Care and Feeding

The Great Homework Debate Has Come for My 8-Year-Old. I Want to Revolt.

A timer.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Joe_Potato/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Mai Vu/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

I’m going to preface this by stating that I’m a children’s librarian and I have VERY strong feelings about literacy and freedom of choice when it comes to reading, so please feel free to let me know if I’m completely off base due to my tunnel vision. My 8-year-old son “Adam” just started second grade and we have encountered the dreaded nightly reading log. In kindergarten and first grade his teachers simply asked that we read together as a family every night, which was absolutely fine since we’ve read together every night since he was born. This year his teacher requires that Adam read a minimum of thirty minutes every day, fill out a form recording the time he spent reading, which I then have to sign. Adam, who otherwise loves (loved?) reading, groans and complains whenever I mention that it’s time to read. His teacher won’t allow him to count audiobooks or any time that I read to him on his log because she says “that’s not really reading.”

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I’ve tried to let him select where he reads, what time he reads, anything I can think of to make the time more fun, but whenever I remind him of the reading log, he grumbles and complains. I don’t think he’s even actually reading (despite being a competent reader). He just grumpily flips through the pages and waits for the timer to run out. I don’t want to offer him treats or incentives because I want reading to be its own reward, not something he sees as a chore.

To make matters worse, his best friend, “Joe” is in his class, and Joe’s dad told me he just flat-out lies on the reading log and writes down that Joe reads an hour a day. Adam gets upset when he looks at the chart on the classroom wall and sees how many squares Joe has colored in while his sits at the minimum number of minutes read.

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I hate the whole thing and every fiber of my being wants to chunk the reading log out the window and let Adam go back to reading as he pleases and not because it’s mandatory. I also, however, want to instill in him that school comes with specific responsibilities and those include homework and honesty. Any suggestions on our next steps? I’m hoping to have a conference with the teacher soon and hear a bit more about her philosophy regarding the reading log, but until then, do I just force him to keep trudging through?

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—Exasperated bibliophile

Dear Exasperated Bibliophile,

I, too, despise the reading log. As teachers, one of our most important jobs is to instill a lifelong love for reading. As you’ve discovered, attaching reading to a timer and a log can often turn something enjoyable into a chore.

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I understand the teacher’s intentions. A reading log can create a requirement for reading in homes where that requirement doesn’t exist. I’m not sure if this really works, but in homes like yours, where reading is a normal part of the day, reading logs can hinder the process rather than help it.

Worst of all, a reading log does not help to instill a love for reading. It makes a certain kind of student happy—those drawn to accountability, specificity, and structure—but it’s a hassle at best for many kids.

I would speak to the teacher about the impact the reading log is having on your son and see if it can be eliminated or altered so that it’s more palatable to your son. I would explain how it’s already impacted your son’s love for reading and willingness to read. I might also point out that read-alouds and audiobooks should absolutely count toward reading goals and that public displays of reading via a colored chart only incentivize dishonesty, embarrassment, and shame in their classroom.

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If this does not work, I suggest you teach your son a lesson nearly as important as homework and honesty: Playing the game.

We want our kids to be responsible, honest, and forthright, but we also need to teach kids to find ways to complete tasks that are senseless or onerous. Some students inherently possess these skills, but others need to be taught them.

I recently asked my students to read a series of news articles and tell me one thing that they found interesting and why. One student said, “I didn’t think anything was interesting.” My response: You have two choices. You can explain why each of the stories was not interesting, and be sure to explain why, or you can simply choose one thing, pretend that it was interesting, and explain why. In short, find a way to do the assignment.

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He chose to write about the most interesting of these uninteresting stories and explained why it wasn’t actually interesting, but was at least more interesting than the others. It turned out to be an outstanding and amusing answer to my question.

Perhaps your son can do something similar. Maybe you simply trust that your son will read for 30 minutes every day, and you complete the log on his behalf, absent any real verification. Perhaps you tell your son to stop using a timer and simply take a guess at the end of the day about how much he has read, dispelling with the ticking clock and its accuracy. Maybe you tell your son that in your home, audiobooks and read-alouds count on the reading log (as they objectively should).

