Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Those Pesky School Projects

Semira with her candy machine

Last week at school, Semira's class had its Simple Machine Fair. As part of the science curriculum, the kids learned about simple machines with the unit culminating in the building and showcasing of a simple machine. This is just one example of the steady stream of home projects my kids (and countless other kids) are required to do as part of school these days. In addition to building machines, we have made volcanoes and clothes hanger mobiles, and engaged in extensive drawing and writing activities for numerous book reports. I guess, in theory, these projects are great. They present an opportunity for parents and kids to work together to accomplish a goal. And they are more creative than traditional school work. I am sure they are assigned with the best of intentions, to help kids further their learning.

I have a confession to make. I hate these projects. I wish they would just go away. I think assigning "projects" and "reports" to elementary school-aged children to be done at home is insane. I am not talking about a sheet or two of homework. I am talking about projects that come with a page of detailed instructions that require me to make multiple visits to grocery, hardware, and craft stores to acquire the necessary supplies. Or projects that make my kids write multiple drafts of reports or do intricate drawings. Or projects where I must read a lengthy chapter book just to help.

Here is a news alert. These are not kid projects nor are they kid-parent projects. They are parent projects, plain and simple. When it comes to the building projects, my kids usually do a little something to assist. But mostly, they watch us do the project. I am sure some parents will beg to differ, telling me that their kids do most of the work. Well, my observations at school tell me otherwise. The quality and detail of the work in these projects on display is clearly that of adults, not seven or eight year olds, no matter how brilliant the kids. As for the book reports, the little kid ones are the worst, requiring me to help draw complex scenery and assemble cut parts into something. At the Prager household, there are no kumbaya moments when we work on these projects. Instead, I am fighting my own lack of enthusiasm and cajoling kids to hunker down and get it done. And sometimes there is yelling (and a bit of cursing on my part). Yes, it's a great parent-kid bonding experience.

I probably sound uncaring, even unsupportive of my children and their learning. Nothing could be further from the truth! Besides the fact I don't personally enjoy these crafty-type projects, I question their value-added. I also take issue with the unintended consequences created by the plethora of well-intentioned school activities.

The expectations of parents to be involved in their kids' schooling is ridiculous. Elementary kids routinely have homework. Now let's add to that periodic projects and book reports. Then for good measure, let's throw in the dress-up as _____ day,  field trips to _______, enter the _____ contest or show, showcase your _____work at _________, bring snacks for the class for _________, bring food for the ______ celebration, practice ________ for ______ minutes, etc. etc, etc. I am sure I could make a much longer list.

The point is that alone, all of these little activities sound innocuous, but together they create chaos. There are only so many hours in a day. Our weekdays need to run like a well-oiled machine just to get everything done that needs to be done for three kids between the hours of 4 and 8 p.m. It is downright stressful. I don't have time for projects. And I certainly don't feel like spending my precious weekends doing them either.

Yes, school is important. But school is only one component of raising successful children. Outside of school, my kids are learning other important life lessons and values. But my time with them is more limited, in part, because of encroaching school work. Teachers, please realize that not all children are watching TV and playing video games all night and weekend long. Don't feel obligated to provide my family with more educational activities to take up our "free" time.  I'd trade a school project any day to:
  • Provide my kids with unstructured, free time where they can play what they want
  • Have my kids experience and appreciate boredom 
  • Allow my kids to interact, fight, argue, and play with each other
  • Encourage my kids to engage in physical activity
  • Feed my kids real food made from scratch
  • Put my kids to bed early so they get adequate sleep
  • Have time to lay in bed with them and read a book or talk about their day

I am not beating up on my kids' individual school or teachers. It's the system, really. We have come to believe that more is always better. It's not. We think that starting kids on complex, organized activities at an early age makes them smarter and more disciplined. It doesn't. My kids will do just fine on standardized tests without the extra work. My kids can learn about work ethic in other ways. Parents are also over-involved in school. We are training and conditioning parents to be helicopter parents. We are creating a generation of kids who can't do anything themselves or be left alone for a second. As a parent, I see all this, yet I find myself getting sucked into this modern day trap without even knowing it. Perhaps someday, I will have the courage to say NO and stick to it. For my family. For my sanity. For my kids.

Kibrom checking out the simple machines in 2nd grade
Shouldn't Steve get the award too?

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