I will never forget the first time my six-year-old daughter and I sat at the kitchen table, crying over her math homework. Yes, both of us were crying, and I was drinking wine. I never imagined how frustrating it would be doing basic addition with a first grader, but of course, the methods had changed so drastically since my own 1980s education that I was not well-versed in the correct lingo.
Though I had (perhaps embarrassingly) actually enjoyed the regular “timed tests” we used to take in elementary school – being uber-competent at memorizing math facts – this is no longer common practice. Thirty years later, I was clearly lacking in my ability to “make a ten” or build a “math mountain,” thus rendering me useless in my capacity to assist with math homework. And so we both wept with hopelessness.
Second grade was a bit better, thanks to a kind teacher who was very patient with my regularly scrawled post-it notes attached to homework sheets, stating that “we tried our best and had to quit,” or that we had a “busy night and didn’t finish.” But I felt guilty every time I, I mean, my daughter, failed to turn in a completed worksheet. She was seven.
Third grade was particularly rough. In addition to the nightly (except for Fridays; TGIF indeed!) math worksheets, they now had a weekly four-page language packet. I had officially hit new levels of resentment; as a working mother of two, the four-hour window between school dismissal and bedtime was already quite full. When exactly were we supposed to fit this in? I didn’t ask; we just did it.
Fourth grade brought the dreaded, “weekly writing journal,” a tedious process that originally I had thought would be great fun to complete together, (how adorable of me!). And while our first few attempts at planning, drafting, revising, editing, and polishing were quite exhilarating, the assignment soon joined the list of, “one more thing” we had to do.
We had piano lessons, weekly dance classes, Girl Scout meetings, and like all other families, errands to run, meals to eat, and children to bathe. Let’s not forget nightly reading time, whether fueled by an actual love of reading and value of literacy, or in an effort to fill out the requisite reading log in the “exceeding standards” category.
I railed against the imposition of homework on our lives. I ranted about it to whoever would listen. I attended a special PTA meeting to address the “new math” curriculum and met other frustrated, inept parents.
One teacher along the way even confessed that she, too, thought homework in elementary school was stupid. But I heard other parents advocating for the heavy homework load, saying it would prepare the kids for middle school, and I kept my mouth shut. We plugged along. After all, we were rule followers, not boat rockers!
And then in fifth grade, the year my youngest entered kindergarten, I thought I would inquire about who exactly was setting these homework standards. I sent a letter to the school district’s Achievement Department, sharing our feelings that homework was often stressful and a bit too much, and politely asking how these standards were determined.I quickly received a phone call back, not from the district, but from our school principal, to whom my email had been forwarded. She told me that the individual school determined the homework, not the district or some outside person above. She informed me that for most parents, homework was a value and an expectation. Parents appreciated it; they wanted it. I was a bit flabbergasted. I had no doubt that this was true for many people in our overachieving school zone, but I’d had enough conversations with other frustrated parents who were pushed to their breaking points to know that this perception of parent support for homework was only partially accurate.The principal went on to tell me that homework is always up to the parent. At any time, we have the right to say no, to only do part of it, to say that it is too much.
I was floored.
Yes, I was grateful to know that going forward, I simply needed to tell my children’s teacher that we didn’t agree with the rigorous homework policy and would fit it in as it worked for us. But what I should have said was, “At no point in our five years at this school has anyone ever made that policy clear. We have never been told –at curriculum night, at parent-teacher conferences –that all we had to do was say something and we could modify the homework policy. Nobody has ever said it was up to us.”
I felt a bit sheepish, if not slightly humiliated, that as a thirty-eight-year-old woman, I was being given permission by an authority figure to do what was right for my family. Why hadn’t I advocated more strongly before? My need to follow the current overcame my instincts to do what was best for my family, and of that, I was deeply ashamed. I also wondered what right we had to do things our own way if everybody else was doing the assignments as given. “If everybody else jumped off a cliff, would you do it?” my father’s voice echoed in my head. I also worried that we would be showing disrespect to the teacher by refusing to complete the given assignments.I thanked the principal for the information and had a productive conversation with our classroom teacher. As it turns out, 5th grade has been a less rigorous homework year than the two previous grades, and only occasionally have we been too busy or frustrated to complete an assignment.In general, I want my daughter to attempt the worksheets that are assigned. But I also believe that much of the time, these worksheets are busywork and do not necessarily enhance the children’s learning experience. When we need the extra practice, we will definitely try our best. I believe, however, that our children spend close to seven hours at work, and it is not acceptable for them to come home and do more work. After all, my husband and I don’t do that, so why would we send a different message to our kids?
I will have my children complete their worksheets when it fits into our lives and doesn’t drive us to tears. I want to know what they are working on, and I agree that it is valuable to develop discipline and routine. But when we are burned out, or have had a hard day, or are running from lesson to errand to home for dinner and bath, I will say no. Because, as was communicated to me, that is my right as a parent.
To others who feel overwhelmed and resentful of elementary school homework, I say: Speak up! If you don’t like your school’s homework policy, say something. Your silence – and mine – is being interpreted as a validation of a value. If we say nothing and struggle at home, we are complicit in the policies that are being set forth for our children. Your voice is important – use it.
Each new experience and tradition we shared with one another went off without a hitch. In fact, we soon learned our differences as a Jewish man and a Irish Catholic woman actually helped to bring us closer.