Six Children and No Theories

Covering parenting and child development issues

The Horror of Homework

Written by Lisa Lawmaster Hess, Community Blogger | Feb 1, 2013 12:10 PM

Homework! Oh, Homework! I hate you! You stink! I wish I could wash you away in the sink. (Jack Prelutsky)

Yeah, this is pretty much the tune we were singing at my house last night.

Wondering if I was the only one feeling this way, I sought the opinions of a variety of friends, some with kids, some without. As expected, I got an earful. While most of those who shared their opinions supported the value of limited homework that was responsibly assigned, some also shared their sentiments on homework gone wild. Busy work. Backpacks weighing nearly 30 pounds. Long-term projects assigned over vacation time.

One friend, the parent of an eleventh grader with Asperger's, shared her frustrations on group projects for kids with social skills issues, assignments that run counter to a child's learning style - and yet are an ongoing expectation in the class - and enforcing expectations for a teenager who has already put in a full day by the time he arrives home with a fresh pile of work to do. And this is in a "tiny private school."

"I can't tell you how many times I've told him a) homework is not optional, b) it doesn't really matter if he is interested or not, c) It needs to be done & done on time.  I should just make a tape for all of the good it does." She likened getting him to keep a journal for one of his classes to performing a complex medical procedure: "I'd have an easier time performing open heart surgery on myself."

Parents aren't the only ones who feel this way. Author and speaker Alfie Kohn has built a reputation on opinions that run counter to the established norms in education. In a 2007 article in Principal magazine, he explores the downside to homework, and cites resources that make it clear he's not the only one with this opinion.

Having been an educator for nearly thirty years, I have to admit that I do see value in homework when it's truly a chance for kids to practice skills independently and solidify what has been done in class. But too often, even at the elementary school level, homework becomes a bone of contention, driving a wedge between parents who want to support the expectations of their child's school and children who are exhausted from a long day of school work and who - understandably - have no desire to tackle more of the same when they get home. And when those same kids need help from parents who have put in an equally long day - or who are unavailable to help because they are at work themselves - family life is disrupted and school success is jeopardized.

One friend who joined the dialogue raised the questions that leap to most parents' minds at one time or another: How long do homework assignments need to be? Does the student get the same benefit out of writing his/her spelling words two times each vs. five times each? And, the kicker: Is homework truly applying/using what is learned at school?

When that last bit of common sense wisdom is applied - homework is indeed, as one teacher described it, something that will "extend a lesson, improve a student's understanding, or enhance an aspect covered in class" - I know few parents who would complain. But in our test-fueled society, even the good teachers - sometimes especially the good teachers - are trying to cover more and more content and are quite literally running out of time to get it all in. When that surplus, so to speak, spills over into homework that requires students to teach themselves necessary skills, or do endless drill on programs designed to simulate "the test," kids become cranky and exhausted and parents are quick to follow. Worse yet, kids get turned off to learning, and even to school.

I've watched my daughter go from excited elementary student to tired teenager, weighed down not just by the contents of her backpack, but also by the expectations inside. As her mother, and a former educator, I feel it's my job to facilitate her homework and nudge her in the direction of completing it, but I'm concerned that her life is out of balance, and that we spend far too much time talking about the state of her homework and far too little time relaxing. And she's a conscientious kid.I can only imagine how exhausting this nightly battle is for kids who struggle to learn, who have no one at home to help them or who have become too defeated to care any more. If homework is supposed to be teaching life skills, I have to wonder what it is that kids are learning about life, particularly when they don't have time to experience it outside of a book or computer lab. 

As parents, we may need to be the ones who help our kids to find a healthy balance. While it's important for me to continue to walk the fine line that runs between supporting my daughter and supporting the expectations that define success in the educational system she inhabits, I have to remember that there's more to life than school and homework. I will encourage her to do her homework, of course, but I'll also do my best not to nag her and to remember that even if I don't see the value in endless episodes of NCIS, she needs down time. In fact, rest is an essential ingredient in not only her intellectual development, but her overall development as well, as is time with friends and time just being.

As partners in our children's education, we also need to remember to thank the teachers who realize that not all kids learn the same way, the teachers who assign minimal homework because evenings are family time, those who adhere to the standards described by my teacher friend above and those who practice what one of my friends referred to as "upside down learning - homework at school and watch[ing] video, lectures, etc. at home." I have known all of these teachers, and many of them have touched my daughter's life in a very positive way. When these teachers send assignments home, it's easy for me not to roll my eyes (although perhaps not quite as easy for my fifteen-year-old) because I know there's a reason the work is coming home and there will be some benefit to its completion.

When I think back on the teachers I've known who had the sanest view of homework, I noticed that many of them had one thing in common - they were (or had been) parents of teenagers - those mysterious creatures who can spend hours on You Tube, but only minutes on a science project.

Coincidence? You decide. And please - feel free to leave me YOUR views on homework.


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