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
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?