Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Child's Work

The Kindergarten curriculum in Ontario supports the belief that playing is a child's work. All the planning I do is focussed on play-based learning, where the children freely explore open-ended activities that will help scaffold future learning. We've all seen this in action in observing our own children's play at home. Children learn through real life experiences, helping with chores, visiting friends and neighbours, and interacting with their siblings in imaginative play.

Play is a vital part of a child's development and sense of self, of finding their place in the world, and especially of learning.

And so, every evening, I struggle when Jude gets home from school. I empty out his backpack, and see the words, "Math, Spelling, Reading" written in his agenda. He groans as I pull a math sheet out of the backpack. The loose guideline given to teachers in regards to how much homework a child should have is "ten minutes per grade". So, grade one students should have work that takes ten minutes.

This is the guideline.
I've always been a bit of a rebel when it comes to sending home work from school. Even before I had children of my own, I felt that I was somehow invading the child's home life with "leftovers" from school. I knew that as an adult, I just wanted to go home and be off at the end of the day, and had a strict: work at work, play at home policy for myself.  I should clarify that I did send home work if a student had spent the school day goofing off; the deal in my classroom was that we should use the time at school for working and learning, so that when they got home they could do what they wanted to do.
Alfie Kohn states "I discovered that decades of investigation have failed to turn up any evidence that homework is beneficial for students in elementary school.  Even if you regard standardized test results as a useful measure, homework (some versus none, or more versus less) isn’t even correlated with higher scores at these ages.  The only effect that does show up is more negative attitudes on the part of students who get more assignments." 

You can read more here.

I'm in the unique position of being a teacher, and parent of child in my school. I found myself arguing, fighting, bribing, and cajoling my child into completing work every night (that took at least 30 minutes); by the end of it, we were both cross and exhausted. In a typical school day, I have my son for about three hours. I began to resent the fact that we spent a sixth of that precious time struggling through more work.

Homework frustrations are compounded when your child has a learning difficulty. I dreaded this time together, which in turn broke my heart, and turned me into a task-master. 

Alfie Kohn's article gave me the confidence to write a note to Jude's teacher (who is also my colleague, and wonderful teacher) today. I feel it is not in Jude's (or our family's) best interest to spend our time together fighting through homework. I agreed that we would continue to work on his spelling words, reading, and a science project on Dingoes, but that all else would have to wait.

We also practise piano and stepdancing in the evenings, and encourage the kids to run upstairs and play their sibling-imagination games. We often do puzzles, play board games, wrestle, cuddle up and read, and watch movies together.
 The other incident that inspired me to write was that Jude tearfully told us last night that he was held back from gym because he'd done some work "wrong". Granted, he had a supply teacher; we've already clearly expressed to his teacher that we don't want him missing gym or recess for any reason.

There is an art to expressing concerns to your child's teacher. Often, his/her actions are dictated by the powers that be; most schools have policies regarding homework and protocol in regards to work completion. I have been at the receiving end of parents who express their concerns by shouting at me, writing nasty notes, or emailing the principal without talking to me first. Here's a quick guide, off the top of my head, to dealing with concerns:

1. Give the teacher the benefit of the doubt. Breathe deeply, and keep calm. Shouting in his/her face isn't likely to be effective, as it will create a feeling of defensiveness which is never helpful.

2. Try to get a clear picture of what happened from your child, without judging the teacher or bad-mouthing him/her. One of the biggest struggles a teacher faces is being expected to manage a classroom of children whose parents have no respect for the teacher, and have expressed that to their children.

3. Avoid the "sneak attack" (waiting outside the classroom in the morning, or showing up unannounced through the day). Write a note or call the school expressing that you'd like to meet with the teacher, giving a brief synopsis of your concerns (e.g. "I have some concerns about the amount of homework Jude is receiving; could we meet to talk about what we can do together to support his learning?")

4. Be respectful of your child's teacher, as you would of any other professional. Yes, they are caring for your most precious person, and are paid by taxes that you pay. Your doctor also plays this role, but I imagine doctors receive less aggression than teachers do. This does not give you the right to shout at, insult, or attack them verbally. You'll get much further with honey than with vinegar, if you know what I mean.

You'll do more for your child's success at school by maintaining an open dialogue with their teacher than you will by creating a dynamic where the teacher feels that you're going to argue with every decision he/she makes.
By expressing your concerns and questions respectfully, you're modelling problem-solving and conflict-resolution for your child.

So. This morning I'm feeling a bit more peaceful, having expressed my concerns in a way that acknowledges my child's teacher's professional judgement, but also establishes my role as care-giver of my child. I want him to have time in the evenings to help with the wood, examine chicken bones from dinner with his magnifying glass, draw pictures, and just dream. Childhood is such a fleeting time; there is plenty of time to train children to be "good little workers".

In the meantime, I'm still trying to figure out how we might fit in a year or two of homeschooling in the coming years.

