Saturday, April 13, 2019


Homework: forgotten, completed, lost, eaten by dog. Many fates await for such matters. When I first signed up to be a teacher, I expected that I would be assigning homework because I had been assigned homework when I was in school. It was as natural a thing as bells and recess. It wasn't until I had been doing the job for a few years that I began to question the importance/validity of what I was doing. Certainly there is something to be said about keeping students' eyes on the prize. If they go home to spend all those hours away from school without thinking about it again until they reappear magically on our doorstep the following morning, how much can they possibly retain? Rather than burden them with hours of busy work and repetition, I learned over time to keep some practice in front of them and then return them to their regularly scheduled childhood.
This was, in large part, generated out of memories of my own struggles with getting my own homework done. I made the large assumption that if I was assigned a certain number of pages, odd number problems, or stapled packet that it was my duty and honor to complete it by the designated time. It never occurred to me that if I encountered something that I couldn't do that I could leave it blank, that I could go into school early the next morning and ask my teacher for help. Instead, I fussed and strained to make good on the unwritten contract I had agreed. My parents worried right along with me, pitching in as they could, especially once my stress level had reached that of an air traffic controller at O'Hare Airport working on overtime. It was on one of these very strung out nights that my father stepped into my room and found me with my nose firmly to my algebra grindstone when he asked, "What would happen if you left that one blank?"
It was a light that came on in my head, but I was unable to acknowledge it until I had completed my formal schooling and had become a teacher myself. That light told me that indeed, I could leave one of those blank, and it wasn't necessarily my fault that I could not complete the assignment. It could be that I had missed some important instruction, or it hadn't been communicated to me in a way that made sense, and that I could make sense of the wiggly mass in front of me if only I was given a little more assistance.
Which is why I gave out my home phone number to my students when I taught fourth grade. I told parents that I didn't expect them to have to learn or teach fourth grade math. That was between me and their student. What they had was practice, and if it was taking more than an hour, something had gone horribly wrong and we would fix it the next day. Or they could call me and I would try and walk them through it. This was essentially the advice I gave my son when he hit his own homework wall. The answers are out there, and sometimes it takes a little extra time to find them.
And this is why I cried a little when I read a news story about a five year old girl who was beaten to death by her father for not doing her homework. She was home-schooled, and her father lost patience when his little girl told her father that she was tired and didn't want to do any more homework. Certainly there must have been other factors that contributed to the end, but when a kindergartner gives up, it's nothing personal. It is what they do. There's always tomorrow. Except in this case.

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