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Homework Contract Rage - Elizabeth Unexplained
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Homework Contract Rage
Dear Internet, I need a sanity check.

On Friday Margaret’s homework folder contained a "homework contract" that both the student a parent/guardian are supposed to sign stating that we had read the homework requirements and agree to follow them to the best of our ability. This has gotten me annoyed for a complicated tangle of reasons.

The first reason probably seems like a nit-pick to some folks, but is important to me. There was another sheet in there in the form of a letter and unlabelled. The second paragraph has a sentence asking us to "read theses homework policies for grade one." Then there is talk about how long homework should take, and about a reading log etc. In the last paragraph is says, "Please read through the homework requirements with your child..." There is no section that states explicitly what the homework requirements are. As I understand it "policies" and "requirements" aren't exactly the same thing. I suppose the requirements can be inferred as 15 to 30 minutes of reading work plus whatever worksheets come home, but as a technical person I much prefer to have things explicitly stated in precise terms. I'm not happy about signing off on some vague requirements that I've had to infer.

The second reason I find this whole thing annoying is this: What if I don’t agree with the homework requirements? While I am all for practicing skills at home, I am a bit leery after a really bad experience we had last year. The fill-in kindergarten teacher that Margaret had for the first half of the year {the regular teacher was on maternity leave) sent home regular work plus some extra stuff for homework one day that ended up taking Margaret more than ninety minutes to complete. There was no indication that the extra stuff was extra or anything (I found that out only after complaining). Not only was that excessive, but a year ago Margaret wasn’t capable of working independently, so I had to sit with her for over an hour and a half and ignore her brothers who also needed my attention in order to get it done. There was a rather unsatisfactory exchange via the little notebook that was used for communication and we ended up meeting with the principal over it. I am also back at work full time which means that I have at best two hours between when I come home and when Margaret falls asleep, during which time we have to eat dinner, and I need to nurse Martin when I get home. If she has 45 minutes of homework that doesn't really allow any time for anything else I might want to do with her, like dance practice. I've been trying to get our au pair to do the homework with her, but that has been a bit spotty so far; I came home today to find her homework sheet only half done. Just exactly how far is "the best of our ability" supposed to stretch? As is often the cause with things one is asked to sign, it is assumed that you will sign. It says "...then sign the Homework Contract and return as soon as possible." Perhaps I am just an irritable red-head with a bad attitude, but that really rubs me the wrong way. There are many things that I want my kids to learn, but signing stuff just because someone said you should sign is not one of them. In fact, being told to sign makes me want to dig in my heels and return the sheet unsigned with a big "NO!" scrawled across it.

The third reason I am upset about the whole homework contract thing is that I think it sends entirely the wrong message to both the students and the parents. When I was in first grade back in the Dark Ages (aka the 1976-77 school year) we just did our homework. If you didn’t do your homework you were In Trouble, which was terrible. I always did my homework except for that one time I forgot, which ended up with me in tears. Nobody had to sign anything, homework just got done. What is the purpose of having people sign a compulsory homework contract? If this is the way that homework completion is enforced it seems like a really bad way to me. “You have to do your homework because we pressured you and your parents into signing this contract thingy.” Homework should be done because it is reinforcing what is being taught at school and because it is what responsible students do. I also find the whole thing incredibly patronizing, as if we as parents need to be bullied into making our kids do their homework. I’ve been doing math games like Sleeping Queens with Margaret over the summer, reading to her, and having her do workbook pages. The workbooks pages haven’t been getting done as frequently as I would have preferred, but I kept working on her skills over the summer and she has improved slightly instead of forgetting stuff. Now that school is back in session we are still working on the workbooks as time allows, as we were last year. I do not need to be told to work with my child on academics outside of the classroom and I resent the implication that I might. When I was looking for schools for Margaret I spoke to a parent who had a child in the one charter school in the district (Prospect Hill), and while she was very positive about the school she said that there was a lot of this sort of thing. It is in fact the reason why I rejected Prospect Hill as a possible school for my kids; I knew this sort of thing would be extremely irritating to me and I wanted no part of it. I realize that I am perhaps being oversensitive, but on the other hand shouldn’t the message be that responsibility is something we assume as a given, not the exception? My mom said that children will live down to your expectations of them, and I think that is often true of grownups too. I think it would send a much better message to just expect that homework will get done, and I think telling people to sign a homework contract says that the school doesn’t trust that homework will get done without it.

