When homework is too much work

Originally written for Gulf News Opinion http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/when-homework-is-too-much-work-1.1501443

Published: 17:33 April 29, 2015

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My nephew — let’s call him Saad — is a cool sixth grader. He has gleaming bright eyes, a dashing smile and karate expertise that has fetched him medals and trophies.

He is quick-witted, intelligent and playful and is also an excellent artist who sketches, colours and paints with amazing skill. It is always a pleasure to sit down and talk to him or play with him. But when I visited Pakistan this time to see him, I found his inherent spark missing.

He was hunched over his study table, bored and uninterested. Lots of books were strewn around the table as he absentmindedly doodled on his maths homework book with a perfectly sharpened pencil. On closer inspection, I found him sketching a suit of armour. There wasn’t the usual excitement on seeing me, there wasn’t the expected discussion on the woes of the Pakistan cricket team — instead my nephew just gestured towards his books and said the one dreaded word: “Homework”.

As I went through Saad’s books, I was staggered by the amount of homework this 12-year-old is expected to complete. On a given day, Saad gets three-four books that require doing extensive, exhaustive homework and at least four more that require revision.

His final exams are due to start soon and that effectively means putting a sixth grader’s life to an end. Surely, homework will help him achieve better grades, right? Research, however, portrays contrary findings.

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and a co-author of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Education, has found that too much homework may have negative effects on the well-being and behaviour of students.

This study, quoted on CNN, Healthline.com and various other prestigious publications, claims that excessive homework is associated with high stress levels, physical health problems and lack of balance in children’s lives.

A total of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class American communities were a part of this research and a whopping 56 per cent cited homework as a primary cause of stress.

Pope’s study concluded that excessive homework could be ineffective and counterproductive. When questioned on how much homework is optimum, she replied: “In high school, nothing over two hours. In middle school, no more than 90 minutes. As for elementary school, there is no correlation between homework and academic achievement.”

Crucial social skills

Inundated with homework, a child such as Saad has precious little time left to polish skills such as karate, cricket and football and he hardly finds time to mingle with friends and build crucial social skills. One cannot help but feel for a child who has just spent five or six hours at school studying and is expected to still do more of the same at home.

Moreover, Huffington Post reports that Richard Walker, an educational psychologist at Sydney University carried out research that shows that in countries where more time is spent on homework, students score lower on a standardised test called the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

Walker, author of the book Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) found that homework only boosts students’ academic performance during their last three years of grade school. The same basic finding holds true across the globe, according to Gerald LeTendre of Pennsylvania State University.

If the undesirable effects of homework are so conclusively proven, why do schools all over the world continue to mete out loads of homework to students everyday? As with everything, there are two sides to the story. Homework is actually meant to be helpful and is given so students can practice the concepts taught in class, build good study habits and reflect on their own learning. Indeed, it can even be fun if you like what you are doing.

But for my nephew Saad, homework seems like anything but fun. The pressure to get above average grades is weighing him down. As I leaf through his books, I cannot help but feel that we take away our children’s childhood way before they grow up. Studying becomes all stress — it is no longer about learning, quelling your curiosity and certainly not about having a good time.

As a child, I remember feeling the same pressure that Saad is going through now and I wonder: when will things change? As my girls grow older, and they start going to school in the next few years, I hope that school life for them will be rewarding and fun, full of great experiences, and that their focus will be on learning, not studying.

Writing for the right reasons

Originally written Gulf News ‘Off the Cuff’ http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/writing-for-the-right-reasons-1.1481146

Published: 21:03 March 28, 2015

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If I were to pick a single reason as to why I worked extra hard in essay writing class back in school, I wouldn’t be able to. Maybe it was the fact that writing was pretty much the only thing I could do well in in school without extra help, or perhaps it was the fact that my teacher inspired me. It could even be the simple reason that every week, my marks were put on the soft board because I had topped — again.

Writing had always been a hobby. Sometimes I scribbled into my diary late into the night because life was unfair, and at times I couldn’t stop writing because life inspired me. I wanted to write my heart out. And like all those who are in the creative field, I desperately wanted to be out there. More than anything I wanted to be read.

Validation came a few years later when I was 19, and one editor back home in Pakistan finally published me. The byline. Oh God, the byline. My name in print. And under it were my words neatly paragraphed in black and white, out there for everyone to see! One thing led to another, and when the wonderful editor at Gulf News agreed to read my work, I couldn’t stop smiling for days.

