THINK: Elementary education

Homework burden

Talk about stream-of-consciousness! Get ready. This is a long post!

I am a thinker. I am constantly pondering. So I’m adding a category (“Think”) to start sharing more of my thoughts about whatever I’m thinking about (that doesn’t fit into the other categories). In recent weeks this means my children’s education.

This year was the year that our youngest child started into the gifted and talented classes at our elementary school. Because each of our children have participated in the program, I already had an idea about what this would mean.

I knew it would mean a great teacher with great in-class instruction and loving concern for my child. I knew it would mean interaction with other children who come from homes where their parents are highly involved in and supportive of their children’s education. There are far fewer distracting behavior problems in these classes.

AND I also knew it would mean more homework.

With two children in the G/T program in the elementary school and the other 5 children still having their lives and activities, and Lane’s work stress/involvement increased, I wondered how we would make everything work.

I jumped in and decided to go for it, hoping it would work out.

I prayed to find a replacement for me in directing the school music program so that I could pass that torch, reducing my volunteer commitments. That prayer was answered! I am SO grateful for the other mother who willingly stepped into that role so that the program that I had put a number of years and love into could continue.

I offered to volunteer in my children’s classrooms in very minimal ways that wouldn’t require any preparation, meaning that I could basically just show up and do my part. So that reduced my volunteer load as well, and still helped them feel like I was participating in their classroom, which they love.

I wasn’t able to drop my kindergarten music teaching, but have had two other mothers teaching in the other two classes who haven’t required lots of support (they have been awesome!!!), so that has been minimal.

But somehow, this year has still ended up being harder than I thought, and as I have tried to deal with the challenges that have popped up, both personally and for my family, I seem to feel like I am falling short a lot of the time. Barely keeping my nose above water. Running faster than I have strength.

So I have gone back to my decision to sign that commitment form for the G/T program. Did I make the right decision?

I attended a parent meeting last week held by the Gifted Services in our district. The speaker’s topic was meeting the emotional needs of gifted students. As the meeting progressed, there was some discussion about homework load. I raised my hand and shared my concern: With multiple children enrolled in the program, it becomes overly challenging to keep up with the homework load. Even though there is supposed to be a 60-90 minute limit (30-60 minutes homework and 30 minutes reading), if you add this up for the parent, it becomes a literal impossibility, particularly if you have any other kinds of extracurricular education going on (music lessons, practicing, sports practices or dance/theatre rehearsals, Scouts or Activity Days or Young Men/Young Women, art classes, family activities, not to mention FAMILY DINNER).

One of my pet peeves: it is so hard simply to have time to read aloud to my children at bedtime. Getting them to bed on time feels like it has become a near impossibility. So we are always tired and having a hard time getting up in the morning to practice, which means we have to practice after school. You see where this is going. A vicious cycle.

The answer the speaker gave was, “[The G/T] program is not a fit for everyone.”

Does that translate into, “Only people with 2 children can make this work for them?”


“You can only do this if you are a [nonexistent] supermom or your children don’t need as much sleep or family togetherness time or balance in their lives.”

I don’t think that those who work so hard to make the gifted/talented programs run well in our district are trying to say that.

What I wonder, though, is if the expectations that teachers have for students are realistic for families with more than 1-3 children?

I had several mothers speak to me after the meeting, echoing my concerns.

This dilemma has reminded me of a principle I learned back in 1998 in an address entitled “Parents in Zion” by President Boyd K. Packer. The principle is this:

Every time you schedule a youngster, you schedule a family—particularly the mother.

This is something that people who are involved in programs for children ages 0-18 seem to often forget.

When you schedule a dance performance, music recital, school choir concert, or soccer games, you have to consider what the rest of the family schedule might be like. Is what you are asking burdensome?

If you say a child has only 1 hour of homework a night, that may be an average time, that doesn’t take into consideration illness of another family member, an older sibling’s flute recital, a merit badge POW WOW assignment, or the one day of the week that is always late because of dance carpools and music lessons.

What about when an older teenage sibling has a swim meet and needs mom to support them? Do you know how long swim meets are?

What about the older teenage sibling who is having a meltdown from a friend issue that takes some time, so you can’t help that younger child who needs your help with their homework until later, and then they are too tired to focus and do their assignments without melting down as well?

What matters more: homework or relationships? Does the homework load cause more arguing and emotional upheaval in a young child’s life than is healthy or developmentally appropriate? Does it kill their love of learning and give them the space and time children need to explore their own ideas and creativity, or is every minute scheduled because of the teacher’s/district’s/state’s agenda?

President Packer was addressing this principle in the church setting. He explains,

“How easy it is, in our desire to provide schedules of programs and activities, to overlook the responsibilities of the parent and the essential need for families to have time together.

“We must be careful lest programs and activities of the Church become too heavy for some families to carry. The principles of the gospel, where understood and applied, strengthen and protect both individuals and families. Devotion to the family and devotion to the Church are not different and separate things….

“In Church we are taught the Great Plan of Happiness. 10 At home we apply what we have learned. Every call, every service in the Church brings experience and valuable insights which carry over into family life.”

