Trying to raise my kids the best I can

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Disasterous conversation with school teacher

I don't believe in homework.  (See The Homework Myth) When my children are in kindergarten and first grade (and as much as I can get away with it, in second) I don't make them do it.  I relent in the older grades because at that point you really can't fight the system any more.

Dimitri only does his homework once in a blue moon.  I thought I would explain that to his teacher so she wouldn't be as frustrated/angry with him.  First I told her that she was doing a great job.  I always start my conversations like that because I know teachers are on the defensive because parents are generally pretty critical of teachers (sadly).  Despite my introduction I could sense she was still on the defensive.  Nevertheless, I couldn't skirt the issue forever so I dove right in.  "I just wanted to explain to you that I philosophically disagree with homework."  I said.  "So that's why Dimitri hasn't been very consistent about doing it."  She asked why and I said "I just feel like children learn better through play"  (I should have added ("then through work-sheets" because I think that would have augmented my case).  I naively thought that that would be the end of it.  That she would be thoughtful and empathetic and say something like,
       "well, I disagree, but I see your point and I understand.  You have the right to raise your son how you wish.  So don't worry about it.  I won't penalize him for it."  And then I would say,
        "thank you for understanding".  But no.  What ensued was a very confused woman grilling me with questions but never quite understanding what I was saying.  And me clumsily circumventing my true beliefs because they are so extreme it would probably be like speaking a foreign language to her.  She explained that the homework is the spelling words for the weekly test. I said that I wasn't aware of that, and that  that is perhaps something that I could make an exception for.  (I thought it was just random words for reading and writing).  She said he does poorly on his spelling tests.  I didn't bother explaining to her that spelling tests were unnecessary in today's world because children learn to spell by communicating online on message boards and in role playing games and that every time a computer underlines a misspelled word the correct spelling is reinforced in your head until your spelling is better than the knowledge any spelling tests could impart.  I didn't bother explaining that  it was completely irrelevant if he fell behind his peers a few months; even a few years.  All that mattered was that he picked up the skill in the end.  Which he would.  Just like his brothers did.  Just like every other unschooled kid in the world.

I said that I didn't want him to be penalized for not doing his homework.  She said that he couldn't get "The Principal's Award" unless he does his homework every day.  I said (and I probably shouldn't have said this) "Oh, I don't care about that.  I just don't want him to miss recess." (The Principal's Award is a stupid piece of paper.)  She said something about it being part of the school culture or community or what-have-you.  She made no indication that he would not be punished for not doing his homework.  "What if he only does half?" I asked, trying to find a compromise.
       "He has to do it every day to get The Principal's Award," she said.  Again, not comprehending that I don't care if he gets the dang Principal's Award.(Neither does Dimitri).
       "No, I mean half a worksheet"  I said.  I don't think she really answered me.  "Or, if he has to maybe I'll do it for him".  Another statement which wasn't verbally acknowledged.  It was probably the most astounding words to ever come out of a parent's mouth in a conversation with a teacher. I wouldn't have even said it. I would have just continued to do this, but frankly, it's very time consuming to make your writing look like a six year old's.

She said that the homework should only take 10 or 15 minutes.  She asked if it was taking him longer than that and I said no and she asked, quizzically, "and 10 or 15 minutes is too long for you?"
       "yes" I said.  "I don't believe in it at all."  She said that I was lucky that she was his teacher because the other teachers give even more homework.
       "What are you going to do in the older grades?" she asked.
        "Well, I have two older sons at the middle school and I understand that in the older grades they have to do their homework".
       "Why did you start doing this with your third child?"  she asked.
       "No, this isn't new.  None of my children did homework in the younger grades"  She looked at me like: how did you get away with that?
       I said that the one "paperwork" that I make exception for is handwriting because proper letter formation really isn't something you can just "pick up" in the world and I believe it is very important.  I told her I was very impressed that she teaches handwriting.  (Again, trying to throw in some positives here).  When I was rehearsing this whole conversation in my head on the way to the school I had planned on asking if, perhaps, I could do some handwriting homework with him and send that in, in lei of the work sheets.  But at this point I see it would only cloud the conversation even more so I don't bother.  

She mentioned that Dimitri is behind in reading.  She asked if I read to him.  (I think at this point she has already concluded that I am a neglectful parent and she is just collecting evidence to reinforce her superior beliefs).  "Yes," I replied; not giving her the satisfaction. But then I said his brothers struggled with reading too at that age; which I meant as an indication that this is within the range of normal and, like his brothers, he will catch up.  But after uttering those words I realized that it was further proof of her condescending beliefs.  I should have thrown in the phrase "and they are exceptional readers now".  Darn it all.  You always think of what you should have said, after the fact. (Or shouldn't.  In the case of The Principal's Award blunder).  Again, like the spelling conversation, I wanted to explain that it was OK if he fell behind his peers.  Eventually he would catch up.  But, unlike his peers, he would not grow to despise learning.  He would not grow up resisting the wondrous world of knowledge.  You can't explain all that in an impromptu after-school conversation.  That is deep philosophical stuff.  And besides, I'm not here to explain why I disagree with the entire paradigm of public school.  That would be a) pointless and b) rude.  I'm just asking for some leniency when it comes to our differing beliefs when it comes to homework.  So, with my hands being tied as to explaining the real reason for my request I'm left bumbling for explanations that don't delve into the complicated truth and failing miserably. 

I can't explain to her that I disagree with forced learning, period.  I can't explain to her that the fact that he spends six hours a day "learning" and then has to come home and do more is abhorrent to me.  I can't explain to her that I wrote a published article proclaiming that a children can do nothing more than play video games all day and still progress at or above grade level.  I can't explain that my very own child did just that last year.  I can't explain to her that the only reasons I sent him to public school this year were:
  1. In August I had a full time job, so I needed the free daycare.
  2. My husband wants me to take a break.  Every few years he likes the kids to go back to school to alleviate his concerns about their progress.  (And despite my passion for unschooling, I have to admit it is comforting to me too)
  3. I'm trying to wean the damn kid and at least if he's away from me six hours a day- that's six fewer hours that I have to fend him off of my freaking breasts.
Yeah.  I definitely can't explain all that.  So I'm left with a weak defense for my outrageous request.  But the whole thing makes me want to homeschool again. We ended the conversation with awkward small talk and then said goodbye.

UPDATE:  A week later the school sent home the annual "contract" between student, school and parent.  It had all the usual propaganda: "I will try hard.  I will be respectful. I  will attend regularly... bla bla bla."  I crossed off the line "do my homework" on Dimitri's contract and put my initials over it.

Then, yesterday, I was packing Dimitri's bag for school in the morning and I was about to throw out his undone homework worksheet when Dimitri stopped me and told me to leave it in there because the teacher does it with him.  I inquired and he said that she works with just him on the homework while everyone else is doing something else.  A part of me feels guilty that she is taking time away from the rest of the students.  I'm not trying to monopolize her time or make my child special.  But another part of me feels that this is proper teaching.  I always said to myself that if I were a teacher I would spend five minutes a day tutoring each student.  It seems only fair.  A child is in school six hours a day.  They can't get five minutes of undivided attention?  I'm sure my public school teacher readers are rolling their eyes.  I'm sure they think I am ignorant and fanciful and naive.  They're probably right.  But from my perspective, my sixth grader started homeschooling unable to do long division.  Five minutes with the kid would have shown the teacher this.  It just seems like a breakdown in the education process.  If it would make a difference in the test scores of these inner city schools I don't see why they don't find a way to make it work.  I'm convinced it would dramatically raise scores.  If nothing else, by showing the teachers which areas each student needs to concentrate on.  Anyway, like I said, I'm conflicted about the situation, but it is what it is.


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