Liberating experience

I remember not being able to sleep at night because I knew the paper would carry my article the following day, and I remember pouncing on the paper early next morning when the delivery guy left it at the door, opening it at the right section and almost dancing in excitement at finding myself inside. It’s been nine years since I wrote my first column for this section and I can’t help but marvel at how greatly my motivation has changed over the years.

From the hopeful writer eagerly seeking substantiation and recognition from the world, I have matured into a woman who realises just how much power the written word can have. Writing can be painfully narcissistic and self-centred if it is not done with the right intentions. When you’re only writing for likes and comments, the absence of those — as will often happen — can punch a hole through your heart. But when you write for the right reasons, it becomes a whole new liberating experience.

I’m not sure when the byline thrill was replaced by a deep sense of social responsibility, a realisation that I needed to make a meaningful contribution no matter how minuscule it may be. From the careless blogger who put up anything online and revelled with every like, comment and share, I’ve changed into someone who thinks long and hard before publishing anything even on my free online blog.

How many times does it happen that you read about something in the paper or online and begin thinking differently about it? I for one have often come across an article on a certain topic and altered my thinking and actions according to it. We don’t realise it, but anything that gets ‘published’ whether online or in print can have a great impact on people.

Sense of accountability

As a writer, that just doubles the sense of accountability you feel. You don’t want to let your readers down; you want to write something useful and/or profound. As the years go by, you also begin to wonder what your children would think if they read your work. My older one is a voracious reader and devours just about anything she can get her hands on. One day I might not be around anymore, but thanks to the web, my work will be. Would the girls read it after I’m gone and think I messed up? Or that I said something I shouldn’t have? And if I have nearly 800 words at my disposal, do I not have an unspoken trust to use that space to the best of my ability, and write something that brings about a change for the better? Sure, I can’t change the world with my writing, but every drop in the ocean counts, right?

With these powerful emotions rampaging around in my brain, the flair and ease of old times deserts me. That, dear readers, would explain my absence from this column for the past few months. For someone who thrives on writing like fish thrive on water, the experience has been extremely frustrating but it has certainly helped me refresh my intentions. And as I sign off after having written this with some kind of flow, dare I hope the flair is back?

Perils of smartphones

Originally written for Gulf News ‘Off the Cuff’ http://gulfnews.com/opinion/off-cuff/perils-of-smartphones-1.1431938

Published: 16:14 December 25, 2014

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Hi. My name is Mehmudah and I’m an addict. I’m hopelessly and irrevocably addicted to my iPhone. When the first generation iPhone was released years ago, I didn’t think I would ever give up my trusty black Nokia. The excitement over the touch-screen seemed to be exaggerated, to be honest. With the passage of time, however, everyone around me acquired the device and slowly but surely, Apple products began appealing to me.

The iPhone and the iPad (or indeed my Mac on which I type this article) looked like a chiselled pieces of art, powerful and perfect in every way, with no clutter whatsoever, neither in the design, nor in the operating system. The iPhone felt right, minimalistic and just … cool. So like millions of people in the world, I switched to Apple. That’s how it all began.

From the obvious usage of phone calls and texting, I began relying on the phone for everything. If I ever went out without it, I felt incomplete, like I’d forgotten a part of me at home. I was glued to it for maps, songs, email, photos, notes, even my food diary and prayer timings! The phone became indispensable. And so it went on for many years until the realisation that over-reliance on anything is not good struck me and I landed from my Apple cloud back to earth with a hard, jolting thud.

I can almost hear you saying: “Right – you’re addicted to your phone, how is that an unusual thing? Why do you even sound embarrassed about it? How many people in the world do you know who are not addicted to their phones? What’s the problem with it anyway?”

Ever heard that quote — if it’s too good to be true, it probably is? Having everything on your fingertips in an eye-catching gadget comes with some serious costs, not the least of which is that the cell phone culture is affecting our children in a way much more serious than we think.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer identified the smartphone as possibly carcinogenic to human beings. According to the National Cancer Institute in the US, cell phones emit radiofrequency energy, a form of non-ionising electromagnetic radiation, which can be absorbed by tissues closest to where the phone is held. Even when we are not talking or texting, a cell phone is constantly connecting itself — to the phone carrier, to the internet, or to Bluetooth. Our iPads, computers and wireless routers all release these electromagnetic radiations too, making them all potentially dangerous, especially for our children.