Some years ago, the Church [of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints] made some major changes in how they did meetings during the week and on Sundays in order to maximize family time together and lessen the burden of responsibilities on families and mothers in particular. I wish school districts would do that.

There are ways of doing it.

Correllating calendars, for example, is helpful, so that elementary schools, junior highs, and high schools don’t overlap their events. We have the technology to do that. Let’s use it instead of putting the burden onto the parent to make it all work out and have to skip one child’s concert to attend another, or, as one of our children’s teachers had to do, attend her own parent-teacher conferences while missing her own child’s performance at the junior high.

Reducing the number of events a group can have would be helpful.

You can’t just say, “Don’t have your daughter dance then, and then scheduling wouldn’t be such a problem.” That response doesn’t work for me. Here’s why: I let my children pick one thing they want to do beside their instrument. Music is too important to me both educationally (watch this) and for the development of self-discipline. Plus, it’s a family heritage thing. It’s in our blood. So should I say, “Sorry, hon. You can only do homework and music. Nothing else that you want to do.” That just doesn’t fly for me! They spend so many hours in school bored to death learning something they aren’t interested in, that I think that is just not fair. If we couldn’t afford it, that would be different. We have to be able to afford what we do. And there have been times when I have let the older children do their activity of choice while a younger one doesn’t, because of the family budget at the time. But if we can afford it, then I want them to have the chance to taste and try out what they choose. That’s part of the joy of childhood!

You also just can’t say, “You chose to have a big family. Live with it.” Sorry, that is lame. Every child, regardless of how big their family is, has the same right to a wonderful education as any other. And teachers who don’t recognize the educational benefit that a large family offers to those students should ask some who can enlighten them. (Like me!) 🙂 But like any other setting, there are challenges, like greater time constraints on the mother’s ability to help each child with their individual homework assignments.

Simplifying homework and inviting parental participation that doesn’t require getting, spending, or making would be excellent. One example of this is my third grader’s Xtra Math assignments and writing. The math program is an excellent drill-and-practice math website that is free. It is well done and easy to access. You simply have to log in and work for about 10 minutes. Very helpful.

Her writing assignments are age- and level-appropriate and often require her to do “interviews” with a family member. This means we can have a conversation in the car while driving somewhere, and she can do the writing assignment after that as well travel. It doesn’t take an hour. And it is more meaningful because we connected about something meaningful. I enjoy them, and she does, too.

Giving students choices for what they would like to do within parameters, while limiting the time spent on a project, would be helpful. I love how one child can pick a way to do a book report from a page full of options, but I wish that the time limit for doing the book report would be limited so that the child could decide how to simplify his or her project.

One way teachers could invite parent participation is to require less and invite them to find ways to connect with their child about the assignment. For example, you could ask a child to find a news article and then discuss it during dinner with their family. Then they could come back and share different opinions they heard from family members.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do believe that there are answers and better ways of doing things sometimes than how we have traditionally done them. I believe that if we ask, “Does this assignment complicate family life or improve it?” then we might be headed in a valuable direction. And we have to be sure that every assignment is essential in the mind of the teacher AND the parent.

I think reading aloud to children should be a homework assignment for all grades through grade 8. Children love to be read to, and it is an incredibly valuable teaching and learning tool. I would venture to guess that it is even more valuable than individual reading in some regards. So rather than having a child have to read 1000 pages a month, perhaps they read 400 on their own and then read at least one book off of a list of 100 absolutely WONDERFUL books with a parent or sibling during that month. That would not only cultivate higher-level thinking because of the ensuing conversations that could happen, but would strengthen that family relationship and create good memories for the long run.

I absolutely love it how one of our teachers would give the assignments for the whole week at the beginning, and the only assignment that has to be done every day is reading aloud for 30 minutes. That is so much more adaptable to our ever-changing daily schedule! And we can work really hard on Monday to get as much done as possible, so that we can pace ourselves through the rest of the week. When there are assignments spread out for every day of the week, it feels tedious and overbearing, and far less adaptable. It is too much work for me as the parent to follow up on that child who is not as self-motivated or detail-oriented. Or who hates homework.

I really wish I could homeschool my youngest children somedays. I dream of reading books together and having less structure so that we could have more room to explore, to read together, to discuss together, to research our own interests instead of the school curriculum’s, and to write about what matters to us. We could practice and do jobs at home and have a little more freedom to do what I care about with them, as time always rushes onward and we meet everyone else’s expectations, and I feel like I am always running, running, running to help everyone check off what they are supposed to have checked off.

Well, this is long enough for tonight. I really needed to get some of these thoughts written down because they have been ruminating in my head, and I have to decide what I am going to do about them.

I do believe in public education. VERY MUCH. I think it is critical to a healthy society, because home school is not a viable option for many families, and children deserve an education. They really do. Children are at the mercy of adults, and it is our DUTY to educate children.

But I don’t love some aspects of public education. And because I feel passionate about what my children study and how they study it, I want to be involved. But that involvement has to be realistic. It needs to be enjoyable, not just busy work or someone else’s agenda all the time. I feel like that kind of education hinders the spirit. I feel like it can be the kind of burden that can even injure a child’s spirit and their love of learning.

Well, there you go.

More on this later, I’m sure.

Happy Thinking,

Liz 🙂

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