Homework, always homework

by Mr. Hugh Burke

I watch as my son rushes home after a basketball practice, and starts his homework. In the next hour, he has to do his work and finish his dinner, so that he can make his soccer practice. He works through French, on to Math, but can’t quite finish his Design and Technology, and he still has some Humanities. Sighing, worried, I feed him and then take him to soccer, hoping that when we get home, he can finish the rest. I hope he doesn’t get too tired.

I remember, too, when my girl started at the school. An Honour Roll student in French Immersion, she could not really read or write English in grade five. She got 3/20 on her first weekly spelling test. Her handwriting …well…wasn’t. She only knew how to print. I remember the two to three hours of homework every night when she first started, along with the frustration and occasional tears. Math represented the biggest stumbling block, and she kept on doing hours of Math homework until she was in grade twelve.

Homework. Always homework.

This year, I have had parents say that their kid deserves to have some relaxation, or that their child competes in high-level sports, and finds homework getting in the way of practices. Some speak of tears and frustration with homework.

I understand those frustrations, and that wondering.  In the past forty years of teaching, I have seen waves of pro- and anti-homework come and go. Both views can be supported; the mistake that both sides have made is in generalizing too much about homework, as though it were always the same thing. It is work that is done at home…but all kinds of work are done. What we should attend to is the nature of the homework: How much of what is done for what purposes how often?  In other words, homework is like food…not all food is the same, and it can’t be treated as though it were the same.

First, homework will vary in time spent. Now, there is a difference between time spent and time worked (what we in the Education business call allocated time, vs. time-on-task).  I have watched some kids spend an hour on a task, but only ten minutes working. Between bathroom breaks, fiddling with music, finding materials, calling friends, and so on, really not much homework gets done. Sometimes it is just hard to concentrate. Often, students will not get their work done in class, and then translate it to their parents as “homework”, yet they might easily have finished during the day. Other times, getting started is the hardest part (especially in writing)…Kids can often write as much in a one-hour  essay test as they do in a one-week essay assignment. Getting started, and having some sense of a time limit, is a key.  (Try using a timer to start and stop assignments for your child – it really helps!)

When a single subject seems to be taking a lot of time every night, then I advise calling the teacher. It should not be taking so much time. Measure it first, and then let the teacher know, and work out some plans.

Homework should serve some purpose. Reasonable ones might include practising a skill which has been taught, reviewing vocabulary in a language, carrying out research for an essay or inquiry, finishing a lab write-up, and so on. That is, the material should have been taught, should be monitored in class, and should present no learning challenges. If homework is assigned that your child does not know how to do, again, a phone call or email to the teacher is important. Frustration is not very useful at home.

One great type of homework is designed to let parents know what is being studied, and also intended to engage parents in conversation. Just a while ago, my son had to investigate the history of his own family. We searched online, talked about past generations, looked at family photos, and generally had a great time. Another type is to make sure that parents know what their children are doing in school – signing tests, helping with vocabulary, and so on. Again, this seems reasonable.

There is a flow to homework. Many kids complain of having too much homework at some times, then not much at other times. It seems reasonable that the school would attempt to smooth this out. We do, and are. We have just switched to a digital calendar which will show all assignments and tests at any grade on a single sheet. We have undertakings from every teacher that they will try to avoid “bunching up” homework. We intend to monitor this. One thing might get in the way: Time management of our kids. Assignments are given which may take two weeks, but we all know what can happen: Two days before, panic mode sets in, and suddenly there is all the work of two weeks packed in to a day. Place a few of these on top of regular homework, and we get the “wave” of work. Solutions include teacher and parent checking on progress, and teaching children to plan over a longer time. But we will probably never stop it completely; even in business, it seems to be an ongoing issue.

There is also the question of who is doing the homework. Some kids are perfectionists. The teacher may think that they have assigned something with a paragraph answer, but the child is driven to write pages about it. Sometimes a drawing is in order, and we get artistic renderings back, worthy of an architect. If this is happening, a three-way conference with the teacher is badly needed! As well, some kids are just faster than others, so the same amount of homework can be both too much and too little. Constant collaboration with teachers is the key to figuring out most issues.

Finally, I want to tell you a story. I got a call when my daughter was in the first year at McGill. She was swamped with homework, and it was very hard. I asked her what she planned to do. “Well”, she said, “It is a lot like grade five. I’ll just have to organize, and work harder”. She did, and so do many of our kids. Remember, the drop-out rate at Canadian universities after first year is about 50%. But Meadowridge kids have learned how to balance life with work, and so our retention rate at universities is much, much higher. In the end, how we teach kids about managing homework is part of how we teach them to manage life itself. When in trouble, speak up. Be organized. Work hard, and with focus. Strive for excellence, but not at the cost of balance. If something does not seem right, work it out.

And, in the end, recognize that everybody is a little bit different, and that no generalization will always work.