, and it will actually be the learning experience it was intended to be.

    The bureaucracy of public school often brings me great frustration, but I try to do the best I can within the confines of state and district standards and guidelines.

    By the way, I am using "The Book Whisperer" by Donalyn Miller as part of the Reading-Writing Cohort in my school to improve the teaching and student achievement of those subjects.

  5. The Book Whisperer is excellent!

    Nice post, and nice response from the teacher.

  6. Walnut creek school district is looking at their homework policy this year. They are having all principals and PTA leaders read this book. Let's hope it inspires a positive outcome for the daily lives of our children who spend hours and hours on homework.

  7. Walnut Creek school District can't change its homework policy fast enough! My son is in Fourth Grade and we take 2 hours every night just to do the homework. Then another 30-60 minutes of reading. He is already tired and grumpy when he gets home from school and wants to unwind (just like us after a long day at work. As for busy work the cutting, pasting, cooring. I'll do it for him because it has no value to what he supposed to learn. He also has "music" homework. Learning to play a recorder has value? He alredy has drum lessons by choice. I am seriously considering homeschool.