This post was supposed to be about homework. It's evolved into something else. Most of my "rant" posts are like this; I don't write a draft, edit, the's all off the cuff.


  1. I was appalled when my four finally enrolled and started attending "formailzed" school to see my then 8 year old with more homework time than we had spent homeschooling each day. It intruded on family life, meals and made for tense childrens and parents. I was able to quite quickly dialogue with her teacher and let her know we would not be enforcing that volume of work sent home. She was not pleased and talked alot about " parents role in education". I assured her our informal times of eating meals , doing chores, reading, artwork and play were very much as intrical apart of development of a healthy well adjusted person as worksheets were.To be honest if I had been in a position to do so again I would have pulled her out and continued to homeschool to highschool as I had her siblings! Thankfully as she passed into another grade the change in teacher made all the difference. One or two nights a week we had a short project to work on and that was it. Thank you for being one of those teachers who fully appreciates that life must be balanced. Everything has a time and place - we need more like you in our schools in Ontario!!

  2. I am in complete agreement. When I hear of what Hazel's pals are up to when they get home from daycare - the part after school which also seems to cram in so much - and on weekends it boggles my mind!
    I have three girls, two of which have been formally schooled from the beginning. And now that we are homeschooling Hazel I feel that the two older ones missed out.
    What a great post!

  3. Amen sister!!!! I'm a teacher, and I appreciate tips for parents wanting to speak with their child's teacher. And I fully believe worksheets are a complete waste of time! I've taken a lot of flak from parents and colleagues over the years, and thankfully education in Ontario is coming around to support my way of thinking. I can't believe the number of parents who WANT homework for their kid. Why???? And losing phys ed because of...well, just poor teaching practice. Teachers cannot withold curriculum areas for discipline.

    As a parent, my kids do very little homework. We spend our time at home playing Scrabble (my 16 year old is the undisputed champion and has been for several years), going to sports, reading and spending precious time together. I refuse to bend to what I have always considered poor teaching practices--luckily my kids get most of their work done at school and homework is rarely an issue.

  4. There is always this imperfect balance of work in school and out. We happen to not be fans of work being sent home and don't have a strict protocal on when and how our child feels moved to complete it. That may sound like we don't support their schooling but, I totally agree with that if they spend 6 hours in school each day doing 'work' then why do they need 1-2 hours more at home? Their poor little bodies are tired, their brains need to recharge and go inward or outward, depending on the child. I find that my kidsin school ( I have 2 school age children and two preschool age children....and one on the way :o) )need to come home, feed their bodies, sometimes nap, sometimes go outside and run with sheep, walk in the woods, read, or just hang by me as I prepare our evening meal! Homework just never seems to fit into that natural desire to 'calm down'! I, too, am eagerly seeking how to make our home a fully homeschooled family.....we homeschooled for a time but then our new team of babies began to arrive and I couldn't figure out how to balance the socialization piece and tending to our newest arrivals! This is why I love being part of these wonderful communities of families on discovery! Thank you for this post!

  5. I'm very scared for the time when little A. has to go to school...she's always been raised "free range," and her daycare provider operates in the same way. We have a balance between outdoor time, inside free play, reading/art, and 1 episode of Caillou daily :) I worry about how overwhelmed she might be....I keep thinking I should put her into preschool to prepare her better, but her home daycare is working so well. So many decisions...thanks for this, though, because I never thought about the homework issue.

  6. You are a thoughtful, caring parent and teacher.

  7. Excellent post and thoughts. I would love to read a follow-up to what agreement you reach with Jude's teacher. I know I did not have homework in grade 1. I remember though when I did get homework that I felt "cool" to have stuff to do at home. That might have been in grade 4 or 5. High school was a whole other story but I won't go there. Our years as a child are fleeting. I think you are a wise mama and teacher ;-)

  8. Very good post, Stephanie! Especially the tips on communicating with your child's teacher. I feel that I have always communicated well with my girls' teachers which may come from having a Dad and a sister in the profession. I especially remember asking J's grade 3 teacher why there was just so much homework, compared to grade 2. My concern was that J was goofing off in class. Right away, the Mrs. L assured me that parents have the absolute right to decide how much time their children spend on homework. If it was a night where she was on a roll, then great. If it was a night when she just couldn't concentrate or was too tired, fine. She admitted there was more in grade 3 but that she would completely understand if I controlled the amount of time spent on it. If I had not spoken to her, we would have continued the drama every night! Now that the girls are in grade 5 and 8, I pretty much leave them to it. If they don't want to finish because they are goofing off HERE :) (as I hear them chasing each other around the table now), then they can explain it to their teachers tomorrow! They usually just do it quickly after school knowing that the rest of the evening will be theirs.
    I wonder what high school will bring....

