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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Homework Blues

I worry homework will occupy all our kids' free time.
I am currently battling the disturbing sensation that my twins’ childhoods have just come to a screeching halt.

Georgia and Griffin received their inaugural homework packets from first grade this week, along with a parent letter that explained how students would now have a nightly reading log, a reading log response sheet, a “words to know” activity sheet, skill-practice activities, math sheets and optional enrichment activities—totaling a minimum of 25 to 30 minutes an evening. This is for 6-and-7-year-olds.

At the risk of alienating readers with tales from the good old days, I do not think I had homework until the fourth or fifth grade, aside from occasional projects, such as the construction of a family tree, during which I was delighted to learn from my genealogy crazed aunt that we may have descended from French pirates.

Most days after elementary school I recall, not sitting down with pencil and paper, but prowling the neighborhood with friends, careening bicycles down steep hills and propelling pinecones at passing cars. I now realize that these unstructured activities, though sometimes mischievous, were more essential to my development than any prolonged book learning after an already extended day at school.

But times have changed.

My own and previous decades of helicopter parents have subscribed to the notion that every minute of youth should be scheduled, that downtime is an evil to be avoided. We have unwittingly persuaded schools—in tandem with legislation such as No Child Left Behind—to join forces with us, insuring that educators teach to the test and assign homework earlier and in ballooning quantities.

Having done a stint of teaching, myself, I too became a guilty member of this culture, heaping on the work. And I certainly encountered a fluttering flock of upper-middle-class parents, preoccupied with their efforts to get their children into Harvard, rather than realizing that their kids would be better off at community colleges had they gotten there themselves.

Now a parent myself, I am lucky to live in Lower Merion Township, one of the strongest public districts in Pennsylvania. The teachers are skilled and energetic. My children enjoy a variety of specials, including music, art and gym. If a problem arose with their learning, specialists would step in to help. Furthermore, as part of a neighborhood school community, we can congregate with friends at nearby parks and seek out schoolmates next door and up the street.

Given the tragic disarray of the Philadelphia public schools and many other districts in the country, we are very fortunate, indeed.

But along with all of the benefits of an upper-middle-class educational environment comes the baggage of a system married to maintaining aggressive institutional benchmarks and re-achieving, each year, high scores on standardized testing. To get the majority of learners to perform well, teachers have to make students hit it early and hard—perhaps too early and too hard. Our children can walk to their friends’ houses, but they no longer have time to play.

“I don’t want to go to school,” Georgia told me on Sunday. Then she burst into tears this morning because she had forgotten to record in her log what she had read the night before. I was heartbroken, realizing that my daughter, at 6, was already anxious about work and living for the weekends, when she could settle down and play. Isn’t playing, and learning through playing, what childhood is about?

Maybe not, given the packets that just arrived with their inscrutable instructions, too complicated for a first-grader to decipher on his or her own. “I have an MBA, and I couldn't understand them,” a neighbor, who teaches at Wharton, remarked today at the bus stop.

The homework is also tugging in parents with directions such as, “Ask your child to tell you about some of the people at school. Together make up a story in which one or more of those people are the main characters.” This sets the precedent that parents should be actively involved in their kids’ nightly assignments, rather than supportive bystanders available to answer questions. It makes students dependent on adults, rather than early establishing that children are responsible for their own work. And this dynamic, rife in middle-class communities nationwide, causes anguish on all sides.

“Convinced that I hate homework 1000x more than my kids,” an acquaintance, who lives in another state, recently posted on Facebook.
“It took us an HOUR to get through a page of math,” someone else wrote back.
“I think this is the rudest awakening of parenting,” another person added, “that one would have to go back to doing homework. For years.”

That is part of what I am trying to avoid.

I had an entire speech planned out for our twins about how their father and I had already been through school, how we had completed hundreds of our own assignments, and how we had no desire to start now, in middle age, plugging away at theirs as well. I was going to help Georgia and Griffin choose what time of day they would like to tackle their homework, let them know I would be available for questions, but explain that I was not going to do it for them.

When Georgia and Griffin pulled out their packets, along with the parent letter, and tried to make sense of the intricate directions, however, I panicked that my ability to step out of their way and let them get on with growing up—albeit too prematurely for my liking—was being sabotaged. We spent a tense evening combing through sheets, trying to decipher the school’s expectations, framing a manageable routine that our children could adopt for completing their work, as much as possible, on their own.

“I just want to play,” Griffin lamented.

That is all I want for him right now after school, too. But I feel like I am fighting a powerful undertow as I try figure out how to preserve as much free time as possible and how to help my children take ownership for their own learning process.

What is ultimately most important is not whether our kids earn top marks but that they understand that they are responsible for their own successes and failures—and that they squeeze in as many unstructured hours in between as possible.

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