Thursday, March 8, 2012

Interviewing a Family Member

Please do let me know if there is an assignment such as interviewing a family member — something that simply couldn't be done at school but that is important to the things you're doing in class — and we'll be happy to work on that together. — from an anonymous parent letter on Alfie Kohn's website.
The above quote is one reason I initially thought that Alfie Kohn had written the parent letter himself — it's right out of his book The Homework Myth (which I mostly recommend highly):
"Why can't they just do this at school?" is a reasonable question to ask ... But it's a question that answers itself in the case of certain assignments, such as having children interview parents about their family history ...
Interviewing parents is one of those ideas that sounds good in theory but, in practice, is a raging pain in the rosy arse*.

First of all, many kids don't have a family member who is available to be interviewed, even in the high-achieving suburbs, and it's not fair to put these kids on the spot.

Second, parents and kids alike are burnt out by the constant demands of school. I know we are in my family. The interview assignment would not come across as a welcome "meaningful" assignment; it would come across as one more invasion of what used to be our free time.

Third, I can't believe the parent of a first grader would mention the family interview as a reasonable assignment. Maybe her kid is precocious, but I think an interview would be way beyond the capacity of most 6-year-olds. My 8-yr-old second grader couldn't conduct an assigned interview (although she does a good job of quizzing us on certain subjects, like her adoption. But I digress.)

I would like to see no more homework that requires parent participation. Let the teachers teach the students, and only assign appropriate homework that the students can reasonably take complete responsibility for. That means no homework in elementary school, when kids aren't old enough to have the organizing skills that homework requires. Then, when the kids are old enough for homework, it should be minimal, and only assigned when necessary for learning the material (yes, there should be actual identifiable content that the kids are learning.)

It shouldn't be a part-time job for parents to send their kids to school. Enough already. Involve me out!

* please excuse the British spelling; I've been watching too much Downton Abbey!


  1. Not to mention some families don't like their privacy invaded. I grew up in the 70's and our teacher wanted to hear what sort of family history we all had, what country our ancestors came from. Usual "family tree" stuff. One family was absolutely incensed. I think they were ashamed of having ancestors who were slaves or talking about it. I think especially b/c they were the only black family that had kids in the school. Basically the father forbade the son to do the assignment, and I forget what happened after that.

    They don't do those any more to my knowledge but the kids recently were assigned to find EXPIRED FOOD at home. I sent my son into school with stuff that was about 7 years out of date. Pudding we use as a door stopper. So far, no visits from social services. :)

  2. Good point, Happy Elf Mom. This is a big issue for adoptive families, who are not happy with family tree assignments. Do the birth parents go on the family tree? Plus, there are all kinds of issues around adoption that the kids might not want to talk about. My daughter shouldn't be expected to explain to her classmates why she spent the first 16 months of her life in an orphanage. It's really none of their business.

  3. Suburban Chicken FarmerMarch 8, 2012 at 12:12 PM

    Well, not every interview would have to be family tree stuff. It could be, "What's your favorite books and why?" or other pretty benign stuff.
    Thing is, IMO, the teacher must accept at face-value whatever the student writes... Even if it's, "My mother found me under a cabbage in the garden."
    I read an account of a teacher whose child was assigned a family tree project being mortified over it. Seems the child was confronted with "I know your mother and that's NOT her maiden name, you've lied about your project!"...... because the mother had a brief marriage years before she had her daughter (that the kid's teacher knew the mother by the married name and assumed it was her maiden name).... and the mother had never told, nor intended to tell her daughter about the previous marriage.

  4. I dunno, SCF, in the mood I'm in a request to discuss my favorite book with my kid wouldn't meet with a much more enthusiastic reception than the dreaded family tree project. I'm just tired of it all. Sending my kid to school ought to make my life easier, not harder. Why should teachers be allowed to assign work to parents?

  5. Arne Duncan can kiss my rosy ...

  6. One of my kids came home with a family tree sort of assignment, except it was more focused on immigration.

    Since we don't have any recent immigrants in our family, I felt as if I was in the position to have to make up answers...the assignment directed us to "imagine the struggles" of immigrants if we were in the position of not having recent immigrants in our family.

    Then your kid gets nervous about leaving any question blank.

    It was definitely a homework for parents sort of a deal.

  7. Suburban Chicken FarmerMarch 9, 2012 at 11:51 AM

    In my experience, I certainly learned more as a child from talking with my dad than anywhere else. We had many long conversations, most often while doing other home repair or farming projects. My dad truly was the first person, and for years the only person, who treated my intellect with interest and esteem. I could trust him to be honest about his own opinion too. He's the one who turned me on to Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes at age 10, many other sci-fi books followed. No, we didn't have an Oprah book club after reading, or him assigning or even suggesting... the books were there and I would ask about this or that one, he knew them and knew author's other works.
    I imagine I would have been crushed if he acted put out at my needing his help on a crappy school assignment. (Though we might even eagerly acknowledge between ourselves that the assignment was crap.) Our relationship didn't start when I came home from school and somehow become suspended when I left again.

  8. KD- my neighbour had the same sort of assignment as well. She also doesn't have any immigrants in her family, and when she told the teacher this, the teacher just said, "What about your grandparents? Your great-grandparents?" My neighbour simply replied, "How far back do you want me to go, Miss? They're all dead!" and, if I remember correctly, was frowned upon for saying that, even if it may have been the truth.