WebMD.com reports: Mobile phones use electromagnetic radiation in the microwave range. The Environmentalist Health Trust reviewed cell phone exposure studies from 2009 to 2014 and concluded that the rate of MWR (microwave rays) absorption is higher in children than adults because their brain tissues are more absorbent, their skulls are thinner and their relative size is smaller. Foetuses are particularly vulnerable, because MWR exposure can lead to degeneration of the protective sheath that surrounds brain neurons. Belgium, France, India and other technologically sophisticated governments are passing laws and/or issuing warnings about children’s use of wireless devices.

In addition to that, the Yale School of Medicine researchers have determined that exposure to radiation from cell phones during pregnancy affects the brain development of offspring, potentially leading to hyperactivity.

All this information is truly worrying because we can hardly control the amount of radiations our children are exposed to, day in and day out — at home, in school, even in the malls! Here we were, buying the most educational, guilt-free apps for our children on the phones and tablets, thinking they might play and learn, but the truth is every time they plop down in front of the device, they are exposed to harmful rays and are missing out on an opportunity to have a real conversation or play an actual game that utilises their physical and mental capabilities. Thanks to these (not-so-smart) devices, chances to benefit from sunlight and fresh air go a-begging.

So my resolution for 2015? Be the ‘smart’ mum. Detox my life from technology as much as possible and give the family a clean, pure environment, with the least electromagnetic radiation possible, and perhaps even give up the iPhone (gasp!) for a simpler device proven to release less toxic waves. Join me?

Google — can’t live with it, can’t live without it!

Originally written for Gulf News ‘Off the Cuff’ http://gulfnews.com/opinion/off-cuff/google-can-t-live-with-it-can-t-live-without-it-1.1420358

Published: 20:00 November 30, 2014google.png

A box like computer sat in the back of the living room, and all of us crowded around the spanking new Pentium 4. Dad glowed with joy as he told us about everything it could do and it looked as though Dad himself had created the superfast RAM. And would you believe the computer came with an HP scanner? Not many people had scanners back then, and we put our silly drawings in it just for the sake of seeing them get scanned. The mysterious lighting up of the scanner was delightful, and we would lift the cover and peek inside. But the best thing about it by far was the internet!

You could hear the dial-tone as the computer would connect to the internet via the telephone line. The line would buzz and whirr and there would be an air of expectation. Would we get connected? Oh yes! We were connected to the World Wide Web! And the rest, as they say, is history.

Today the computer, and in particular Google knows everything about me, from what movies I like, to what has been making me curious lately. When I type “How to” in the search bar on my phone, Google automatically throws up suggestions such as “how to soothe a crying baby”. Coincidence? I think not. And guess what? Intuitive as it is, Google is usually right — by my personal estimation – a staggering 90 per cent of the time.

Unobtrusively, inconspicuously, Google has been retaining every little detail about me. And about you. From the annoying videos about foreign exchange that pop up when I watch a cricket match online, to the “Charlie bit my finger” video the girls played about a hundred times, Google has it all on database.

We don’t really think much about it, do we? When I typed in “is painting my house harmful for baby?” Google showed me exactly what I wanted to know. But the next time when I was online guess what the advertisements were about? Child-safe paints from the UK. So suddenly Google knows (and remembers!) that I have a baby and am thinking about painting my house! And because I am practically addicted to and fully reliant on Google Maps for navigation (think lots of driving with not the best sense of road geography) Google knows exactly where I conducted those searches from, and what places I am likely to frequent. So it shows me stuff nearer to me. Convenient? Yes. But creepy? Definitely. And an invasion of my privacy? Most certainly!

It’s like walking into a mall, saying “Where’s the…” At these words, the sales staff pre-empt my question (usually correctly) and find me what I’m looking for, in the store that I like, in the size I need, in the colour I prefer and in the budget I have and offer to deliver it home because they know exactly where I live. All very well, but throws you off, doesn’t it? And it doesn’t just end there. My recent shopping on Amazon.com (and the searches that led to it) had Amazon very thoughtfully nominate me for “Amazon Mom”, so that I could avail interesting deals and discounts on baby stuff. Thanks Amazon, but is there no end to the amount of data you have on me?

My reasons for aversion to social media such as Facebook and Twitter include (but are not limited to) those mentioned above. Imagine, if I were on Facebook, how much more information about me would be saved in some far away megabytes in Silicon Valley? Have you ever wondered about just how much power these organisations have over us? And what could (God forbid!) happen if all this information fell into the wrong hands?

How well are you doing as a parent?

