Homework plagiarism

Grace closes a recent post by saying:

Mark and I were probably the only parents in Iris’ first grade class that let her turn in a diorama that SHE created. Don’t be a helicopter parent. Let kids do their own homework.

She also links to a previous entry making the same argument at greater length (and with charming pictures).  I know I ought to agree or keep my mouth shut.  But when did I ever do either?

Z and I helped the kids with their homework for years.  I remember when Emma had a Waldorf trained teacher who was fanatical about colouring the whole page — every map, diagram, illustration had to have full coverage and marks were deducted for a scrap of white.  Many nights Emma and I sat up until 10pm filling in white space, and I felt no compunction.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Z and I have sliced balsa wood for dioramas, cut shapes for collages, read aloud from the encyclopedia pointing to interesting information, and edited reports with a heavy hand.  Eventually, around grade 10, both Emma and Jake pushed us away, refusing to show us any work until it was returned by the teacher.  Before that we were always there when asked, and sometimes when we weren’t.

I don’t see anything wrong with this.  Editing with a heavy hand is exactly what I’m asked to do for the students in my freshman seminar.  That’s why they write drafts — the rationale has nothing to do with lifting grades artificially and everything to do with the idea that they might learn from one-to-one contact with a teacher willing to go over their every word.  And if you think I did any less lecturing and explaining to Emma and Jake than to my freshman, you are quite mistaken: I did much more.  So they had an advantage and their work got better, but am I supposed not to do this in order to level the playing field?  And so then maybe I should not do it for my freshmen.

Never did we do the work ourselves.  The kids were always there, with a hand on the piece.  If it was something they couldn’t do (or weren’t allowed to do) involving maybe an exacto knife, they watched, taking a hand whenever they could.  And from this too they learned.  The time that sticks most in my mind is when we suddenly discovered on a Sunday morning that Jake had an 8 page newspaper to produce for the next day, and that the group was meeting at our house.  We set up an assembly line.  The kids dictated their stories to me, I typed them up on the computer and printed them in columns, then they went to the table where one kid cut them into pieces and another, with Z’s help, pasted them up on big sheets.  By the time we were done we had a beautiful product; it looked, I admit, like it had been done with help, and it was way better than any other group’s, and this caused me some embarrassment.  But the three kids in Jake’s group learned much more that day than they would have if they’d been working by themselves.


20 thoughts on “Homework plagiarism

  1. Just playing devil’s advocate here, but let me ask… am just curious as to whether your parents, or Z’s, helped in the same manner when it came to school work. Did you need that advantage? When left to your own devices, that inevitably resulted in a more homogenous playing field? And lastly, are there not perhaps some significant positive attributes that sometimes come from one’s own efforts?

  2. My parents did, sometimes. Their intervention was sporadic, but in the early grades I remember being helped a lot. I’m sure I learned from those times, and that it helped when I had to work on my own, as on an exam.

    I do think that in later grades students have to gear themselves up to working alone. This happened naturally with Emma and Jake; probably it did with me too, though my high school career I remember less well. And certainly there were times when I was left to work alone, even early on, and lots of times E and J were too.

    I guess that in the long run it doesn’t matter that much. Smart students getting no help from their parents will prove themselves — unless they aren’t recognized as smart, and become frustrated, and screw up. But I also don’t see anything wrong with teaching whenever the opportunity arises. At this stage in Eila’s school career, we are always getting sheets from the school telling us about how parents and teachers have to work together in developing reading skills and things — I am told to help all the time! And why is this? Because at this point the focus is on achievement rather than assessment. Why shouldn’t this stay the same?

  3. I hadn’t thought about it from your angle. So far, Iris hasn’t been asked to do anything that she can’t handle on her own. Maybe I would feel differently if she were subjected to higher standards.

    OTOH, isn’t there something wrong with setting the homework bar so high that adult intervention is required? Isn’t homework supposed to be a didactic and reinforcement tool? How important are your third graders’ grades?

    Remember her Lego instructor’s philosophy?

    He said that the point of the class was for kids to explore on their own without parental intervention. He gave me my own Lego Mindstorms kit and sat me down at a table at the other end of the classroom.

    What do I know, I made her walk the three blocks to school by herself yesterday. In LA. I am a very laissez faire mother.

  4. Having had my rant, Grace, I’m now starting to see your side. Maybe it would be better if we all let kids do their homework on their own. But I guess I have three conditions.