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It’s a hard lesson to learn, and it’s an even harder lesson to teach, but it’s a real one: Sometimes a teacher, professor, boss, or even parent will require you to do something that makes no sense. We can’t be insubordinate in many of these cases, but we can find ways to make these senseless requirements slightly more reasonable by bending the rules, finding acceptable corners to cut, and doing what we think is best for ourselves.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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My youngest daughter started first grade two weeks ago. She has a brand new, first year teacher “Ms. Smith.” On Meet the Teacher night and at first day drop off, I noticed that Ms. Smith didn’t seem to have the level of energy and enthusiasm that I usually see in the teachers of young children. No smiles and acknowledging my child when we walked in, showing her to her desk, etc. even though this teacher was not busy with any other children or tasks. She basically stood rooted to her spot and responded with a nervous “Hi” when I enthusiastically introduced her to my excited child.

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Yes, I found this a bit concerning but gave her the benefit of the doubt. I hear the first year as a new teacher is overwhelming. Plus, I watched as a couple of other parents at Meet the Teacher night asked that their children not be placed in this new teacher’s class. I thought that perhaps this awkward scenario led to Ms. Smith’s less than excited and nervous demeanor.

Now two weeks later and my daughter is less than enthusiastic about school. She says that Ms. Smith is “nice” but not “fun.” According to her, all they do is work and tests and “boring” things. She says that there is a reward system and treasure box in the classroom, but that Ms. Smith has yet to use or address any of these things. Also my child often comes home hungry with her snack still in her lunchbox because “there is never time for snack.”

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Last year my daughter was excited for school every day and full of smiles and excitement at pickup and drop off. Now her attitude is quite lackluster. I know from my older children that the transition from a playful kindergarten to a more serious first grade can be somewhat difficult, but I have never seen such a dramatic change in excitement for school at this age.

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I’m torn about what to do. Do I speak to Ms. Smith yet? And if so how do I approach the conversation? I’d hate to add to a new teacher’s stress right now, while she’s still trying to find her groove. And if my daughter’s feelings continue after a conversation with Ms. Smith, should I try to have her class changed? Or would that be harder on my daughter?

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For what it’s worth I have remained very positive and excited when speaking with my child about school, and have not let on to her that I am concerned. But it breaks my heart to see me first grader’s sad face after school when my older children are excitedly discussing their day. Help!

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First Grade Blues?

Dear First Grade Blues,

Yes, I would speak to the teacher. I would approach the conversation in the spirit of collaboration, open-mindedness, and kindness, but if a student is not happy, a teacher wants to know. Lots of things can be done to help a student enjoy school more, but if the teacher isn’t aware of your child’s feelings, it may take a while for her to figure things out, especially in her first year of teaching. Knowledge is power.

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Also, in my experience, it’s unlikely, if not impossible, to have your child’s teacher changed at this point in the school year. Moving a student from one classroom to another creates enormous problems. It shifts the balance of students and student needs between classrooms. It sends a message to parents that teachers can be chosen and re-chosen at a moment’s notice like some educational buffet. It’s also terrible for teacher morale and can be deeply unsettling for students.

It’s also important to remember that human beings—even small ones—are complex beings, and when they are so small, their perception of what is happening around them can be skewed. Your child might not be happy about school for a multitude of reasons, so while it may very well be the style and choices that the teacher is making, other factors may be at play here, which is why I think it’s always important to keep an open mind.

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I used to work with a kindergarten teacher who jokingly told parents, “I’ll only believe half of what your child tells me about you if you agree to only believe half of what they say about me.”

It made parents laugh because there is a drop of truth in the statement. As a parent, you can’t really understand what is happening in a classroom or the dynamic of the teacher-student relationship without clear, open lines of communication. So by all means speak to the teacher. Seek a partnership that will benefit your child moving forward.

