high school

Navigating High School Homework Loads

In most schools, a key challenge for high school students is an increased amount of homework, often to the near-exclusion of meaningful free time. ACA, as a rigorous 4-day school, shares this challenge within its upper school. So an important question is: How can students learn to manage a high workload without detrimental effects?

In 2007, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that, on average, US high school students spend 6.8 hours per week on homework, or about 82 minutes per night. For a 4-day school like ACA, not accounting for its accelerated academic standards, that equates to about 1 hour and 42 minutes per night. In ACA's Parent Handbook, our homework policy suggests (pp. 27-29) that 7th-8th grades should target 75 minutes of homework per night, and that 9th-12th graders should target 1.5 - 2.5 hours homework per night, goals that appropriately balance national 5-day averages with ACA's advanced 4-day program.

But not all students have the same abilities, and not all assignments are created equal. This means that struggles with homework loads in upper school are still common. Given that reality, there are a few important ways to approach homework in advanced grades.

Challenging homework prepares students for college-level work, and for the real world. Times of transition are difficult, and upper school begins preparations for adulthood. Students learn to manage decreased levels of rest and free time, as well as increased levels of work and responsibility. This is a challenge, but it is also a gift. Students are trained for independence and self-sufficiency.

Homework should still never be more than is necessary. At ACA, we're keenly aware of the strategic strain our curriculum places on upper school students. Our design is to challenge them, but not to smother them. In assessing our degree of rigor, we look for general, long-term trends in student performance and well-being, and we are committed to limiting assignments to those that are essential for growth.

Upper School students learn flexibility in habits. Ideal workloads never fall into the lap of every student generally. Rather, students must learn to strategize about ways to make their work more efficient. They consider questions such as, How can I make the most of every minute of the day? Are all my materials organized? Do I follow a consistent, inviolable homework routine every day of the year? Am I constantly challenging myself to greater speed and focus? Academic success is in large part a function of productivity, a non-academic metric. Investments into habits and structure pay dividends in terms of accuracy, speed, and retention. 

Upper school students balance long-term excellence with short-term growth adjustments. Sometimes, a short-term loss is a long-term win. If students are struggling with big reading loads or with getting math problem sets done, excellence is not always to dig in, go slower, and spend six hours per night working instead of two. Rather, students learn the appropriateness of setting occasional time limits on assignments. They might aim for total accuracy and speed, but they also bind themselves by the clock. This often results in lower short-term scores while efficiency is built, but over time, greater speed, efficiency, and accuracy are developed. Far from de-prioritizing ACA's standard of academic excellence, these strategies help students appropriately evolve their habits to the changing expectations they are given each year.

Excellence, growth, flexibility, and preparation for independence -- these are a few of the wonderful features of ACA's unique upper school program. Our students work hard, but they are met with treasures at every turn (Ps. 16:11), gifts from a loving Father about his world that will prepare them for a life of service for his kingdom.

Knowledge that Comes Out the Fingertips

Last week, we began a look at ACA's upper school program in grades 7-12, specifically focusing on themes and features via its curriculum. In future weeks, we'll take a look at college preparedness, emotional and developmental features of upper school students, homework loads, and sports and extracurriculars.

Today, I'd like to focus on what the rhetoric stage is within upper school, and what it is not. Most uses of the word "rhetoric" today mean the opposite of what we're after -- today, rhetoric means verbal fluff, smoke, deception. But classical use revives the full historical meaning of the word: honest persuasion in the pursuit of truth.

In this stage of upper school, students learn how to make what they say appealing. This aligns with their maturing developmental phase, which desires respect, recognition, and a clear identity as budding adults. Students are interested in making people believe them -- their friends, mentors, parents, or college admissions officers. This is a phase, but we want them to carry its outlook permanently, like God.  "The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times" (Ps. 12:6).

The rhetoric stage is the capstone of the trivium.  It is the telos of all prior years of study since preschool, the goal, the crown and glory of classical education.  Until this stage is reached, the grammar and logic stages are incomplete preparation -- valuable in their own right, but weakened and compromised without unification.  As a goal, rhetoric is a queen with her crown, the picture of unity, strength, and power.

But this is not just an impractical philosophical beauty. Upper school students still need to get into good colleges for God's glory. So the rhetoric stage is knowledge "coming out the fingertips" in terms of real hard work in math and science, Latin and public speaking, history and theology, art and music, writing and rhetoric. The beauty of the rhetoric stage is a practical beauty.

Further, rhetoric fixes all knowledge to the standard of God's beauty, and it speaks like he speaks.  It writes like he writes, creates like he creates, and loves like he loves. Unless that universal model of beauty is learned, what might happen to knowledge?

Many things, from the silly to the tragic. Without beauty, brilliantly-educated minds give soporific speeches via monotone PowerPoint.  Those that conceived the great cathedrals are gone, and "the architecture of servitude and boredom" (as Russell Kirk once said) produce industrial slums.  The "suicide art" of Jackson Pollock and the "Piss Christ" of Andres Serrano are hailed as masterpieces.  The ruling elite see the stunning magic of the infant human form as inventory to be chopped up and sold to the highest bidder.  And if there is no beauty, no standard for loveliness, who are we to object?  Let our children use their classically-educated minds to find their own truth.

But the earth is full of God's glory, and it is crying unending praise to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  What is all our knowledge and logic without the living Word?  What is beauty without the glory of Christ?  What is love without incarnate Love?  We lay all our learning at his feet -- from grammar to logic to rhetoric and beyond -- in recognition that he is the author and finisher of all.