The great homework debate: More! Less! Argh!

Homework and testing: Up for debate
Thalia came home one night from school last week, delighted to inform me about a school rule mandating no homework on weekends.

No homework on weekends. 

My first instinct was to cheer. Loudly. Obnoxiously. Last year, the copious stacks of third-grade homework pretty much sucked the joy right out of my otherwise school-loving daughter (and her mother). And I’m not talking about that wackadoodle new new math; but worksheets downloaded from the Internet with spelling errors in the questions, books that bored the crap out of her, and notes gently explaining that her writing journal was not a place for drawing her own comics every week.

Someone please alert Neil Gaiman that he’s not a real writer.

But honestly, I wasn’t so sure about her assertion. Is this really a school rule? With curriculum night the next day, I could ask for myself.

Now as you may or may not know, unlike a lot of the country these days, the kids in NYC don’t go back to school until oh, the first sign of frost. So we’re still ramping up around here, getting used to the new half-hour earlier start time, trying to remember which day is gym (no, you can’t wear your flip-flops, Sage, even if you promise they won’t fall off), and getting back in the habit of oh right–I have to pack lunch every day so my kids don’t coerce yogurt squeezers from their friends. It also means that the annual beginning-of-year curriculum night was just last week. And despite complaints from Alice about lack of childcare or delicious kale chip snacks at her own school’s curriculum night, I always look forward to attending ours.

(I’m just kidding; Alice would have happily eaten any snacks at all, but it being Park Slope, I think there’s some sort of kale chip law there.)

(Brooklyn humor. Don’t worry about it.)

So I squished my not-seven-year-old butt into those little wooden chairs for the privilege of spending an hour with each of my kids’ teachers last week, trying to read between the lines to determine if their education philosophies mirror my own.

Joy of joys, my friends, this is going to be an awesome year for both of them.

I listened to the teachers wax authentically about their passion for teaching and instilling a love of learning in children. Sage’s teacher explained that she was happy to return to second grade from third, in part to get away from the hell that has become standardized testing and instead spend more time finding the best in every child and nurturing it. I think the two words murmured most frequently by the other moms as we left the room were girl crush.

Thalia’s teachers were equally effusive about their love of teaching, and didn’t even bring up testing once–which I take as a positive sign that things will be better than last year’s soul-crushing skill + drill sessions from a more test-centric teacher; and way too much busy work for my liking, assigned even over holiday and Christmas breaks.

As a conscientious objector for numerous reasons, we in fact opted out of the New York State standardized testing last year. And I won’t get into too much detail about that right now because oh lord, I can rant about this for an hour. It just serves to let you know where I’m coming from in terms of what I want for my kids in terms of education: I want them to love it. I want them to work hard and find joy in their accomplishments. I want them to make lots of mistakes and learn from them. (The spelling errors are killing me right now.)  I want them to ask if they could read a little longer before lights out.  I want them to try new things that they’re not always good at, whether it’s chess or science lab or playing the recorder, until they find their real passions.

Not high on my list: Demonstrating proficiency at filling out little oval bubbles with a number 2 pencil.

As it turns out, Thalia was right. No homework on weekends except for some extra-credit reading and maybe a few special night-before-the-big-project-is-due stuff.  Sounds totally reasonable to me.

How wonderful to think that my young children will actually spend their weekends this year reading for pleasure, playing with friends, helping their grandparents in the garden, performing plays, making up more song lyrics for their “parody club” or just–gasp– watching TV or zombie-ing out on Minecraft. In other words, getting a break. The same way adults insist on getting one from their own employers.

Suddenly my bubble was burst like a fat wad of chewing gum all over my face, when other parents started chiming in.

“Well why don’t they get homework?”

“Who’s idea was that? The PTA?”

“Can we give them our own homework on weekends?”

“Can you give us extra homework to give us to give them ourselves in case we want them to do more?”

I have to admit, in my own naivité, the reactions surprised me.

Truly I had no idea that other parents in the class would want more homework for their kids. And I should have known, especially considering my mother wrote about that very thing just a month ago.  Parents are all over the map on this right now, as she described.