    (1) Less homework, so there is also time for kids and parents to do learning projects together.
    (2) Not caring about grades: not freaking out when the kid comes home with a C.
    (3) All parents — or a majority — making this decision together, so that the teachers would really see what they could do on their own, and the teacher’s expectations would be a bit more reasonable.

    Barring this I will probably help Eila in the same way I used to help E and J. But I’ll also make sure there are a lot of projects — both homework and her own projects — that she does all by herself.

  5. You are right.

    There should be detente between parents. Homework should have a didactic purpose, and not be just busywork.

    Iris’ homework packets used to come with a cover sheet. The parents were supposed to sign and check one of three boxes (Minimal, Some, Extensive help).

    So far, we haven’t found her homework load too onerous. In second grade, she finished her weekly packet on her own in 20-30 minutes each Monday afternoon. Sometimes, we had to help her correct careless mistakes.

    In third grade, she gets about 2 pages per evening, which she finishes fairly quickly.

    Why does anyone care about elementary school grades? If you saw mine, you would have thought I was a moron.

    My parents couldn’t help, even if they wanted to. Though very intelligent, they didn’t speak English well. By helping our kids, we perpetuate the gross inequities between kids of well-to-do parents and the rest.

  6. Isn’t every night a night filling in white space (E says platitudinously while studying for her Frankfurt School exam)? It is a time I look back on fondly.

    Also note that studying for a Frankfurt School exam causes one to make up wonderful words such as ‘platitudinously’.

  7. Would, Elvis, that we were still sitting at that table, you with your coke, me with my wine; “finish the sea on that map, you great lump,” and “you left a bit of white space in Africa, y’old dunce” flying recklessly from our youthful lips!

    Grace, I will take it to heart and try to lay off helping Eila — and I will talk to the other parents too. But I have to admit I do care about elementary school grades. Not much — and I know I shouldn’t — but the fact is I can’t help caring a bit. I want everyone to think my kid is smart.

    As to a level playing field, there just isn’t one. Even if we well educated parents refused to help, we still wouldn’t refuse to read to our children, or speak to them in French, or whatever we do. Better maybe to try to include as many of their friends as we can in what we do. Speak to our kids’ less advantaged friends as responsible beings, recommend books to them, things like that.

  8. Hey, for sure you can help!
    I was just trying to look at it from the other side.
    But I guess the idea I was going for was don’t help when they don’t need it. They will feel proud accomplishing things on their own. But pitch in when they do. Some projects are take home and the schools like when the parents get involved – more from a quality of time with your kid perspective. But make it about their idea’s, not just yours. Other projects are done at school, and the teachers are well aware of what level your child is actually at, compared to what they appear to be at with parent assisted projects. The rest of the time, do things with your kids – but not the school work. Your folks did the coolest things (IMHO) like amazing paper mache masks and reading great literature to you before you could read that level yourself, and always word games and mental puzzles etc. I loved that about your house! French courses at Mac as teens. Seeing interesting movies. And anything else. Kind of more like outside school homeschooling, let the school do the social and groupwork and other basic learning stuff. My $0.02 – based on having my kids in a gifted school where there are about 75% high achieving helicopter parents!!

  9. Aha! So if the goal is learning and we don’t care about assessment then the issue *isn’t* whether we help with homework, but rather how to raise independent kids who know that effort will produce better work and try to do their best. And probably that means helping sometimes, because there are times that, without help, the kid will just blow it off and do a crappy job. Sometimes help allows a kid to see what *he* can do — as in the case of Jake and the newspaper, when the kids didn’t just learn, they also all felt really proud of their hard work and what it had produced. But at other times, help will just make a kid feel like he can’t do anything good by himself. So, as usual, as parents, we’re walking a delicate line, and will inevitably make mistakes.

    The other day Eila took a long time over a drawing of a leopard and then, looking critically at it, said, “it’s amazing what you can do when you work at it! This is almost as good as Madison’s!” I was thrilled. It’s taken a long time for this lesson to grow even the beginning of roots.

  10. I think it all comes down to one question: What is the purpose of homework?

    As a teacher, I assign two types of homework. The first is reinforcement, which allows the students to apply the same skills that they learned in class in a similar manner (if they learned the order of operations, they need to practice it). This is homework that the child should be completing on his/her own with a minimum of intervention from adults.

    The second is extension, which allows the students to build on the skills that they have learned in the class by applying their knowledge in a new fashion. A student benefits from having adults and other students help with extension work. I do not have much opportunity for extension work because of the whole inner-city lack of resources thing. Most of my students cannot rely on parents/adults to help them.

