Education

When homework makes the whole family cry, there’s a good chance you’re doing it wrong.

one room schoolhouse
Here’s an OLD picture of my younger son and me visiting a one room schoolhouse located at Old World Wisconsin in Eagle, WI. Look how tiny we both were back then!

As my children have become entrenched in the American public school system over the years, I have become increasingly disillusioned with said system as a whole. I often wonder if American school children are being prepared to survive real life in the real world someday, or if they’re just guinea pigs for a failing experiment that some researcher has been paid too much grant money for to admit that it’s just not working out.

If my Facebook feed is any indication, I am not alone in wondering if my children might be better off if I were to pull them out of the public school system altogether.

Homework has always sucked, but I don’t remember it ever causing so much family strife when I was growing up as it does now. I don’t remember my parents ever crying because they couldn’t understand my homework well enough to be able to help me with it. I don’t remember my parents really helping me with my homework much at all.

Back then, my homework was MY homework. It wasn’t my parents’ homework. They were there for me if I had a question, but otherwise, I was expected to take responsibility for my own work. Even when I did ask the occasional question, my dad’s standard answer was, “I don’t know: let’s look it up.” He would then make me figure out which encyclopedia I needed (wow, am I old!), and then he would watch as I paged through the book looking for the topic I needed. How’s that for teaching me an important life skill that I would actually use someday? (Sans encyclopedia, of course!)

Sadly, many children simply aren’t capable of doing their homework on their own these days because — especially in the case of “new math” — many of them are being expected to engage in abstract thinking at a time when their little undeveloped minds are still mastering concrete thought.

Anyone who has spent even a little time around even a small number of elementary school kids can tell you that individual children develop at extremely different rates at that age. One of the worst feelings a parent can have is when a teacher makes them feel like there’s something wrong with their kid simply because he isn’t learning to read or grasping math as fast as the “average” kid. This is a terrible thing to put a parent — or a kid, for that matter! — through, especially when you consider the fact that many of these “slow” children are capable of catching up to their peers if given time and encouragement rather than being made to feel somehow less than their classmates.

My own children were both slow readers. There were times with both of them that I thought they would never learn to read. I (and a couple of half-wit teachers) stressed myself and my older son out so much over it that I think we ended up making him dislike reading rather than encouraging him to catch up at his own pace and allowing him the opportunity to learn to love reading once he was developmentally ready for it.

Like most mothers, I learned where I screwed up with my first kid and vowed not to make the same mistakes with the next one. With my younger son, I took a no-pressure approach to the whole learning to read experience. I continued to read to him every night long after many of the other kids were reading chapter books to themselves. I made sure reading stayed fun even when it meant that he was still reading baby books that were several levels lower than that “average student” (whoever he is: I’m still not convinced he even exists!)

I encouraged my younger son to keep reading over the summers, but I didn’t make it mandatory. I took him to the library once a week and let him pick out his own books, even when it meant that he was dragging home Lego Star Wars books whose only value to me seemed to be to encourage kids to talk their parents into buying more Legos (seriously, am I the only parent who sees what these books are *really* about?) I let him pick out his own books even when it meant that he was dragging home books that were way beyond his reading level but were filled with really cool graphics that he would love to look at.

I did all these things, but I never pushed him to actually read or to “catch up.” All I did was make sure he always had access to books that he could get excited about — even when I thought they were complete drivel sometimes — so he could learn to associate books with fun.

And you know what happened? My son magically learned to read this past summer with zero pressure from me. In fact, our whole once-a-week library routine went completely out the window for most of the summer while we were caught up in the whole process of packing up and moving to another state. With almost no real reading going on, my son magically gained two whole grade levels in reading over the summer when the experts will tell you that most kids forget the majority of what they learned from one school year to the next!

But was it really magic? Or was it just a simple case of a child meeting a developmental milestone on his own time?

Now, let’s get back to the concept of students failing to retain what they learned from one school year to the next. The experts call this, “brain drain,” and I think I know how to combat it. I’m no expert, but I think the secret is to teach kids to love learning and teach them how to learn on their own so it becomes a natural process that continues whether class is in session or not. When you teach children to hate learning, as the new common core math seems to do by all accounts, then you can pretty much expect those students to shut their brains off completely as soon as that final school bell rings.

Rather than filling students’ heads with facts, which they will then be expected to retain only long enough to regurgitate them onto their next round of standardized tests, we need to be teaching them 1) to enjoy learning, and 2) how to do it on their own without all the hand holding, threats, and tears that have become the “standard” American family homework session under the Common Core regime. (Some smart researcher out there should do a study of the impact of homework on the family.)

We need to find a way to make it okay for individual children to learn at a pace that is dictated by individual developmental readiness rather than insisting on squeezing all children into the same set of standards simply because they are the same chronological age.

Sometimes I think I’d like to see someone start an old fashioned one room schoolhouse-styled classroom where all elementary school grades are mixed in one classroom and individual kids can be allowed to progress at their own pace. It’s just unrealistic to expect all kids to work at the same level at the same age. When you apply a one size fits all strategy to education, a certain number of children are bound to be left behind when it turns out that one size really doesn’t fit after all.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to see any super intelligent child learn to be bored with school because she is being held down to a standard that is beneath her developmental level. And I sure as hell don’t want my child to be one of the kids who gets left in the dust simply because his brain developed at a slightly slower pace than that mythical average student who somehow gets to set the standard for everyone else. The problem is, will we ever get the “experts” to listen to us ignorant moms who know our own children better than anyone else ever will?

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