Friday, February 08, 2013

Waterboarding Homework

I'm not a fan of extreme interrogation or torture techniques.  That being said, I think putting enemy combatants in a room with a couple of first graders and their homework might work just as well, or better, than partial drowning or sleep deprivation.

Yesterday afternoon found Ethan and I sitting at our dining room table, locked in a battle of wills over a sheet of simple math problems (think "4+5=").  This is math that Ethan mastered in kindergarten, thanks to my superb parenting skills an iPhone app.  No number on the page was higher than 10 & none of the answered equalled more than 10.  So pretty much, the absolute easiest math Ethan will ever encounter in his academic career.  Math I know he can do.  Math I've seen him do for over a year.

The issue yesterday wasn't the equations themselves (although there were all kinds of laments like, "I don't knooooooooow the answers!!! I can't do it!!!!"), it was the fact that this particular assignment was a "drill."  The point of the assignment was to solve the 50 simple equations, getting as many correct as possible, in 10 minutes.  Each Thursday, in class, they take the timed drill and if they get a certain number of problems correct, they move on to the next drill.

Let me start off by saying, I hate this assignment.  It reeks of standardized testing training and joyless rote memorization. It represents just about everything I loathe/dread about the public education system in this country right now and why I didn't want to send him to public schools in the first place.  I dream of emailing the teacher and telling her, "Dear teacher who I know is just doing her job,  from here on in, Ethan will not be completing this ludicrous waste of time math drill bc his father and I are philosophically opposed to math drills and all drills and anything that sucks the joy out of learning and deadens our child's innate curiosity.  I know you have to prepare him and his classmates for the absurd state testing that will determine whether or not you get to keep your job, and I don't believe that everything has to be super! fun! and creative! all the time in the class room, but the pressure to complete this entire page of equations in 10 minutes makes the numbers swirl around on the page in front of my kid's eyes, the answers fly from his brain, and within 5 minutes, he is crying under the table and I am pulling my hair out, trying to find the balance between enforcing your assignment and the knowledge that I am destroying my child's love of learning with every passing minute. So from now on, the 6 year old doesn't participate in timed drills as assessments.  Sincerely, Ethan's Mom (and probably every other mom in the class)."

Its not that I don't think kids need a healthy dose of positive academic stress, or that I think they shouldn't feel some sense of competition as a motivation to push themselves to achieve.  I was the first runner up in my elementary school spelling bee.  I entered essay contests in middle school.  My college roommate and I used to sit down at the kitchen table the night before a paper was due in our senior Shakespeare course, all of our separate notes and outlines piled up in front of us, eyes on the clock, waiting for the minute to round out, and the shout "GO!"  We'd write out 15-20 page papers feverishly into the night, competing to see who finished first, and then we'd wait with baited breath for the professor to return the graded papers, to see who "won" and got the higher grade.  *cough* nerds *cough*  I like some healthy competition and academic pressure--it always pushed me to do my best.

But my kid is not me.  And he's not a senior in college, or in middle school, or even 6th grade. My kid's got anxiety issues and a low level of self-confidence academically.  He is not competitive; he is a frustrated perfectionist who doesn't quite have the know-how to reach perfection.  He can do the math problems.  But he won't unless he knows he can get them ALL correct.  And he knows (or at least believes) that he can't get them all correct in 10 minutes.  And so he spirals into hysterics.

Husband and I have tried to convince him that sometimes its not about getting everything right, but somehow he is wired this way; and that wiring, combined with the wiring that makes him incredibly stubborn?  Makes for a long evening of homework that *should* take 20 minutes.

The larger part of me feels for him & wants to throw the assignment in the trash and tell him to go outside and play.  He's six, for the love of G-d.  But there's a part of me, the part that follows rules and feels the intense need to fall in line with what is expected of me (and thereby my kid), that digs her heels in during homework time and convinces me that its the principle of the thing.  The kid has homework.  Its work he CAN do, and I've told him its time to sit down and do it.  And if he does it without making a whole production, it will be done in 20 minutes and he can have the rest of the afternoon/evening to play.  So really, its my job to make sure he gets it done--even if it means two hours of hysterics and defiance.  I certainly can't back down--what is that teaching him?  In my opinion, a six year old shouldn't have to do rote math drills for homework; but my even stronger opinion is that a six year old shouldn't run the house.

And so, I feel stuck.  Taking away privileges doesn't phase him.  Its like The Crazy has to run its course, however long it takes, and then he sits down and gets it done.  After the hours (literally) of losing his mind over the math drill, he sat down and got it done in under 10 minutes.  And he got them all right.  And then he put away Mr Hyde and turned back into Dr Jekyll, pleasant and happy as could be.

Its not just the math drills, which, with my own fear & loathing of mathematics, I can almost understand.  The other day, we went (or he tried to go) 10 rounds over a simple coloring-in assignment.  His hand hurt.  He was too tired.  He was hungry.  He needed help.  We didn't have the right crayons.

Oh. My. G-d.

I know the explanation is likely simple.  Combine his anxiety issues with his need to control the situation in the face of all the changes he's gone through in past month, add in a typical 1st grader's resistance to give up play time for more school work & its easy to understand, from the outside looking in, why we're dealing with this.  But holy hell--in the moment, it feels like I'm trying to reason with a drunken monkey. Which I realize kind of makes me the bonehead in the situation.  And around and around we go....

So if the Pentagon is interested, I've got a torture technique to offer up--a 10 minute math drill with a 1st grader or 'fess up.  I'm guessing if they can round up a bunch of 6 year olds like mine, its only a couple of days before we have this war on terror locked up and put to bed.  (And lets not get started on bedtime these days....)


Sarah said...

Instead of drills and spelling tests, our school has moved to a game-based approach for math facts and spelling words, and the whole school is thriving. If I were you, I would google some math games, replace the drills, and not do the homework. I think their attitude toward school is the most important thing at this age. Could you also try to make the drill itself a game? An M&M for every one he gets right, a chart so he can try to beat his record everyday? Have to get up and do a crazy dance when the timer goes off?

Lis said...

As someone with ADHD and anxiety, the worst part of homework was always just STARTING. Once I got started, I was pretty good. I've seen this in other kids I've worked with who have ADHD. I'm not sure how to get over the getting started. As for the math drills, I'd make it a game, like Sarah said.

I know you didn't want to send him to public school, but you're supporting public schools and you also have the ability to change them from the inside. Bring up the math drills to the teacher and see if she has any ideas.

Becca said...

I remember doing those stupid things as a kid and getting one wrong three problems in and just giving up. Highly productive and obviously an indicator of my academic abilities in the future. I can see Charlie reacting exactly the same way.

I also struggle with enforcing the assignment and wanting to send him out to do the actual, real learning by playing outside and using his imagination. We usually only have 10-20 mins a night though (in kinder) so it's not too much of an issue at this point. I've heard first grade is much more intense.

SnarkyMommy said...

Ugh, homework.

It makes me INSANE that my kids go to Montessori school and still have homework. What? The? F? But it's a Public Montessori school and we need to cowtow to the Chicago Public Schools machine and blah blah blah. Insanity.