My Inner Battle with Homework

Daniel and I have never been fans of homework.  Never.  We both grew up in the 80s and 90s, back when the memorization of facts was valued over conceptual understanding and critical thinking, and you earned your stripes by bragging about “how many HOURS of homework you spent doing last night!”  The ONLY thing I remember about homework was how repetitive and annoying it was and how I wished I could be doing anything else BUT.   I don’t remember ever appreciating it or feeling like it helped me.

Now as educators, we have read study after study talking about how homework results in zero academic benefits (this particular article written by Alfie Kohn, Rethinking Homework, had the greatest impact on me).  We’ve also sat through many a professional development session delivered by our Principals who have openly and vehemently discouraged the practice of homework.

We also both worked in Korea – where many children leave their schools and immediately go to after-school institutes (called hogwans) – and end up studying 16-18+ hours every day.  We worked at one of these hogwans for two years, and saw first-hand what it did to those students.  Children as young as 6 or 7 years old would come to our institute and study English until as late as 9 or 10 pm – multiple nights a week.  (AND, when they weren’t with us learning English, they were at other specialized hogwans – practicing violins or learning gymnastics).

Then they would go home, eat, sleep, and wake up to continue studying.  These kids were usually quite tired, but, God bless them – they always tried and had good attitudes about being there with us.  I’m guessing they knew no differently and had some serious mental stamina built up, even from a young age.

We also witnessed the tremendous pressure Korean high school students were under to gain entrance to a university.  They would study to the point of mental exhaustion.  In fact, high stakes testing is so “high” that they change the flight patterns of airplanes during university entrance exams so the students won’t get distracted by the sound of planes flying overhead.  (Think I’m kidding?  Read this).

NOW…  **here’s my disclaimer** we LOVE Korea (it’s Gabriel’s birthplace, after all….) and we know many, many Korean students and their parents who are kind, wonderful, well-adjusted people – and we wholeheartedly appreciate the importance that the Korean society places on education.  (Believe me, some other societies we are well acquainted with could learn a thing or two from Korea).

My point in bringing up Seoul was that we saw some extreme examples of what can happen when children and young adults are bombarded with homework and put under severe pressure to succeed academically, while being denied ample opportunities to play, explore, rest.

The above factors resonated so strongly with us that we made the decision that we would not push homework on our own children.  We opted to let their home time be their time.  After all, they just worked between 8-9 hours at school, and they need to play and let their brains rest.

We are also both acutely aware that over the years, this mentality has not made us popular amongst many of our children’s teachers.

  • We’ve had polite notes sent home to us from time to time (i.e. Please remind Gabriel to do his homework!)
  • We’ve felt the occasional cold shoulder at parent-teacher conferences when we’ve voiced our opinions about homework
  • We’ve received the sometimes-not-so-subtle comments (i.e. Noah’s reading level might be higher if he were reading his required 30 minutes a night)
  • Etc., etc.

Daniel is much better at brushing off these kinds of comments than I am.  He doesn’t give more than two-seconds thought about what others think of him.  (Wish I could do that – he’s amazing at it…)  I admit these comments have bothered me…  But any time I would second-guess myself, this was my rationale:

“Well, if they’d read what I’ve read, or if they’ve seen what I’ve seen, or, if they would realize that it’s counter-productive to just do things because that’s the way it’s always been done…..” they wouldn’t be making such a big deal about homework.  The boys are receiving upwards of 9 hours of academic instruction every day….  They’re FINE.”

I think I’ve also told myself that because of the Autism, this was all the more reason that they needed breaks at home.  Their brains are having to work harder at school than their peers – and that is a fact.

Most of their peers have built-in social skills that they don’t automatically have, so they have to use ALL of their brain power just to hold a simple conversation with someone, as well as…..

  • make/maintain eye contact
  • remember not to repeat themselves
  • listen to what others are saying
  • remember that they can’t just talk about what they want to talk about all the time
  • try not to stim during the wrong times (i.e. in class, and/or in front of others during non-socially acceptable times)

And academics in general is just harder: reading, writing, comprehending, listening, and making sense of the world around them.

All of these factors would help me dispel any guilt I felt, and I would sleep soundly at night – living in a pressure-free, no homework environment.

But recently, something happened that I couldn’t ignore, or blow off, or rationalize with thoughts of Korean culture or Alfie Kohn’s research.

