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Needham brings back one-night homework ban as town goes unplugged

Posted by Kristi Palma  March 20, 2013 12:00 PM

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Needham Youth Services

The Stevens family of Needham is breathing a sigh of relief. That's because their town has banned homework Thursday night. It's all part of a program called Needham Unplugged, which encourages Needham families to put down their electronic devices to spend quality time with each other. The highlight of the month-long program, which takes place each March, is "No Nomework & No Meeting Night." During this time, there is no homework, sports, activities, town meetings, and virtually all community and religious meetings are banned.

"I have to be honest, I think people are most excited about no homework night," said Julie Stevens, who has five girls, ages 7, 9, 11, 13, and 14 -- totaling a lot of homework. Stevens said homework takes up much of their weeknights after dinner, and sometimes they are up finishing it as late as 11 p.m.

"I feel like there are very few times when we’re all here with nothing that we have to get to or be working on," said Stevens. "The fact that the pressure is off for one night is wonderful."

She is hoping her family can spend quality time together playing a game after dinner. Jon Mattleman, director of Needham Youth Services and a father of two, began the program 12 years ago.

"On the 21st of March we’re heroes because we have no homework," said Mattleman with a laugh. "I can’t say we’re heroes any other day."

But the program is about much more than banning homework. There is a calendar of events families can follow all month long, with suggestions for unplugged activities, such as playing a board game, volunteering as a family, or drawing portraits of each other without looking at the paper. Needham Youth Services teamed up with the YMCA to offer free swimming to families on Sundays and free family workouts on Fridays. And there is also a Social Networking-Free Thursday (March 7), an Email-Free Friday (March 15), and a Text-Free Tuesday that will take place March 26.

Stevens said her three oldest girls have cell phones and she is going to enforce the no-texting rule Tuesday. Will she be met with resistance from her tween and teens?
"Since it’s only one day, I don’t think so," said Stevens. "If it were a longer period of time, I’m sure. But I think they can handle one day. In fact, I’ve thought of just holding onto the phones for a day. We’ll see."

While he doesn't have statistics for how many people follow the program, Mattleman said the proof is in the feedback he gets from parents -- and his ringing phone on Email-Free Friday.

"Interestingly enough, on Email-Free Friday every year I get the most amount of phone calls," Mattleman said.

Parents call him in September to find out when the No Homework & No Meeting Night is, said Mattleman, because they are planning their schedules and don't want to schedule anything for that night.

"The feedback we get from parents is, 'This is fantastic,'" said Mattleman.

And the feedback from teachers who are told they can't assign homework? In the very beginning, the teachers resisted the no homework rule, Mattleman said. But the school district was immediately supportive and the teachers became supportive, too.

David Bookston is a Needham High math teacher who has taught in the district for 16 years and has participated in the unplugged program from the beginning. He thinks the program is "wonderful."

"I always encourage my students on no homework night to try to spend some time with people they are close to by going for a walk, playing a board game, or cooking and eating a nice meal together," Bookston told us.

There are about 15 other New England communities who host unplugged programs, said Mattleman. Newton modeled its program, Unplugged and Connected, after the Needham one and every March for the past 10 years families there have also followed a calendar of unplugged events.

"We’ve had a very positive reaction from Newton," said Gail Sommer, director of the Child Assault Prevention Program at the Newton Community Service Center and organizer of the program.

Some towns are unplugging for a single day. Southborough Unscheduled took place March 7.

When asked if he thinks more towns will adopt the program, Mattleman said, "I hope so because it seems like a no brainer to me. Let’s be cognizant of how crazy our lives are."


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Kristi Palma, Boston.com Moms producer, is the mom of a first grader and a preschooler. She is a writer who enjoys cooking her grandmother's Italian recipes (when her son isn't launching paper airplanes into them). Follow her on Twitter @kristipalma.
Jennifer Clark Estes is a teacher, writer, blogger, and the mother of four young children. In her free time, she blogs at A Mom's World, plays with the kids (or chauffeurs them around), and is desperately seeking a quiet spot so she can read a book. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferCEstes.
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