In general I really like Margaret’s school. I like the principal, I like most of the other kids and parents. I like her regular teacher from last year, and the specialist in music seems to be terrific. I was really happy that Margaret was assigned to the older, experienced first grade teacher instead of the brand new teacher. I’d like to think that was by design because the principal knew Margaret would be better served by someone who was older and steadier rather than just a happy accident. I prefer to think that the whole homework contract thing is something that is happening because someone at the district level is pushing it as a good idea and my objections just haven’t occurred to anyone in the school or been voiced by other parents yet. I really want to work constructively with the school, but I do get antagonized by things like this, things that I realize other parents probably feel are no big deal, or not worth raising a stink about. I do think it matters and I think I’ve laid out a reasonable argument for why I feel the way I feel. I’d welcome constructive comments on this. Would anyone care to ‘check my work’?
9 comments or Leave a comment
enugent From: enugent Date: September 9th, 2014 03:06 am (UTC) (Link)
Maybe you should write out what you do agree to do with regard to homework, sign that (and have Margaret sign it), and send that back instead? I would probably let the errors in the cover letter go, although they would bug me enormously, too. If I were the teacher and I got a "revised" contract, I think I'll probably roll my eyes and then file it with the others and never mention it.
greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: September 9th, 2014 10:53 am (UTC) (Link)
That is a good fix for my first two objections, but it doesn't really address my third objection which is actually the one I care most about: I think homework contracts are symbolically bad in this context.

ETA: I think my current position is that I just won't return the contract at all, and then if the teacher asks about it I can consider what to say on the matter carefully so as not to rant at her.

Edited at 2014-09-09 10:57 am (UTC)
psychohist From: psychohist Date: September 9th, 2014 01:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
Based on discussion with Elizabeth, another part of the issue is that it isn't a contract at all: the school isn't agreeing to anything. What do you think it would be reasonable to write in regarding what the school agrees to?

(Although if they have smart lawyers, presumably they won't be allowed to sign it, since then it could become legally enforceable.)

Edited at 2014-09-09 01:30 pm (UTC)
enugent From: enugent Date: September 9th, 2014 02:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
I would assume that the school agrees to teach her, and maybe to not assign unreasonable amounts of homework. We don't have contracts, but things like being able to get out of school on holidays are only excused if kids are caught up on their work.

Edited at 2014-09-09 02:25 pm (UTC)
enugent From: enugent Date: September 9th, 2014 04:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually, if I really wanted to push this (and I personally probably wouldn't), I'd ask that the school agree to grade and return homework promptly so that Margaret could get feedback on how she was doing. That's been a bigger problem than the total amount assigned for us.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: September 9th, 2014 06:50 am (UTC) (Link)
The half done homework was my fault. When I went downstairs at 6pm, Yuan asked Margaret to do her homework with me, as Yuan was apparently having trouble getting Margaret to do it. After dragging Margaret through half the page - for bystanders, consisting of copying "at" five times after various preprinted initial letters to form words - and getting a lot of resistance to starting the remaining 10 letters for the second half of the page, I asked if she'd rather do workbook pages.

She said yes, and to my surprise, asked to do the first grade addition workbook that she usually hates instead of the kindergarten workbook she generally prefers. She then proceeded to fill in five pages of two digit numbers in appropriate places, twenty numbers per page, with minimal encouragement from a small stuffed arctic fox who helpfully nodded each time she filled in a number. Okay, the arctic fox also snuggled her after each set of ten numbers.

And then we didn't get back to the homework. Basically she temporarily got out of writing 10 letters by writing 200 digits. Clearly she is headed to MIT like her parents and not to Harvard.

Edited at 2014-09-09 06:54 am (UTC)
dcltdw From: dcltdw Date: September 9th, 2014 03:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Not sure how appropriate it is for me to comment, not being a parent and all, but if I may...

I try to look at these kinds of papers as dialogue invitations, and not as fait accompli. So perhaps if you write a letter responding to a fictional polite letter you got that was something like, "Hi, Elizabeth, I'm Margaret's teacher, and I'd like to check in with you regarding your expectations on teaching and homework and parental involvement" etc.

To me, the advantage of starting over is that hopefully you don't start off from an angry space but instead a constructive space. I agree that you'd probably only get an eyeroll and a filed piece of paper, but to me, the effort would be important. If you wanted lower effort, I would cross out lines. Just because they're presented to me in that manner doesn't mean I need to accept them; that's just Enforcing Boundaries 101 stuff.

Blah blah not a parent caveat blah blah. :)
psychohist From: psychohist Date: September 9th, 2014 04:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
This makes sense in the context of us and the teacher or school. I'm not sure how Margaret's agreement fits in here, though.
dcltdw From: dcltdw Date: September 9th, 2014 05:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
It doesn't, since I didn't address that. :) *thinks* The entire context of that (what's important; what should and shouldn't be done; how one might approach that) is so wildly outside my bounds of experience, I don't have anything to add to that discussion.
9 comments or Leave a comment