Please Help Your Kids With Their Projects

Mushroom working on our 90-Second Newbery Film. I set up the books so he could do the drawing and take the photos for the animation he's working on.
Mushroom working on our 90-Second Newbery Film. I set up the books so he could do the drawing and take the photos for the animation he’s working on.

A couple of school parent friends shared this Motherlode entry the other day online. In case you don’t want to read it, the gist of it is: parents should stop doing their kids’ projects and teachers should hold the parents accountable for it.

It sounds good on the surface. Part of me agreed with the author. However, the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I felt. In the end, it was a good reminder of why we homeschool. All the assumptions in the article are so radically different from my own about education. But they have to be. School forces everyone into making these choices between helping and hurting, that are, in a homeschool context, a completely false dichotomy.

I won’t get too much into the specifics of the example in the article. Suffice it to say the assignment in question was the kind I can’t imagine giving a third grader without any support.

And that’s sort of the point. School forces kids to have to do things to show they’re competent. It’s not about learning. It’s not about the process. It’s definitely not about doing what’s right or enriching for that kid. It’s solely about proof. In that context, of course helping a child get that proof is cheating.

But that’s not what education is about in our homeschool. It’s not about creating proof. Education for us is about the process. It’s about learning by doing. Sometimes that’s messy. It doesn’t look very good in a portfolio, much less at a science fair or a school assembly. But it’s meaningful and worth doing. It’s enriching and positive.

And as we do that work, I’m not only the teacher, I’m the parent, I’m the coach, I’m the cheerleader and sometimes, I’m the partner. This is why I still read aloud. We can read harder books and more challenging works. It’s why I sit with my kids and help them edit their writing, talking through it as I go. It’s why we use “buddy math” to learn how to do problems better, trading the textbook back and forth. It’s why I still let them narrate their revisions to me for their writing or still type up their papers sometimes. It’s why I work alongside them when they’re making big, complex art projects. It’s why I outlined the steps and kept making checklists for our current film project or why I’m taking the same MOOC as my kids this semester. I’m their teacher, but I’m also their learning partner.

This is not to say that I don’t value independence too, just that it’s not the only model for positive learning. It’s okay to swing between insisting that a child read one book independently and another can be read back and forth. It’s okay to insist that one page of the math book be done alone and checked together while another is worked jointly. I have been enjoying shepherding my kids through two projects with radically different rules: the 90-Second Newbery Film, where I can (and have) helped however I saw fit and the Destination Imagination challenge their team has chosen, where I have to sign an interference contract that forbids me from ever laying a finger to help with their work. Both models have great merits.

I do value having a product to show off sometimes. Having tangible work they can be proud of is something that can be important to kids (and to us as their teachers) to help them feel like they’re learning and doing meaningful work. But random assignments for school aren’t usually very meaningful. Kids don’t choose them. And because they’re chosen for the show value, kids rarely get much out of them whether they do them or their parents do them. My kids don’t choose all their work either, but much of it is for process. When we do a project, I give plenty of time and support so they can produce something that feels good and represents real learning.

So I say that independence is not better learning. Kids need partners. Help your kids with their work sometimes so they can feel supported in their learning, so they can learn more, so they can focus on the process.

2 thoughts on “Please Help Your Kids With Their Projects

  1. As a former public school parent, and guilty as charged for helping maybe a tad too much, (ok, a lot) when I read the Motherlode piece I too was taken aback. My feeling was always, ALL the kids could benefit from hands-on help from Mom and Dad! I wanted to help them all with developing their ideas and procedures, to produce an interesting and worthy final product. I wanted all the kids at that school to rise to the top. We gave up and became homeschoolers when I finally realized that the system doesn’t work that way. They don’t WANT all kids to be the best, they can’t handle it. It works much better of most children float along in the middle…

    1. Yes, exactly! I kept thinking about the project in the article that looked “too good” and the strong implication that the child didn’t learn anything from it. In fact, I think there’s a good chance the child learned more than the author’s child. Of course, it depends on how the parents helped, but helping your child’s ideas become a reality can be a very rewarding learning experience. Of course, in a school context, it’s so uneven – some kids will have parents who help and others won’t. It’s just hard to figure out how to handle it. Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about it.

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