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Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I’m looking for advice about whether my child should take Algebra in seventh grade. My 12-year-old son has always been math inclined and has been recommended for seventh grade honors algebra. In our state, that’s a high school level class, so his grade for the class will be part of his high school GPA. So far, the material is challenging for him but within reach. It’s also time-consuming, and he benefits from more support than we’re used to providing. He has another week to consider dropping the class without consequence.

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He and I are both on the fence. If there are concrete benefits, it would be worth the time and stress. He is currently interested in a science career path, and we know that being able to take college math classes in high school can be helpful. I’ve spoken with parents—as well as my son’s math teachers—who think it’s a great idea. But I also have a math teacher friend who thinks it’s developmentally inappropriate at this age for all but a very small number of kids, and that taking Algebra too early can make higher levels of math more difficult.

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I truly don’t know what to do. He’s my oldest child, so we haven’t done any of this before. I was never math- or science-inclined, so I don’t have a frame of reference for what to look for in him. I also don’t have a clear understanding of what he stands to gain by taking Algebra in seventh grade. I don’t want him to have an experience that makes him hate math! Do you have any advice?

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—Early Bird?

Dear Early Bird,

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You don’t need my advice on the math part of this question; you already got the advice you need—from actual math teachers.

However, that advice is split: Your son’s math teachers think it’s a great idea; your math teacher friend is down on the idea. Here are some questions: What age students does your friend teach? Do they have experience with seventh graders? Because your son’s teachers do. They seem to think he’s doing fine, and I’d be inclined to agree with them.

It’s not a terrible idea, though, to think of yourself and your family. Is the support you’re giving him sustainable? Will you be able to continue to help him, if need be, throughout high school? If not, are you willing and able to hire a tutor? If these burdens are too much to bear, it’s OK for you to prioritize your sanity, finances, relationship with your son, etc.

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If he stays in algebra, I don’t think the experience will make him hate math, and it may have other benefits besides being ahead of the game. It may teach him to ask for help from his teachers and/or study harder than he’s had to. These lessons are extremely important, especially for bright kids who can, if they want to, skate along, until college when stuff gets hard. Then they hit a brick wall and don’t know what to do.

My guess? He’ll be fine. But again, do what you need to do to maintain your sanity.

—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

My bright and sassy 5-year-old daughter is ready for kindergarten in every way but one: she is still not fully potty trained, and we don’t know what to do about it. We’ve tried just about everything. We’ve talked to her doctor, and I can’t tell if it’s her body or her stubborn streak that’s holding up the process. But she starts school in a week. What do teachers do with kids like her? And how can we help make the year not terrible for both of them?

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I can’t tell you exactly what to do because I don’t know what “not fully potty trained” means. Does she go in the toilet sometimes but still have accidents? Is she staying dry except certain times of day? The issue she’s having may help you understand why she isn’t fully successful yet or what you can do to help her.

If your child is not yet potty trained, let the teacher know as soon as you can. Different schools have different policies, but generally speaking, teachers will do what they can to help her (and you). If she is able to stay dry for most or even part of the day, they can give her reminders however often she needs. They can also help you implement whatever sort of plan you have in place, whether it’s a sticker chart or some other system.

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The other way that starting school can help with potty training, for better or worse, is that shame is a powerful motivator. Kids are extremely sensitive to the censure of their peers, and the majority of their peers are potty trained. If your daughter has the capacity to stay dry the entire day, she may be motivated to do so simply because other kids are dry all day too. If you suspect that she is having physical difficulty staying dry, continue following up with your doctor. Clear, open communication with the teachers is key, since no one likes to be blindsided with accidents. Ultimately, most kids who are able to be potty trained become so—it’s just a matter of working out whatever kinks you have left.

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—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, Colorado)

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I love my 7-year-old son’s name, “Andrew,” but I hate the nickname “Andy.” When we named him “Andrew” we agreed to only use the long version and never the nickname. Until this year everyone has called him “Andrew.” We moved over the summer, and somehow he has become “Andy” in his new school! I’m not sure how it happened, but after participating in a recent classroom event, it’s clear everyone is calling him Andy (kids, teachers, other parents). It has even spilled over into Little League. Is there anything I can do?

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