Thursday, September 9, 2010

Guest post: Don't Sign the Homework (part 1)

From Chris, originally posted at ABlogAboutSchool:

When I was in school, my homework habits were halfway to abysmal. I had no routine. I worked on the floor, at the dinner table, in my bed, almost never at my desk. I frequently did my homework, as I did many, many other things, in front of the television. (A disproportionate number of my vocabulary sentences involved Mork and Mindy.) If the television demanded my full attention, or if my brother offered to play gin rummy or ping pong, the homework could wait. I didn’t pace myself; I put big projects off until the eleventh hour, then lost sleep to crank them out. I raced through great novels on the day before we had to discuss them. I wrote reports on books I never read; once even on a book that didn’t exist (Up Mount Everest). My performance wasn’t terrible -- I generally did well in school, and I almost never missed a deadline -- but no one would have called me disciplined.

Homework was a pain, the deadlines were sometimes stressful, and in retrospect a lot of it was probably unnecessary busy work. But I don’t remember ever being genuinely bothered by it, ever feeling any real angst over it. The only time homework caused me any emotional turmoil was when my mother would nag me about it. “Did you do your homework?” “Don’t you have homework to do?” She couldn’t help herself, even though she knew it was counterproductive -- the last thing I was going to do, in response to those questions, was pull out the books -- and even though it caused ongoing tension between the two of us. In retrospect, it’s hard to see why I got so upset about it; she might only ask about it once or twice, and she certainly never asked me to show her that I had done it or, God forbid, to let her read it. (I don’t recall showing any of my homework to either of my parents, ever.) Yet I can still feel the agitation her inquiries provoked in me. As I saw it, my homework was my business, and my mother needed to mind her own business.

I look back on that time and I think: be grateful for what you had. I was lucky. My mother’s compulsive inquiries aside, the people who constructed my world -- my schools and my parents -- gave me something that today’s kids aren’t often given: autonomy. I was in charge of my schoolwork. If I succeeded, the success was mine. If I messed up, it was my problem. I was allowed to make mistakes, and to decide for myself whether I regretted them. It’s funny what you learn from mistakes when someone else isn’t telling you what to learn from them. I never did develop good work habits, but I learned my limits. I learned my own ways of doing things. I think it’s served me well, and even if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Last year, my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher required her students to have their parents sign their homework before they turned it in. This practice -- which I never heard of as a child -- is apparently increasingly common. I have a number of objections to it, which I’ll spell out in part two of this post. But here, I want to make this one point: The teachers who use this practice may be well-intentioned, but they are taking something from your child. I don’t just mean educationally, though I think learning to manage your own affairs without unsolicited help is important. I mean psychologically and emotionally. Some degree of autonomy over your own life isn’t just an educational strategy, it’s an essential ingredient in human dignity. To take it away is demeaning and dehumanizing, all the more so given that most kids would probably be unable to put those feelings into words. That little island of autonomy in the sea of compulsory education went a long way toward keeping me a sane and relatively happy kid instead of an alienated teenage burnout.

Were my standardized test scores as high as they would have been if I had been made to conform to more conventional study habits? Who knows. Should I care?


  1. Yep!! The thing is, though, that here teachers take recess and other things away if it is NOT signed. So how can you fight that? Personally I wound up crossing out the pledge that I've seen the stupid homework and then signing. This way, I haven't promised anything dopey and violeated my conscience, the kid still gets recess, and the intrusive process is frustrated. :)

  2. This is pretty typical of schools. Somebody reads a study that says children of involved parents do better in school, and they start having parents sign homework so they can say "See...we involve parents in homework so kids will do better in school."

    Correlation does not equal causation.

  3. PsychMom here:
    My mother was never involved in my homework which began for me in roughly Grade 7. She never asked me if I had homework unless it was because she needed to alter family plans because of MY homework. My conscientiousness about the work meant that I was my own gatekeeper...but I was the good student who did everything she was told. The responsibility was handed to me at a more appropriate age though...I was ready to accept it at 12. So far, my 9 year old child is not...and she shouldn't be because she's too young.

  4. Chris, great post. I hate hate hate all the efforts made by schools to involve parents. I hate what it does to me, let alone my child.

    I've noticed a disconnect here between principals and teachers. I've had two principals (one at a public, one at a private school) basically tell me that I was overinvolved and I should butt out of the kids' homework. Then the teachers would send stuff home that I was supposed to sign every night, or start homework so early (e.g., first grade) that it was impossible for the work to get done without my involvement.

  5. By the way, I am in awe that you actually invented a book for a book report. Great title, too.

  6. Mrs. C -- I hear you. It's hard to blame any parent for not wanting to cause trouble for their kids, so the school has you over the barrel to some extent. In my next post or two, though, I want to make the case for the idea that this is something worth taking a stand about. Stay tuned . . .

    Anonymous: Yeah, all true. It's crazy to expect little kids to be organized and disciplined enough to do homework consistently and on time, which is one of the reasons they shouldn't be getting homework anyway. And even if they do, the signature requirement is something else entirely -- it has nothing to do with the parent helping the child, it's all about the parent policing the child (and the teacher policing the parent).

    FedUpMom -- As for that book -- it was quite a page-turner, though not without its flaws. :)

  7. ***
    As for that book -- it was quite a page-turner, though not without its flaws. :)

    Let me guess -- was it a stirring tale of Man versus Nature?

    Thanks for a much-needed laugh.

  8. Nice post, Chris. At our school, we are not required to sign homework assignments, but we are expected to initial our kids' agendas (that they even need these things is ridiculous, of course!), where the homework for the night is listed. The teacher initials to indicate that the child has written the assignments down, and the parent initials to indicate that they've seen what has been assigned. About two years ago, I just stopped initialing. The teacher didn't say anything. Sometimes I find silent refusal the best path, if only because it requires the least amount of energy from me! Of course, if a teacher were to challenge me about not signing, or if s/he were to penalize my child in any way, I would speak up. But sometimes, I think, this is an issue created by teachers not me, let them seek me out if they have a problem with what I'm (not) doing.

  9. I have also refused to sign book logs without any blowback from the teachers. However, in fourth grade, my child was kept in at recess for missing some questions on her homework sheets. My child blamed me for not looking over her homework! You can't win.