The Torture and Pleasure of HS Homework (On the nature of parent-child relationships…and reading conferences)

The title may be somewhat misleading. The homework is torturous. It foments struggle in our house (as perhaps it does in yours) on a regular (nearly constant) basis. How to minimize, avoid, delay, speed up, get around, or generally do it in a manner different than how I, a teacher-mom and former nerd, think it ought to be done is the perpetual aim of my teenager. You’d think that if you put half that much energy into the homework itself, you’d be a rocket scientist by now. Alas, the struggle continues.

But tonight is the last night of studying before the last final exam of freshman year. So while it was a slog here for the last few hours. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll be in school through Thursday, but tomorrow night will feel like a vacation.

Yet even through the struggle, there have been moments, or clusters of them, that resemble the kinds of conversations we used to have before high school grades took over our lives. In helping him to study for his biology exam, I asked about each of the topics on the study guide. I don’t necessarily know or remember the answers–my own biology days are far behind me. In fact, it seems to matter less that I know the content than that I listen to hear if the answer seems to match the question. Less than if I say, “Tell me more about that.”

I found myself briefly thinking about reading and writing conferences. Often I hear of teachers saying, “But I don’t know the book. How could I do a conference?” Au contrair mon frere. You know more about how stories work than I remember about these biology topics. You can tell if what you’re hearing is coherent. You can sense, as I could the child’s shifting degrees of confidence and security as the conversation moved from one point to another. Sometimes we put a pin in it and agreed that that particular topic or question deserved some rereading, rethinking, and another try.

This evening’s experience of helping to study something that I myself am not currently expert in, reminded me of a TED talk. I’m sorry to say I can’t recall the individual’s name. The gist was this: Researchers installed a computer kiosk in a rural village in India where the local people didn’t speak English, not have such technology in their homes. The children would gather around the computer and within a relatively short period of time they’d taught themselves to use it. Through the kiosk the researchers observed (through pre- and post-tests) the progress these impoverished children made on complex topics like genetics and biology. It was impressive. As a second phase of the research they connected the kids to Grannies in England who would not tutor, but merely ask questions like: “Tell me more about that.” That kind of non-expert interaction that promoted learners to articulate what they understood also significantly improved performance. Amazing.

I hope it’s true. I can still provide meaningful and specific feedback relative to his humanities courses. But from here on out in math and science I’d have to study it again myself in order to feel competent in supporting him–except as a kind of granny asking him to “tell me more.”

Which makes the teacher part of me think, we should not be sending home any homework that requires or expects more of families than providing a granny’s keen interest.

I hope the exam goes well. I hope we’ve done enough and we learn from whatever the results are. In any case…I’m so looking forward to my break from his homework.

(Now I can finally start my own.)

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