I hate — hate — homework.
I hated homework when I was a student, I hate the battle of wills I have with my second-grader and I hate seeing my middle-school-age son miss out on the afternoons of his childhood.
But most of all, I hate being a hypocrite. So it’s time to come clean: I am a teacher, and I assign homework.
I have always assigned homework because that is what teachers do; if I didn’t, word would get around that I am a pushover, or don’t care enough about my students to engage their every waking moment with academics. When I first started teaching, I assigned homework liberally and without question, and scoffed at my students’ complaints about their workload. I expected them to keep quiet, buck up and let me do my job.
But 13 years later, I find myself at a crossroads. My son Ben is in middle school, and homework is no longer an abstract concept. I can’t just assign it and forget it, and I will no longer sacrifice my students’ right to their childhood so easily.
I am not the only parent — or teacher, for that matter — questioning the value of homework. It’s the subject of heated debate in school meetings and Internet chat rooms across the country. Even elite private schools in New York City are vowing to lighten their homework load.
The popular media tempest surrounding homework formed in 2006 with the publication of two books on the subject: “The Homework Myth,” by Alfie Kohn, and “The Case Against Homework,” by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, followed by Time Magazine’s The Myth About Homework by Claudia Wallis. Last year, Vicki Abeles’s documentary “Race to Nowhere” joined the fray. In her film, Ms. Abeles claims that today’s untenable and increasing homework load drives students to cheating, mental illness and suicide.
So is homework worth it or not? I went directly to the source. I asked my students whether, if homework were to completely disappear, they would be able achieve the same mastery of the material. The answer was a unanimous — if reluctant — “No.”
Most echoed my son Ben’s sentiments: “If I didn’t have homework, I don’t think I’d do very well. It’s practice for what we learn in school.” But, they all stressed, that’s only true of some homework. “Bad” homework — busy work and assignments that don’t do anything but eat up precious evening hours, is (as one of my more opinionated students put it) “a stupid waste of my time.”
Fair enough. If my students feel that quality homework is worth the effort, I’m keeping it. With one caveat. All assignments must pass the “Ben” test. If an assignment is not worthy of my own son’s time, I’m dumping it. Based on a quick look at my assignment book from last year, about a quarter of my assignments won’t make the cut.
Children need time to be quiet, play, read and imagine. Teachers who sacrifice these vital elements of childhood for anything less than the most valuable homework assignments are being derelict in their duty to their students and the teaching profession.
When it came time for my daughter to start Kindergarten, it suddenly hit me. I would have to get her to school each morning. On time. For 13 years. The thought had never occurred to me, and had it crossed my mind six years prior, she would probably not exist.
"Don't worry, you'll get used to it after the first year," a friend assured me. A year? I couldn't imagine. But somehow, she was right; by the time first grade rolled around I was a pro at manipulating all that six-year-old energy into a focused direction -- clothes on, healthy breakfast efficiently consumed, hair unsnarled, combed and tied into a perky ponytail, shoes velcroed (thank God for that technological innovation), and my own frazzled flesh washed, painted, dressed and ready to go.
At first, the school years were adorable. The cute little drawings she'd bring home ("It's the Mona Lisa, with eyebrows"), the clever observations ("I think the principal needs to be expelled"), the major achievements ("We cut open dead people at school today to find out why they died"). But when she had her first year-end project due, I realized things were going to get rough. She was supposed to turn in a collection of a hundred objects, collected over the school year. We'd been meaning to get around to it for months, when one day, she came home with a notice that it was due the following morning. I had something to do that evening or some guy to see and left her with a babysitter, like they do on TV. I grabbed a big jar of shells she'd collected on the beach and told the sitter to count out a hundred and put them in a baggy. She did, and my daughter dutifully carried her baggy of shells to school.
The following week there was a big event for all the parents. I went, proud of my cute and clever little girl and all that she'd learned and done over the school year. But when we got there, I was horrified to see the halls lined with amazing displays -- the Battle of Gettysburg recreated with a hundred plastic soldiers; the food pyramid recreated with a hundred paper-mâché veggies and grains ; Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry recreated with a hundred hand-carved wizards. Each elaborate diorama was a testament to parental dedication -- and parental craftsmanship from the look of most of them. Then there was my daughter's -- a plastic bag of shells.
