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Parent blog: When you hear “I hate homework!”

Mom and literacy coach Ilana Spiegel confesses that she hates what homework can do to her household but says there are ways to eliminate daily battles.

I hate homework. Well, maybe it’s not homework I hate but the yelling, tears and endless procrastination that accompany homework in my house. It is when I think of homework as less of “work at home” and more of “continued learning” that I see a shift both in my ability to support my kiddos and in their willingness to comply.

Just the other day, my oldest, Max, a high school freshman, asked why on earth he needed to learn and practice factor labeling and dimensional analysis for a physical science class (yes, it was uttered with more than an ounce of adolescent angst along with the pragmatism).

He wanted to know not only the purpose for the work he was doing, but where it lived in the real world.  After I googled exactly what factor labeling and dimensional analysis are, I told him that his most favorite aunt and uncle who just finished med school probably use it all the time in figuring out medication dosing. My answer must have satisfied him because he went back to work.

But, really, why do homework?

Max and my other three kids raise a good question. Why do they need to do homework of any kind?

For a while I tried the, “It is exercise and food for your brain.” That worked about as well as, “Because I said so.” Once again, when I made the shift from “work at home” to “continued learning,” I began to realize that in the elementary and middle school years, homework should serve two purposes – to reinforce a skill taught at school and to communicate with parents about what is being taught.

At these grades, homework is neither busy work nor a time to learn new concepts. Math and spelling homework should provide an opportunity for your child to get more “reps” at a math technique or spelling concept that she has already been shown at school and has yet to master. Ideally, it should be specific to what she needs as a learner, based on formal classroom assessments and anecdotal observation. Science and social studies homework should involve reading or re-reading similar content that was explored in class.  Written reflections about what was learned and what your child still wants to know are reasonable for any subject.

The bottom line is we do homework to continue the learning we began in school so we can ultimately take it into the world with us.

Once high school starts, the work in school might be continued by applying what was learned to a new situation. Take, for example, Max’s factor label homework. One side of the paper was similar to what had been modeled and demonstrated in class. When Max cried, “He never taught us this” when he turned to the second page, he was right. The second set of problems required the students to apply what they had learned to similar, but not entirely the same, problems. The expectation as kids get older is that they can apply what they know to new situations.

Tools to support your child’s continued learning

Regardless of whether or not you are sitting in another room doing your own thing, or right next to your child giving immediate feedback, the space in which your child continues her learning should have all the tools necessary for work:

  • A hard, flat surface
  • Pencils, pens and highlighters
  • Rulers
  • Paper and sticky notes

In our house. we have four distinct work areas. Charlotte, my middle schooler, prefers the solitude and comfort of her bedroom to do  work. Jack, my fourth-grader, gets more anxious about what he is missing when he is in his room so you can often find him at the kitchen counter or table. Max, the high schooler, tends to use the “kids office,” or our formal living room which has a low wooden table and lots of lamps. Ruthie, my kindergartener, prefers a lap desk in the family room with a pencil box of supplies.

In addition to spaces, tools like planners are invaluable. For some kids, the simple act of writing down assignments is enough.  Others might need slips of paper and notes reminding them what supplies they need to bring home to fulfill the assignments.

Time and timers are additional tools. I’ve found that most kids grossly underestimate the amount of time needed to complete assignments. Use a timer to compare estimated and actual times, or to say, “You have 7 minutes to complete this assignment.” For some reason, numbers other than ones that end in zero or five grab kids attention better.

My kids are telling me to end this post with, “See, that’s why homework really does suck!” But they all concede that we have a lot fewer tears, screams and tantrums these days when we are continuing our learning at home.

Image of father helping his daughter with homework courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.