My friend and fellow NWAMB contributor recently wrote a great article about the no-homework policy many elementary schools have adopted. She is a high school teacher who sees how years of no homework throughout elementary school adversely effects her students. She mentions the lack of “grit” that she sees in her students, and feels that they need to be prepared for the amount of homework required to be successful in high school and college.
I completely understand where she is coming from. As an elementary teacher, I am responsible for setting the tone for a child’s entire academic career. My fellow elementary teachers and I help students develop attitudes about school, and hope to instill behaviors that will support a lifetime of learning. I would love to send home meaningful homework that pushes my students to higher achievement and understanding. The truth is, when dealing with children this young it often isn’t that simple.
As much as it breaks my heart to say this, there are hundreds of 5 to 12 year-olds in my school alone that simply do not have the parent support needed for homework. Many parents work hours that simple don’t allow them to be home in the evenings. Children stay with neighbors or babysitters who likely have their own children to take care of as well.
I also have students who are carrying the burden of responsibilities far beyond their age. A few years ago, I became aware that one of my nine-year-old students was the primary caregiver for two smaller siblings for hours after school each evening. Her family depended on her parent’s working the only jobs they could get which happened to be during the time the kids weren’t in school. I truly believe that they felt leaving their children home alone was their only choice. However, this was putting a burden on my student that no small child should have to endure.
Sadly, these situations are all too common. Children are being asked to babysit siblings, to help with their parents work, or to simply stay home alone at an inappropriate age.
Another issue is that parents often do not speak the same language that their children are instructed in. Both literally and figuratively. Some students have parents that are unable to speak English well enough to help their children with homework. With an ever-changing curriculum, parents often don’t speak the same academic “language” that their child does. Parents get frustrated when their child is learning material in a different way than they did in school. Just mention new math strategies and you are likely to hear all sorts of frustrations about parents not being able to help their children at home. Quite frankly it is tough on a teacher when a parent decides to show a student the “old” way to solve a problem. Educators are trained on the best known methods for instruction. When these don’t align with the way parents are instructing at home, students easily become confused.
What inevitably happens is that students, who have parents that are willing and able to help them, complete the homework. In most cases, these are the students who generally do well in school anyway and are less likely to need the additional practice. Students who have no support at home just don’t do the homework.
I can’t go without saying that elementary school just isn’t what it used to be. When you and I went to school, we had much more time to just be kids. Kindergarten was a place for imaginative play, socialization, and (gasp!) even some unstructured time. Grade-schoolers often had more than one recess as well. Today’s students are expected to be highly engaged in academics at ALL times except for a short twenty minute recess. With the demands placed on students to achieve high levels of achievement on state testing, there is simply little time left for “play” at school.
I see how exhausted my own young children are after a day of school. There is no way that sitting at the kitchen table working away on pages of homework would be best for them. Young children have to have down time. They need to play outside, be encouraged to create, and engage in genuine connections with their families.
So how can elementary teachers help to set students up for success in high school and college if homework is off the table?
My suggestion is that elementary teachers continue to increase the rigor of classwork. We must engage students in higher-level thinking skills every single day. We need to move away from the “teach to the average student” mentality and push our students well beyond their comfort zone. Students must grapple with difficult concepts. They must experience failure to develop the stamina needed to be successful in high school and beyond. In my opinion homework isn’t needed in order to accomplish this.
I have to say that I would never deny a request for homework if a parent felt it was right for their child. If a child struggles with a certain concept, and has appropriate support at home, additional practice might be the right solution.
The best way for parents to facilitate responsibility and perseverance in their children is to give them real-world opportunities to see the power of a little hard work. Kids need to see that their choices have consequences, both positive and negative. Challenge your kids to work for something they want. If they are allowed to experience failure and success caused by their own effort, they will understand that life doesn’t simply happen to them. Children who have these experiences will know what it takes to succeed when they get to high school.
So for now I’m okay with sending my 22 little nine-year-old students home with an empty backpack at the end of the day. Their lives are so full already. I don’t mind lightening the load a little.