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.

T is for Tardy

by Kelly Salasin

This morning when my six-year old arrives late to school for the zillionth time this year, I consider paying off his pigtailed classmate who passes us in the hall, attendance slip in tow. “Oh, you’re here!” she sparkles, holding the fate of his permanent record like a flag in hand. “I’ll just erase ‘absent’ and give you a ‘T’.”
Another T, Damn it! I rant internally as I walk my son more swiftly toward his classroom.

“What does a ‘T’ mean?” he asks each morning as I rush him into the van and onto his booster seat, oblivious to the patterns of ice crystals he’s been trying to show me on the windows.
“It means ‘tardy’,” I say, knowing it’s going to take the entire drive to school to explain, and that he’ll ask the same question tomorrow.

The hard thing about all these ‘’T’s’ is that I was a teacher before I became a parent. In those days, being on time and coming to school- every day- was a given, an essential truth, a prerequisite to upstanding citizenship. I stressed punctuality and attendance with parents, and assessed them on their commitment to these principles. Part of me still agrees with it- theoretically- and that’s why I feel guilty. I really don’t want to be the kind of parent whose kid gets a lot of ‘T’s.
But I don’t want to get out of bed either, not when the baby has been up ALL night. And I certainly don’t have the energy or creativity to find new ways to keep my highly distractible six-year old focused on ‘getting ready’ for school when he just doesn’t ‘get it’.

“What’s the big deal about a ‘T’, anyway Mom?” he asks when I tell him there’s no time to read a story or play with his brother or listen to the birds. “Why do you want to yell about putting sneakers on ?”
Great! He’s a Zen master, and I’m the ignorant pupil. Now my failure comes at me from all sides. I’ve failed to support my son’s education properly, while simultaneously failing to honor his sense of time and play; and worst of all, I’ve failed my own sense of the kind of parent, and person, I want to be on both accounts.
I once heard a quote that I now know to be true: I was a much better parent before I had kids. (At least before they outnumbered me!)

What’s the answer, I ask myself? Home schooling? No, not for me. Not for my son either. Not now anyway. There’d still be places to get to, and there’d still be our differences in the understanding of what it means to ‘get ready to go’; the perennial parent-child struggle.
Occasionally we have a breakthrough. The other day when I was fretting over being late for swimming lessons (the instructor actually scolded me!), I shared my own childhood with my son; how when I was a kid, my family was always really late for things, and how there’d be lots of yelling and tension. He listened attentively from the back seat, and then like a light bulb had gone on, he said, “Oh, now I know why you get so stressed out about being late Mom. You gotta let go of that.”
The Zen Master again! And I thought he was going to ‘get’ the whole point of staying focused to get out the door on time. Instead, it’s I who promises to begin working on ‘letting go’.

The next school day, when I hadn’t yet eaten breakfast or showered and there were only 15 minutes left for take off, my son sweetly asked if I could read one of the many library books that had lain neglected on the coffee table for days. (I imagine other families always reading the books that come home from school.) I began to list all the reasons why I couldn’t, and then… I just sat down on the couch in my pajamas and began reading to my boys while the clock ticked away. It was a blissful family moment and with a breakfast-to-go, we made it to school, only five minutes late. Another ‘T’. Damn It!
But on this day, a miracle happened. No one had rung the school bell. When we arrived, the children were just leaving the playground to go in- 5 minutes late. No ‘T’! It was like the sun streaming through the clouds after a terrible storm.
For a moment, the dark shadow of the perenial, parental guilt reappeared: I felt a pang of deep sadness that I never got my son to school in time to play with the other children on the playground. It’s so easy to find failure as a parent if you’re looking for it. So much of parenting, like teaching, is a hands-on job. You can read lots of good stuff, form your opinions, your theories, make your plans, but you really have to step into it to know it and to know yourself.
I never thought I’d be the kind of parent I am some times, never imagined such uncouth, careless moments. But here I am, for better or worse, and some days I get it just right.

The School Body

Kelly Salasin

The administrative assistant is the WRISTS
The teachers- the HANDS
The children- the FEET (maybe the HIPS and definitely the BLOOD)
The principal- the KNEES (and the NECK)
The board- the STOMACH
The support staff- the SPINE
Every meeting, every plan made- the THIRD EYE
The building- the LUNGS
The community- the HEART

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