No! Of course not. Well…maybe. It depends. Here was the situation:
The 8-year-old, a.k.a the-second-grader, came home with an assignment. He was supposed to read two books by the same author, then DO something of his choosing related to that author. He could make a poster or draw a picture or write a letter or anything else. Hmm. Okay. I know which project I wanted him to pick (the letter!), but I knew for sure that he would not pick the letter (I can barely get him to write a single-sentence Thank You note.) So, I asked him which project he wanted to do without telling him what I thought he should do. And he said…
“I want to write a letter!”
As usual, he surprised me. (Reminding me once again to be careful about the assumptions I make…you’d think I’d have learned by now.)
He had a month to do this. Here’s how it went down.
He easily chose his author. JK Rowling, of course. He loves Harry Potter, AND he has already read (or been read to) the entire series. When this assignment was given, he happened to be in the midst of rereading it. Easy peasy. Knowing how much he dislikes the act of writing and how upset he gets when the words don’t come out on paper as fast and as well they come out of his mouth, I began asking him questions to get him thinking.
“What would you want to ask JK Rowling?” “Which character do you like best?” “Why?” “What do you think Ms. Rowling would be interested in hearing about you?”
Sometimes he answered me. Most of the time he said, “I dunno.”
I was beginning to get worried. So, with a week left before the assignment was due, I suggested that he start writing some of it.
“No. I don’t want to.”
Right. Okay. There’s still time. So, with 5 days left, I made an outline for him. Three things to tell Ms. Rowling about yourself. Three things to tell her you like about her books. Three things to ask her about herself or her books. I told him we could brainstorm together.
“No. I don’t want to.”
Hmm. Now it’s 4 days left, and I tell him that it’s really going to be a lot nicer for him if he just gets started. I offer my support. He growls at me. He sighs. He says, “I don’t want to do a letter. I am going to trace a picture of JK Rowling for my project.”
Trace a picture? Is that for real? I am getting a little ticked off at this point. But I take a deep breath. I remind myself that he is only 8 years old, and this is not really a huge deal. I don’t even think he should have homework at this age. I tell him, of course, whatever you want to do, just do it. I print out a picture of JK Rowling for him. He tapes it to the sliding glass door with another paper over it. He begins to trace. He realizes quickly that it’s not so easy tracing a rather detailed photograph. He does not like the way it is turning out.
“I am not doing this, either. I don’t like this assignment. I’m not going to do anything.”
Really? So, you’re just going to walk into school on Friday and be the only one to not turn in an assignment? You’re going to tell the teacher that you just didn’t want to do it? How’s that going to go over, kid?? Because if you at least try, I will help you. But if you don’t, you are on your own.
As you can see, I was starting to lose my cool. Starting to lose perspective. And my coming down hard on him like that was NOT going to do anyone any good. So, I stopped. I breathed. And I let it go for the time being.
Now there are 3 days left. It’s time to figure this out. So, I called my mom.
“Mom! What should I do? I really want him to write this letter, but he refuses to start! He has no idea how to start! The outline I made didn’t help him! I’m tempted to write the letter for him…but of course I won’t!”
“Why not write the letter for him but leave blanks? Like a Mad Libs story. Otherwise he really has no idea what a letter looks or sounds like.”
Oh. Yes. Brilliant. So that is what I did.
I wrote the letter and left blanks for him to finish sentences with his own thoughts, opinions, and questions. I dated and formatted it so he knew what it should look like. Then I said, “Hey. I set up your letter for you. You just need to fill in a couple blanks.”
And he didn’t fight me on it. He sat down and began to write. He did get stuck. But we talked through it. When he slammed his pencil down and said it was too hard to get his thoughts out, we stepped away from the table and just talked about the books and the author. During this process, I realized that a big part of what frustrates him is that his vocabulary skills are ahead of his spelling skills. He doesn’t want to misspell a word, so he searches for easier words. This takes a LONG time, and it often means not saying what he really wants to say. So, I removed that hurdle by spelling out the words for him as he said them. I could see the look of relief on his face each time I did this. The letter was written, and all that was left to do was to copy it into his own handwriting.
The day before the assignment was due, it was warm and sunny. The neighborhood kids were outside playing basketball and riding their bikes. The 8-year-old said to me,”I am going to finish copying my letter, THEN I will go outside to play. Since it’s such a nice day, can I work out on the front porch?”
YES! Yes, you can, kid! I’ll be inside taking a nap, because this was a LONG week.
(Mathematically…I know, this post wasn’t explicitly mathematical. On the other hand, how you support your child’s schooling in any subject is important. It is easy to give in to outside forces that tell you how you should be parenting. Or to give in to your own internal forces and quickly lose patience. I could have easily continued down the route of firmly telling my son to just get his work done and meet the deadline. In the process, we would have both become more upset – me with his procrastination and he with my inability to understand his struggle. It is more important to know your child well and to understand how to coach him through his challenges. It was not easy for me to pull back and consider another way. It was not easy to see what kind of support he needed. Creating a template, showing him HOW, and not deserting him in the process helped to make the assignment- and ultimately the learning – a lot more accessible. I expect (I hope) when the next assignment comes along, the supports he’ll need will be different.)