Originally written for Gulf News Opinion http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/how-well-are-you-doing-as-a-parent-1.1400528

Published: 20:00 October 18, 2014

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If your child is not a black belt in judo, is not twirling on her tiptoes in ballet with perfect balance, does not excel in sports, will not become the next Picasso anytime soon, does not do particularly well in Maths and Science, is not standing for the student council, and does not speak at least four languages flawlessly, shame on you. But on the contrary, if your child is doing all of the above, well done! You and you alone fit the title of the ‘perfect parent’.

And if you don’t mind my saying so, stop right here. You want nothing to do with this article. You would be well advised to spend your time driving your child to the next extra-curricular activity, preferably in your gym gear (it’s the cool thing these days — to look like you just came from the gym or are heading there, in order make your already svelte figure even more breathtaking). This piece is for lesser individuals like myself, those parents that fall in the former category, and struggle in every walk of life.

They struggle to make ends meet because the bills never end, they sometimes lose their sanity and their temper and wish they could give their children more quality time. They don’t always feed their children organic GMO-free food and their kids are regular users of that nasty, addictive thing the iPad. Their little ones regularly fight amongst themselves, and their school grades depend largely on how much you, their parent helped them with their studies.

It all began with a text from a friend. It read: “OMG OMG OMG!! ‘So-and-so’s’ kids are such super achievers! They play soccer and basketball, they speak excellent Arabic and Spanish, and have such delightful manners! What’s more, they top in school and they never fight! Where did I go wrong?”

Feeling uncomfortable

This text was followed by a number of other texts lamenting this friend’s own ability to bring up her children and how so-and-so’s children were oh-so-wonderful. Naturally, my instinct was of course, to think about my own children. And the fact that they do not qualify on most of the counts mentioned in the beginning of this article, I began feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

Children that have straight A’s and excel at a number of other things are surely a source of pride for their parents and receive admiration from peers. But does that necessarily hint towards excellent upbringing? And those children that don’t achieve quite as much, and never look like they will later in life — did their parents make a mess of things?

Parenting is a labour of love. When we prepare a meal for our children and help them eat it, pick them up from school, play with them and take them out for the occasional treat, we are doing much more than just everyday activities. We are setting examples for them, teaching them how to form relationships and instilling a sense of security in their hearts.

When we talk to them, or simply listen to their long-winded stories about how they got hurt in the playground, and ask appropriate questions, we are probably fulfilling the most essential requirement of parenting — giving them attention. Those children who grow up happy and loved might never conquer the world but they would surely be a wonderful addition to it. I am not underestimating the significance of good grades and extra curricular activities, but I am merely stating that they are not all-important and not the only measure of success for a child and their parent.

To each his own — every mother and father loves their child and wants the best for them. As for me, I know one thing. If I manage to raise decent individuals who can make good decisions and know the difference between right and wrong I might not have done such a bad job after all. My girls might not be childhood (or adulthood) prodigies by any stretch of the imagination, but if they have that deep-rooted sense of self-esteem that nothing can shake and the strength to be positive, to smile and give thanks at every juncture of life, I will hold my head up high.

 

A clean house, a wasted life?

Originally written for Gulf News “Off the Cuff” Published: 20:00 September 23, 2014Gulf News

http://gulfnews.com/opinion/off-cuff/a-clean-house-a-wasted-life-1.1389008

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“Mum, can we play Donkey?” she asks me, with a brightly-coloured beach ball in hand. (If you’re not familiar with this game, it’s playing catch-ball. When you drop the ball, you get a “D”. And the next catch you drop, you get an “O” and so on. The person who ‘becomes’ donkey last wins.) I give her a look of indignation and roll my eyes. I look around the house. There are dirty dishes lying in the sink and hampers overflowing with laundry that needs doing. The living room is strewn with toys and I stepped on a stray Lego piece not too long ago. In my arms is the baby who is dozing off at last. ‘Her Royal Highness’ has kept me up for the better part of the night and even after my caffeine fix I feel woozy. My arms are sore from carrying her for what seems like forever.

“Moooom!” my older one says again, this time tapping at my knee. I put a finger to my lips and point to the baby. What do I tell this little girl, who of all the things in the world, wants to play ‘donkey’ right now? A part of me is beyond frustrated — I am not exactly happy with the toys that weren’t tidied up and the banana that looks impossibly mouldy because it’s been sitting on the dining table for a very long time, left there by someone who seemed to have forgotten all about it and wants to play ball. Do I show how upset I am and get the children to clean up first? Or do I nap because the baby is sleeping? Or do I leave the baby in the room and play? Decisions, decisions.