Noah came up to me one night and in the sweetest voice ever, asked, “Mommy, will you pleeeeease help me with my homework?  My teachers will be happy to me!”  (Yes, he meant happy “with” me).

Of course, my heart melted.  Gabriel had never asked me that before, and so it was the very first time one of my children had ever asked me to help him with “homework.”

Well, of course, every “homework is the devil” thought completely evaporated and I heard myself almost screaming, “Yesssssss! Of courssssssse!” in my super-annoying, high-pitched Mommy voice – and I couldn’t sit down with him fast enough to start helping him with his multiplication.

  • PS – I want to be clear – this is not to say that we have never read with our boys or never took notice in what they were learning in school – quite the opposite – we’re always looking at the work that comes home, and asking the boys to tell us what they’re learning in Science, etc.  Whenever the occasional project is due, we help the boys finish whatever they need help with – but I guess what I’m saying is we never established a hard-core, “dedicated, you-will-do-nothing-else time for homework” in their evening routines, or constantly chased them to make sure they had “done their homework.”   

Meaning, “homework” was never before invited into our home as a permanent guest.

But when I sat down with Noah and we worked through his math homework together, it was wonderful.  It was so fun watching his brain work – watching his thought processes take shape – and I realized it wasn’t hurting him, or taking anything away from him – or stressing him out..  It ended up being bonding time between us, and he puffed up out of pride when he finished.

And the next morning, as we were walking into school, out of nowhere he exclaimed, “I finished my homework!”  He was happier about the completion of it than anything else, but that was enough for me.

So that night, I forced myself to ask, “Noah, do you want to do some homework?” and I was totally ready for him to say “No,” and that would’ve been the end of it.

But he happily replied, “Yes!  Let me go get my backpack!

And thus, Noah and I officially started a fun, nightly, bonding routine – that includes some thinking practice – called, “Homework.”

This was maybe two months ago, and we’re still at it!

But it’s evolved..

Now we do nightly reading and usually some math, but as an educator, it is VERY important to me that the homework is not ROTE..  I try to present whatever content he is learning in such a way that it is as authentic as possible (i.e. if we are reading about ice, we are also holding actual ice in our hands….).  It’s not always possible, but I am always asking myself: How could he use this information in real life?

And of COURSE, Not one to EVER be excluded 🙂 Samuel always jumps up and joins in, and has started bringing his backpack to me as well.

Gabriel has often done any homework he had on his own, but even HE is now interested in reading a book together.

Anyways, something has happened.  Something has changed in me.  It’s like a black cloud that I didn’t even know was there has started to evaporate.

Something has also changed in the boys.  They all seem happier – in subtle ways.  I can detect some progress in their academics, but that’s not my main focus.   I am much more concerned with confidence and independence, and Daniel and I are both seeing baby step-improvements in both areas.

So thanks to Noah, I’ve taken “homework” off my personal blacklist and realized it doesn’t have to be a death sentence – and I believe I’ve actually turned into a happier and more fulfilled Mommy because of it.

Going even deeper though, I think the boys’ Autism had more to do with this than I wanted to admit.  I think maybe, subconsciously, it’s been hard for me to consistently work with them on academics at home – because then I have to come face-to-face, every day, with the fact that they are multiple grade levels below where they should be – and that fact hurts.

In a way, maybe it’s like seeing Noah play alone every day, or see Gabriel walk around alone every day during breaks.  If I don’t go to the playground, I won’t see Noah.  If I don’t go over to the Middle School, I don’t have to see Gabriel walking alone.  –I know it’s happening, but it hurts less if I don’t see it.  Maybe I’ve talked myself out of homework all these years to save myself more pain.

It’s probably a combination of all of the above.

I also want to say that it’s very hard for me to talk about this; most of the people who will read this are also educators, and it’s like I can already smell the silent judgment….   That’s OK though – I suppose that’s what this blog is for – to share the thoughts and experiences (right or wrong) of life as a special needs parent – and potentially help provide insight or perspective for other special needs parents (and/or for those who deal with special needs parents).

At any rate, in spite of all the research and all my past experiences, I now see the potential value in this practice – as long as it is delivered in an authentic, stress-free manner that inspires inquiry and enhances understanding (vs. promoting rote memorization of mindless facts).

I am deeply grateful to our precious Noah for pushing me out of my comfort zone and helping me give these new, home-based learning experiences (aka – homework) a chance.