  9. Oh I couldn't agree with you more. We homeschool so I do not have to deal with these issues right now, but when I see 6, 7, 8 year olds coming up the street with bags that they can't even carry on their backs filled with more work to do it looks like they are little men and women frazzled from a day at the office ready to burn the midnight oil at home to get the job done. So sad! Children need to play, they need to explore on their own, they need to be children because despite the fact that they are humans as well, they are not little adults, they are different and need different things.
    What incredibly lucky children (both yours and at school) to have you in their lives. I really wish more teachers thought like you and I wish more parents realized that their children don't need more work to thrive, they just need freedom.

    -fellow ranter (lol) @ dark blue dragon

  10. Wonderful post, I love your rant!!! While my little man is not in school yet, and we do plan to "life school", I can understand where you are coming from.

    Children need down time to play, to chill and to have fun, and this is when some of the best learning actually occurs.

    Thanks for sharing!

  11. I am my daughter's teacher and supply her with homework Monday-Thursday. I think it provides valuable practice, gives her dad a chance to see what she's doing and how she's doing it, helps her with time management, and gives her a sense of pride in her work. However, I do not fight or cajole her to do it. It's been a routine since first grade. It's a part of our family life and doesn't take away from it.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  12. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I have been battling with this very same dilemma and my daughter is only in JK! By the time the whole family is home; after a full-day of work, dayare and school; the last thing any of us wants to do is sit down and do more work! We want to cook together, read together, dance together, play games, craft, and simply be together as a family and enjoy the precious time we do have! As you said it is fleeting!

  13. This is wonderful advice. We haven't faced this homework problem yet, but I was already dreading it. We are doing an evening reading program, where we mark down the name of the book we read each night, but I think that is great--Alyce is already a big reader but it's exciting for her to have this new project. I will cross my fingers and hope that Alyce has a teacher like you as she moves in school!

  14. Thanks for writing this post. I enjoyed it! Alfie Kohn's writings changed the way I taught - which sadly wasn't greatly accepted by my superiors... But I had the respect of my students AND their parents and that was what was important at the time.

    Now as a parent, I employ similar strategies with my own children that I home school. No bribes, no threats - respect for each individual helping them to be intrinsically motivated. I wasn't raised that way so I have to work on it myself. It's a much nicer way to get through life.


  15. Thank you all for your thought-provoking comments. I know families who take their kids to sports and music and dance etc. and happily travel the roads every evening to "enrich" their child's life. We're not one of those families. What I'm saying is that every family has their own personality as a whole, and is made up of lots of little personalities; Violet will likely thrive in school, and LOVES to do "homework" (she works at the table alongside Jude). I'm not saying that school and homework is right or wrong; it depends on your family. I'll be writing more on this, as I've been thinking a lot about it since yesterday morning!

  16. I think you are right in your concerns and really support your decision to say nothing can come between him and the chance to move his body a few times a day. We expect boys to maintain certains standards but don't allow for their need for physical movement. I am hearing so much recently about boys being labeled with this and that because they don't enjoy school and basically don't behave like girls. The idea of elementary school children having homework is just baffling to me, what exactly are they doing in class all day? We homeschool so we are opting out of all these issues and, I have to admit, the way the schools are currently structured I hope I never need to send my children to school so that they are free of these constraints and can learn and live at their own pace. Btw my previous profession was, of course, a teacher and I always thought homework was a waste of time.

  17. I really appreciated this post! My son is 7 and is/was having some difficulty in school keeping up. Each school day is generally very tiring for him so then to get home and have to do more work, in the form of homework, is very hard for him. For the last few weeks I haven't insisted on him doing the homework, but have spend the time reading together, looking a maps and the globe, dancing etc. On thursday his teacher came up to my husband and told him that recently there has been a real turn around in my son's work, and that he finds him much more motivated in class! By the way my son has a wonderful school teacher, even if he does give homework, who is always happy to discuss things with us and my son.

  18. I have to rush off to feed the horses this morning, so I haven't read thoroughly. But I just want to note that I felt the same way as a teacher about sending work home. I taught juniors and seniors in high school, taught them literature and use of language. There were two sides to that work coin - if I sent them home with work, they brought it back to me to grade; I spent my first year working eighty hours a week to catch up. But it struck me as brilliant: how much new information can be crammed into a kid's head every day of every week? I could teach an idea, a concept, then I could use classroom time as lab - they could write in class, giving them the chance to use me as a guide and reference, and I could - in my own turn - be working on the evaluation and grading of the work they had handed in before. It worked beautifully. Much better to have them write with help available (not TOO much help, as some parents might give) than to send them home without. And then to have them pass around paragraphs, analyzing in class - that was helpful, too. School is rarely efficient and it rarely bothers to bring an organic structure to study, which is why I taught my own at home for the first twelve or thirteen years of their lives. But it is also a blessing to have public education. Learning to find the best way to make open the world to a child - that is the parents' constant work.


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