Tuesday, January 24, 2012

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.

1 comment:

Aunt Lisa said...

I think you have to cut yourself some slack. I know it must be incredibly frustrating, but you are trying to help him understand and that's something most parents just don't do. They either leave the child to their own devices or simply do the work for them.

On the other hand, Theo's lack of interest in Benjamin Franklin doesn't surprise me at all. I hated history of any kind, still do. It bores the heck outta me. And that means no motivation to learn it.

That said, I think you're doing the right thing. You are trying to keep him involved in the process as much as possible. And he will learn, even just a little at a time. Keep at it.

Love you both!