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A Plea to End Homework for Elementary Students

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Kindergarten: On her first day, my four-year-old brought home a forty-page packet of worksheets. Each weeknight, my kindergartener was supposed to complete one page (front and back) of math and one page (front and back) of language arts homework. We did this for four weeks before Parent-Teacher conferences came around. It was horrific. We fought our poor, exhausted daughter every single night. After a full day of school, she wanted to rest and to play. We all wanted to spend time together as a family. And, of course, we were all still adjusting to a move that took us halfway across the country, and my husband’s new job and schedule. During the conference, we saw that our daughter was in the top third of her class and heard that she was doing well socially and emotionally, also. So, I inquired about the homework: specifically whether it was mandatory, or if it was just meant as extra practice for the kids. The teacher did not answer me, saying instead that she could tell the kids who did it and kids who did not it. And with that answer, my husband and I decided our daughter would not do one more homework worksheet that year. The occasional family homework projects that had us all working together and involved things like art, fine motor skills, team work, and creativity? We could support those. Although, the websites we were provided in order for her to practice her standardized tests? Yeah, no.

First Grade: We were able to enroll my daughter in an International Baccalaureate school. We were so pleased with a complete change in the teacher’s attitude toward homework. At least some portion of the school day was student-directed and if the students didn’t use their time wisely and complete their work during that time, it came home as homework. My daughter was very matter-of-fact when that happened, and we almost never had any fights over those worksheets. Other worksheets were so rarely assigned that, again, completing the work was not often a problem. There were bi-weekly assignments in which children had to choose an object based on a specific sound and write clues to help their classmates guess the object, and there were a couple larger projects, but those were given more time and allowed for more freedom and creativity on the part of the students. I still won’t sing the praises of homework, but if a school is going to insist on giving it to young elementary kids, this system was pretty successful. Unlike the first few weeks of kindergarten, it was an infrequent night that homework devolved into such a battle that it destroyed our family’s evening.

Second Grade: We’re about five weeks into second grade and we may as well be back in kindergarten. My daughter has had double-sided math worksheets more often than not since school started, and sometimes she has reading, in addition to or instead of the math. The homework isn’t hard for her; she simply doesn’t want to do it, and I can’t really blame her. She’s spent the day at school and when she comes home, she wants to be done. Meaning that a worksheet that could be done in ten minutes—maybe fifteen if the challenge question is really tricky—takes 45 to 60 minutes, mostly of screaming and crying, and some rather unacceptable actions and behaviors. It means we don’t get family time, we can’t run errands, she can’t get any of her chores done, she can’t go outside to play with a friend…you get the point. Plus, we’ve just recently been given a couple different websites and names of (not free) apps to use so our daughter can spend “a few minutes” a day practicing her math skills. In addition to assigned homework. As an aside, in town where the whole school district is Title I, that’s really making an assumption about students’ access to technology at home.

I have one question: Teachers, what the hell—why are you doing this? What my daughter’s kindergarten teacher said about how she could “tell” which students did the homework wasn’t true. Homework doesn’t benefit kids this young: there is no evidence of benefits of homework—academic or otherwise—in elementary school (check out The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn for details). What she could “tell” was which students were fortunate enough to have parents who had the time and ability to spend time reading with, and playing educational games with, and just doing things with their kids. Because even everyday things are educational: cooking involves math and science, helping with the grocery shopping helps with literacy, spelling, and handwriting, building with blocks and LEGO involves physics and spatial reasoning. Which is why I don’t mind those special projects nearly as much as I mind mind-numbing worksheets. Folks, those damn worksheets don’t make one bit of difference to your child’s learning. And I don’t know about your household, but they sure do have an effect on mine and it’s pretty freaking negative. And of course, spending time being active develops gross motor skills (and keeps kids’ bodies healthy), and spending time in pretend play and with friends, siblings, and other people helps children develop their social/emotional skills.

The funny thing is, if left to her own devices, my daughter comes home from school and reads, or listens to a book, or plays school and writes math equations for her dolls, which she then solves. The learning happens on its own; it doesn’t need to be beaten into her brain with worksheets. And she loves to learn. One of my greatest fears is that this battle over homework is going to kill that love—and the kid just turned seven; she’s got a long way to go in school. Interestingly, the same kindergarten teacher who assigned a bajillion worksheets also gave each students a bag to take home over the winter holidays. Inside were instructions and supplies for science experiments, and math games using dice and playing cards, as a way to keep the students engaged in learning over the break. My daughter did every one of the experiments and we still play some of the card games. As a matter of fact, I carry a deck of cards in my handbag and we play math games while waiting for our meals at restaurants. (Did you know War is a math game?) It was a genius idea, and I made sure to thank the teacher and tell her so! But where was this “homework” the rest of the year? Imagine how much learning could have taken place with a themed packet like this coming home each quarter.

Teachers, I am begging you. Read the research. Take a stand and become a no-homework classroom. If your principal is against that philosophy, then work together to change their mind. Parents, become active with your Parent Teacher Association/Parent Teacher Organization to understand your school’s homework policy and, if necessary, work to change it so meets the developmental needs of students. The science is out there. Kids need time to play, explore, relax, engage in extracurricular activities, and spend time with friends and family. And schools who have adopted  no-homework policies are reporting that their students are actually more engaged and taking on more work—by choice—than they did when they were assigned homework.

No family should experience the kind of anxiety and stress that mine is right now, and I know that my family is not alone in what we’re going through. There is a better way. It’s up to the adults in room to make it happen.

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