Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Growing Pains: Third Grade Edition

The two older boys’ first month of school is almost complete.  J is especially excited because he got the teacher he wanted for third grade.  I’ll admit it; this was the teacher I was hoping he’d get, too, because she has high expectations for her students – she sets the bar high, and then helps the kids strive to reach it.

The first two weeks of school were, well, anticlimactic.  No homework was assigned, and the boys settled into their new routines rather quickly.  Their afterschool activities began gradually, so we eased into our new routine.

And then came the homework.

To provide some context, last year, J’s homework consisted of writing fifteen spelling words five times each and three worksheets.  Per week.  That’s it.  Seriously.  Second grade was a joke as far as homework was concerned.

Third grade is a whole. new. world. 

Monday night means a language arts worksheet and some math.  Tuesday and Wednesday mean some more math.  Thursday means still more math.  Every Friday, there is a spelling test.  This Friday there is also a science test.  Last week, J had to bring in pictures of plants, herbivores, and carnivores to create a food web at school.  There will also be four book projects throughout the year.

In principle, I have absolutely no issue with the amount of homework that J has.  What I do  take issue with is the crying, whining, and hyperventilating that precedes the completion of said homework.  Specifically, this spectacle is reserved solely for the language arts homework.

Last night, J had to read a story called The Fire on the Mountain (or something like that).  The story in brief:  Haptom is a rich guy who has a servant named Arha.  Haptom asks Arha if he thinks it’s possible to survive a night on the mountain without shelter, blankets, or fire, and then suggest a friendly wager to prove it.  Arha declines since he has nothing to offer.  Haptom says that’s okay, if Arha can survive a night on the mountain, he’ll give him land, a house, and cattle.  Arha visits Hairu, the village wise man, for advice.  Hairu tells Arha that he’ll light a fire in the valley, and Arha can see the fire and imagine that he’s being warmed by it.

…I just had to interject here.  I get that the United States is no longer a Eurocentric society, and I support the whole diversity and multiculturalism thrust in education, but if I had a hard time keeping track of these characters’ names (I kept calling Haptom Hampton), how on earth is an eight-year-old supposed to?  But I digress…

Haptom is impressed that Arha has survived the frigid night and asks how he did it.  Arha says that he saw the fire in the valley and imagined that it kept him warm.  Haptom accuses Arha of cheating and refuses to pay up.  Heartbroken, Arha visits Hairu, who decides to help.  Hairu hosts a banquet and invites Haptom.  He prepares but does not serve the food.  Haptom asks when the food will be served.  Hairu asks if Haptom can smell the food; Haptom can.  Hairu says that if he can smell the food, then he must be full since Arhu was kept warm by seeing the fire.  Haptom is ashamed and decides to make good on his end of the wager.

Reads a little bit like a Biblical parable, don’t you think?  I don’t know about you, but I’m an adult and I have a hard time making heads or tails of Biblical parables.  Imagine how an eight-year-old feels.  Cue the waterworks...
The students then have to answer some questions about comparison and contrast.  Like:  How are Haptom and Arhu different at the beginning of the story?  How are they alike at the end?  (this wasn’t too hard for J to figure out; he’s a bright kid, fortunately, but I still had to talk him through the process… he kept getting hung up on the character names)  Where did Arhu’s test take place?  Where did Haptom’s test take place?  (J didn’t make the connection that the banquet was a test for Haptom…  did many other students?  If they are unfamiliar with parables, will most third graders make that connection?  Did they discuss this, or similar stories, in class?
I think my frustration is this:  yes, let’s challenge our kids.  No, we don’t expect enough of them academically.  But if we’re going to present students with challenging material, which this language arts homework clearly is (for a third grader), teachers must teach children the critical thinking skills necessary to move towards mastery of that material.  Simple repeat exposure is not sufficient.

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