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Saturday, October 15, 2011

On Homework

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
She is five. Let me repeat: in kindergarten.

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.


anymommy said...

I adore the way you think things through and your calm insights. I have no answers, as I am just navigating Kindergarten myself, but I will be checking back for tips from others!

Fawn said...

I have no tips for you. I find 45 minutes of homework for a kindergartner to be shocking. Really.

Jade gets only one thing for homework most days -- a different book, which *she* gets to pick out, and, once read, must be logged in the reading journal. Even this I sometimes find onerous, and you know we love to read.

But she's sooo exhausted when she gets home from school, and the kids inevitably fight because of short tempers and post-school hunger. And then there's dinner to cook and bedtimes have been made earlier to compensate for the extra energy expended... even without homework, and NO extra-curricular activities, it feels like there's not a lot of extra time on school days.

Tara R. said...

Throughout my kids' school years, I had issues with homework. The amount your kindergartener has is stunning. When my daughter was in high school, it was normal for her to have 3-4 hours each night. Add in extra-curricular activities and she was swamped. At some point the excess amount of out-of-classroom work becomes counterproductive.

Tracey - Just Another Mommy Blog said...

It does get worse. My resolution to the problem was to pull my kids from public school and they are now homeschooled. And we DO have days where we paint for a few hours or read in tents without worrying about bedtimes or homework.

For schooled kids, though, it's tricky. I have heard that some parents have had luck with putting their foot down and talking to the school. Explain to them that your daughter is FIVE and that, as her parent, you feel it is only necessary for her to do "school work" for the school day and possibly a 10-15 minute review when she gets home. If they feel the need to send extra work home, so be it. But if she is doing well academically in class, and not falling behind the All-Mighty-Standards, then there shouldn't be any issue with her not completing every single math sheet and reading chart and other bologna that the schools feel is needed. You are her parent. You have the final word of what goes on in your child's life and her home should be your ULTIMATE control; NOT THE SCHOOL'S!

Anonymous said...

Fight the power. Refuse to have your child do more than 10 min a night (or what ever you feel is appropriate). Tell the principal and teacher why you are doing this. Talk to the other parents. Get them to join the discussion.

The kill and drill is to ready them for standardized tests, nothing more (and it probably doesn't even work).

Read The Homework Myth.

It is your child's school and you have a say in her education.

Or you can just skip all that and switch them to a charter Montessori school (or something similar) like we did. They don't do homework till the 6th grade and they score consistently higher than all the public schools in our state because they actually teach the kids to critically and creatively think (and play! almost all learning is done through play).

You aren't the only one feeling this way. Although they are probably afraid to say it most people likely feels exactly as you do, including most of the teachers and possibly the principal.

~ a 10th grade high school teacher who rarely gives homework for all these same reasons and whose students score better than students who are piled with homework every night.

PS. I'm enjoying your blog. :)


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