And then there’s homework.
Our son came home yesterday with a class newsletter. It was titled “What are we learning?” and outlined what was happening in the areas of Reading/Science, Writing & Grammar, Math, and a category called “Fundations,” which is some kind of word-learning curriculum (actually, it’s “a phonological/phonemic awareness, phonics and spelling program for the general education classroom,” for those of you keeping score at home). There’s a lot going on in that first grade classroom.
There was also another section, too: Homework. Here’s what it said:
Please check your child's binder each night for homework assignments. Make sure your child is reading their bag book and that you sign the yellow record sheet when they are assigned homework. It is also important to continue with retelling the events or details of the books with your child to help them with their comprehension skills. As the school year is progressing, there may be homework assigned on Fridays now as well. Please make sure to check your child's backpack for assignments over the weekend.
Okay, yep—read with him, sign the sheet (Must. Have. Accountability.), get him to “retell” the story as a comprehension check. Wait—hold on a second. Did I read that last part right? “As the school year is progressing, there may be homework assigned on Fridays now as well.” Oh no.
My dad started his career as a high school English teacher, then later became an elementary school librarian—it was better suited to his temperament and taste, and didn’t require him to deal with things like giving grades. Because he was an elementary school librarian we always had library books around. He was especially fond then (and is now) of poetry. Our favorite verses were the classics, like “Great Green Gobs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts,” but we also read a lot of Shel Silvertstein and Jack Prelutsky. Prelutsky wrote one of my favorites. It was published in The New Kid on the Block in 1984 and is well worth quoting in full:
Homework! Oh, Homework! I hate you! You stink! I wish I could wash you away in the sink, if only a bomb would explode you to bits. Homework! Oh, homework! You're giving me fits. I'd rather take baths with a man-eating shark, or wrestle a lion alone in the dark, eat spinach and liver, pet ten porcupines, than tackle the homework, my teacher assigns. Homework! Oh, homework! you're last on my list, I simple can't see why you even exist, if you just disappeared it would tickle me pink. Homework! Oh, homework! I hate you! You stink!
Who doesn’t identify with this? Homework is the worst. Homework is the thing that makes kids who used to like school start to hate it. It’s the thing that makes school most like work. Notice we call it home-work, not home-school.
And I guess for that reason it serves its purpose: later in life, after we’ve all had our fill of mindless homework meant to force us to bring school home with us, we’re perfectly cool with the idea that work ought to follow us home too. But nobody really wants to bring work home, and when homework is involved no one really wants to bring school home either. Even the kids who like school don’t like homework. Why can’t school just stay in school?
Whatever the reasons are for doing it, there are serious consequences to sending work home with kids. The trouble with homework is that it’s done at home, and we should all know by now that that since not all homes are created equal that means some kids are going to have a distinct advantage over others where completing homework is concerned. Does my son benefit from the fact that I can actually comprehend “Everyday Math” as he tries to work through his worksheets? You bet he does. Does my daughter benefit from the fact that my wife read Jacqueline Woodson’s book Brown Girl Dreaming with her when she was trying to put together a book project, making it possible for our daughter to actually discuss what she read with somebody? Yes. Do they both benefit from the fact that they have parents who speak the same language at home that is spoken at school, and do they benefit from the fact that neither of their parents have to work nights to make ends meet? Yes. Yes, they do. They definitely do.
To be clear, I don’t blame teachers for this—a lot of the work that gets sent home is sent home because teachers feel overwhelming pressure to cover more material than they can possibly cover during the regular school day as they balance all the responsibilities that have been placed on them. You often hear teachers say that they rely on parents to be active in their kids’ educations; this can mean a lot of things, but I often interpret such requests as a cry for help. Teachers might as well be saying “Please, just help me keep my job—make sure your kid does his homework,” given the way we approach teacher evaluation these days.
I also don’t blame parents. Teachers often sit in conferences with parents dolefully asking them to help their kids do their homework as parents shrug and think “I don’t even know what shifts I’m working this week,” or “I have no idea how to help my kid do homework that neither of us understand.” It’s one thing to expect teachers to be experts in child psychology, data analysis, multiple academic disciplines, and differentiated instruction; it’s another to ask that of every parent. For young kids, especially, parents have to have a clear understanding of the goals and purposes of the curriculum for homework to be meaningful. How many parents have that these days? If we’re going to be giving homework, we ought to make sure we have that base covered first.
We’d be better off simplifying things, and recalibrating our expectations. It’s actually heartbreaking to see a first grader beat himself up over the fact that he forgot to do his homework before falling asleep the night before. It’s also disheartening to see a kid that young spend valuable time poring over worksheets when, for example, he could be doing something outside. Is there a place for homework for older students? Maybe. But it should be given judiciously and should be used to help students hone and develop new skills, not simply practice old ones. We might ask ourselves if it wouldn’t make more sense to think about how we could work smarter, not harder. It’s important to work hard, but more important to save the hard work for when it’s really necessary. Which, where school is concerned, should not be on weekends. Is nothing sacred?
The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.