    As a result, my make-up work (rather than normal classwork) is largely extension work because it is more challenging and requires the child who missed a lot of classwork to put more effort in to making a project that gets them the grade they want.

    With extension work, the bottom line is this = parents can help all they want with presentation and form, but when all is said and done, if I cannot recognize the inherent quality of an individual child’s work based on their previous work, the parent had too heavy of a role in the project. To go back to your newspaper example, it would be perfectly acceptable for a parent to scribe what the children are saying, but the students must make all of the necessary corrections to their language and text. A parent ought not rephrase what their child is saying because they don’t like the way it came out.

    It drives me nuts when I read college application essays so gone over by families and tutors that it does not even reflect the child’s own style or form.

  11. Yes. Eila’s homework at the moment involves writing ABCs, and colouring. I don’t ever help with the letters. This is what you call reinforcement homework and obviously the point of it is for her to do it herself. I do, however, sometimes (not always) help with colouring and drawing — for me, at any rate, drawing is extension work.

    I’m not sure if I entirely agree, though, that parents should always only scribe. With the newspaper that is what I did. But all parents, even including Grace, edit their kids’ work for grammar. I think that’s okay as long as you explain what you’ve suggested, and make them apply the corrections.

  12. I’d like to comment on the comment that teachers give too much homework. I know it is a pain for parents to sit their kids down and get them to work, but in most cases their workloads are appropriate for their age. Parents might not agree with that, but teachers have studied theorists of child physiology and psychology and know what can and can’t be expected from certain ages groups. Now sometimes, and all classes are different, kids don’t utilize their class time wisely and have to make up for it at home. That is part of the learning process. “Gee, if I work hard now I won’t have to work so hard at home.” Or at least that’s what I hope will happen. That’s just one teacher’s opinion though.

  13. Hey theteacherinme, thanks for chiming in. I’d love to hear more in future from you as I work out the parent-teacher balance in Eila’s life.

    I’m with you on spillover work from class — it’s totally reasonable for you to send that home. Not just because some kids, as you say, don’t use their class time wisely, but because it makes sense that kids who work slower, or more methodically should be allowed to take their time. In this sense homework can actually be a way of lessening pressure, so that kids don’t have to scribble their way though it in class at the pace of the fastest child. Yes. Thanks for that.

    I should add, though, that your own personal experience as a teacher means substantially more to me (and probably to the heavily PhDed crowd who reads this blog) than an appeal to the “theorists of child physiology and psychology.” It’s part of our job to judge that material, some of which, I’m sure you will agree, is bunk.

  14. You Said: But all parents, even including Grace, edit their kids’ work for grammar. I think that’s okay as long as you explain what you’ve suggested, and make them apply the corrections.

    I think I overstated myself on this, or at least, didn’t clearly state myself on this. What I mean is that if the child says something like “the big, red car” the parent shouldn’t scribe “the huge, maroon Hummer” because they didn’t think it was descriptive enough. (I see a lot of this in Lower Merion). I think at that point, the parent should make a note of it and, during revision, say “is “big, red car” really descriptive?” and get the child to come up with a better description. It still needs to be the child’s words. If the child can’t come up with more adjectives, maybe the parents and teachers ought to work on more vocabulary.

    However, this week, I did some editing of a students’ final draft. She was really excited that she’d finished her first five paragraph essay and, after giving her appropriate commendation, I drew here attention to a sentence where she had forgotten to capitalize the word “I”. When I pointed the sentence to her, she recognized the mistake and corrected it. If she hadn’t caught it, I would have asked her “what kinds of words are capitalized?” I think, as much as possible, children should be trained to slow down and catch their own mistakes, but sometimes they need a more experienced eye to point them out.

  15. Your example is a good one because it shows how “corrections” can lessen the power and clarity of speech. “Big red car” is a fine, sparkling phrase. “Huge, maroon Hummer,” besides introducing a redundancy, is overloaded and boring — my mind starts to shut down right away.

    Ah the five paragraph essay! Which we will have to unteach her when she gets to college. Still: teach away! I know you have to, and I know all the reasons it’s okay.

  16. Actually, I point out her misspellings but don’t edit her grammar. That way, her writing has the whiff of authenticity.

    Maybe it is also a teeny bit of insecurity because Iris is the only native English speaker in the house. My husband and I learned English at 5 and 7 respectively, and grew up with parents that don’t speak English comfortably.

    Following up on Homework détente, I had to eat my words in Homework détente 2.

    Is it really fair to assign spacecraft design as homework? Some of the parents design spacecraft professionally! How is everyone else going to compete with that?

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