Spinning wheels - FamilyEducation

Spinning wheels

April 22,2008
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.

Every Monday through Thursday, my cell phone alarm rings promptly at 4:30. This is L.'s "homework alarm" and, although I usually end up having to push the snooze button once or twice, the alarm system has helped make an unpleasant business at least more organized (although still not exactly pleasant). At 4:30 yesterday the alarm went off, and only five minutes later L. disappeared into the office to type out his spelling words. I used the time to engage in what a friend terms "horizontal parenting." This term describes the type of parenting you can do while lying prone on a couch or floor. Your child incorporates your prostrate body into their games and you have to do little but play along in a very passive, relaxed sort of way. Yesterday T. pretended I was a little girl named Sarah Belle and that I was sick. I got to lie on the couch, covered with blankets, while T. read me stories and brushed my hair. Every now and then I had to say something like "Can I have another story?" or "Oooh, I feel sick," but in-between all that I was almost able to doze.

Just as I was certain I'd nod off any second, L. emerged from the office at 5:00 p.m. and I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking how easily we had breezed through the daily battle over homework completion.

"Did you do your spelling words?" I asked L., as I fumbled for my glasses.

"Look at the paper I made," L. announced triumphantly, dodging the question and holding up a sheet of white paper, with an immense blue numbered grid on it.

"What paper?"

"I made homework paper! Now I can just type my words into this special stationery!"

While I was busy reclining on the couch playing Sarah Belle, L. had spent almost 30 minutes in the office designing his very own homework stationery paper. The paper was wonderful, too, and had clearly taken immense concentration and creativity to create. The words, however, had remained untyped. It was 5:00, time for the kids' nightly fix of Maya & Miguel, which L. wasn't going to get to watch because the homework still hadn't been completed. The battle had just begun, and it was an ugly one.

Personally, I hate homework--although of course we never let on about this to L. It's been the bane of our existence now for two years, and the daily battles just don't seem in proportion to the amount and type of work L. has to do. There are all kinds of theories about whether homework battles are worth the stress. Some advocate letting kids like L. skip homework altogether; that school is so stressful for them, it isn't fair or possible even to ask them to focus on more schoolwork when they are trying so hard to transition back into the home environment. Also, because L. has such a very different way of learning and tackling knowledge, the homework worksheets just don't reflect what L. needs to learn and--more importantly--how he needs to learn it.

Case in point: all year my son's teacher has been struggling to encourage him to learn to read the analog clock. Worksheet after worksheet has come home with blank clock faces for L. to fill in with the appropriate times. Because he has been incredibly stressed out about his inability to tell time, he has dug his heels in about our helping him--to the point that even the mere mention of telling time by an analog clock throws him into meltdown mode. Finally, one evening about two weeks ago, L. emerged from a long bedtime bath knowing how to tell time. Scott had caught him at a good, receptive moment, and the two had talked through that whole clock business. My husband, with his infinite patience, had managed to carefully explain time-telling to L. in such a way that his mind was able to finally grasp it--it was like that famous Helen Keller "a-ha!" moment--the time when she finally grasped the meaning of language. The pride in L.'s face was unmistakable. I thought about all those wasted moments with those worksheets--the temper tantrums on L.'s part, the stress and ugliness of it all, and, of course, the wasted paper.

Life is filled with teaching moments for kids and parents alike. Maybe, as a teacher myself, I'm wrong in saying this, but I just can't accept that those homework sheets are worth all the aggravation they set into motion each day. Some battles are worth fighting; there are many things in daily life that kids must learn to do, whether they are pleasant or not. But because so much of L.'s life challenges him daily on so many different levels, I'd rather see his face light up in a true and pure realization of what the power of knowledge means to him, than have him complete a hundred of those worksheets.