Taucia Gonzalez is a student at Arizona State University pursing a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in Special Education. Prior to becoming a full time graduate student, she taught in a culturally rich school community that promoted and supported bilingualism and biliteracy. Her research interests focus on the intersections of culture, language, and disability within an urban context; with particular interest in how ideologies create and control spaces.
My daughter Camila is back at school after a two week break. Last night while I was making dinner, I noticed her engrossed in homework, and she even seemed to be smiling. In order to understand why this struck me as suspicious you need to understand our history with homework. For the past year, I have become very hands-off with it. Yes, I know. This is an appalling thing for an educator to say, but you need to understand that homework was destroying my relationship with my daughter.
I used to think, a thirty minute homework assignment? Piece of cake! After all, when I taught, I had teenage boys reading poetry like kittens lapping milk out of the palm of my hand. I could handle my nine-year old and her reading homework.
Everything would start off picture-perfect. Camila would sit at the dining room table armed with her unzipped Eastpack, library books with shiny plastic covers, yellow Ticonderogas with their pointy graphite and clean pink erasers poised for action, and a black and white composition book open and waiting for her tiny hands…but things would quickly turn sour. The dining room table, with all of its shiny homework tools, would become a war zone.
“Camila, your National Geographic magazine just arrived. Why don’t we read and respond to that?” This was the perfect moment to demonstrate that readers engage in many different kinds of text and that reading homework could and should connect to the literacy practices of the home.
“We can’t, Mom. It has to be a book.”
“Camila, I know Mr. Bandera, and I know he would let you read a magazine for your homework. We could even read poetry!”
My assessment of the situation—she seems to forget that I am a teacher and I know what I’m talking about. Her assessment of the situation would probably be more along the lines of—my teacher, who knows everything, taught me how to do homework and my mom’s going to mess me up. I’m assuming Mr. Bandera explained the homework using the term “book.” Well, Camila took his instructions literally. Something as simple and mundane as homework procedures had constructed a wall between homework and the genuine literacy practices we engage in as a family. I needed a plan.
After a while I attempted showing up at the dining room table armed with a smile and mantras to make homework time peaceful and tranquil. I am a source of support. I will respect Camila’s decisions. This will be a positive experience.
But if it wasn’t a power struggle over what she was “allowed” to read, it was something else. My mantras weren’t enough to keep the peace and harmony. Homework’s ugly head kept rearing up and challenging me.
I found myself envisioning my own return to the classroom as a teacher and announcing to my students, “Your only homework in this class is to go home each night and smile and laugh with your family members.” Since I didn’t envision Mr. Bandera doing that anytime soon, I had to find a way to make homework tolerable.
There she was, hunched over the dining room table working diligently on something…As much as I didn’t want to approach the subject of homework I asked, “Are you working on homework?”
“Yes,” She responded without looking up. She was very busy.
“So what are you working on?”
“Homework.” She responded impatiently, still not looking up.
I walked over to the table and looked over her shoulder. What did I see?, you ask. The most glorious piece of homework in the history of our household. My chest filled with pride. Camila was engulfed, working on a beautiful illustration on the bottom third of the page. The top two thirds had a long letter to Mr. Bandera explaining how a book she had read made her feel, how she connected one section to an experience she had with her cousin, and a thoughtful analysis of the main character. My eyes made their way to the bottom of the page and saw the following:Sincerely from your not-doing-homework-student,
What?! I breathed in. She was doing make-up homework? Should I go in and explain to Mr. Bandera that I hadn’t realized they had homework over break? I could envision Camila’s name written in dry-erase marker under the word “homework” on the classroom whiteboard. Then, I found myself chuckling at the absurdity of my panic. What was I really upset about? It was as if the homework was mine. Maybe in a strange way I knew that in many classrooms homework functions as a test for parents; one of the few connections some schools have with parents: A way to make judgments about what kind of family the student comes from. Homework might be done on a crisp white page in a notebook or on a breakfast-stained, torn out piece of emergency paper. It might be completed in careful or hasty handwriting, with or without a parent’s signature, or not done at all.
I looked at Camila, who didn’t seem worried at all. I flashed back to the old homework wars we used to have. She was chuckling to herself and actually appeared to be enjoying this assignment. I quickly created a new mantra for that moment; Humor is an important life skill. I decided not to worry about my grade point average as a parent.
“Camila, I think Mr. Bandera will be very impressed with your homework. It’s very thoughtful and has a bit of humor.”
She smiled at me, quite proud of herself, “I totally forgot he had told us to do reading homework over break, so I needed to do a make-up. He’s gonna laugh.”
I turned back to making dinner thinking about the power that can be attached to homework. All too often homework can be a measure of the kind of home a child comes from—how much the family values education, whether or not they are responsible, or even the extent of a home’s resources. If Mr. Bandera used homework as “evidence” of the quality of my parenting, I could easily become the talk of the teachers’ lounge.
In McCarthey’s (2000) literature review of home-school connections, she lists three barriers between home and school; (1) differences in literacy practices, (2) differences in discourse patterns, and (3) different understandings between teachers and parents about what the parent’s role should be. There are many iterations of these three barriers, but homework is one arena in which all three barriers can intersect. This is not to say they all intersect every time, but the opportunity for intersection is there. Educators have the agency to examine where power barriers can be diffused and deconstructed in order to build stronger connections with parents. Two of these barriers were at play in Camila’s homework time.
Consider Camila not wanting to read her National Geographic magazine for homework. All too often, homework is constrained with rules that limit connections between home and school. Educators can encourage students to build those connections by having students “mine” for literacy practices at home and draw upon that knowledge within the parameters of homework. What kinds of literacy practices do students engage in at home and in their community? Reading homework is then broadened to include different literacy practices.
My perception of roles becomes an issue during homework time; I do not hold the power to make magazines a part of Camila’s homework. Camila believed that the power resided within Mr. Bandera to define literacy as it related to homework. Students can unintentionally be taught that the role of the teacher carries more knowledge than the role of parent. In homework, for example, educators normally carry the power in decision making, but they can diffuse the power hierarchy by building parents’ voices into homework procedures. This would require more overlap in the two homework roles of making decisions about homework and making sure the homework gets done.
Homework is full of power. It can create barriers or it can be constructed to connect families and schools. Although there are still opportunities for making stronger connections, I know Mr. Bandera doesn’t have a parent grade book tucked away. As I watched my “not-doing-homework daughter” smile proudly over her homework, it occurred to me that homework is rife with power, including the power to serve as an outlet for a little creative sarcasm on Camila’s behalf.
McCarthey, S. J. (2000). Home-school connections: A review of the literature. The Journal of Educational Research , 93 (3), 145-153.