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Homework: the hard-fought joys

I've noticed the parent gossip at soccer games and evening parties has turned aggressively anti-homework.

"It's too much," complains a mother of her second-grader. "Wednesday night is a killer," she says of his weekly assignment to put 20 unrelated spelling words into a paragraph, along with math work sheets and reading. Other families have hired costly tutors, and last spring my neighbor postponed a weekend away to allow time for her third-grader to complete the school's annual science invention project. Not our family. My fourth- and sixth-grade boys handle their homework just fine.

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Perhaps I'm a throwback to my parents' generation, for which homework (and if I accurately recall, there was plenty) served as an extension of my family's work ethic, which included 12- to 13-hour workdays for my dad and 24/7 weeks for my mother, who raised five kids without day care, babysitters, extended family, or even a cleaning lady. Or, maybe I'm fortunate enough to send my kids to a private school with the reasonable philosophy that homework should reinforce what has been learned in the classroom and provide teachers with valuable feedback on how much their students are absorbing.

Sure, my boys drag their heels nightly as they open vocabulary books and struggle to compose nightly essays and solve math problems. By evening's end, they have sharpened the perfectly fine points of their pencils so many times they are the size of pinkies. Our experience so far sounds relatively normal compared with the dire stories of exhausted kids and teeth-gnashing parents, powerless to influence the homework-assigning villains.

My sons spill tears over clay figures of pilgrims they've fashioned that won't stand up inside shoeboxes. Occasionally, science projects designed to foster parent-child involvement deteriorate into battles about the drying time of Elmer's Glue. I see my boys' feet-stomping as a way of building strong moral fiber.

I also haven't filled myself with angst and expectations that my children will be as brilliant and perfect as those kids who are comfortable pulling all-nighters in the sixth grade so they can turn in a term paper as long as my college thesis.

An anti-homework attitude has been fueled by the recent publication of the book "Clearing the Kitchen Table: Homework and the American Dream," where authors Etta Kralovec and John Buell argue that the amount of homework performed in elementary school has risen significantly over the past 20 years.

As with most ideas about educating children, they come and go. In the '20s, homework was declared bad for kids' health by a physicians' movement. In 1983, the report, "A Nation at Risk," which warned that the US would fall behind other world powers unless our kids learned to work harder, spawned the most recent blizzard of homework.

Don't get me wrong. I look forward to my sixth-grader creating a miniature clay replica of Mars's craters, mountains, and riverbeds on our kitchen table about as much as I do filling out income-tax forms. I also don't worry about how these projects turn out, the way some parents do. (A quick stroll through the classroom reveals which ones cared the most.)

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Occasionally, my fourth-grader will ask for help with math when he doesn't remember how to carry numbers in double-digit subtraction or needs quizzing on multiplication tables. I'm eager to help; now that he can outrun me and jump higher, teaching him is one of the few ways I can still feel good at something.

Other evenings, when he finishes his homework in only 45 minutes (the time some of the anti-homework groups recommend), he's relentless about asking me to organize activities or worse, begs me to sit beside him while he watches more "Rugrats" reruns. On those nights, I would give anything for the chance to say, "Finish your current-events essay."

When I read over my sixth-grader's history assignment (he now writes far better than I did in high school) and summon up an obscure fact about Miles Standish from my Dark Ages grammar-school education, I feel amazement as I remember the weekend spent copying over the 12 pages of my fifth-grade social studies report in longhand with a pen.

Over the years, I've found that the toughest assignments often provide life lessons for the whole family. After a grueling semester, I saw my sixth-grader tuning school out. It wasn't easy for me, but I told him to ignore the pressure around him and have fun with the learning - something I had never been able to do when I was in school. He smiled cautiously, not quite believing, and wanted to know why.

"Because you've taught me something," I said. "If you start enjoying what you're learning, the homework will take care of itself." So far it has.

Andrea Marcusa is a freelance writer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society