Brian Platzer & Abby Freireich, TAKING THE STRESS OUT OF HOMEWORK

Brian Platzer & Abby Freireich, TAKING THE STRESS OUT OF HOMEWORK

Zibby is joined by Brian Platzer and Abby Freireich, two Manhattan teachers who also run New York’s only tutoring company fully staffed by professional classroom teachers, to talk about their new book, Taking the Stress Out of Homework. Brian and Abby share their top tips for how parents can assist with homework in non-invasive ways, the importance of teaching young students how to back-plan their schedules, and why their book doesn’t offer a one-size-fits-all approach to learning.


Zibby Owens: Hi, everybody. I’m here today with some special guests on this IG Live. This is Brian Platzer and Abby Freireich. Is that right?

Abby Freireich: Hi. Freireich, yep.

Zibby: Freireich, okay. They wrote Taking the Stress Out of Homework, which I’m going to show you up close. Taking the Stress Out of Homework, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer, you definitely need this book at the start of school. They are going to tell you all about it. I hope you can hear us. If you can’t hear, put something in the comments. I can barely see it. Anyway, Taking the Stress Out of Homework. Brian, I interviewed last year for his novel, The Body Politic.

Brian Platzer: Good to see you all again.

Zibby: They are both teachers. They’re going to tell you a little bit more about themselves and their amazing tutoring business. I’m sure someone out there is going to need a tutor soon, so this will be a big marketing ploy for them.

Brian: Thank you so much. It’s so thrilling to be with you in person after talking to you last time. We are both educators. I currently teach eighth and twelfth grade in downtown Manhattan. Abby taught for a long time. She’ll tell you about that. We run New York’s only tutoring company where all the tutors are professional classroom teachers. It’s called Teachers Who Tutor. We work with students from kindergarten up through twelfth grade in all subjects, executive function, etc. We wrote this book, Taking the Stress Out of Homework, because for all of you folks out there who don’t have access with tutors or who find yourself alone with your kids struggling to know what to do and how to do it and what to do it and how to talk to them if they don’t scream at you and how to actually be helpful and set up students to become autonomous, independent learners, we wanted to create a how-to manual, essentially. Taking the Stress Out of Homework is that manual.

Zibby: Someone is asking in the chat, by the way, who is the girl in the white shirt?

Abby: Oh, that’s me. Sorry. That’s very flattering. I’m Abby Freireich. Brian and I taught together for years in New York City. I taught third and fourth grades. I now tutor and have tutored for the past almost twenty years now, kindergartners through twelfth graders across subjects. Brian and I saw a need to create a tutoring organization comprised of teachers, so there’s actually educators working with students, and to write this book, Taking the Stress Out of Homework, which has a whole new kind of meaning during COVID when parents, for the last year and a half, have really become, on the front lines, teachers at home while the teachers are teaching them remotely, for those of us who had kids learning at home. We really wrote Taking the Stress Out of Homework to help make clear to all parents, the process of how to educate your kids from an organization standpoint that can then help with content across subjects.

Zibby: When I heard that this was the title of your book, I think that I was in the midst of an American history study session with my daughter. I have been helping her by — we make review sheets together because that’s how I used to learn myself. I’ve been trying to teach her my ways. Half the time, she’s like, “No, thank you,” and sometimes she thinks work. Sometimes I draw little pictures. I’m like, “Okay, this is the boat.” She’s like, “What’s that?” I’m like, “That’s the war. That’s the dead person.” I know there are better ways than the way that I have been doing it.

Brian: No, drawing a picture of the dead, every assignment needs one.

Zibby: You do what you got to do.

Abby: I think so much of what happens nowadays is that kids are trying to learn everything virtually.

Zibby: I’ll show everybody the book again while we’re here. Taking the Stress Out of Homework, this is what we’re talking about. Okay, keep going.

Abby: Kids are trying to do everything through technology. Parents are like, wait, you have to do this the way I did way back when in 1850. It’s sort of a combination of those two pieces working together. What we really set out to do is to give parents a roadmap in terms of study skills. For example, one of the most important things that all of our students really need to learn how to do, whether they are in fourth grade or tenth grade, is to back-plan and to organize. If there’s a test two weeks away, a lot of kids, on Thursday, will start studying for a test on Friday. Then it will become high drama and meltdowns and kids saying, I can’t do this. It’s system overload. So much of this time of year is thinking about, how can we set frameworks to help our kids be successful? To really back-plan and to say, okay, if there’s a test in a couple of weeks, we’re going to, on Monday, start by reading over the material. On Tuesday, we’ll break it down into different parts and then cumulatively review the material so that it isn’t just the night before where kids open the book for the first time.

Zibby: Interesting. How involved should parents be in their kids’ homework?

Abby: That is an excellent question. I think it really depends on the child. It depends on the parent. In general, what I would say is the role of parents is to help support their kids. It’s not parents’ homework. Often, parents — we care so much about our kids. We want them to be successful. You can watch your kids make a mistake. It’s okay for them to make that mistake. You should never put pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard. You should always help support your child wherever he or she is. If you see that they really don’t understand a concept, you can certainly ask them a question to help clarify, but you should never just tell them the answers. If you have a child who’s feeling anxious, what you might do is say, why don’t you put a star on your homework and ask your teacher or write a note there and ask them in the morning? It’s really to help your kids learn to advocate for themselves rather than have them feel that you’re being critical or doubting their abilities. That’s when homework can become a tricky and tense area, I think especially in middle school.

