On Jan. 16, I issued something of a spontaneous cry from the heart in opposition to stupid homework assignments that do nothing to advance children's learning and serve only to overwhelm them and their families with busywork. I said that homework in elementary and middle school should consist primarily of reading, and writing about the reading, with a few minutes of math practice and vocabulary study thrown in.
After publishing letters in support of my idea ["From Home, a Sampling of Views on Homework," Jan. 30], I received some in opposition, which I'll get to in a minute.
But first, I want to thank those who have told me of really stupid homework assignments that they have encountered. Some of them were so exceptional that I am inspired to announce a Bad Homework Assignment Contest.
I am now open to nominations. I would like to hear about homework assignments that undermine learning by wasting time that could otherwise be spent reading and writing or learning in some other way. Send them to one of the addresses listed below.
The problem is, I may have already found a contest winner. I don't want to prejudge, but the following is going to be hard to beat: An 11th-grade honors chemistry class was assigned to produce a drawing or stuffed animal of a mole (the animal) to resemble one of a list of scientists that included Marie Curie. I suppose this project was a visual pun about the mole used as a chemical measurement. One student's chemistry grade (her chemistry grade!) was reduced because her stuffed animal didn't look sufficiently female, whatever that means.
This is a superb example of what I'm talking about -- an assignment that has nothing to do with the subject under study, nor anything to do with art or creativity. An assignment like this can only serve to give kids a deep sense that their time -- which is pretty much all they possess -- is being wasted.
In any case, I challenge readers to submit examples of bad homework assignments. It is hard to imagine one worse than the Marie Curie Mole Project, but look through those bulging three-ring binders and see what you can find.
Until then, the following letters are all thoughtful responses to my homework plan that raise several interesting issues.
As a parent of three Montgomery County public school students (currently in eighth, ninth and 11th grades) and as an instructional assistant in MCPS, I feel the need to respond to the issue of homework. I have never felt that the homework assignments my children received were "busywork" or "a waste of time." All of their assignments have seemed to be an extension or practice of their in-class topics. Their projects are always related to major units and are opportunities for them to practice the skills of research, presentation and time management. These are all real-world skills. As an instructional assistant, I have the opportunity to be in many classrooms on a regular basis.
The homework assignments I see are always related to the class work. Projects are always related to major themes, and ample time is given to complete them. Whether students are given traditional curriculum-based homework or reading and writing assignments as suggested in this column, some families will always view it as a burden.
If a case can be made for eliminating homework, I would say that is because too many parents are not "available" to effectively monitor and assist their children's homework and projects. Problems that can affect families of all socioeconomic classes include stress from jobs, marital and other relationships, and physical and emotional health. Homework can seem to be a very small issue in comparison with those major stresses.
Another important problem is the mistaken belief that the child does not or should not need any homework assistance. Students of all ages need support at times. The younger the child, the more support, but some children will continue to need a high level of support all through their school careers; parents need to take care not to abandon their students too soon.
Scheduling the child for many after-school and weekend activities can be a real problem, too. Parents who do not ensure enough time for homework are sending the message that it is not important. Parents need to know what topics their children are studying and talk with them about those subjects. They need to stress the importance of homework and support the child in planning, material gathering, trips to the library and time management, and with encouragement. Learning should not stop at the doors of the school.
All children need opportunities to sample learning in a multitude of styles. This is so they can figure out on their own how they most effectively synthesize information and then use these strategies in secondary school, college and their future jobs. Projects play a key role in this important developmental process.
You and some of your readers consider projects busywork. I disagree. The occasional homework project gives a child the opportunity to design and complete a poster or three-dimensional object from beginning to end. Projects give students the opportunity to work on developing proficiency with spatial relationships, visual motor processing and manipulation of three-dimensional objects and space. What better way to prepare our children for science fairs and geometry? What better way to prepare our children for the many careers that require designing in one form or another: architecture, engineering, graphic design and publishing, to name a few.
I don't believe it is truly in the student's best interest to modify their homework assignments so dramatically. What you are campaigning for seems more for the overworked, stressed-out parents than the students themselves.
I live in a housing complex where there are children of many different cultures, and quite a few have language and learning difficulties. At the bus stop in the morning, I witness some of their at-home projects before they go to school. Many of them are quite beautiful, and you can tell that the family had a great time helping with them. These are kids who need outlets like this, and it needs to be part of the curriculum. I certainly appreciated them when I was young.
I think that if parents immerse themselves in their children's projects without stressing how wonderfully immaculate they should be, it could be a rewarding experience. I don't mean taking it over. I mean working with their children. Too few parents understand the concept.
Montgomery County has overhauled the teaching programs to stress academics. Now they want to do the same for Head Start. As a volunteer with more than 150 hours in my son's Head Start classroom, I can attest to what the children gained from all the arts and crafts and creative play. Their souls were enriched, and their hearts were softened. Does this have no merit anymore?
I hope that you don't push this homework idea of yours too far along. It could remove a very important and welcome part of what makes children children. And personally, I want my son to continue to bring home his projects. Every single one of them.
Helping children find joy -- or at least satisfaction -- in learning is a worthy aim of school, and there are times that children can find great joy in creating physical objects that represent what they are learning about. Creating a physical representation of the solar system, for example, can provide aesthetic satisfaction while reinforcing learning about the planets. Building scale models of bridges can help develop an understanding of the artistic values of balance, symmetry and form while teaching the basics of engineering.
But teachers should remember that when they send those kinds of projects home, they make children tremendously dependent on the organizational capacities of their families. As someone who grew up in what could be called an organizationally challenged home, I have great sympathy for those kids whose parents can't or don't run out to the craft store to buy Styrofoam balls to represent planets, or balsa wood to build suspension bridges. If a project will help a child become an educated citizen, then it should be done during the school day or -- I want to be flexible here -- after school, with the materials, space to work and any necessary organizational support provided. A child who wants to work on something at home should be allowed to, of course, but requiring it shouldn't be the default position of the school.
It is much more reasonable to ask families to regularly provide some quiet during the evening for a child to read and write than it is to ask them to support the planning and creation of dioramas of battle scenes -- or any other complex project -- that might deepen and support learning.
But I have to say that if all homework consisted of worthwhile projects, I probably wouldn't protest so much. I envy the parent who says that all the homework assignments she has seen have been reasonable extensions of class work, supporting learning at all times, and I salute the teachers who assigned them.
I am really protesting what I consider to be busywork that does little more than require children to follow directions and organize their time and materials. Such homework assignments represent a huge waste of time and often serve to discourage those children and families who find it difficult to keep organized.
Reading and writing require little in the way of organization or resources and are never a waste of time, which is why I think they should be the standard homework assignment.
Don't forget: The Bad Homework Assignment Contest is now open for nominations.
Homeroom appears every week in Montgomery Extra. Send questions, opinions and issues that you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or e-mail email@example.com. To see previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com, click on the Education page and look for Homeroom under Education Columnists.