DISCLAIMER: This article is not blaming the teachers – it is an article about my opinion with the way things are done in schools and perhaps a fault in our curriculum.
Learning Expectations: Preemptive or Premature?
Homework and Expectations in Elementary School
I got a letter from my son’s teacher this morning, here’s what it said:
“We would like to offer your child additional support during his/her language block…Your child will be given a few pages to read from the assigned reader….the load won’t be very heavy, although he/she needs to read every night, including weekends. This daily exercise will be the best thing your child can do to advance and feel successful in Grade One curriculum expectations.”
Now, let me just say this: My son is in grade 1; last year he was in kindergarten which focused on play-based learning. Very little reading and writing were done – he learned how to write his name, some of his friends’ names, his numbers from 1 – 10 and do most of his alphabet. That’s about it. Also, it’s October 4th.
As you can imagine (since I’m writing a blog article about it) I have numerous issues with this letter, its content, and its timing. But first, I would like to give you a little information on what we do at home in regards to learning.
I’ve read to my son since he was 3 months old, starting with the first book I ever bought: A Cuddle For Little Duck . I’m also an avid reader and a writer. And although I do encourage learning in my household, we don’t make it a priority. During the summer, he had 2 hours or so per week that he had to sit down and do some “homework” in his learning books I bought, but he would get easily frustrated and sometimes preferred to do math instead, and we did a few stints of Hooked on Phonics. But I am not the mom that forces my kid to do learning when he doesn’t want to, especially if it’s not “mandatory.” He loves playing outside, loves playing sport, and loves using his imagination, so I have always encouraged these things and I want him to embrace learning, not see it as a chore. He also isn’t huge on computers/tablets/video games (thank God) so he doesn’t play learning apps; he prefers to play for real.
I think my kid is pretty smart. I’m not being biased; he really is very smart; he is observant to every day life (often informs me that I need gas before I’ve noticed), he understands a lot about human behaviour and a lot about the world around him, and I am the first to admit that he isn’t gifted in anything, and he may never be an Einstein, but he’s smart in the areas that matter to me.
Although I definitely embrace learning (I work as a researcher so learning is a big deal to me), it hasn’t been my main focus in raising my son. A few years ago, I read an article (I can’t seem to find it now, however) written by a mother who said she didn’t care if her kid could count to 100 by the time she was 3; this mom’s focus was on raising a good person. She was fine with leaving he academia up to the people who were technically “responsible” for it, as accepting her “responsibility” in raising a child who is empathetic, caring, polite, and comfortable with him or herself. As I read the article it was as if I’d written it; I could not have agreed more.
Now, I definitely don’t think there is anything wrong with parents who focus on academia at a young age (and yes, it’s is possible to do both), but I know my “limits” as a teacher, and I prefer to focus on giving my child traits that will help him in every area of his life, for his whole life. I also realized early on that my son wasn’t the type to sit down and play games on his tablet, or sit and look at books, or even sit an watch TV, in fact, my son doesn’t really sit. He prefers to be active: playing outside, playing hockey in the basement, using his imagination. Additionally, as mentioned, I know my limits: I am not a teacher, I don’t know the first thing about teaching a child to read, write – hell, I didn’t even know what a Wall Word was until this year! So although I made an effort to ensure he got some learning in here and there, I refused to be his teacher – I would leave that up to the people who are trained and paid to do that.
Learning to Learn
On the 2nd day of grade 1, we got a folder home with daily homework – and within thirty minutes, I’d gone from excited (to be learning with my son) to frustrated and irritated. Literally three minutes into homework, he was in tears and I was almost yelling. He didn’t have the patience to be wrong or not know the answer and I didn’t have the patience to listen to the ensuing whining and pouting. What should have been 5-10 minutes of homework turned in 45 minutes of arguing. There was absolutely no way I was going to put my son, not to mention myself, through that every night.
I looked through the remainder of his homework for the week and found a “project” he had to complete by the following week that he would then present orally. The letter that was sent home with the folder stated that the homework would not be evaluated (did that mean it was or wasn’t mandatory?), but that it was essential in his learning progress. I sent a note to the teacher about all this, and she called me the following day. I explained our concerns: At age 6, I didn’t understand the need for homework. I also stated that I don’t exactly agree with homework in the first few grades. I asked her to define what she meant about “evaluated” and I asked her about the project he was expected to do; was this something that he would be working on in class and then only had to work on at home if he didn’t get enough done in class or was this project the sole responsibility of mom and dad (and child)? She stated that this project would not be done in class, but it was only a one-time thing, meant to do with mom and dad. She explained that the two purposes for the homework: for the children to learn responsibility and accountability, and for the parents to see what the children were learning in class (the latter part I appreciate). I then asked her if he didn’t do his homework – for instance this project that was the sole responsibility of the parents to complete – would he be penalized – she said no.
In the end, I told her that, at 6 years old – and especially when it comes to something like this – children are too young to fully grasp the concept of accountability (unless it’s immediate), and that homework falls largely on the shoulders on mom and dad, especially for those who still cannot read. And since there are no consequences to not doing their homework, again, it is the responsibility of the parents to remind the children of their homework, since the child wouldn’t do it if he or she didn’t have to. I explained that I would not be forcing my child to do homework, he would do it only if he felt inclined, and once a battle began, it would be closed.
All was going fine, and then about 2 weeks ago, he got his reading folder. It contained a book and some general information about a weekly program run by the teacher and some parent volunteers who would come in and sit with a small group of kids and read with them while simultaneously evaluating their abilities. The book would be left at home for 1 week and then would be traded for another. We got one book before I received this letter. Meaning, he received only one period of evaluation. I will admit, I wasn’t happy. Yes, you immediately get defensive when someone is suggesting your child may be having difficulty, but once I got past that part, I was fairly disappointed in how quickly they jumped to the conclusion that he needed to be excluded from his classroom and friends because he hadn’t learned to read in the one week they allotted him.
