What is the value of homework?

I ran into two much more challenging situations today at 826 Valencia, compared to the last time that I was there. One kid, I’ll call him C, had a short attention span and had trouble reading and writing at his grade level. He wanted to finish his homework as soon as possible but couldn’t keep his eyes on the page for much longer than 10 seconds at a time. It took us about one and a half hours to go through his reading packet (which we didn’t actually finish every page of in the end) and complete six sample sentences based on the vocabulary in the reading. Each sentence was a bargaining process for him to write less words than more. But at least this kid wanted to finish his homework, even if it was with minimal effort so that he could go home. The other kid, let’s call him J, was maybe one or two grades younger and simply refused to do his homework. Two bananas and two peanut-butter jelly sandwiches at snack time later, he sat at the desk coloring his drawing and refused to make eye contact. I asked him why he didn’t want to do his homework, he said, quite plainly, that it was “boring.”

I can imagine. I looked at the “homework packets” that they had, and most of them were drills based on contrived and simplistic problems— the same that I have gone through maybe twenty years ago. In an effort to try to get him “more interested,” another tutor and I tried drawing out one of the math problems: 12 squirrels sat on a tree branch, 7 of them fell off, how many are left? As I was drawing the 12 blue-fur-balls-passing-as-squirrels, I realized: when is the last time that you have ever seen 12 squirrels sitting on a tree branch? This is a completely unrealistic scenario made up for children’s supposed entertainment; except they can see right through it. I suspect that these problems are not only childish in our eyes, but also theirs.

In an ideal situation, I would have been able to teach J this arithmetic in some form that is more engaging, or at least has relevance in the real world. If it were my kids, someday, I would want to teach them by taking them grocery shopping— you get the idea. But in this context, the problem might not even be the mastery of skills. It was first and foremost about the value of completing homework. Maybe J didn’t want to do his homework because he felt like he was bad at it and it frustrated him; or maybe he didn’t want to do it because he was doing alright and he found the problems boring. In the former, the homework content was ineffective at teaching him; in the latter, it was not stimulating/challenging enough.

Most of all, I realize how easy it would’ve been to try to coerce him into doing it— carrot/stick style, or with the age-old platitude “you gotta do your homework so you can get good grades!”  But I couldn’t do it because I didn’t want to perpetuate the idea that a student has to do something because of authority or for the sake of meeting the requirements of some mysterious social engineering mechanisms. Practice is valuable when we are convinced that what we have set out to learn is valuable. Arithmetic is valuable, but only when we understand its context and purpose. A few photocopies about landforms of mountains and valleys— well, harder to say, really. Does the practice always have to come in the form of homework? Most homework that I have experienced, firsthand or otherwise, is just so terribly divorced from reality. Sometimes I admire a kid all the more for admitting his boredom; I want to rather optimistically see it as a sign of intelligence— for questioning why they should obey simply for the sake of obeying.

An after-school program is a peculiar place where you lack the continuity and authority of parents and teachers. You are a band-aid, basically, who does not (usually) get the benefit of an uninterrupted narrative with a student. To bring out the value of learning or of a particular subject is even more challenging in this context, but I appreciate it. It reminds me that truly great teaching is hard. As it should be, and not to ever be taken for granted. In the end, J won his silent battle and got to go home with only two, not three (as instructed by his mom), pages of his homework completed. Tomorrow, he will go back with the same packet, and it will be a another day.

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