Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Family homework: not my favorite part of second grade

Family homework. The bane of my existence these days.

Most weeks, the kids come home with straightforward assignments they can do on their own, and my job is to make sure they apply backside to desk chair and execute the required task: researching Malcolm X, say, or filling in a multiplication table, or logging the reading they did for the week. Once in a while, though, they arrive from school brandishing the dreaded “family homework” – which means me giving up my evening for something their teachers insist will be fun for all of us.

I adore my children’s teachers – every single one they’ve ever had, in fact – and it’s very unlike me to vent so irritably about anything done by the faculty or staff at our school. After all, not only have my children had six and three great years there, respectively, but it’s the very same school that generated me, so how can I complain?

Well, if you saw the condition of the inside of my microwave this morning, you might understand.

Holly’s homework last night (and, in fairness to her teacher, I have to admit she brought home the assignment four days earlier, but no, we didn’t actually get it started until last night) was the ever-popular “giving specific instructions” exercise. I remember doing the same thing in elementary school: the kids called out instructions for making a peanut butter sandwich while the teacher generated hilarity by sticking the bread peanut butter side down on the counter, thereby pointing out the gaps in specificity (“We forgot to say ‘Use a plate!’ We forgot to say which sides of the bread to stick together!”). Now it’s a written, take-home assignment rather than an in-class one, and I think I know why. Why should the teachers get themselves covered in messy ingredients that they then have to clean up if they can stick the parents with that job instead?

I know this all sounds unduly cynical. My kids have truly wonderful teachers and they learn so much at school. I’m just crabby because Holly decided for her “recipe” to have me make her favorite chocolate-coconut haystacks, and the homework sheet she brought home encouraged parents to take the kids’ words as literally as possible and, yes, to “be silly with it.” So when Holly said to put a half-cup of chocolate chips in the microwave but didn’t mention a mixing bowl, I dumped the chocolate on the bottom of the microwave and pressed start. Yuck. When she said to mold the melted chocolate into balls but didn’t refer to spoons, I stuck my hands on in. Yuck again. And when she incorrectly said to sprinkle on the shredded coconut after cooling the chocolate lumps rather than while the chocolate was still molten, I watched coconut drift all over the kitchen counter.

Ah, family homework. I don’t mind helping with the big projects – the Native American village dioramas or the photograph-local-landmarks assignments – because I understand a seven-year-old couldn’t do those alone, and the school always gives us several weeks for those projects. It’s the regular weeknight assignments that frustrate me. I routinely come across quotes from college administrators complaining about so-called helicopter parents – and yet how much can they blame parents for being overly involved with their college-aged children’s work if the precedent is set in grade school that schoolwork is a family affair? As I grumble to my kids, I don’t ask for their help writing articles; that’s my job, and homework should be theirs.

Our pediatrician sympathizes with my griping. Fortunately for me, she has kids the same ages as mine. She told me that in a recent fit of pique during a family homework exercise that she didn’t feel she had time to do, she said to her daughter, “Guess what? I’ve already done second grade! And I passed it, too! It would have been really hard to get into medical school otherwise!”

In any case, Holly completed her homework. And as soon as I finish scrubbing burnt chocolate off the inside of the microwave, I know we’ll both feel a great sense of accomplishment. I just hope we get a really good grade.

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