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School Stories, Student Voices

No Friction Homework

Yes We Can

When my children were about 11, 9, and 7 (I have twins so that’s four kids), the kids would arrive home after school, bus exhaust announcing their appearance.  They’d walk up the driveway wearily, their shoulders weighed down by backpacks filled with textbooks, notebooks and most especially, reams and reams of worksheets of homework.  Sometimes, on crisp autumn days they’d fling off their backpacks before they’d even walked a few steps, their burdens flying out in low arcs on the lawn and landing with a thud.  Remorselessly earthbound, the frayed canvas objects refused to go airborne.  I’d stand looking at the detritus of school, washed up by the tides of the American educational system, and collect these parcels in a red wagon and pull them up to the house.  But it wasn’t until they arrived at the dining room table that the fun really began.

Everyone would eat, and then we began a practice, which became a ritual, which became an essential understanding, about school.  We divided and conquered homework as rapidly and efficiently as possible, so that we could get on with the real business of living.

Everyone sat at the dining room table, disgorging the contents of their backpacks.  Out came clump after clump, near forests, of worksheets.  Sheets of  practice multiplication facts, line graphs, adding decimals, calculating percentages.  Leaf upon leaf of making contractions, adding fractions, fact and opinion worksheets, creating compound words.  Books-that-are-not-really-books, but combinations of “readings” and tales with trenchant moral messages, chosen by textbook editors and reading specialists, fell onto the table awaiting uneager perusal.  Directions for multi-stage projects, requiring many notebooks, binders, dividers, and three-hole-punch reinforcement rings, demanded attention, effort, and a show of understanding of the stage-wise nature of completing lengthy “research” in elementary school.

Gazing at the heaped mass, someone would begin.  Perhaps Henry, my oldest child, might offer, “Sam has a lot of adverb worksheets, and Cole, you’re light tonight on perimeter shapes, so maybe Cole can take all of Sam’s ELA stuff because you’re good at doing Sam’s handwriting.” 

Lily might say, “Mr. Mintz always corrects the math sheets while he’s watching TV so it’s okay if someone does them really fast.” 

Henry, like an ice-breaker using his momentum to slice through the mighty sea glacier of homework that threatened to overtake our family life, would say, “I’m going to do some research notes on the volcano project.”  And Sam might offer, “I’ll put the hole reinforcers on the paper and put them into the notebook in the right order.”

The point was, to get it all done as quickly as possible, with as little harm to the collective as possible, so that everyone could get on with doing some real stuff.  Stuff like going outside to collect frogs eggs in a nearby stream, reading real books, acting out a King Arthur legend, drawing a fantasy bug that looked like one of William Steig’s beasts.  (We had no TV in our house, so no one ever watched.)  We needed to get all this done before sundown, and we needed no one to get injured or punished by the practice.  We knew that homework was a game, a game designed by one set of adults for another set of adults, to show that school was “serious” and demanding and instilling “the right set of values.”   Early on the kids also knew this had almost nothing to do with a deep interest in learning, any serious theory about how learning happens, and was a practice for which individual teachers and administrators bore few consequences, because all the pain of doing homework happened off their watch, and essentially outside their moral sphere.

Now you may wonder, did these children emerge with poor work ethics?  With diminished ability to meet

Negotiating adult authority? (William Steig)

deadlines and complete research projects?  With underdeveloped skills at negotiating adult authority within institutions?  Do they get into trouble a lot? It does not appear so.  As college students they seem more perceptive and skillful at negotiating boundaries and self within institutions than I, who still gets into trouble a lot.

What was at the heart of the homework-collective ritual?

  • It encouraged kids to become cultural anthropologists of the institution in which they were members
  • They learned not to internalize the “shoulds” and “oughts” of the institution
  • They had to think about what things are important to fight about, and what issues it was best to minimize friction around (they did eventually help spearhead a “no grades” and “optional homework” movement in their high school)
  • To know that many things we have to do as members of institutions don’t make much sense, and aren’t clearly aligned with any stated purpose, except compliance
  • We are in this together
  • The adults in this family are on your side
  • I get by with a little help from my friends.

How are you a cultural anthropologist of your school?  How are you not internalizing the shoulds and oughts of the institution you’re in?  How are you getting by with a little help from your friends?


About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


13 thoughts on “No Friction Homework

  1. Nicely written.
    In the bullet points at the end, I particularly like the 4th one. A lot of what is done in schools seems to be about teaching compliance.

    Posted by Dave Gale | September 10, 2011, 2:30 pm
  2. Kirsten,

    I love this… and now have a new way to encourage parents who are dealing with the stress of homework. I honestly hope that homework is not an issue when I am a parent, but if it is… Collective homework will be the practice in our house also!