I don’t know if it is guilt for not giving my older children enough time, or if I am just plain crazy, but I abandon “Operation Cleanup” for now and forget about the nap I’ve been longing to take. I place the baby in her crib and pat her for a bit. When I am certain that she is sleeping comfortably, I walk outside, smile and say, “Ready for the game?”

The children scurry around in excitement and take their positions. We are soon at it, right there in the living room, which is not the most opportune place for playing ‘donkey’. We hit the frames on the walls, and the TV, (but not the vase, whew!) and the beach ball doesn’t really do much harm. The girls appear thrilled. In spite of myself I can’t help thinking: When was the last time I played with my children?

Life is going by fast. It seems like only yesterday my older ones were babies and I took their presence for granted. But now all I have is photos and memories of the first steps, the mashed food and the sleepy smiles. And then it hits me — this stage of life won’t last forever, either. Before I know it, they will leave their childhood far behind and I will have teenagers (scary!) to deal with. Everything that’s happening now will be just a memory.

What do I want them to remember? A permanently harried mum who always made a big deal if the house wasn’t spick and span, or if the car was left dirty? My bad moods because I was tired? Or a person they just genuinely liked and loved spending time with? The answer is a no-brainer.

What I feel right now is a distinct twinge of regret. Why didn’t I enjoy their babyhood more? Why did I treat my responsibilities as a chore and not as something to look forward to? And why is it that I’m letting their childhood slide by with the exact same attitude? Why don’t I create more happy memories? Why don’t I savour these moments more and worry about the living room a little less? Perhaps the quote ‘A clean house is the sign of a wasted life’ might have a grain of truth in it, after all.

I can’t tell you how relieved I am that they’re still around and still feign tears when they fall and I know they’re not really hurt but I cuddle them all the same. The girls chatter nonstop on the way back from school and want to tell me everything about the day and fight for my attention. I’m glad things are the way they are.

 

Reflections on being a mother again

Originally written for Gulf News: http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/reflections-on-being-a-mother-again-1.1376023

Published August 2014

She gazes at me with rapt attention, her coal black eyes fixed on me. Her brow is furrowed, as though she is trying to figure out what this strange new place is. It’s a beautiful moment of bonding with her in my arms, her tiny body curled up against me. I can smell her wonderful newborn smell, and as she rubs her face against my cheek there are no words necessary between the two of us. It is love, a love so powerful, so profound that I can feel it within me.

This infant owns my heart, my soul. The tough nine months of pregnancy are long-forgotten, and the labour feels like a distant dream. I have her to hold, her to call my own. A little friend, someone I need as much as she needs me. I put her down and examine her face, trying to memorise every single thing about her. She begins to cry and I let her. For a few moments, I listen to the sound of her crying, mesmerised, before I lift her into my arms again. I feel blessed, so blessed to have become a mother again.

No one said it was going to be easy, and it isn’t. Being a parent is a beautiful, bittersweet journey, and no juncture in it is free of concern and worry. It is governed by an overwhelming feeling of love and affection, and it is something just about all the people in the world understand and experience, either as parents, or as children, or even as favourite caregivers. We do everything we can for our children, and nothing makes us happier than to see them safe, happy and thriving. Their wellbeing — it goes without saying becomes our number one priority in life. And all those years ago, when I was born, it must have been my mother’s too.

I must have become the centre of my mother’s life as soon as I was born, in fact even before it. My timings of eating and sleeping would have dictated hers, and every time I cried helplessly she would have been there for me. And just as I am the most important figure in my daughter’s life right now, my mother would have been in mine.

Lingering memory

As I grew older, her appreciation, advice and guidance meant everything to me. But now as I am busy playing the role of a mother myself, I wonder about my own mother, forgotten, gone to a better place. She doesn’t feature in my life except as a lingering memory, or through an occasional dream. The woman who did everything for me and loved me only as a mother can — I can now do little more for her than pray for her. It is only after becoming parents ourselves that we realise just what our parents did for us. My father too, did everything he could to shape me into the person I am today. The man who celebrated my first steps, snapped photos of me when I smiled in my sleep as a baby and was generally just a great father — why is it that I don’t visit or call him more often? Am I so busy being a parent that I’ve forgotten my own?

How I wish I could hold my mother’s hands one more time, hug her and tell her I love her. What wouldn’t I give to see the expression on her face when she met the baby? And my Dad? I feel fortunate that he’s around. It’s time to call home.

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