Sunday, September 15, 2013
Talk to me about homework
In many ways the Little Man is a typical seven year old boy. He loves to be outside, will play LEGO for hours on end, loves the movies, board games and generally being active. He's a good student, who is able to grasp new concepts fairly quickly and accurately, reads just above his grade level and doesn't struggle with any subjects at school. He likes recess, loves to be and feel helpful and sometimes gets over excited and spirited.
Like most kids, I imagine, he has his issues. His nerves get the better of him when watching TV shows or movies with a lot of suspense. He's not into war games, cops and robbers or superheroes. He craves routine (though not obsessively) and hates to fail. He has anxiety.
The beginning of a new school year is fraught with anxiety for a child like Jake. New teachers, new classmates, new routines. The unpredictable stresses him out. Watching him at school you probably won't see any of this. You'll see a happy kid, eager to learn and excited to be with his friends. You'll see a child who tries to be helpful, is respectful and polite.
You won't see it, but I will.
I'll see it in the form a child who essentially loses his mind when he walks through the door after school and daycare. A child who will ask a question, then shut down before waiting for the answer. A child who will offer to help, but seconds later can't remember what is you asked him to help with. A brother who is usually considerate and loving toward his sibling, who is now climbing and stepping all over him and thoughtlessly swinging toys in his face. I'll see in the form of a son who can't remember his manners, forgets basic household rules and cries or screams at the drop of a hat. I see it and you don't because his anxiety has driven him to hold it all in during the school day but when he gets home, he's got nothing left. He's exhausted beyond reason and just lets go.
More times than I can possibly count, we find ourselves evaluating and discerning these behaviours. Trying to figure out if this particular incident stemmed from anxiety, or a child simply being a child. This is never more true than when it comes to homework. And I've wrestled with it for over a year now . . . is Jake incapable of doing his homework today because it's too much, he's had a long day and deserves a break? Or is it because his anxiety kept him going all day and now he's crashing?
Here's what I've discovered:
The rule of thumb in these parts seems to be an average of 10 minutes of homework a night per school grade. First graders get 10 minutes, second graders get 20 minutes and so on. So far Jake's homework has consisted of reading, math worksheets, oral presentation preparation, language arts worksheets, spelling and special projects. Most of the work comes home on Mondays and is due on Thursday.
Two books come home that are to be read more than once throughout the week. Each book takes 15 to 20 minutes to read. Five to ten spelling words come home that need to be recognized by sight and learned to spell, sight unseen. Two worksheets come home on math and/or language arts. Each page takes about 10 minutes to complete. I think I'm being fair in my estimate of how long each task should take. This is based on my actual knowledge of the children in Jake's class, having spent the previous year volunteering in the classroom a few hours a week. So I have a decent idea of the average amount of time it takes a seven year old to get through each of those homework assignments.
If we follow the teacher's direction to read the books more than once, practice the spelling each night and complete the worksheets by Thursday, it actually works out to about 40 minutes of homework on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with no homework on Thursdays and the occasional special project or oral presentation preparation over the weekend.
Jake goes to bed at 8 pm on weeknights. He gets up at 6:45 am and leaves the house at 7:35 am. He's at school from 8:15 am to 2:45 pm, then he's at daycare from 3 pm to 5 pm. When we get home, he plays with his brother, sets the table and empties his backpack while we make supper. We're finished eating and cleaning up by 6:30 pm. Twelve hours after getting up in the morning we're sitting down to do homework. If we've all had a good day, Jake can get through his reading and spelling in about 35 minutes. On a different night, when we get to the math worksheet, if it's composed of numerical (as opposed to word) problems, he can finish that and read again or practice spelling in another 40-45 minutes.
Those are good nights. It's now 7:15 pm and Jake has 30 minutes to play before getting ready for bed himself. But it's also Noah's bedtime, so Mom and Dad are busy and it's too dark to play outside so he's on his own. He might watch TV (the only screen time he'll have that day), or play by himself.
At 7:45 pm he has a bedtime snack, gets his clothes ready for the next day, has a bath, tidies up the playroom and perhaps assists us with another chore. Lights out at 8:30 pm.
What I've discovered are three things. First, it's too much homework, plain and simple. It's decidedly more than twenty minutes. Second, if the homework requires any kind of creative thought on Jake's part (mathematical word problems, language arts, oral presentations or journaling), we're pretty much screwed. By that point in the evening he's beyond critical thought and physically and mentally tired. Even with our help, it will take him over an hour to get through that type of assignment on a weeknight. Third, this has nothing to do with his anxiety and everything to do with a full day spent on the move at home, school and daycare. I'm tired just thinking about his day. Heck, my day is essentially the same as his.
Sure part of the "problem" (though I'm shuddering just saying that aloud) is that Jake's parents work outside the home. We're not available when he finishes school at 3 pm to start on his homework right then and there. That reality isn't going to change soon and I imagine it's a similar reality for at least half, if not three quarters of the families at his school.
I find myself lamenting his childhood. He has hardly any down time in the evenings. No time for a family to spend some quality time together, with the exception of at the dinner table - and boy, am I profoundly grateful for that time. No time for sports or physical activity - something they're already doing less and less of at school. No time for playing outside in the fresh air with his neighbourhood friends. No evening bike rides to the park, or walks to the hill to go sledding.
Jake does one evening activity during the week and none on weekends. Because of the amount of homework and the timing of that activity, we actually need to cram three nights of work into two because we're out on Tuesday evenings at gymnastics.
One of the comments I received on my Facebook post was from my sister-in-law, a teacher in Alberta. In their school board, elementary students aren't assigned homework with the exception of daily reading. With the support of parents in their community, and in light of studies showing the ineffectiveness of homework, they've allowed families to take back their down time and engage in activities (organized or not) that help develop children develop into whole beings.
It's my fervent wish that our school board would do the same. I wouldn't even mind if my child came home with work he was given ample time to finish in school, but didn't, along with a daily reading assignment and the occasional weekend project.
I've the utmost respect for teachers and am all too aware of the challenges they face in throughout the school day and into the evenings and weekends. I'm grateful for the hard work and dedication they put into their profession and the amount of time they give my son. I just want my kid back. You teach him reading, writing and 'rithmetic, during regular school hours. I'll handle the rest.