But I Want to Do Your Homework
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MY son and I are shouting at each other, and crying. He is holding his essay between his fingertips as if it’s a dead cockroach. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I just made a few corrections. ”
“How could you do this?” Henry sobs. “You didn’t follow the format! I told you you’re allowed to edit — not write! You can’t write!”
“Listen,” I hiss. “People pay me to do this. I have a master’s in literature from an Ivy League school.” I continue, pathetically. “I write for all the major magazines. I write for The New York Times, for God’s sake.” Oddly enough, this doesn’t mollify him.
How I found myself justifying my career to a 12-year-old was this: I wanted him to ace his “To Kill a Mockingbird” essay, and I was nervous. I am always nervous; you might be too, if your son’s highest intellectual aspiration involved beating his friends at their daily lunchtime poker game. He usually won’t let me near his homework. But this time, after much pressure, he did. Because, as I calmly explained, I knew just what this essay needed.
Let’s ignore, for the moment, the question of whether homework makes kids smarter and more successful. Almost all studies on the subject say it doesn’t, and in countries with some of the highest levels of academic achievement (hello, Denmark and Finland), there is little or no homework. But in many American schools there is anywhere from one to four hours of it a night. Seeing a cherished extracurricular activity passed over, another family dinner ruined, is it any wonder many of us help out a little? Or a lot?
Sociologists at the University of Texas at Austin and Duke University assessed the effect of more than 60 kinds of parental involvement on academic achievement. Read it and weep, helicopter parents: Across age, race, gender and socioeconomic status, most help had neither a positive or negative effect, and many kinds drove down a kid’s test scores and grades. One of the biggest culprits? Homework help.
Yet why shouldn’t we lend a hand? I mean, we are so patient, so well-meaning. (And by “we,” I mean me.) Well, it’s not as simple as, “The helped kid doesn’t learn the material” (though there’s that) or even “Kids who are being helped are the ones who are struggling to begin with” — because according to Keith Robinson and Angel Harris, the authors of the study, even the kids who started off as high achievers ended up doing worse relative to high achievers who weren’t helped.
But there are other reasons homework help is helping our kids bomb. For one thing, most of us aren’t teachers; knowing a subject is not the same as being able to impart that knowledge to others, as anyone who’s ever found herself screaming, “Just take my word for it!” to a mystified 7-year-old knows. Second, when we don’t understand, we’re embarrassed. This may be particularly true of successful, competitive professionals. How many of us feel good telling our children, “I make enough money to buy a summer home in Tuscany, but please don’t ask me to explain Common Core math.”
“I think of myself as an intelligent, functioning adult,” says the writer Julie Klam, who has a daughter who just finished fifth grade. “But my God. Do you know what a ‘math lattice’ is? No, you do not. The way basic math is taught now, it’s not like A plus B equals C. It’s more like A plus B, and then you run out for oranges, and then you take the subway. My daughter’s recent assignment was like a buffet of confusion.”
Further complicating the homework is the increasing fashion for making it “creative” — which often renders it unnecessarily complicated, at least for the age and dexterity of many younger children. “I used to be very involved in my kids’ homework until my second grader came back with an assignment to recreate New York City’s waterways using a baking sheet, mounds of paper towels, tin foil and rivers of water poured from a pitcher,” says Marjorie Ingall, a Manhattan public school mother. “First of all, I don’t care about New York’s waterways as long as the water that comes out of the tap does not catch fire. But that aside — this is an assignment for me, not for an 8-year-old. There was just so much crying at my house.”
This propensity for Fun! has given rise to what the actress and author Annabelle Gurwitch calls the Parent Craft Project. As a woman who once hosted “Wa$ted!,” a reality show where families are shown how to have less of a carbon footprint, Ms. Gurwitch decided that her son’s California mission diorama had to be biodegradable, which meant no plastic lingering for eternity in a landfill.
“Have you ever tried to glue graham crackers with peanut butter? I don’t recommend it,” Ms. Gurwitch says. “But I wanted the mission to be edible. For two days straight we tried to get graham crackers to stack with our peanut butter mortar, crumbled oyster crackers for the walkways, columns made from breads sticks, rosemary from our garden for our foliage stuck to the base with egg whites. After my son would go to sleep I’d stay up for hours trying to fortify the cracker walls with sturdier Wasa crackers. A day later, when we delivered it for the whole school to see, it attracted ants and smelled like an old shoe — which when you actually think about it, is probably not unlike what those missions smelled like.” Ms. Gurwitch noted that her son’s project did receive the best left-handed compliment ever from the teacher: “It’s easy to see that you completed the project with no parental help.”
There is yet another factor that prompts a certain kind of parent to take on a kid’s homework: For those of us who were good students, it’s a chance to relive our glory days. It’s the nerd equivalent of the soccer dad barking orders to his kid on the fields.
John Munger is an associate professor of medicine and cell biology at the N.Y.U. School of Medicine, so it would seem that helping with his teenage son’s science homework wouldn’t be much of a stretch. But his son doesn’t entirely share his enthusiasm, and he has discovered that starting sentences with “Check this out!” and “Here’s a cool thing!” does little to ease the tension. Then, Dr. Munger adds, “I tend to get all excited about the subject, feverishly researching on the Internet, and by the time I discover the answer, my son is thoroughly annoyed with me and has moved on to something else.”