    Love seeing your family too.


    Posted by dloitz | September 10, 2011, 4:16 pm
  3. Kirsten,
    I wish more people would adopt this practice…the things your children learned are SO much more valuable than the lessons the teachers thought they were imparting.

    I also love David’s idea of using it to encourage parents dealing with the stress of homework. I’m posting this on my parent page. I’m sure it will cause discussions!

    We had Back to School night this past week and the team I am working most closely with announced to the parents that homework would not be as they had experienced in prior years–that what did come home would be well thought out and not packets of just plain old worksheets. The reaction was silence. I found that very interesting and wonder what the parents were thinking. I’ll be looking for ways to pull that out of parents I talk to throughout the year.

    Thanks for sharing your story! I love it!


    Posted by Paula White | September 10, 2011, 6:11 pm
  4. Ooooh, Kirsten, this is a juicy one for me. I’m going to take a risk and try to “complexify” here. Of course I do understand the concept of working with your kids to be a “cultural anthropologist” of the institution, to de-sanctify The Word of the school, admit that it’s a silly game, and realize that we’re in this together to help each other figure it out, try to subvert “the oppressor” and get by. And I have no problem at all with any “work ethic” issues here.

    But, as a teacher who might at some point assign handwriting homework to my student who could really use some practice to improve her handwriting, I’d be seriously bummed out to find out that her brother had been doing this homework for her all year. I think I’d be likely to take it personally as a serious breach of the trust within our teacher-student relationship.

    I suppose that it’s very clearly implied in your post that your kids’ homework sheets in this case were devoid of meaning or relevance for your kids and therefore did not deserve their treating them with any respect or integrity. I get that, But still…

    For me, and with no judgment intended for those who make a different choice, or who simply don’t have the privilege to make a choice at all, I’d get them the hell out of there! Why do so many of us continue to send our children to institutions we don’t trust or respect, and which we believe to be hurting them, or at least not caring for or about them in the slightest. This is a very living question for me right now as I have several friends who have recently made such a choice quite consciously.

    Among the lessons I hope to teach my son in refusing to send him to such a school, whatever the cost or inconvenience or public perception, is to not subject yourself to inhumane or abusive treatment. Have the courage and fortitude to make a different choice, one that allows you to be your authentic self, and not have to pretend or fake it. Let us strive to put ourselves into places and align ourselves only with institutions that allow us to act with honesty and integrity. Not possible 100% of the time, I know, but let’s really reach for it. And if we do find ourselves within a system where the only way to maintain our dignity and humanity is to covertly subvert the intended roles we are given, let us also speak out loudly and proudly against these injustices (as I know you and your kids did and do.) and never simply pretend to roll along with smiles on our faces, while resisting alone and in silence.

    With the deepest respect and admiration,


    Posted by Paul Freedman | September 11, 2011, 4:11 am
  5. Paul, this is a great complexification, and I thank you. It seems right to the point, and is part of a long conversation I’ve had with myself, with my kids, and in my larger world.

    Why send them to a school that didn’t assign meaningful work (your larger question)? That didn’t engage them in powerful and deep ways? Wasn’t THAT in itself a poor example of what I believe in?

    All throughout my kids’ K-12 lives (which just ended) we worked out a series of compromises…I helped start a school for them to go to initially. Then that school ended (you understand that) and there were no affordable alternatives, and because I was working and in graduate school, I did not feel that we could homeschool them. Thus, the routes we took.

    I guess that’s one of the reasons I’m so sympathetic to folks who just say, “I can’t homeschool.” They can’t afford it, it doesn’t work logistically, they’re single parents, they’re overwhelmed, they want their kids to be in the community of school, even if it’s less than perfect. (And why there need to be real alternatives for all kids, that are affordable and meet the community’s needs.)

    Additionally, I’m always aware AS A TEACHER that students may make the same choices about any assignment or work project I try to engage them in that I taught my own kids to make. If it doesn’t serve you…That’s the way life is, you come to live all the implications of the actions you’ve taken or encouraged long ago.

    Their handwriting (my kids’), in some cases, really sucks.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 11, 2011, 9:02 am
    • Damn Kirsten, now I’m going to have the rep of being the Coop’s handwriting Nazi.

      Handwriting isn’t what’s important. I’m sure many “solutionaries” have sucky handwriting (is that true, Zoe?)

      Wait…Oh, sh_t! I just checked and H.H. The Dalai Lama has absolutely gorgeous handwriting, as does Nelson Mandela and as did Albert Schweitzer. Okay, hang on…Gandhi’s was only fair, as is Obama’s (lefty, of course.) Ah hah, and Einstein’s sucked as did John Lennon’s. I think your kids are in decent company, Kirsten. You can rest easy.

