Partway through the year in Mrs. Zawarski's first-grade class, I was already a pretty good reader. And I was bored. A lot. When we did worksheets, we sat quietly at our desks until everyone was done. I was usually among the first to finish, and so I spent a lot of time just sitting at my desk. Quietly. Doing not much of anything that I can recall.
...Thankfully, once I entered second grade, I was allowed to check out books from the library--and after that, I was never bored because I always had a book tucked into my desk. But that was still a year away...
At one point, I tore a little scrap of paper from the corner of something, and penciled a tiny note. "Please give me some homework," it read. I stood up, and silently delivered it to the teacher while other children were still finishing their worksheets.
Mrs. Zawarski looked at the note, smiled at me, and said, "We don't have homework in first grade." And then she dismissed me by looking away. There was nothing I could say in response to her definitive claim, and so I wandered back to my seat. That was that.
Fast forward thirty-plus years.
I have a kindergartner of my own.
Last week, this was her homework:
- 1 short, repetitive book to read aloud daily
- 2 handwriting pages
- a non-fiction book I was supposed to read aloud to her, and to which she is supposed to record her response in a journal
- 2 math pages done in class, to complete and/or correct the incorrect problems
- a set of number-recognition flash cards to quiz on (preferably daily)
- a set of sight-word flash cards to quiz on (preferably daily)
- "sharing" items to bring in, that start with the letter of the week
- an activities sheet to check off, indicating how many activities she did this week that start with the letter F
Actually, broken down over the course of a week, this is probably half-an-hour to forty-five minutes of work each day. That doesn't seem like much, I realize. And I am not complaining, exactly.
But I am wondering: is it better (i.e. more productive for her? more likely to result in her learning these concepts) for her to do this rote work or for me to read her three books every night before bed? Because since kindergarten started, we're lucky if there's one book before lights-out any more.
Is it more useful for her to drill numbers or to bake with me and count scoops of flour, measure, pour, and begin learning the basis of fractions as we do all these things? Because we don't have time for baking during the week now that we have this homework to do.
I'm sure we're not the only family in the school whose kids like to rake leaves and jump in them, bike around the cul-de-sac with their friends, take the dog for walks, dig in the garden, paint pictures, have a dance party in the kitchen, or play board games while eating popcorn.
But between the after-school care a few days a week, and the ONE day per week (I made sure all the activities were centralized this year) that we go to ballet, soccer and skating (not everyone does every activity), it's not possible both to do homework and to play on the same day after school. Really.
And I'm not quite sure that missing out on playing is a very good idea. Isn't it through play that we learn to invent stories? We build narratives about what our dolls are doing in the doll house. We create back-stories for the pictures we paint. We invent relationships between our puppets, our lego guys, ourselves ("You be the puppy, and I'll be the owner -- [tossing a ball] FETCH!") Through play with others, we learn to share, to compromise, to negotiate. Through play on our own, we learn to be self-sufficient, imaginative, capable of feeling happy in our selves.
Through play, we flex our muscles and our minds.
There is something I fear we are losing through all this homework. I'm sure my daughter will be a good reader by the time she enters first grade. But I also want her to be a happy child, a creative spirit, able to entertain herself, willing to try new activities, able to invent activities to fill the stretches of time that inevitably crop up in our lives. Stretches that used be every single Monday-Friday afternoon from 3-6pm, and every weekend, and all summer, but now are shrinking to the point where they feel like precious stolen moments rather than daily life.
Yesterday, a friend came home from school with Son. They played football in the yard while Daughter painted. They came in and set up the iPod (volume: loud) to make a dance party in the kitchen. The friend saw Daughter painting at the kitchen table and wanted to paint too. So they all painted, while bobbing up and down to the music in their chairs. They took my challenge to create whole paintings using nothing but dots, which led us to look up examples of pointillism online.
It was an impulsive, active, completely delightful afternoon. They might have learned something in the process. But more importantly, they had such a good time that it was almost a shock when dinner-time was suddenly upon us.
I want days like that to be de rigeur. But I fear they will be the glittering highlights, the random special moments we manage to tuck between the trudging days of flashcards, like occasional brave stars shining through on a cloudy night.
Presumably, the homework only gets to be more intense as the grades progress. How to manage it while still enabling the kind of creative, open-ended free time I think is so important for children's development will surely grow to be a bigger conundrum. Any tips you have would be gratefully appreciated.