Getting ready for back to school: homework

[ 2 ] August 7, 2012 |

In part one of several on getting back into the school game, I’m thinking about how we can facilitate homework-doing so that our kids are productive and efficient, and that they have quiet when they need it, support when they need it, and access to the supplies they need. In other words, what can we do to make sure that homework is neither: 1.) a festival of anxiety or 2.) ignored? I want to give homework its due, but not much more beyond that. Our situation and plan, such as it is, follow.

Why does every single pencil in our house look like after the first week of school? Where do the whole pencils go? Is there a fourth dimension overflowing with little bits of eraser? So many questions

We have a seventh grader who will have an hour or so of homework a day, a fourth grader with a half hour or so, and a first grader who will be entering the homework fray for the very first time. Before I proceed, I need to note that said first grader is fired up about this. He has been watching his older brothers do homework for years and sincerely craves his own. Perhaps his tune will change, but for now, I am all for such enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm is one of the qualities I hope to capture and perhaps bolster when I think about how we’re going to create good conditions in which the guys will do their homework during this coming school year. The other guys are generally compliant about getting their homework done, if often minimalist. I don’t necessarily insist that they fall in love with their homework assignments; the majority of the work they bring home is, if not totally unlovable, not totally thrilling either. While I don’t expect mini-masterpiece every night, I want them to do more than a half-assed job so that when a whole ass is required, they’re up to the challenge. It’s often work they can legitimately get through expeditiously, but I don’t want this to convey the impression that homework is necessarily something that is to be got through at the speed of light. This doesn’t serve them well when they’re confronted with an assignment that is genuinely challenging.

For this year, I am thinking of the whole homework thing as a contract. We expect a certain level of performance for which we will provide a certain level of support.


  • Homework gets done first, or near first. It’s right there at the top of the afterschool priority list. We try hard to keep this expectation standard, which can be tricky as afterschool conditions vary (and I am not totally sure what they will be during this upcoming school year, which is a subject for another post). Still, whether they are at the JCC afterschool program, or home with a babysitter, or home by themselves, or home with me, or wherever, homework comes first.
  • Homework is done thoroughly, with at least some attention to detail. Legibility can be an issue, so we try to remind them that if they’re going to do their homework, they need to make sure that someone else can actually read it.
  • Homework goes back into the homework folder/binder and then back into the backpack when it’s done. This is a critical bit of business. Among my least favorite evenings or mornings are those that that include a mad search for homework that is eventually located between pages of the newspaper that’s in the recycling, or under a bed, or wherever. Not good times. Homework gets put away.
  • It’s great to get help, but we don’t want to help so much that we’re actually doing the work for them, or forcing them through it for the sake of completion. Part of the value of homework is that it provides teachers, parents, and kids a relatively low-stakes way to practice and check for understanding. If a kid isn’t getting something, we know that thing needs to be taught and learned again or differently. I have had conflicts with my kids when they haven’t been able to answer a homework question and want a lot of input from us. I urge them to write down for their teacher what they don’t understand (this works best when you know the teacher will respond to such a think, which generally across the board, our kids’ teacher have done) rather than stabbing at the answer. The kids generally HATE having to do this. Self-reliance is the thing, baby.


  • Because they are sometimes doing their homework outside of the realm of a helpful older person, this means that we need to find time to check in with them about whether they have any questions, and we generally try to at least glance at it for completeness. On those evenings when I get home from work at 6 and Kevin later than that, and some kid has a baseball game, and some parent has a meeting, and people need feeding and the dog needs walking and the laundry needs folding and the dishes need doing, this is a tricky proposition. But it feels really important to check in, even for 2 minutes, so we do. If we say doing this thing is important, then we need to demonstrate that, and this is when the aforementioned checking for understanding happens.
  • This year, we are trying to make sure that they have access to the best place(s) for them to do their homework. To some extent, this depends on the needs of each kid, which are sufficiently different that I am forced to acknowledge that my fantasy that they all will gather around the dining room table and work companionably together is destined to remain a fantasy. The first grader needs to be with someone, mostly because he tends to learn interactively. That someone may well not be us. It’s most likely going to be an older brother or afterschool program counselor or babysitter. Noise makes our fourth grader nutty when he is trying to think, so he needs a quieter place. He has a harder time doing his homework in the afterschool program; he prefers to be home so he can go up to his room for some peace and quiet. And our seventh grader often needs access to a computer for research, downloading assignments, or typing up work, which he does not have (nor will have) in his room, so he often does his homework in the living room, where the family laptop dwells.
  • We need to make sure they have access to the items required for homework in the places that they do their homework, which is a bit of a conundrum since, as stated above, they don’t necessarily do their homework in a consistent place. After some trial and error from past years, we’re going to make sure that they have the basics in their backpacks and then each will have a tote bag or caddy or something or other with a more extensive array of stuff at home. What that stuff is depends on the kid; the first grader will needs crayons and the seventh grader needs a flash drive. My goal here is to avoid as many instances of a kid not being able to find a ruler/scissors/tape/markers/paper/whatever as possible. I want them to be reasonably self-sufficient. As anyone who knows me will attest, my dreams of organization often exceed my grasp, but I am really determined for everyone’s sanity and productivity to make this a reality.
  • Because learning is a messy process, sometimes homework completion is too. We’re committed to being cool with that. As stated above, we don’t do their homework for them or really with them in heavy-handed way. We do try to help them figure out why they’re struggling with something and help them articulate for themselves and their teacher what the challenge might be. And for all of them, at one point or another, we’ve used homework as a way to talk with teachers about what’s happening with that kid in school. It is somewhat useful as a window into their learning through the curriculum.

There’s more to say about what we’re doing to create good conditions for learning at home, a process in which homework plays a starring role in terms of tv watching/computer using/screen time. Suffice it to say that we limit it and no one does tv, et al until his homework is done. That said, our approach for this year is still a work in progress, so I’ll be back with more on that.

And finally, there’s the whole question of the value of homework per se. Though our kids attend schools at which homework is the norm, not everyone thinks it’s a great thing. Go read Alfie Kohn if this idea intrigues you. I have mixed feelings that merit their own exploration at some point soon.

Category: education + schools, high school age, kids, preschool, teens (13 +)

Jill Davidson

about the author ()

Jill Davidson lives in Providence with her husband Kevin Eberman and sons Elias (age 11), Leo (age 8), and Henry (age 5). She is a past president of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization and is an active parent leader in the Providence Public Schools. She writes about education in Providence and beyond at Professionally, Jill is an independent education consultant and writer and Managing Director of the Coalition of Essential Schools. Some days, there’s not too much time left for more, but when there is, Jill loves to multitask with combinations of cooking, shopping locally, gardening, exercising, reading, hanging out with friends and family, and exploring Rhode Island.

Comments (2)

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  1. S says:

    Love this Jill. We have the same conundrum in our house. Appreciate the affirmations and reminders.

  2. amy says:

    “I want them to do more than a half-assed job so that when a whole ass is required, they’re up to the challenge.”

    Love that. From that line right there I’m pretty sure if I met you in person I would enjoy you very much.

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