Wednesday, March 3, 2010

171 days to Bar Mitzvah: helping with homework

There are several schools of thought regarding homework, and by this I'm not speaking of the "no-homework" movement, which regards all homework as counter-productive.

No, I mean that over the past eight years, every family that began at Brandeis Hillel Day School with us has had to answer one very important question relating to nightly homework: how much should the parents help?

Back in kindergarten, when homework was a novelty -- and, weirdly, the topic of one of the first questions asked by the nervous parents of preschoolers as they toured the school, looking for a slot in the next year's kindergarten class -- homework involved identifying letters and drawing pictures. It was fun, in a sneakily clever way that sought to lull our children into accepting a false reality -- that homework was something fun, a privelege.

Everyone was on the same page that year. We all helped our kids with their homework. Sometimes, this resulted in completed projects whose complexity suggested the work of five-year-old genius... or a thirty-seven year-old father who had recently lost his consulting job and was sitting around the house feeling useless save for the two hours he spent each day at various local branches of 24 Hour Fitness.

I think it was sometime in the middle of third grade that parents began to split into distinct homework factions. There were those who saw homework not only as a learning exercise but also as family time, where the entire family would team up to solve the day's academic challenges. For them, homework was a logical extension of a family-inclusive policy that seldom led to last call for anything but in-house organic grape juice right after John Stewart.

Others felt that their participation was necessary, if only to help their child avoid falling into the endless loop of doing the same wrong thing over and over again without change. They would function as homework coaches, guiding their charges to knowledge with subtlety, imbuing them with good work habits and conscientious study skills.

A third camp felt that it was time to kick the chicks out of the nest. Let them sink or swim on their own. The sooner they learn to handle things on their own, the better. I would place Sandra Bullock and I as being about 75% in this group, 25% in the "coaching" group.

Not that this means the Jawa flourishes under our plan. This year, in fact, we've had to suspend our Colonial England-inspired salutary neglect a bit, thanks to near-weekly plaintive emails from the Jawa's beloved "advisory" teacher (think "homeroom"), Ms. Pak.

So it was that an hour ago I found myself dodging scraps of duct tape and today's cargo pants, looking for a spot on the floor of the Jawa's room while I helped him complete a draft of his social studies essay on origami. It took five minutes for me to remember that a wish for my child to be independent isn't the only reason I usually stay out of the homework game. I also hate teaching people how to write, which might explain why I lasted no more than two years as a high school teacher. I loved the kids, hated the job.

Actually, I prefer to help the Jawa with his math homework. We're much more on the same wavelength there. Math is the great sleeping tiger in the Jawa's life, as it was in mine before we moved to California and they put me in a corner for two years because they didn't know what to do with me during math class. With the Jawa, you only have to explain a math concept to him once and he'll get it.

It's a totally different ballgame when it comes to writing. It almost doesn't seem like the same kid.

Did you know that origami originated in China around 100 C.E. and was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks in 600 C.E.? Did you know that "C.E." stands for "Common Era?" Did you know that they are no longer using "A.D." or "B.C." (they now use B.C.E., which makes sense in a sort of 'metric system everything's based on tens' way).

Part of what I do at my place of underemployment involves editing the contributions of non-writers. That's different from helping your Jawa with a five-paragraph theme. For one, those contributors are anonymous. They forget what they've written as soon as they email it, which means I can make it pretty without worrying that they'll get mad. Also, they're adults, not students. Sure, I could've given the Jawa's origami essay the once-over and had it looking pro-style in fifteen minutes. But then what would he have learned?

And yet I still feel like part of the hour we just spent in his room was me dictating to him and him copying down stuff, even though I tried my best to lead him to the answers, instead of just supplying them. And I was only impatient enough for Sandra Bullock to peek into the room and shoot daggers out of her eyes at me once.

I could have reminded her that last night, when she was helping him work on his origami how-to poster, she didn't exactly show the patience of Mother Theresa.

Again, though, her manner of help didn't involve sitting there with him, doing the project for him. Basically, she was on the couch, laptop open, project managing both the small molecule project at Genentech and her twelve-year-old son's social studies project. The former involved less shouting than the latter.

Isn't it funny how there are times when you can look at your Jawa and estimate within one or two percentage points how the DNA between you and your wife was split during conception? Good thing, because the insight it affords makes up for a whole lot of parental shortcomings. If you can correctly predict what your Jawa is thinking and guess within a reasonable margin of error how he will react, what his next actions will be, that's more valuable than a bookstore full of "What to Expects," even in hardcover.

No comments: