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Is study hall so bad?

Cynical, inaccurate metaphor for public education, used here to provide questionable humor and graphical interest. Photo credit: Flickr/Joost J. Bakker

In one of the near-daily local newspaper articles lamenting the abysmal state of school funding, I learned that our high schools no longer have enough money to pay certified teachers to teach eight periods per day. Instead, most students must take one period of “study hall:” 90 minutes sitting in the gym with, in some cases, 200 other students, and a patrolling campus security officer.

Many parents are aghast at the “wasted time.” I find myself wondering why everyone’s so upset.

My oldest child is still three years away from high school, so perhaps it’s too easy for me to comment on what is still a far-off reality. Perhaps, when my kid hits freshman year I’ll be as outraged as the next parent. But I don’t think so.

Why would any parent mind if their kids had time each day to finish their schoolwork, leaving the rest of the day for rest, friends and family? I would much rather hang out with my kids after dinner, maybe play a game or watch a show together, or encourage their friendships, than preside over the nightly homework ritual.

The scarcest commodity for kids and families these days isn’t academic work, it’s time. Time to eat dinner together, or to play a little ball or guitar or Wii after school, or to process a school-day’s worth of learning, or to dream big dreams, or to sleep. All of these things — family connection, sleep, good nutrition, stress reduction, down time — are a crucial part of the learning process. And yet most of those things gets eaten up by homework. (And after-school activities, I know, but I think a few hours of soccer per week wouldn’t put families over the edge if there weren’t also so much homework.)

Obviously lack of school funding is a huge problem. That schools are backed into this corner is a travesty. But there’s a silver lining in this particular case many parents are refusing to see.

My perspective on education and learning is admittedly broader than it was a few years ago. I’ve just come off of a year-and-a-half of homeschooling my son. And I’ve seen how learning can look when the constraints of time and anxiety are taken away. There’s a joy and creativity that comes with time, both time to study and time to play. And that’s true for kids of all ages.

People also underestimate just how much time one needs with an older kid to keep those family connections strong. Conversations may be few and far between, and it takes plenty of empty space to create the right opportunity.

I’m not suggesting that kids’ lives should be stress-free. Challenge causes stress, and each hurdle kids jump helps them grow in strength and confidence. But there’s a line where stress crosses over into chronic anxiety; where too much work, not enough rest and recreation, and compromised nutrition drive kids’ abilities down. We all know how workaholism and stress affects us — why should we think it’s “character-building” for our kids? Is this how we want them to prepare for adulthood?

I think there’s another possible benefit to study hall. I’m sure we could all imagine stereotypical teenage pandemonium: paper airplanes flying, cell phones beeping, and nary a book being cracked. But I could also see this as a time when kids finally get to talk to each other, collaborate on schoolwork, and learn outside the structures of the classroom. After all, this is what they’ll be doing in college, and in their future workplaces.

Perhaps I’m just a naive parent of a kid who’s not yet hit puberty. I may read this in four years and shake my head at my own foolishness. But, to me, the time kids “waste” in study hall is time they get back after school for the real business of learning and life.

What’s happening in your town’s schools? Are you seeing the same trend toward study halls or shortened school days? What’s your take?

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