“ My husband and I get home at 8pm every night. We don’t want to have to deal with homework . Please don’t give it.”

“ I had to do 3 hours of homework every night in elementary school. Why aren’t our kids getting the rigorous work I had to do?”

Because I can’t shut my mouth, especially when I think there might be other parents in the room afraid to speak up and offer a contrary opinion, I blurted out to the class, “Well, I for one am happy to let my children just be children on weekends.”

It got quiet. There might have been some nodding in agreement behind me. Hard to say.

Mostly, I imagined the other parents thinking, “have fun raising your kids to grow to flip veggie burgers for a living, you damn dirty hippie.”

The more I thought about it, I realized, none of those parents in that room have anything to worry about. They care about their kids. They want them to succeed. They make education a priority and they want them to be the best they can be (even in spelling, ahem) and work to their potential. That’s why those parents attend curriculum night in the first place, and even bother to ask questions or challenge the conventions.

I’m guessing that whether the school sends home mandatory or optional work is irrelevant; I guarantee those kids are all growing up with shelves of books, parents who speak to them using three-syllable words, and an eye towards the future. It’s the parents who can never make curriculum night whose kids may need some extra help on weekends. And I’m not sure that that’s something that homework will solve either.

Top photo: albertogp123 via compfight cc


24 thoughts on “The great homework debate: More! Less! Argh!”

  1. You made the EXACT point I was going to say! Some parents will want more, some will want less. But like you said, the parents that are THERE, they care and those kids will probably do well no matter what.

    My boys now go to a small school with only 25 kids of varying ages and they have no homework on the weekends. They are FREE, as I believe they should be, on Saturday and Sunday. But they work pretty hard all week. Just like me. 🙂

    And I do not remember having very much homework on the weekends, unless it was a big project to work on…

    1. I’m all for hard work, for sure. But we all need a break, right? Imagine if those same parents’ kids walked into their place of business demanding more work for their parents on weekends. Ha.

  2. I am not at all in favor of homework for the younger grades. The evidence for homework as a pedagogical tool is decidedly mixed in higher grades; there is no support for it in the younger years. Kids need to be excited about reading and move their bodies in fine and gross motor play. They need to listen and be heard and learn to regulate themselves (e.g., I cannot even tell you how thrilled I am that my kid’s teacher has a chill-out table with a small lava lamp and a soft toy; kids can take themselves to the table and then return quietly to group activities or be asked to sit and calm down.)

    My daughter (1st grade) attends a charter. Last year, during open hose we had a similar experience. The school said no homework for K, except daily being-read-to and/or practicing reading, along with the *very* occasional project (all about me; make a self-portrait using fall materials you can find on a walk and/or art materials; etc). I was really pleased with this approach. Some of the other parents were not. Not at all. “Can you give worksheets? What worksheets do you recommend? What about flashcards?” It ended up being a school-wide issue since this was a new school with grades K-2 only (they add a grade each year).

    At younger ages, reading and speaking to your kid is far, far more beneficial. Go the library. Take walks. Visit museums. Of course, I write this from my relatively privileged perch of being a professional with weekends (mostly) off.

    1. Oof you remind me of preschool parents who were pissed that our 3 year olds weren’t studying the alphabet. We sent our kids to preschool to socialize and learn basic community skills, not to drill her with flash cards.

      I love the chill out table! I need one of those at home.

  3. I have a serious Tiger Mom streak at times but do agree that less is more among elementary grades (I actually think upper grades could be better structured so more classroom time is devoted to having the teachers see how the kids work/think through the subject matter). My two oldest (5th and 3rd grades) started a new school this year and there’s a no-homework-on-weekends policy and it’s so nice for the kids to not have to worry about a think on what adults call “Depression Sunday.” As for my kindergartner’s homework — so far it’s been things like, “I’m supposed to teach you how to gallop,” or “We’re supposed to count our steps to the car and to my bedroom.” Now that I can handle!

    1. I’m so glad to hear that it’s not a unique policy.

      You inspired a thought: We always talk about how hard it is to achieve that elusive thing called “balance” – maybe that’s something our kids need to learn too. I don’t want them to grow up like so many of us (including me at times), seeing every waking hour as an opportunity to be productive.

