Homework Battles: Rethinking After-School Time and the Purpose of Homework

by ParentCo. November 09, 2017

group of friends playing cards in garden

“I hate homework!” my daughter yelled at me with enough fury to shake her ponytail loose and make her glasses slide down her nose.

I held my hand over hers, forcing her fingers into position on the yellow pencil. Up and down we went, following the waves and lines of language. I'd done the same thing with her when we baked bread, our fingers intertwining as we worked the dough. This was different. There was tension in that pencil, in my grip. and in hers. It felt like war. That pencil was a sword between us and we were each vying for control. My toddler pulled at my leg and the baby in the playpen needed changing, but we would get this lettering homework back in the plastic kindergarten folder to return to school completed. We would be here all night if necessary. If this was a battle, I would win it. My daughter screamed again.

Homework. It felt like she traded a bottle for a backpack, and we’d entered a war I was unprepared for. I was forcing my darling to do homework, and truth be told, I didn’t like it. Despite my determined exterior, I was also screaming “I hate homework!” on the inside.

As a mother, I should love the Puritan work ethic homework provides my budding educational enthusiast. As a middle school teacher, I should love that students are spending time at home continuing their learning. In a perfect world, the child is discussing all the things he's learning with parents and siblings, the family is looking for “x” in a math competition while they eat organic apple slices, and mothers are learning about the First Congressional Congress while they stir Hamburger Helper at the stove. Test scores are soaring, and American students rise as a phoenix from the dust, brilliant, united, and thirsty for more knowledge. This is what homework is about, right? Victory is gained when homework is handed in!

Actually, no. The ideal is far from reality. Lined papers with red check marks aren’t reflective of education. I know, it doesn’t feel intuitive for me either. Since we are all on the same side of the fight to raise the bar in education, homework must be done. After reading a 2006 homework study, I found out that homework and high test scores are friends. They correlate. Phew...looks like homework pays off.

Then I thought about it more. So there's a positive correlation on a chart between homework and test scores, but I know about test scores. I’ve sat in a library in uncomfortable chairs, analyzing them with highlighters and filling in worksheets. The student that usually gets high test scores in my classroom is also the student who never forgets her pencil, participates in class discussion on alliterative devices, does the assigned classwork identifying alliteration in poetry, has a supportive home, and engages in classroom discussion. These are the students who participate in sports and music. The study didn’t say homework causes good test-grades. As I looked further, that same study that shows the correlation between homework and test scores also shows the negatives of homework. Negatives like children doing something they don’t like instead of things they enjoy. Students becoming stressed out and overworked. Science told us something my daughter figured out in kindergarten. Homework isn’t necessary.

Studies on homework are revolutionizing the ideas of after-school time. Not all homework is equal. Instead of the drill-and-kill homework, there are good types of homework. The good types of homework take thoughtful interaction with knowledge. You know, kind of like family game night where we learn math and critical thinking skills by playing Monopoly. Yep. Playing games builds all kinds of skills: math computation, critical thinking, positive social interaction.

Instead of filling out worksheets, there are different ways to think about how a child spends their time after school. A new acronym is being thrown around school board meetings “PDF.” It stands for Play time, Down time, and Family time. School districts are adopting variations of “No Homework Policies” in order to protect PDF. Some districts are limiting homework by only requiring reading. Others, such as Public School 11 in Manhattan, have optional enrichment activities available through the internet that can be guided by parents. You read that right, optional.

Can you believe that not all parents agree with this policy? I know, I was sold at the word “optional.” But they don’t. Some parents lack access to the internet. Additionally, parents like saying to their children, “Your teacher assigned this,” instead of taking ownership for educating their child. Parents don’t like fighting the homework battle on their own. It seems to me that despite good intentions, a parent taking this attitude isn’t having a revelatory homework experience over Hamburger Helper. If parents are asking for “bad” homework, what’s the point of homework? There is no point. I’ve personally changed my tactics regarding the homework battle.

My little darling is now in sixth grade. Her slender frame carries a gigantic black French horn case back and forth to school, ponytail falling, glasses sliding, mind busy. You know what my daughter (who hates homework) prefers to do with her time? She does exactly what “good homework” looks like. Her fingers have learned to play the piano next to mine. One day she was walking our dog and she noticed a queen ant on the sidewalk. Recognizing its wing scars, size, and coloring, she could tell the species was Camponotus Pennsylvanicus. (I know, who knows that stuff?) Together we put the ant in a test tube with a moist cotton-ball. We work together decorating cookies and cakes. Her downtime is reading fantasy books about other worlds and characters traveling through ancient Greece.

I’ve released my grasp on the pencil. Does it really matter if her handwriting is messy, and she didn’t complete her 60 multiplication problems in the one minute she was given so she can do better on a standardized test? It doesn’t matter to me. That’s not my fight. I’m fighting for her. I'm protecting her time. To play, to create, and to be with me is a battle worth fighting.a



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