      It’s amazing you can actually Google these things!


      Posted by Paul Freedman | September 12, 2011, 1:05 am
  6. I’m trying to negotiate how to handle the whole homework thing. My son rightly insists that “school is fun, but homework is boring.” He points out that he’s being asked to practice what he already knows. “Dad, what if I kept asking you to repeat yourself after you already said something? What if, after you did that, I asked you to repeat yourself two more times? How about ten?” By this point, he’s already worked up into a frenzy.

    I’ve asked the teacher if we could do our own homework. Joel loves to write. Can’t he write and read real books? Can’t he construct a graphic novel? Can’t he choose his own topic? Can’t I opt out of homework entirely and treat it as his own unschooling time?

    Posted by John T. Spencer | September 12, 2011, 3:33 pm
    • hey John,

      What did the teacher say. Was it a discussion between two teachers or a parent or teacher… were you seen as a trouble maker… I am interested in this… I could not imagine saying no to your suggestions.

      I think we along with Joe or other start to craft some pragmatic steps to help the transition to more No homework type learning!

      Love to have a post by any three of you on this subject.

      by the way I am going to blog your comment here… by your son! So perfect!


      Posted by dloitz | September 12, 2011, 3:45 pm
    • I reposted this comment John, and it has created a great back and forth on tumblr… I hope some of the people come over here and comment.

      here is my blog,

      might have to write a post base on the discussion…

      as always thanks for creating deep discussion by sharing such great stories!

      Posted by dloitz | September 12, 2011, 8:45 pm
  7. That is a positively lovely family tradition around the idea of homework.

    I fully expect to be called on the nonsensical things I do in the name of my job. I love having conversations with parents about my silly traditional school habits because they let us find common ground for changing the work I ask of their children. We should have our work complexified and problematized by parents who defy our expectations of compliance. I don’t understand why we assign the kind of homework we assign given what we know about homework. Maybe schools could move towards policies that make it clear families can opt out of homework and shrink our fear of school authority at home. Happier, less fearful families might be more supportive of meaningful work students want to continue at home. My son certainly has some school activities he willingly does at home without asking, but, of course, he doesn’t get credit for those against the homework in which he struggles to find relevance.

    For all the totemic power homework holds over the psyche of United States schools’ graduates, we file and recycle an awful lot of it. We review a bunch of it during time we could be outside, as well. It’s good to read well; it’s good to communicate well. Relevant work is probably the faster way to reach those goals than homework ever will be.



    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 13, 2011, 1:28 pm
  8. Kirsten,
    I love this. and I am also intrigued by Paul’s comments. When I was in high school, my dad used to do my homework. I would come home with that insanely heavy backpack (probably should send that school my chiropractor’s bills) with hours of homework every night. Sometimes it was easy and fun (math) and sometimes I hated it (history) and it seemed like my teachers just had it out for me. In those times my dad would step in and knock it out for me (no siblings to help). I may not be a history buff, but my grades never suffered and we had the time together at home to be a family and nurture what was really important. And I admire that you found a creative solution to teach the lessons that really mattered to you.
    But I too have the thought that Paul had, just pull them out! But sometimes that is not a solution that we can afford. So, what do you do? You work with what you have and you place the emphasis at home on what you value. And you always make sure to give the kids time to just following their learning joy. Seems good to me. And I agree with Chad, homework’s usefulness may be limited.

    Posted by ambersk | September 13, 2011, 6:44 pm
  9. What a great discussion!

    Whether for good or bad, I think every parent does have the right to modify as needed. Or even as desired.

    If that disrupts the teacher’s plans for the pupil, well, a frank conversation is probably needed, of course. But that sure didn’t get me very far with my child’s teacher.

    The trouble I found in public school is that the teacher’s authority extended much too far into my family life. Furthermore, the teacher’s authority was an extension of the state and federal government’s authority, which demanded my child be educated as dictated by said teacher. I couldn’t fight that system and win. They wouldn’t let me and they wouldn’t budge.

    In private school, there is at least an understood contract to abide by school policies (including homework). If you don’t like the terms of the school, you go elsewhere.

    I homeschool. But if I didn’t, I’d be all for your version of no-friction homework.

    Posted by Tatiana | September 16, 2011, 11:39 pm
  10. Tatiana, It’s a powerful image, the one you paint: the teacher’s authority, which is an extension of the state, which is an extension of the federal government. Right there in the backpack when kids get home in the afternoon.

    Tell us how your homeschooling is going?


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 20, 2011, 8:42 am

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