H is for HOMEWORK (a teacher-turned-parent perspective)

Dear Teacher,

Since you stated in your summer parent letter that, “We all agree on the importance of homework,” I thought I’d take the opportunity to offer another perspective.

With the advent of your class, we’ve been somewhat concerned about how our family relationships would be impacted by school and homework.  Fortunately for us, our son has (generally) been able to handle his assignments without too much stress or intervention.  We’re also fortunate that he hsa taken increasing initiative around his work over the years, and that he truly cares about the responsibility that is placed in him.  We are fortunate that his earliest teachers were a bit flexible around the participation and timing of homework which allowed him to develop into the student he is now.

At the class meeting last week, I was inspired by what you offered the parent who found himself entangled in nightly arguments with his child around homework.  You advised him to prioritize the parent-child relationship over the the parent-teacher one— emphasizing that more than anything, the child needed support from his parents, and would continue to need that for much longer than the teacher-student relationship would last.  Unfortunately for many families, I suspect that homework can inflict quite a bit of pressure on the parent-child relationship despite your sound advice.

Another topic that came up at the parent meeting was the difference between what happens in classrooms now, compared to what happened twenty years ago.  You concurred that “the basics” were vital, but that there was much more that could be done and was being done with regard to education today.   I’d like to suggest that this same inspirational change has not happened as fully with regard to homework;  In many ways, its practice is the same as it was years ago.

As an educator and parent, I can appreciate the role of homework.  It provides a vital bridge between home and classroom; it provides an opportunity for the “practice” and the deepening of skills, knowledge, and concepts; and it allows the teacher to focus on more in-depth work in the classroom while the basics (eg. math facts, handwriting) are facilitated at home.

Since transitioning from teacher to parent, however, I’ve discovered that managing homework is a tricky business– even in a disciplined, orderly family who loves learning.   Once a child enters school, and parents return to work, family time is a dwindling and precious commodity.   As children grow older, family connections and harmony are challenged in a myriad of ways.  Sometimes these hurdles are a healthy part of family life, enabling children (and parents) to create and focus on their individual identities.  Other times, they can be the robber barons of the quality of life together (seriously!)

One vital lesson that I missed in my formative years is that life is not all about work–  that the quality of life comes more from the quality of “being” than the quanity of “doing”;  that “emptying” the mind is just as important (if not more important) than “filling” the mind.   This comes naturally to children, but is driven out of them by our culture.   Our school is no exception, but it does seem to have one of the best balances around when it comes to public education.   Still, at the end of the day, there’s not much time left over for “emptying.”

With a nation facing an epidemic of obesity, even in children, it seems more important than ever to allow ample time for play and exploration.  Left to their own devices, my own children would spend most of their day outside.  Given the opportunity to define their own curriculum, recess and physical education would take up much more of the day.  This is true for most children.   Why then do we spend their school years training them to be inside?   Why do we trap them in their heads?  And why after a day of learning, of filling, do we want them to go home and spend more time doing the same?

You asked me at the parent meeting if there wasn’t time for homework between the hours of 3 and 9– and of course the answer could be yes, depending on what you prioritize or cut out.  A typical school day (without homework or any other added activity) looks like this in our family :
3:45 Our sons arrivs home on the bus
4:30 We finish snack and unpacking school things;  checking notes et al.
4:30-5:30 Kids do chores and then play a bit while dinner prepared;
5:30-6:30 Dinner and clean up;  preparations for the next day;
6:30-7:30 Head upstairs to ready for bed, laundry, bathing, reading et al

This is an “easy” day– without meetings, without doctor appointments, without performances or practices, without meltdowns or illnesses, without lessons in areas of interest that have been cut back at school. Add just one of those additional activities into the day (and there’s usually at least one) and there is less time for play and less time for family connections.   Add homework into the mix, especially nightly, and life has become very squishy– impossibly so at times.   Something has to give, and it is most often the quality of family relationships that suffers.

Even responsible, learning-oriented kids like mine begin to malfunction after so much time driven by other’s expectations, even when those expectations are motivating (as is the curriculum at our school.)  Kids (and all humans) need time to be self-directed, to zone out, to float…  but parents (and teachers) press them to stay focused to meet outside expectations.

Think back on your last district inservice when you spent the day in a desk following someone else’s agenda.  What did you want to do at the end of that day?  Let off steam, I bet!  This is  the same way kids feel when they get off that school bus.   Hopefully it won’t take them too many year before they take the initiative to face the additional work ahead of them (in the form of homework), rather than have their parents force it on them; but what have they sacrificed in that exchange?   They’ve learned to stop listening themselves~ to their bodies which say “play”, to their minds which say “melt”, to their spirits which say “let go”.

I feel really sad when I think about that.

I remember the month when our son learned to really read– to take pleasure in it and have it be self-directed.  It was the time in second grade when Jodi stopped giving homework.  Suddenly, we had spare moments to read to him, and he had time to lay around looking at books himself.  With spelling lists and math sheets set aside, something really important happened, and it happened because there was time for us all to connect around it.

There is an old adage that my wise and succinct friend Gail likes to quote:  What has to die so that something can live? “ With such full lives and such a rich world of information and opportunity, we simply can’t have or do everything.  Perhaps the notion of taking work home with us needs to die; perhaps less IS more.

To its wonderful credit, our school has been known to encourage children to question authority, to unlearn what they have learned,  and to seek to find their own paths. I am truly grateful to have such a place to send my son to meet the world.  Already we have discovered ways to squeeze out some extra time from our crowded Mondays so that our child can finish homework while we all remain relatively sane.  I look forward to all he will glean from his time in your room and how our family will grow as a result.

I appreciate the opportunity to share our experience of homework.


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