Brian: We’re also big believers in that one size really does not fit all. What we want to make clear in the book is that we’re giving out dozens of strategies when it comes to organization or writing an essay or planning for a math test. Chances are your kid’s going to roll their eyes at some of them. They’re going to push back at some. They’re going to say it doesn’t make sense. If one or two or three stick and then become part of the process, that’s really all we’re looking for. We also believe that when it comes to parental involvement, being involved on the early side in terms of organization and creating systems, that’s really when parental help can be the most beneficial. If you can create a world where students, from fourth grade, third grade, all the way up through twelfth and then college, get accustomed to writing checklists and everything they need to do for that night to then adding to those checklists, the back-planning that Abby was talking about earlier, then maybe creating a calendar where they can see for that month, what needs to be done when and how to prioritize certain assignments now or to take care of the more-intimidating tasks earlier on, once all of that is internalized by the student, the actual doing of the work becomes a lot less stressful and a lot less leading to the antagonism as opposed to if you leave it to the last minute. Then the lab report is due tomorrow. You sit down with your kids. You’re like, why didn’t you do the lab report? They’re like, I don’t know why I didn’t do the lab report. That’s when it’s just not going to work out. We are big believers in parental involvement in terms of modeling the best ways to deal with tasks that start to overflow, creating systems that can be implemented, and then only getting involved when students come to their parents and say, do you mind looking this over for me? If I could have another eye on this, I’m struggling with math, do you mind? Anything more can feel more detrimental to the process than beneficial.

Zibby: This is taking me back to college. I’m just showing the book one more time. Taking the Stress out of Homework, everybody needs this book. In college, I used to have so much work that I would make timelines every night, five to eleven, or something. Five to five thirty, this. Then take a break. Then this. Then dinner. I used to write it all out. It’s ridiculous, actually.

Abby: Actually, it’s a great way to do it.

Brian: It’s ridiculous for some people and absolutely necessary for others. Some students, if they don’t write that list, then they do all the fun stuff first. They write the emails to friends. They buy the new soccer cleats on Amazon. Then maybe they know they’re good at math, so they do the math. Then it’s eleven o’clock, and they still haven’t started that history term paper. They have a panic attack. If they don’t have that list, it’s all chaotic. If you do have a list, you can then know yourself well enough to manage how to check those items off. It’s fun to check items off a list. That sense of accomplishment is part of the dorky pleasure that you need to imbue home and study skills with.

Zibby: I actually think I might start doing this again.

Abby: I think it’s a great idea.

Zibby: An hour of email, an hour of writing.

Brian: Totally. Abby is such a whiteboard fetishist.

Abby: I know. I love whiteboards. It’s true. I actually have a big adhesive post-it whiteboard right in our kitchen where we write down if there’s certain things that my husband or I or the kids have to remember. We all have Expo markers. We write it down. It’s a great way to figure out what needs to be done and to have it be visible. One of the challenges that kids have now is that planners, so many of them, are online. The school assignment center is online. When it’s just in a computer and you open it up on an iPad, it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind. When kids write it down, they can really internalize, what is it that I have to do to get from point A to point B? Then in addition, as Brian was saying, what’s so important in terms of prioritizing and figuring out what the tasks are is to start with what’s hardest first, which is so counterintuitive for kids. They just want to do the fun thing first. Actually, they have the most energy earlier in the day. Dessert, you eat after dinner. You eat your vegetable first. It’s the same thing with, whatever’s easiest, they should do last instead of first. By making a list of what they have to do each night on a whiteboard or wherever is visible, it’s the easiest way for them to number the tasks starting with whatever’s hardest first.

Brian: Although it might be counterintuitive, that feeling of relief we see in especially middle-school and high-school kids when they do finish the lab report, if that’s the most intimidating task, is just so profound. They get to then relax and do all the fun stuff. Knowing in the back of their head there’s still this task up ahead that they’re dreading, that is intimidating, that is awful at the end, it makes the rest of those hours miserable. If they can take care of the harder thing in the beginning, then the rest of their time feels more their own than something scary they’re working towards.

Abby: The idea is that homework is kind of, in miniature, supposed to set kids up for what they’re going to encounter as adults where all of us have multiple responsibilities or tasks that we have to accomplish. We have to figure out, we have X amount of time, how are we going to accomplish this set of goals? The idea for parents is to help your kids figure out how to do that and to make the process explicit so that they can then feel confident in managing tasks both as kids and when they become older too.

Zibby: So there is a point to homework.

Abby: Yes, there is indeed a point to homework.

Zibby: I was always wondering.

Abby: Beyond memorizing dates or that kind of route information, it’s actually the process of having to figure out how to manage multiple assignments when you have soccer practice or drama rehearsal or all these various responsibilities, how to put it all together and make it work.

Brian: You’re right. Homework for the sake of homework is abusive. It’s just awful. You know. Everybody still remembers their own teachers or their kids’ teachers who were like — really? We need to do a hundred sample problems just to give the sense that my class is hard? That’s useless homework. The useful homework are —

Brian Platzer & Abby Freireich, TAKING THE STRESS OUT OF HOMEWORK

TAKING THE STRESS OUT OF HOMEWORK by Brian Platzer & Abby Freireich

Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts