Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Rant of the Mommy Homework "Helper"

In Confessions of a Mommy Homework "Helper", I wondered just how much homework help is appropriate. But that's just a part of the big problem, which is, how the heck is a parent supposed to find time to help with hours of homework a day?

I work full-time and am in school myself, my husband works around the clock, and my three-year-old is desperate for attention at all times, especially when Theo's getting all of mine during homework.

Not to mention the small details of getting Theo fed and cleaned after school. A bath is considered a triumph in this house. Keeping up with laundry and housecleaning are fantasies long since forgotten.

And because I'm a ridiculous mother who insists that Theo should have some fun in his life, he's in play rehearsals after school twice a week, which means by the time he gets home at 5, homework hasn't started yet. Theo must be in bed by 8 because he's on the school bus at 6:30 a.m., so that gives us three hours to make dinner, clean up dinner (ha! sometimes), do homework, and stumble through bedtime. And bedtime often isn't quality time with fun books and cuddles like it should be.

If we do get to read, it's usually one of the boring books he's assigned, since that's the only time we can squeeze them in. There are a few Roald Dahl books I'm dying to read to the kids that keep having to wait. And my toddler gets shortchanged, because I don't have time to read to her as much as I'd like.

I used to savor weekends for family time, but as the NYC Board of Ed views the weekend as two days that serve no purpose but 48 hours of available homework time, the assignments double and triple. (Notice I'm not blaming teachers.)

I thought homework was supposed to reinforce what was learned in school. So how did I end up giving my son a 3-hour lesson on Ben Franklin? And apparently not very successfully. If I -- a mom who works with words for a living -- can't get my kid to do a writing assignment, how are the non-English speaking parents doing it? Which is 90% of the parents in Theo's class.

Google tells me that plenty of other parents of third graders are fed up at the amount of homework their kids get and the help required from the parents.

I'm lucky to at least have a little guy who likes homework and who is always compliant. He even asks to do homework Saturday so he can play all day Sunday. I know many parents in my boat have kids fighting them every step of the way.

To all of you parents in homework hell, my heart goes out to you. And so does this rant. 

Did you know it's possible to learn stuff outside of school and homework? Here's Theo with the Metrocard train he, er, engineered at the Transit Museum.

Confessions of a Mommy Homework "Helper"

How did a grown-ass woman end up writing a third-grade biography on one of our founding fathers?

It was the third weekend in a row my 8-year-old had to write a biography for homework. And of course, in order to write one, he had to read one first. I pulled the Benjamin Franklin book out of Theo's bag and practically fainted when I saw its thickness. I glanced out the window at the first snow of winter, which had Theo in little-boy ecstasy as soon as he woke up. Sorry, snow, it's gonna be a while before he can play with you.

The book was on Theo's reading level, so I asked him to read it to me. It took 20 minutes to get through the first two chapters, and as I knew we'd never get to the writing portion at that rate, I read him the rest of the book. It took about an hour.

And so we sped through Ben's life. The printing press stuff, the invention stuff, the famous sayings stuff, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution stuff.

When we were finished reading the book, I asked Theo why Ben was important. "I don't know." I asked him what he invented. "A swimming machine." Yeah, buddy, when he was a kid. What did he invent as a grown-up? "A hot-air balloon." I sighed, partly with the understanding that of course those are the things that would interest a little boy, and mostly with frustration that he'd absorbed almost none of what we read in the last 90 minutes and we still had a whole biography to write.

It was very clear who would be writing the thing.

And so we sat at the table and worked on an outline of Franklin's life, and the topics we would cover in each paragraph. Or more accurately, I worked on it, but discussed what I was writing out loud so I could at least feel like we were doing it together.

Off we went, one painful teeth-pulling paragraph at at time. It would go something like this:

What do you think we should say for the introduction?
I don't know.
How about where and when he was born?
So where was he born?
No, that's where he lived later. Let's check the book. I open the book to the first page and he skims it, looking for the answer. Impatient, I just point at the answer.
Yep. Write it down.

And in paragraph 6:

Why is July 4 important?
We go to Coney Island.
Yes, because it's a holiday. Why is it a holiday?
I don't know.
Because that's when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Do you know what that is?
And so I explain and hope he'll kinda sorta put it in his own words when he repeats my explanation on paper.

The result was a nicely written biography that was no real indication of Theo's skill level. Had I done nothing, the bio would've read "Ben invented a swimming machine. The End."

I squeezed as much as possible out of Theo. Tried to make the homework as authentically from him as I could. But if I'm gonna be honest, I fed him a lot of the words--OK, sentences. And while I tried to check in with him on every piece and make sure he understood what he was writing, I'm sure if you asked him about the Declaration of Independence today, he'd still say he doesn't know.

I don't know what else to do.We highlight important facts as we read them. We discuss what we've read every page or two. But he is simply not good at processing large chunks of info at at time. If we could read one chapter a day and write one paragraph at a time, Theo might actually walk away knowing something about Benjamin Franklin. If Theo can't grasp an entire movie in one sitting, no way is he going to absorb an entire book.

I don't know where Theo's autism fits into this problem except that it accentuates it.

But I bet Theo isn't the only boy who can write 3 pages on Mario Party without help, yet struggles on a subject that isn't interesting to him.

Theo is a gifted creative thinker and writer. His imagination is one of his strongest suits. He'll wake up and decide he's going to write down his dream. He makes up wild stories for Melody every night at bedtime. He randomly sits down and writes plays, complete with roles for his friends and his sister.

It surprises me that reading and absorbing content for school is such a struggle for him. But that's the reality, and it's only going to get harder. I need to figure out how to get through this. I can't go on feeding him answers and pretending he's coming to the conclusions himself because I showed him where to find them in a book. It doesn't do him any favors and I certainly don't have the time.

As a mom of a kid on the autism spectrum, I want my son to be treated like other kids, I want him to advance in school on pace with his peers, and I want him to get assignments on grade level. So how can I then complain when he gets an assignment on grade level, and it's too hard for him? This is a parenting paradox that I deal with every day.

So tell me...how much homework help is appropriate?


P.S. Theo did make it to the snow. His insistence on a banana mouth turned out to be a great move.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Executive Chef at 3 and a Half

I tried making post-surgery muffins for Lisandra this morning. Melody watched me struggle taking them out of the tin.

"Why are you spooning them out?"

"Because they're stuck to the pan."

"But mom, did you ever use food spray?"

Man, it amazes me how smart she is and just how much attention she pays to everything (except for TV, when I need her to).

Incidentally, I had used Pam, so I don't know what went wrong!