Thinking-Out-Loud About Homework

The debate regarding homework – and the amount of it – is hot. No matter who you talk to, or which side of the debate they are on, all you have to do is mention the amount of homework your kid has, and it looks like everyone in the room needs to take their sweater off. Their face flushes. The pulse in their jugular is suddenly more apparent. They can’t help but interrupt you as soon as you stop to take a breath. They weigh in.

And I am just as guilty as the rest of them. The thing is, I have no idea what’s right in regard to homework. So, I am trusting that my sons’ teachers do. And if they’re a little off, my guess is, the boys will be fine. And yet….

“My third grader gets his homework done in five minutes while eating snack. He should get more!”

“My third grader has 45 minutes of homework every night. It’s going to be the death of me.”

“My third grader would have ten minutes, but he cries for 30 because he doesn’t want to do it. Shouldn’t they be allowed to play after being at school all day?”

(By the way, that’s me depending on the day.)

Then from one set of experts, “Your children need more down-time. They are stressed. They will not know how to make their own choices when they grow up, because they haven’t had free time as kids.”

And from the other experts, “China is kicking our butts because their children work harder than ours.”

Remember when I wrote about wine as a great parenting tool? Well…..

Anyway, I would like to change the focus of the conversation. The time it takes to get homework done is irrelevant, because each child has their own pace of learning and accomplishing tasks. One can complete the assignments in five minutes, while another in the same grade takes 45.

The real question is what work they are being assigned.

In my third grader’s class, there are two levels of homework. The first level, which takes place every day, is basic practice. Two or three grammar sentences, two word problems, 15 minutes of reading out loud, a spelling worksheet, and practicing math facts for a weekly test. The time it takes to complete each day depends on my son’s mood.

I believe in practice. But this seems frenetic and lacking in focus. Homework for homework sake. Even if they alternated grammar and word problems, giving more of one on the days that subject was assigned, it would feel more valuable. And feeling valuable is important. Believing that what your child is doing feels valuable (because most of us parents, including me, have no idea what the best approach to homework is) gets parental buy-in. And our kids sense parental buy-in. If we are on the same page as their teachers that what they are doing is all-important to their success, they will try harder.

Back-to-School Night is a wonderful time for teachers to explain the approach to homework, rather than the time it will take. When parents ask how long it will take, the teachers can easily redirect us to why they are doing what they are doing. We are asking the wrong questions. The teachers should feel free to tell us that, then explain how each piece of the daily assignment will benefit our child’s learning.

The second level of homework in my son’s third grade class is wonderful. It has my complete buy-in.

Once every three weeks, the children are assigned a “job” that they must research, write about, create a visual, and report on in front of the class. These “job reports” require parental involvement, and they are time-consuming.

The children pick something related to that field that inspires them or excites them. They learn research skills, organizational skills, writing and speaking in front of a crowd. They become the class expert on their given topic, which instills confidence both academically and socially. My son and I have studied Vincent Van Gogh (artist), the Black Eyed Peas (musician), CNN reporter Gary Tuchman and his coverage of Haiti (broadcaster), and we plan to study the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII (inventor) next. Classmates have reported on everything from the piano, Beethoven, Jackson Pollack, and news coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Others have invented their own “homework help” contraptions and made guacamole.

Maybe I like it because I love to do research and write myself. And it’s really fun to work with my son and learn more about the things that inspire him. Maybe I like the “jobs reports” because they ask the kids to take their learning a step further, to think beyond the classroom.

I have no idea how much homework our children should be assigned to keep them sane or to maintain an edge over China in the future. It is true, though, that no matter how long it takes our child to complete the work, we just can’t help ourselves from weighing in.

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