Turns out the assignment was not to just collect a hundred things, but to tell a story with them, construct a display that would portray their deeper meaning. How humiliated my daughter must have been, I realized, kicking myself for not paying more attention. I sent an email to her teacher that very night, apologizing for my neglect. "No problem at all," she assured me, "part of the assignment was to explain to the class why they chose what they collected. Most of the children didn't really know, but your daughter told a wonderful story about how the shells told the story of the history of the world."
I realized then and there that I was raising a con artist who could put Olivia the pony-tailed pig to shame, and that my parental neglect was teaching her to be fast on her feet, a skill that would take her far. And so it was that I relaxed and figured if she passed Kindergarten, she'd do alright.
Years passed and I got better at paying attention to her projects, though most of them tended to require last-minute trips to the crafts supply store, hot glue guns and squabbles that inevitably ended with threats to put each other up for adoption. I couldn't wait for the project years to end, because all the other parents seemed to do it better, and I was never quite sure what it was the kids were learning aside from how to manage us.
Eventually, there were fewer and fewer three-dimensional homework assignments to assist with, and what few there were she did on her own, rarely even telling me what it was that she was up to. "What in the world are you doing with that nuclear waste?" I would inquire, to which she would nonchalantly reply, "I'm just doing my science homework, can you hand me the uranium hexaflouride?" I'd shrug my shoulders, do as I was told and go back to griping on the phone about how tough it is to be a parent.
Then she hit high school, and things really got rough. Now the homework requires asking me intellectual questions, expecting me to explain all sorts of complicated things, quiz her on her accumulating knowledge and evaluate her brilliance. "But I don't know logarithms!" I protest, "You still need to help me with your times tables."
"Mom, I learned times tables in third grade," she scolds, "please can't you test me on this?"
"Call your Dad," I counter, "he's the one who gave you those quantitative genes; it's not my doing."
"Fine. Then you can help me with my social studies," she suggests, confident that my Ph.D. in the social sciences will see me through ninth grade exams, "I just want to go over the fall of the Roman Empire."
The fall of the Roman Empire? All they taught me in graduate school was the fall of the U.S. Empire. That's outside my specialty.
"But I don't do empires!" I plead.
She looks at me like she's descended from apes. Recently.
"That's okay," she sighs, clearly ashamed to be related. "I have social studies down pretty well. Can you at least help me with physics?"
I feel like a criminal, caught in a lie. How can I get out of this one? "But you don't really learn effectively by being quizzed," I suggest in my best professorial tone, "pedagogically, it's a poor method for retaining information because -- " But she cuts me off.
"Admit it; you just don't want to help me with my homework!"
"Okay," I concede, "I thought homework was over when I got my Ph.D., and now you're making me go all the way through high school again. That's too hard!" I wail at the injustice, wishing only that she'd go to her room and study so I could turn on the TV and watch a rerun of Revenge. But she won't budge. She hands me her study sheet and tells me to quiz her.
"Start with the Bohr principle," she instructs, and I find it aptly named, because this homework is really a bore.
Two hours later, we're done, and I'm confident I could score a low C on the test, and she's confident that if I ever decide to put my head in the oven, I won't have sense enough to make sure it's not electric, given my inability to know the difference between a gas and an electron.
"I'm much worse off than I was before we began," she points out in a teenager's tone as she heads off to study without me. "I would have learned more by studying with the cat!"
"It's not my fault," I protest, "I don't know the answers!"
"The answers are right here!" she wails at me, shaking the study guide like it was some binding contract, "All you had to do was make sure you were comparing my answers with the answers I had written down - but you kept losing your place and telling me I was wrong when I was right because you were looking at answers to questions about neutrons when I was answering questions about density and matter! Anyone can tell the difference!"
I hang my head in shame. I look up sheepishly, "I'm sorry," I plead. "I'll make you cookies . . ." She perks up, gives me a big hug and suggests that's a good idea. She knows I can do math in the kitchen, figure out chemical conversion as long as it involves an oven, and master physics when it comes to calculating how long I should beat the batter before density kicks in. Just don't ask me about the fall of the Roman Empire, unless it's the name of a soufflé (in which case I can tell you all about it). As Socrates said, it's not information that gives us knowledge, but experience.
And as Socrates also said, true knowledge is knowing you know nothing. I really don't know much about Socrates, but I can tell you one thing. He must have been a parent.
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