Every Friday, a blue sheet of paper comes home with my first grader. It lays out her homework for the week, subject by subject: a dozen spelling words, a daily reading comprehension exercise, pages from a math workbook, and the expectation that she’ll read for 20 minutes a day and practice addition and subtraction facts for a few minutes each night. A week later, on the following Friday, the blue sheet goes back to school bearing my signature and a check mark next to each of the completed assignments.
If we pace ourselves, homework takes about 30 minutes a night, not counting reading (which we do together anyway before bedtime). If we skip a night or get behind, or if I’m solo-parenting because of a traveling spouse and the demands of three kids trump the urgency of first-grade homework, the work piles up and Thursday evening finds us anxious and cramming to get it all done. An oral spelling review over slurped cereal on Friday mornings has become pretty routine.
On the one hand, I get it. I sympathize with teachers who are under enormous pressure, with school districts doing their best in a funds-starved and changing education landscape. I want my first grader to learn to spell, and I even enjoy (shh, don’t tell!) working through the Common Core math worksheets with her. In our house, learning is a priority and something we value for kids and adults of all ages; school matters, not because it’s the path to college and future success, but because we expect our kids to stay engaged and participate in the process.
But I hate it. I hate that 6-year-olds have homework at all, and especially that it is made up mostly of worksheets, repetition and memorization. I hate that in the six hours that fall between pickup time and bedtime, precious minutes must be spent butt-in-seat, pencil-in-hand. I hate that those minutes are mostly adult-directed and not child-led (and of course they are, for what 6-year-old is naturally inclined to do worksheets after spending hours at school?). Don’t get me wrong: I love education, I love teachers, and I love nothing more than a child’s natural capacity for learning. But I hate homework for very young kids.
If I could wave my magic mama-wand and transform the system with a single wish, I’d wish for our school to make a bold move like P.S. 116 in Manhattan did, and abolish homework in the lower grades.
If I had my way, the blue paper would say something like this:
1. Go Outside
Pick dead petals off the rose bushes and mix them with pebbles and mud to see what happens. Get dirt under your fingernails and on the seat of your jeans. Pull snails off the underside of plants and race them from one end of the picnic table to the other. Give them names and feed them leaves.
2. Get Bored
Get so bored you invent an alien language, then start a make-believe school for teaching it to your brother and sister. Get so bored you ask to mop the floors, just for fun. Get to know the itchiness of boredom, and the satisfaction of scratching that itch with something spontaneous, inventive and interesting. Master the art of getting un-bored.
3. Spend Time Alone
Spend time without any adults telling you where to sit or reminding you to wash your hands. Get lost in the minutiae of arranging furniture in your dollhouse, or go for a bike ride that leaves you flushed and panting. Feel the weight of your body, listen to the sound of your voice, wiggle your loose tooth, watch your shadow follow your every move. Do these things without fear of observation or critique. Do them without wondering what else you’re supposed to be doing.
Read the back of the cereal box and the front page of the newspaper. Read the magazine covers in the checkout line (and then ask your mother what a Kardashian is). Read to your little sister. Read past your bedtime. Read without counting the minutes or the pages. Do not log anything. Just read.
5. Make Something
Make a dirt cake in the backyard, a daisy chain for your hair, a movie with your mom’s phone. Make an unlikely friend. Make a smoothie. Make a puppet theater out of a cardboard box. Use what you make, share what you make, or toss it out and make something new. But don’t turn it in; it will not be graded.
Write a letter to someone far away who aches to hear from you. Write your name in the steam on the shower wall. Write in upside-down, inside-out, mismatched letters whose form comes in a distant second to the story they tell. Write a manifesto, a poem, a secret love letter. Don’t edit or punctuate or stay between the lines—just write.
7. Clear the Table
Fold the laundry. Pack your own lunch. Use a sharp knife, carefully, successfully, for the first time. Start a debate at the dinner table and stick to your guns. Feel the thrill of contribution, of agency, of mattering.
Crawl into bed with your favorite lovey and feel the world grow fuzzy and pale behind your heavy eyelids. Dream without worrying about homework. Wake without a thought about tests. Sleep long and hard, for sleep is where so much of the work of childhood happens, and rest is something you’ll need to learn to do as a grown-up.
Because I’m a rule follower, because I love and respect our school and teacher, and because I’ve chosen this system and want to work within it as much as possible, we submit to the will of the blue sheet week after week. My daughter does her homework; I provide support and structure (with mounting but silent reluctance as the year wears on). I sign on the dotted line, complicit in a system I fear is ineffective at best, destructive at worst.
But I wish for more childhood and less homework. I wish for more learning and fewer assignments. I wish for better. Do you?