Busy bees and learners

February 09,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I was standing in walk-up line the other day and overheard a conversation between two moms of 1st graders at my son's school. They were discussing homework and, when I heard the word, I couldn't help but listen.

Were they complaining about too much homework? Problems with homework?

As it turned out, they were commiserating on homework battles. One mom is stressed, because her daughter is being difficult about doing her best job with her work. "She's so sloppy," she said to the other mom. 

Mom #2 nodded in understanding.

"I'll tell you what I'm going to do--I'm going to have to go all Chinese mother on her now!"

*********************

I'm always interested in other parents' opinions on the homework business. In that same walk-up line yesterday a fellow fifth-grade dad was complaining to me that the 5th graders get so little homework each night. I smiled politely, but inside I was taken aback--both at my own feeling of guilt at feeling glad L. doesn't get much homework, and at how/why parents would complain about the lack of what they consider "enough"--what do they mean by it? Yet I've heard it before. Last year some parents at T.'s school complained that their kindergarteners weren't getting 'enough' take-home work. This year, some parents (maybe the same?) are worried their first graders are being short-shrifted in the homework department. The principal at T.'s school, though, is not a huge fan of overloading kids with busy-bee homework, thank goodness--a fact that elevates her to greatness in my mind.

But I also want to point out that I make a distinction between homework as pages of mind-numbing worksheets and exercises and the type of homework I think can be exciting and valuable for students, like take-home projects that give each child a choice in how he/she wants to approach the work. L.'s had some great projects this school year, including one that seemed almost tailor-made for him.  And while I won't say that the process of getting him to complete the project was painless, I did appreciate the different ways we could help him "buy-in" to the goals of the project. I know for myself, I can't stand mindlessly completing tasks when I don't have a real sense of how they contribute to my overall goals or to the goals of my workplace and while practicing skills learned is important, equating hours of homework completed, or pages of work completed with learning is, in my opinion, a big mistake.

The exchange between the two mothers in the walk-up line interested me, not only because I witnessed the use of a new catch-phrase that will no doubt from here on out haunt parents everywhere, but because it's clear to me that the one mother is bothered already by her daughter's seeming lack of care when it comes to homework completion. It's hard as a parent to know how to walk the line between being overly pushy when it comes to policing our children's work--we risk turning homework into a battleground, and knowing when to be flexible. I want my kids to recognize how it feels to be invested in the work that they do; I want them to grow up to be learners, not just busy-bees.