C’mon Kids, Let’s Do Homework

Wait a minute. Homework? What homework? Exams are over and school is closed. Report cards, even, have been delivered. Who does homework at this time?

Well, I do.

Ok, first, the exam thing. For a long time, I’ve been of the opinion that studying for the purpose of passing exams is just the wrong way round. One must study to learn. Passing exams is a fringe benefit, of little utility in the important task of learning. Yes, I know it’s a crazy point of view in today’s competitive world, but that’s the way I’ve approached education since I was 18 and though I haven’t acquired a string of letters after my name to show how educated I am, I have studied literature, psychology, German, and archaeology and been very involved in each as I studied it. I can’t say something as definitive as that I’ve learnt more or better than I would have with a more test-centric approach, but I do believe that I enjoyed studying more than I would have otherwise, and that I remember and carry forward more of that education than I would otherwise have. (It’s also true, of course, that by this time I was studying only subjects that I was genuinely interested in, which probably helped too.)

Also, when I was in school, at which point I still was stuck with horribly boring subjects like history, geography, and particularly civics, I even then had a long(ish) term view of learning. I tried to keep up to date with my work during the year, and didn’t break much of a sweat when exams rolled around. I did revise, of course, not saying I didn’t, but I didn’t swot, I never stayed up all night, and I never, ever carried my books to school.

One thing I’ve always felt. If you swot like crazy the day before the exam, you spew it all out and the next day, it’s gone, wiped clean as though it never was. If you study over a longer period of time, it stays for longer. I’m fairly confident there should be some studies and statistics supporting this theory.

So with my kids, too, I want them to study around the year, to understand concepts for the sake of understanding, to work for the sake of work and to be ready and able to take a test on any given day. A test is fine as a tool to evaluate their understanding. I don’t see it as an end in itself.

Having said all that, I never intended to be the homework kind of mom. Homework is the student’s headache. In fact, it should be the school’s headache. Why do schools give homework to six year olds anyway? Education, in its entirety, is the school’s job. My job is to have fun with my kids and to teach them the kind of extracurricular things that you can’t leave to the school.

So for the first couple of years, I told my kids to do their homework, but for the most part, I kept myself out of it. I’m a lousy teacher anyway, simply not cut out to handle young kids, not even my own.

But what to do? Last October I was summoned to school and given a talking to. If I didn’t get involved and soon, at least one of the kids was going to be hopelessly overwhelmed by numbers in a confusion she might never recover from.

Well, I couldn’t have that, could I? Not me, I was a math genius in school, I loved numbers, they delighted me with their magical ways. So I ground my teeth and settled down to the task of being the homework mom.

It wasn’t easy. The kids were distracted, disinterested, lazy, stupid, bored, and everything in between. Having two of them to handle didn’t help. When one finally settled down and started to work, the other would start up some new form of distraction. It took many sessions, and much lung power in the form of shouting on my part and wailing on theirs before we got some kind of a truce agreed upon.

It also took me a while to figure out how to go about it. Some concepts they were being taught in school were just too tough for their age, or so I felt. Other concepts were within their grasp, but needed a lot more work than their school had time for (hence the need for homework and the homework mom).

I dumbed it down and dumbed it down. One exercise, for example, had kids do two-digit addition, like say 23+5. Then, after they did that, they had to write two “subtraction facts” based on that addition. A subtraction fact is: 28-5=23; or 28-23=5. So basically, they are trying to get at: a+b=c; therefore c-a=b and c-b=a. Even when I spell that out to the kids, they get a glazed look in their eyes.

These kids enjoyed a Montessori environment for the first three years of school. So I took objects and tried to work it out with them. Guess what? They didn’t even get, for quite a long time, that if 3+4=7, then, necessarily, 4+3 is also = 7. They still had to work it out each time, again and again. They could not intuitively just “see” that adding two sets of things either this one first or that one first, would always give the same result. If you don’t get a+b = b+a, what hope is there of getting a+b=c, therefore, c-b=a? None.

Well, I kept at it. I worked with numbers from 1 through about 12 and did it written, with objects, and with mental math. Eventually, after many days of work, Mrini just “got” it. Tara, I’m still not sure.

So then I started to set them sums. Very easy sums of the a+b=c variety with one number usually single-digit and the other either single-digit or two digits. On the other half of the page, I wrote out the corresponding “subtraction facts” for them. After many days of doing these sums, finally, today, Mrini realized that she didn’t need to really add the numbers. By looking at the other side of the page, she could write the answer. And then, by looking at the addition, she could write out the subtraction facts, without really needing to work it out. (Example: 23 + 5 + ?; 28 – 5 = ?; 28 – 23 = ?) She looked at me to see if I would mind her taking these shortcuts, but I was all like, wow, finally!

Hallelujah!

I can see, now, the occasional joy of teaching young kids. When they get it, it’s like a major breakthrough, like the sun shining through the clouds. I also realize that it’s not something you can point out to the child. Point it out as many times as you like, you just get a puzzled look in response. You have to just let them work at it and work at it and work at it, until suddenly they see it themselves.

Tara, now. When we went to school to get report cards, the kids came with us. Now here’s one of the little things that make me love this school. They had a small set of desks and chairs and papers and a couple of teachers and the kids who had come were invited (not mandatorily made) to go and do some work. The work Tara was given, or chose to do, was division. She got a bunch of stones and was given a set of questions of the 12 / 4 type. They aren’t into fractions yet, so whatever doesn’t go exactly gets counted as Remainder (or, if you prefer, reminder). It was amazing how quickly she picked it up. As far as I know, they hadn’t done this in class before that.

So after we came home, she’s been working on division. Never mind that she’s just about got her addition straight, not very sure about subtraction, and is relatively unconcerned with multiplication. Division, with stones and groups and reminders, she can do. And she will do it till her hands fall off, her pencil breaks, or she runs out of paper.

The best part is, after doing sums for a good long time, Tara insists that I give her “expand” and “number names” to wrap up the session. Both of these are really easy things that she doesn’t need to be doing anymore, but for her it’s like dessert. I did all the other stuff, so now give me Expand and Number Names. (Expand is like, 236 = 200 + 30 + 6; Number Names is like 236 = two hundred and thirty six)

Initially when their teacher started sending them home without any homework other than “revise” I was all like, oh, we’re done with homework, let’s go play badminton. After a week or so I realized, hey, maybe there’s worksheets or something coming up, we’d better do some homework. Then, the kids told me, Worksheet? No, we’re done with those. I was like, when? They were like, oh, last week. Math was first. Then Hindi.

Great.

So then I said, ok, but we’re going to do homework anyway. And, freed from the restrictions of homework and worksheets, we made up our agenda to suit ourselves. And I intend to keep at it throughout the holidays. Or so I hope.

Homework, after all, is not for the school and not for exams. It’s for learning – and learning must go on.

At least for now – before the kids grow up enough to say, what, homework? During the summer holidays? Surely you’re joking, mom – and go off to climb the mango tree.

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