It didn’t take long this year for my third grade daughters to bring home their first project homework assignment. You know what I am talking about, the type of homework that requires a tri-fold board or a trip to Michael’s. The second week of school and my children were required to make a solar oven. I don’t mind these types of projects and luckily my kids are usually quite willing and excited to work on things that require glue, scissors and permanent markers.
As I was reading the instructions, I noticed down toward the end was a sentence that made me smile. It read, “students should do this project on their own without parental help other than providing materials.” Thank you third grade teachers, I thought to myself. So that is exactly what I did. I provided my girls with the shoe boxes, tin foil, black markers, saran wrap and duct tape that they asked for and set them free to design their ovens themselves. They tested them out one afternoon in the back yard one afternoon and off to school they went with their ovens. I was thrilled.
But I had to wonder how many parents had actually followed the teachers instructions and kept their hands out of their third graders solar oven. If history is any indication, my guess is more than half the parents couldn’t help themselves. My first taste of this was when my twin girls were in kindergarten and the 100th day of school rolled around. We were tasked with creating some sort of display of 100 of something. It could be anything. I asked for my daughter’s input and we created two simple poster boards. One wrote 100 with 100 pieces of elbow macaroni and the other made ten hearts out of candy hearts. They counted, arranged and glued the macaroni and candy hearts on themselves. I thought they turned out cute and they looked like they were done by kindergartners.
But when we brought our projects into the classroom I was taken aback. One child had a board created to look like a beach complete with sand dunes, fake water and tiny beach umbrellas. Glued onto the board were 100 beach type and sea life things. Another child had a mini racetrack with mini race cars and the thing even lit up! Now don’t get me wrong, these projects looked great and were really cute, but there was no way they were done by a kindergartner.
A few weeks later when my daughters were asked to make a leprechaun trap, I set out to Michael’s for green paint, glitter, fake gold coins and anything else green I could get my hands on. I picked up the girls at school, set us up at the kitchen table and told them my plan for the leprechaun traps. They politely told me that I had some good ideas, but they had some ideas of their own. They did the traps just they way they wanted while I had to restrain myself from interjecting my opinion. Sure enough there were a few leprechaun traps, including my girl’s, that looked like they were done by 6 years olds and a few that made me want to check under mom and dad’s fingernails for green paint.
So this is how it went through first grade and most of second grade. I found it slightly annoying, but not enough to make a big deal out of it. My girls were decidedly do-it-yourselfers who would listen to my input on their projects, but really wanted to do it themselves. They didn’t seem bothered that their classmates projects were far superior to theirs. They weren’t really being judged against each other and I’m sure the teacher was aware of who was doing most of the work.
Toward the end of second grade though, the disparities started to become much larger. At Thanksgiving the girls were asked to plan a menu at home and prepare a meal of thanks for their family. I loved this project and we had a great time looking through cookbooks, buying ingredients and taking photos of the food they prepared. When it was time to put together the tri-fold board I stepped back and let them hand write the recipes and photo captions. When we brought them to school, I noticed some of the other boards had recipes typed out in fancy font, construction paper frames for the photos and everything was glued on perfectly straight. My daughter noticed and said she didn’t want to turn hers in. And then I was angry. Just the night before she was so proud of her work. I gently explained that those kids had help and she did hers on her own and that she should be proud of her project.
It went the same for the country reports, book reports, etc, etc. At Open House at the end of the year I was seething while browsing the second grade dioramas. There was just no way a second grader designed and sculpted some of those creations I saw. I started taking pictures and planning my rant to the teacher. Have we become so competitive that we have to do our kid’s homework for them? What are we teaching our kid’s here? If your project isn’t perfect it’s not good enough? How do they learn anything from turning in three perfectly typed pages that they had nothing to do with?
That is why I was so happy to see that little sentence at the bottom of the instruction sheet for the solar ovens. The learning happens when they actually do the work themselves. I know it’s hard for parents to step back and let them turn in something that is less than perfect. I get it. I know their teachers are on the same page and I will continue to encourage my kids and praise their less than perfect hard work. I will also continue to be irked at those parents who feel like they need to do their child’s work for them.