  4. Well, I’m in the no homework camp, so our kids can all flip burgers together.

    Kids do need time to be kids, and there is so much I want to teach them out in the world and there needs to be time for that, too. Lately my 7-year-old has been curious about solving a Rubik’s Cube, so we curl up together for a while each evening on the couch and I teach him the steps for getting there. There are lessons to be gleaned from that too. Plus there are music lessons, swim team, and cool things to make out of duct tape, so making time for extra rote work isn’t welcome most days. Let schoolwork stay at school.

  5. The homework thing is a big topic of conversation for us right now. Last year, Laurel’s teacher was retiring, going through the motions, and homework was one crappy, lame, sometimes confusing (seriously, who the hell writes the instructions? I have a Ph.D. and can barely understand some of it!) worksheet after another.

    This year, Laurel has an incredibly creative teacher — he champions project based work and the switch from crappy worksheets to interesting, open ended projects has been very challenging for my kiddo, who loves art and writing and making things 175% awesome. The first week assignment, which was intended to take about 5 hours, Laurel spent about 20 on. (I kept saying DIAL IT DOWN BABE! to no effect.)

    I know it’s a luxury to be in this position — to have a motivated kid and to be able to say “Do less homework!” without worrying that Laurel will fall off the rails and become a delinquent. And I’m really grateful that after I asked the teacher for help encouraging her to dial it down, the next week the project homework came home with recommended time estimates on each component. 🙂

    1. The teachers make such a difference. Our school has such an amazing roster of truly creative, passionate teachers, and I’m so afraid that the testing is testing the creativity right out of them, let alone the students. It sounds like Laurel has found just the right person to channel her brilliance and passion perfectly this year. I love hearing about the person she’s growing up to be. Which makes me miss you all.

  6. I confess I struggle with this one, too. Our homework load is light compared to what some of my friends describe for their kids- my 2nd grader gets a packet every week, and it takes her between 30-60 minutes total to complete. That feels OK to me. If she uses her time during the week well, she doesn’t have to do any on the weekend. Last year, she figured out that if she used the homework time at her after school care, she wouldn’t have to do any actually at home at all.

    Except the book reports. They had a book report every week (this was in 1st grade), and I swear it was starting to suck the love of reading out of her. Her love of reading is back this year, but I’m a bit worried the same thing will happen. I get that some kids really needed to practice the book report concepts. But here’s the thing- when I’m struggling with a new concept or difficult problem at work, the absolute best thing I can do is load it into my head and then look away for a few days. I wonder if the kids struggling with the book reports would have had better success if they’d gotten to do that, too, instead of being forced to run into the same damn wall week after week. I don’t know. We were lucky that my daughter COULD do the book reports, she just started disliking them. OK, hating them.

    I don’t know. We hear horror stories of hours of homework every night as kids hit middle school. I have no idea what we’ll do if/when we hit that. We’re figuring this out as we go!

  7. “I for one am happy to let my children just be children” is a phrase with a lot of stigma, baggage, and other negativity surrounding it. It’s full of judgment about how other people are raising their kids and how other people are judging what their kids need. It also implies that learning cannot be fun. That doing hard math with a child is somehow keeping them from enjoying childhood. I hear it a lot when mothers are saying nasty things about other mothers. It is the main reason I quit the last mommy forum I was on. It’s also, probably not coincidentally #1 on this list: . So if people are bristling, it’s because you’re not the first person they’ve heard utter that phrase.

    I don’t have any particular feelings about homework one way or the other. DC1 doesn’t get much at hir private school, though this year there’s a little bit every night that ze usually finishes during after school (and kids who don’t finish in-class work finish after school). I don’t really care if ze gets more or less so long as it isn’t error-ridden or a complete waste of time. I do wish ze had more novel reading assignments that would introduce hir to books ze wouldn’t normally read, but maybe ze and hir friends will start up their book club again sometime.

