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The homework dilemma

Our 1st grade son loves his teacher. We're not so sure.

As parents, we already have pretty strong feelings about the amount of recess and free play time that has been removed from early elementary school day. Kindergarten, as you've probably heard, has been transformed from dress up and pretend with a few stories mixed in to an endless year of reading and handwriting expectations. And there's hardly any method parents can use to fight back. Teachers are certainly under pressure to engage students in the new learning standards which prepare them for standardized testing and high academic performance.

For 1st graders, the National PTA recommends 10-20 minutes of homework per night with 10 minutes added per night each grade level after that. (So a 2nd grader could receive up to 30 minutes.) There's a mix of research on the impact and outcomes related to homework. Surveys indicate that time spent doing homework is going up in the early grade levels while the overall amount is holding steady for the last 50 years. So the real change is directly where we are with our son.

From our viewpoint as parents, I think something beyond just setting expectations would be helpful. We're looking to receive from the teacher something about the purpose and clear instructions. In the first few weeks of school, what we're getting each evening is a folder divided into two parts. The left pocket is worksheets and things to keep at home that do not come back to school.

The right side pocket is filled with items that need to come back. A behavior chart for the week where students earn ups and downs for the day--it must be initialed that we saw it. Then, usually, there is a double-sided math worksheet due the next day. Each student is required to log 20 minutes of reading per day--it can be read to/with/by the student. Any material. Then the students have a spelling list for the week along with a short (5 sentence?) paragraph where they are supposed to work on reading aloud with intonation and for context. The spelling list has approximately 10 words and each word is required to be written 3 times on a worksheet before Friday.

This is 1st grade. And, frankly, we find it unacceptable. For a variety of reasons. After being in school all day, kids need time to eat, play, be with the family, do after school activities, and get to bed at a reasonable hour. The homework level that is given--to our understanding--is for the entire class regardless of ability. This isn't optional extra help.

Which brings me to the next issue...attention. So far, my son finds especially the math too easy. It's making number "sentences" and "bonds" with, say, finding the different combinations that add up to 7. Helping him with his homework mostly requires trying to get him to focus and pay attention so it gets finished. If he concentrates, it really is probably 10 minutes. If he is busy snacking and running around and wanting to play it takes 30-45 depending on whether we decide to do the spelling and practice his writing/reading.

So our current dilemma is the need to confront the teacher. Parents are free to e-mail and let her know that the assignment wasn't completed for whatever reason. But her stated policy is that students may have to stay inside at recess to finish incomplete work. As with most communication from her, she is supplementing with plenty of standards-based help for parents about why they're learning this. But so far very little other than check marks or stars regarding "your son is doing great" or "he needs to work on his combinations of 6." Or, "he has trouble spelling words with O's in the middle."

It's annoying and we're not sure what tack to take. We don't want to come across as the grumbling, hard-to-deal-with parents and wish to come at this with a rational discussion about it. But, on the other hand, what the heck is an elementary school teacher thinking giving a 1st grader homework each night?! Should we e-mail our displeasure now? Set up a meeting? Passive-aggressively just stop doing what we consider unnecessary work? Two nights ago, the assignment was to cut out number cards for practice. But given the lack of trouble and that they weren't being turned back in, we considered it optional. Our son sure did.

I'm certainly not saying that extra help shouldn't be given if needed. But I also wonder about adults who say they struggle with work-life balance...where do you think we got these horrible notions of constant work and no time for home life when we're giving our 6 year olds homework? Or is it trickle-down that 60 hour work weeks are manifesting in thinking it's good for kids to start grinding out mindless busy work?

It is my belief that school should largely stay at school. These children sit quietly for hours each day. When they come home they want to be kids. They want to run around, play sports, walk their dog, eat, take a bath, join Cub Scouts, etc.. As much as both Mama and I believe in academics, hard work, and that school is important and comes first, we find a folder full of paper for us to organize each night ridiculous. (And let's be honest, our 6 year old isn't keeping track of all his papers.)

If you're a teacher out there reading this, please think very carefully before you cut into family and personal time with assignments at home. We fully realize that some at-home work is necessary and good. But let's also find a flexible middle where we raise holistic and balanced kids who have some unscheduled time to do what children have historically done. Imagine. Explore. Learn in ways that are outside the classroom.

Not to mention, please save the planet and reduce the paper you're sending home!


  1. What approach did you wind up taking with this problem?

    1. First parent-teacher conference, we actually had a productive discussion about the homework. The teacher was very "if it gets done, it gets done and if it doesn't that's fine, too" attitude.


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