Is It Really Necessary?
My child (our children) is in school for 6 hours a day. In 4 weeks (where they are adjusting to going from all play to no play), at 6 hours per day, he hadn’t learned to read. Although I realize learning to read isn’t the main focus of their, let’s assume they spend 1-2 hours a day on reading, spelling, writing and so on. So, please explain to me how 10-15 minutes of reading every night (with arguing and whining in the mix) is going to increase his chances exponentially. His class is small (only 17 students), and they have a teacher, a TA, another helper, and various parents that come in throughout the week to help with reading, not to mention this weekly program. This seems like a lot of focus on developing these traits while in school, so what exactly is the issue here; what is going on in school for 6 hours that they think 15 minutes a night will improve the likelihood of the children meeting these insane expectations? And in addition, and on a somewhat different note, I was disappointed in the fact that the letter was addressed to me and my husband but the reminder of the letter read: his/her. It was in no way personalized and conveyed very little specific information. If my son were indeed having issues, I would greatly appreciate some specific information, perhaps even a conversation. This non-personalized letter, as well as it’s timing, gave me a glimpse into the school curriculum that I didn’t love.
I couldn’t help getting a little bent out of shape about it, so I went on Facebook and asked for some opinions. I didn’t state my opinion but only asked how parents with children in grades between 1 and 3 felt about how the system was functioning and about homework. Some of the responses actually surprised me. I got a mom who said she felt the same way I did, that homework is never as “short” as the teachers say it’s going to be and that every night it was a battle. Another mom straight up said homework was BS and that it’s important to nurture their curiosity and creativity than to ensure they can memorize things. And although there were a few moms who said they didn’t mind the little bit of homework and felt that it helped their kids learn accountability and responsibility.
Also, in response to my question on Facebook, instead of commenting a mom in my community posted a study done regarding homework in elementary school by Harris Cooper of Duke University. This part stuck out for me:
“Premature homework can damage personal relationships in the long term. While homework is meant […] get parents involved in their children’s education, with elementary school kids this can have the opposite effect. At that age, children need to be reminded by their parents about their homework. After a long day at school, something that includes the word “work” is not exactly what kids want to do before going to bed. This ends up too often in a sorrowful battle that can be extended to the later years when homework does have benefits.” The article goes on to list a number of negative effects assigning homework at such a young age can have on a child (you can read more of the article here).
In my opinion, the only benefit to homework at such a young age is to get the parents involved in their education, and I do love that idea, but is that enough of a reason? Should we be teaching our children, at such a young age, that all life is about is work? Shouldn’t we let them be kids for a little while? I know some may argue that they had their chance to play and enjoy school when they were in kindergarten, and I do agree, but that is also the problem. Jr and Sr kindergarten, according to the Ontario Catholic School Curriculum, is play-based learning (and whether or not I agree on this is a whole other article), and then suddenly, they’re thrust into grade 1 where they spend the majority of their day strapped to a chair, memorizing and repeating. And although there are some children who enjoy homework (I will admit, my son does enjoy it most of the time), it’s still too much. The expectations are too high – on the kids and on the parents. I mean, I only have the one. I get home from work around 5, cook supper, eat supper, clean up, and then sit down with my son to do homework for up to 40 minutes because he’s exhausted from being at school all day; he just wants to play cars or play outside. By the time we’re done, it’s time for bath and bed. By then, I’m thoroughly exhausted – I can’t even imagine what it must be like for parents who have more than one child.
Expectations Are Too High
I asked my mom if there were any reading programs like this when I was a kid, or if I was expected to read for a certain amount of time every night in grade 1, or even if I had homework before 3rd grade and she couldn’t remember. My mom worked full time and she had two kids – if she couldn’t remember it’s because it wasn’t a burden/issue, and I don’t remember ever taking homework home in elementary school unless I had been sick for multiple days in a row.
So, in short, I resent the school system for putting this on us. Yes, a child’s education is a partnership between the parents and the school, but that partnership doesn’t need to become a burden potentially negatively impacting home life, the relationship between a child and parent, or negatively effect a child’s already fragile sense of self-worth. My son has never been the type to put himself down because we have always focused on creating self-respect and self-confidence, but in the past few weeks he has said, “I’m stupid” more times than I care to admit, so much so that I’ve had to create consequences for doing so, as I explained to him that putting oneself down is unacceptable. I sat down with him the other night and he read the entire book, front to back, and only struggled with two words. If this is not meeting the expectations of the school system – that after one week he can read an entire “Learn To Read” book, then the expectations are too high, and the kids can feel that. Whether he’s heard us talk about it or not, my son (being as observant as he is) knows when he isn’t meeting expectations – no matter how hard he is trying – and this is detrimental for the psyche of such a small child.
The majority of the mothers who commented on my post disagree with homework between the grades of 1 and 3, but no one is saying anything to the school. The parent-teacher relationship has become one of intimidation – teachers have become the leaders in deciding what is right and wrong in a child’s learning and parents are afraid to stand up because they’re afraid their child will get “left behind” or the teachers will take their frustration out on the child. And although I understand these concerns, it’s cowardice in my opinion. These are our children. It is our job as parents to be their advocates. If we don’t stand up for them when they are too young to stand up for themselves, who will? Schools will continue to do what they have been doing, regardless of their reputations (after all, all that matters are their EQAO scores) if we don’t do something about it. And maybe at it takes is one or two parents, here and there, who stand up and refuse to allow the curriculum to make their child feel like a failure because they can’t reach these unrealistic expectations.
Samantha ~ The Pensive Girl