    We do have DC1 do workbooks on weekends and over breaks. Hard workbooks. Sometimes they’re so hard they’re frustrating, but those days also provide the biggest sense of achievement after the obstacle has been gotten over. Ze still enjoys hir weekends. Of course, ze also enjoys school, which you say is something that one needs a break from. I’m not so sure that DC1 does need that break. Of course, DH and I sneak in work on most weekends *because we want to* so maybe there’s something just wrong with our entire family.

    1. Oh it was awful. I knew it the second it came out of my mouth. Can’t disagree with you.

      But we’ll have to disagree on how we want our kids to spend their free time. My kids like school too. They also like lots of other stuff. I hope I can help them find enough time to do both.

      Balance. Mine…and theirs.

  8. I just wrote about homework last week. As a person who was so very into doing school perfectly, it’s hard for me to adopt the more laid-back attitude towards homework that my daughter needs and that research suggests is best for kids in early grades. As a teacher, I know so well that what you point out is true-those at back to school night have little to worry about. I try to remind myself of that as I say yes to outdoor play and let my daughter leave the silly worksheets incomplete.

  9. My second grader doesn’t have homework on weekends, but she does have math sheets, home reading, spelling, and dictee given every Monday that must be turned in by Friday. Honestly, I would much rather have it over the weekend than try to cram it into already rushed week nights.

  10. I’m just a few weeks in a school year with homework for my oldest child, so forgive my naiveté. From my newbie perch, I see how parents’ feelings about homework are tied up in how it impacts our home time. Busy parents don’t have endless hours to help their kids with homework. Teachers should be assigning work that the kids can do independently (with adequate directions in class), after all it is THEIR assignment, not their parents’. Parents should minimize the reviewing of homework. Put the burden on the kids to get it right on their own. I’m in agreement that homework should be minimal, but meaningful.

    1. I think you make some good points. But to clarify, for me at least, it’s not about how it impacts my own time. I mean some homework imposes on “family time” but so does everything with kids, right? (Playdates, birthdays, sports practice.) However my daughters are capable of reading on their own time and I don’t sit with them while they do worksheets. I just want them to feel like they can have free time too – or that Christmas break isn’t spent with them stressed that they have to read 30 minutes a day plus do a huge stack of worksheets.

      I was happy to hear our teachers say that they don’t want us correcting our kids’ homework; it’s an evaluation tool for them, and if enough kids are struggling with the same topic, then they know to work on that together. Love that.

  11. Last year when my son was in kindergarten the homework packet (basic math, handwriting worksheets, sight words) was sent home on Monday and was due the following Monday. Without fail, we would end up with a day or so worth of work to do on Sunday evening and it ALWAYS ruined our weekend. The environment in the classroom was toxic and it spilled over into homework. The battles were EPIC.
    This year, homework packet comes home on Monday and is due on Friday. At first I was really nervous about having to get it all done and back the same week. What if we had an “off” afternoon or baseball practice runs extra long or we have a spontaneous play date? Now, nearly 2 months into the year (thank you Los Angeles school district starting in early August) I love it. My son is completely free from Friday afternoon until Monday morning. His teacher believes that learning should be fun. She encourages pleasure reading. Best of all, he doesn’t mind doing his homework… It’s a completely different learning experience and my son is being a kid on the weekends again!

    I went to an alternative public elementary school that didn’t assign homework. The only work you took home was what you didn’t complete in class or special projects. We learned time management and study habits. I often wonder if those programs still exist. I think many kids would benefit from them.

  12. So happy to hear someone out there feels the same way. I made the mistake once of making a passing comment to another class parent of my then first grader about homework. Something along the lines of, “I think it’s silly for them to give homework at this age. It’s just busy work and it gets in the way of other activities.” Well, the look I got could have silenced a room full of screaming 7 year olds. Her response was that it was good for them to get used to it and learn time management, blah, blah, blah. My children are now in 3rd and 4th grade and I still stand by what I said then and would say it again about the homework they are getting now. But I don’t say it out loud anymore.

  13. We’re all for homework but not busy work. The amount of homework has increased over the years. Our children need time to also relax. They can learn while playing. LESS IS MORE.

  14. I’m not big on homework, either, but if I have to choose between weeknight homework and weekend homework, the weekend is definitely the lesser of two evils. I like to “let my children be *well-rested* children.”

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