September 15th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Brad and the Homework Wars

Some day, you grandchildren may ask you, "What did you do during the Homework Wars?"

Well, I'm a grizzled veteran of the homework wars. I fought in the trenches of the homework wars for 16 years. And the story is fresh in my mind, right now, because one of's writers tackled the subject yesterday: Emily Bazelon, "Forget Homework: It's a Waste of Time for Elementary-School Students." (, September 14th, 2006.) When it came time to fighting the homework wars with regard to her kid's school, she first fortified herself with the best research for and against giving homework at all, let alone lots of it, and much of the article consists of her book reviews and therefore a review of the research pro- and con-. It's absolutely entertaining reading. Even if you're not a parent and have no interest in educational theory, I'm sure you have your own homework wars stories to tell.

Forgive me if I tell mine. I think you won't be bored; it's also a Jim Hicks: Man of Concrete story.

I was the subject of an educational experiment on my mother's part. Mom was curious just how early a child could be taught to read. So she developed her own fascinating improvised combination of Pavlovian conditioning with whole-language learning. I can't say whether it would work on anybody else, but in my case it had me reading about as much of the newspaper as most people read (first few pages, first page of each section, and the funnies) by age 4. Twice a day, actually; I remember that back then, the Post-Dispatch had better reporting and better funnies, but the Globe Democrat was worth reading because sometimes they had columns by that really funny new guy, Pat Buchanan, and back then I couldn't get enough of him. (No, really. We're talking 1964 here.) So it will not surprise you that, by the time I started grade school at age 6, I was just a wee little bit ahead of the other kids in my class. One of the manifestations of this was that I absolutely, flatly, refused to do homework on subjects that I already knew. It seldom came up with my first grade teacher, because I missed almost that entire year for medical reasons. But my second grade teacher refused to take that answer, and constantly responded, "And how am I supposed to know if you know the subject if you don't turn in your homework?" I replied, confidently, "Test me."

This little dance happened day, after day, after day, after day, without change. Finally, the teacher complained about it to the principal often enough to force a parent-teacher conference on the subject. When my parents were summoned to the principal's office, they were flatly told to get a babysitter and leave me home. The did get a babysitter -- for my kid sister. The Man of Concrete bluntly refused to have a discussion of something that closely related to my life and my experience without having me on hand to consult. This lead to a small confrontation when we got there that evening, because the teacher flatly refused to discuss it in front of me. After much debate, it was settled that the discussion would at least begin without me, in the principal's office. I was left outside to wait. I said it wouldn't be a problem, I'd brought the day's newspapers to read. That should have said something to the teacher, since it was largely because of her opinion that I was profoundly mentally retarded that I was spending half of each day in special education, but her own preconceptions got in the way. Perhaps she thought I was going to color on them or something.

After a while, I got summoned in to join the conference. The stumbling block was that Dad had asked the teacher if she had asked me why I wasn't doing my homework, and what I'd said in response. She wouldn't answer the question. She didn't concede its validity. As far as she was concerned, I had to do the homework, it was an order. My reasons were irrelevant. She didn't flat out lie and say she hadn't asked me; she just refused to concede that there was any point to having the information. After much intense back-and-forth between her and Dad, the principal interrupted them both and said, "Fine, then I'll ask him. Brad, why won't you do your homework?" I replied the way I always did, only in more detail. I explained that it had been explained to me that the purpose of homework is to help teach the material, and this was all material I'd learned three or more years ago. The teacher, outraged at hearing this in my usual precociously calm adult-sounding voice, reflexively snapped at me again, "And how am I supposed to know if you know the stuff if you won't turn in your homework?!?!?" And before I could even answer, Dad cut in and replied, "Test him."

He put his foot down on the subject, too, and refused to discuss whether or not they as parents were responsible for forcing me to do homework until it was settled whether or not I needed to do that homework. So they tested me. But the teacher was determined to win this fight, so she played dirty. She threw the standardized test at me. The high school graduation state-standardized achievement test. At a 2nd grader. In special ed. Not that I knew what it was. So I did feel that some of the questions were unfair and covered things I couldn't reasonably be expected to have read yet, but I did my best. My best was better than she would have done. I tested at college level in every subject but math, and in math I came in at mid-10th-grade level. At age 7. This had many interesting consequences, but among them was that it gave me a trump card that I continued to play all the way into and through college. While I was willing to do projects or term papers outside of class, the rest of my out-of-class time was mine. And that time was important to me, too -- I had reading of my own to do. Like Mark Twain, I have always gone to great lengths to make sure that my schooling didn't interfere with my education.
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