Dr. Munger’s experience brought back my own memories of being helped by my mother, who also happened to be a doctor; she would become so engrossed in my math homework that while she completed it I was able to slowly back out of the room and continue reading “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” for the 400th time.
And therein lies the big honking problem of helping with homework. First, you are conveying to your kids that they can’t make it without Mom and Dad’s help. (Though in my case, I managed to convey to my son that if he took Mom’s help again, he was likely to flunk out of middle school.) But more important, you are sending the unmistakable and not so subtle message that it’s better to be right than smart.
When I confessed my sins to Michael Goldspiel, my son’s beloved assistant principal (who has cheerfully assured me that some people pay their way through college playing poker), he summed up the problem better than I could. “Being wrong is part of the process of understanding,” he said. “Going out on a limb, being willing to take a chance, is a critical skill not just for homework, but for life.” He couldn’t be more correct.
Several years ago, my fellow parents and I got so involved in an assignment that I suggested it would be best if we kept our kids home and just showed up for their classes.
I have largely — hugely — stepped back. But I’d be lying if I said I was cured. As I type, I am printing out Henry’s mock-trial essay on the First Amendment. There are three grammatical errors, singing their siren song. I fix them. And then I look at his argument on the rights of Americans to a free press. It could be more nuanced. A lot. Does he know what “nuanced” means? This is killing me. Just a few different words could.
I step back, and let all the subtleties of a seventh grader (none!) stay in the piece.
How to Make Homework Less Work
Homework is your teachers’ way of evaluating how much you understand of what’s going on in class. But it can seem overwhelming at times. Luckily, you can do a few things to make homework less work.
Create a Homework Plan
Understand the assignment. Write it down in your notebook or planner, and don’t be afraid to ask questions about what’s expected. It’s much easier to take a minute to ask the teacher during or after class than to struggle to remember later that night.
If you have a lot of homework or activities, ask how long the particular homework assignment should take. That way you can budget your time.
Start right away. Just because it’s called “homework” doesn’t mean you have to do it at home. Use study periods or other extra time in your school day. The more you get done in school, the less you have to do at night.
Budget your time. If you don’t finish your homework at school, think about how much you have left and what else is going on that day. Most high-school students have between 1 and 3 hours of homework a night. If it’s a heavy homework day, you’ll need to devote more time to homework. It’s a good idea to come up with a homework schedule, especially if you’re involved in sports or activities or have an after-school job.
Watch Where You Work
When you settle down to do homework or to study, where do you do it? Parked in front of the TV? In the kitchen, with the sound of dishes being cleared and your brothers and sisters fighting?
Find a quiet place to focus. The kitchen table was OK when you were younger and homework didn’t require as much concentration. But now you’ll do best if you can find a place to get away from noise and distractions, like a bedroom or study.
Avoid studying on your bed. Sit at a desk or table that you can set your computer on and is comfortable to work at. Park your devices while you study. Just having your phone where you can see it can be a distraction. That makes homework take longer.
Get to Work
Tackle the hardest assignments first. It’s tempting to start with the easy stuff to get it out of the way. But you have the most energy and focus when you begin. Use this mental power on the subjects that are most challenging. Later, when you’re more tired, you can focus on the simpler things.
Keep moving ahead. If you get stuck, try to figure out the problem as best you can — but don’t spend too much time on it because this can mess up your homework schedule for the rest of the night. If you need to, ask an adult or older sibling for help. Or reach out to a classmate. Just don’t pick someone you’ll be up all night chatting with or you’ll never get it done!
Take breaks. Most people have short attention spans. Sitting for too long without stretching or relaxing will make you less productive than if you stop every so often. Taking a 15-minute break every hour is a good idea for most people. (If you’re really concentrating, wait until it’s a good time to stop.)
Get It Ready to Go
When your homework is done, put it in your backpack. There’s nothing worse than having a completed assignment that you can’t find the next morning. Now you’re free to hang out — without the guilt of unfinished work hanging over you.
Get Help When You Need It
Even when you pay attention in class, study for tests, and do your homework, some subjects seem too hard. You may hope that things will get easier, but most of the time that doesn’t happen.
What does happen for many people is that they work harder and harder as they fall further and further behind. There’s nothing embarrassing about asking for help. No one understands everything.
Start with your teacher or guidance counselor. Some teachers will work with students before or after school to explain things more clearly. But what if you don’t feel comfortable with your teacher? If your school is big, there may be other teachers who know the same subject. Sometimes it just helps to have someone new explain something in a different way.
Ask a classmate. If you know someone who is good at a subject, ask if you can study together. This may help, but keep in mind that people who understand a subject aren’t always good at explaining it.
Find a tutor. You’ll need to talk to an adult about this because it usually costs money to hire a tutor. Tutors come to your home or meet you someplace like the library or a tutoring center. They work with students to review and explain things taught in the classroom. This gives you the chance to ask questions and work at your own pace. Your teacher or guidance counselor can help you find a tutor if you’re interested.
You have to do your homework first
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You have to do your homework first
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You have to do your homework first said my mother
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How do you motivate yourself to do your homework
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