I know, I know. Why am I bringing up school? Many of your kids are already in summer break and homework is the last thing on your mind. You are slathering on sunscreen, visiting pools, taking hikes and occasionally begging your children for some quiet. In Seattle, it is gray and raining. I still have two weeks before Thing 1 and Thing 2 turn our house into a Lego tornado. Summer feels eerily distant.
Since we are wrapping up a school year that has taken a bit of the sparkle out of my oldest son’s eyes, despite our great efforts to protect his passion for learning, I have been contemplating the effects of different educational models on children. Today, I’m tackling the homework conundrum. If that’s not on your mind, file this away for fall.
A friend of mine recently linked to this post, The Homework I Wish I My Child Brought Home From School. I read it in complete agreement with desired after school activities like going outside, reading, making things, etc.., but was saddened that the author seemed to think homework for a six year old was non-negotiable.
It’s should all be negotiable. If it’s not, a gigantic red flag is waving.
Since we entered public school as a trial, I did not feel captive by the system. This certainly helped me feel more empowered to question certain practices, like homework. We enrolled our oldest in public school for first grade after homeschooling him for Kindergarten to avoid full-day K (which was required by our neighborhood school). We sent him there knowing that if his needs weren’t being met or the environment wasn’t nurturing, that we would advocate for change and pull him out if that was unsuccessful. Knowing whether those things were true would require observation, an active presence in the school, and a careful tuning in to my son’s spirit.
We did not enroll our child in school to watch him become imprisoned by it. To watch passions fade. To watch him rush to complete meaningless homework as quickly as possible so that he could finally play. To watch self-esteem become dependent on external rewards, like a special treat for being fastest or having the fewest mistakes. To watch him pay attention to the number of pages read or the minutes spent in a book, instead of the story and content.
We were not going to passively observe as school requested that hours of my child’s life be spent completing rote, meaningless tasks. Fortunately, his first grade teachers maintained developmental perspectives, engaging activities and reasonable expectations, so little advocating was required. “We don’t send home reading logs because we trust you to read with your child on a regular basis.” What a breath of fresh air.
Second grade was different. The teachers wanted weekly reading logs, lengthy homework assignments that were nothing but worksheets, with little problem solving or creativity required. After a day filled with over-the-top rules, structure and rote learning, I refused to force him to do more of the same. It was play time! So, I wrote emails. (I would’ve preferred to talk with his teachers in person, but sadly, that is a rare opportunity that often takes too long to schedule.)
My email to the English teacher went something like this:
“BookWorm is a fantastic reader and currently spends hours reading a wide range of books from different genres. I fear that focusing on filling in a reading log could change his passion into an obligation. He currently gets lost in books and does not think about time nor pages read. I don’t want to take the risk that this would change by making reading “homework.”
Thank you for your understanding as to why we won’t be completing reading logs this year. Please feel free to contact me with questions or concerns. Also, of course, if there’s an alternate motivation or purpose beyond encouraging time with books, please let me know.”
She replied that she would love to know his books of interest, so if we could fill one out on occasion for that purpose, she’d be thrilled. Understood and done. Easy as that.
For spelling homework, I wrote a similar email. My boy was happy to just take the spelling tests, miss a few words here and there, and learn those as needed. For the rare word or two he’d actually learn every few months through homework, it wasn’t worth his time.
Another email was written after a few weeks of noticing how ridiculous his Spanish/math/science homework packet was.
“You have probably noticed that Minecraft Man is not completing his homework often anymore. We are completely on board with this and frequently encouraging it. I understand that many children may be learning from their homework, or need the repetition, but since Minecraft Man doesn’t benefit much from it, we’re spending time at home in other ways.”
I continued to explain that we would be happy to do projects or more creative work if that was assigned. (In my opinion, Minecraft is better than the homework that was sent this year. At least he needs to use higher-level thinking skills, like planning and organizing prior to building something.)
Now, my boy is very strong academically. He isn’t struggling in any subjects. The teachers might have pushed back more otherwise. But, even then, I would’ve countered that I don’t think homework is the answer unless it is the RIGHT work. The homework that came home with my son this year would not have been the most effective way to help him.
If he experienced difficulties in math, I would’ve worked with him conceptually through games or other interactive instruction, not forced more worksheets his way. If he struggled with reading, we would’ve broken down reading into it’s basic parts, worked on the areas of struggle and then pieced it back together. If he struggled with handwriting, I would’ve fostered his love of story-telling by letting him dictate stories while I typed or wrote. We would tackle handwriting separately, as a motor act, not a language one.
Anyone can be an advocate for their child. It all starts with one question: What is best for my child? Advocacy work takes courage, but that courage is easy to muster when we think about our children’s long term health. It takes active communication, dedication and a willingness to stick our necks out. I rarely enjoy being an oddball parent, but I’m accepting of that role. Changing the system to eventually honor all kids is going to take masses of parents opt-outing out of what’s not beneficial, so that instead we can step into healthy, holistic child development.
My background and training takes me to places of questioning practices, while also lending me more confidence with sharing my opinions. But, I think most parents know deep in their gut if something’s wrong. Pay attention to those feelings. If you need a support staff to know what questions to ask or how to speak up, ask friends with similar educational philosophies. Seek out educational resources that honor child development, healthy families and passionate learning. Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools is my latest love.
I have never heard of a single study that concludes homework is beneficial for children in elementary school. (If you find one, please send it to me.) Many private schools honor this research. I think they feel secure implementing no homework policies because they are not operating out of the fear that they will lose their funding. Kids in those schools, especially the younger elementary crew, rarely get homework. When they do, it’s usually creative, interactive and something students can take pride in making. We’re not talking about worksheets that only require regurgitation of memorized facts.
If you need an academic-related reason to give homework the boot, there are plenty. Executive functioning skills, including planning, organizing and problem solving, depend on solid development of early play skills. Their foundation is built through the back and forth decisions that get made in imaginary play and loosely structured games. Planning new scenarios, dealing with the problems that arise and flexible shifting gears to accommodate requests are critical for development. Just as important as math and reading, maybe even moreso. Imaginary play isn’t just magical for the kids. It is magic, people. It is what little brains need.