a peek inside the fishbowl

18 Sep, 2008

When Mummy needs help dealing with homework

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Misc. life

Excitement about the new painting aside, I spent yesterday feeling pretty miserable.

Emma is in a different school this year. It’s different from her old one and the transition, for the most part, has gone fairly well. But there is one big difference: Testing. The first school had a policy of noncompetitiveness… there were no grades (only comments) on the report cards and there was no testing in the traditional sense. I remember when we kids sat down, with pencil and paper (often under duress!), to answer a series of questions with a time limit of which the outcome was a grade.

The old school didn’t do this. It took Mark and I awhile to get used to this idea. How could they possibly know how the kid is doing? Well, the teacher made an assessment based on assignments (which didn’t get grades), school work, and on what s/he learned about the child in other ways, like talking to them or having them write a story… things like that. The theory was that there are less stressful ways to find out how a kid is doing in school.

The new school is not like that. Their philosophy seems to be the same as when I went to school.

Emma had a quiz about the provinces/territories and their capitals yesterday. I thought she just needed to know the capitals. I spent the week giving her pop-questions. I tried making it fun and low-pressure. i.e. On the way to the park the other night I’d point to her and shout: Saskatchewan!

Turns out we probably shouldn’t have gone to the park, but spent the evening staring at a map of Canada.

Yesterday morning – quiz day – I learned that she needed to know the provinces/territories, capitals AND where they went on a blank map. Oh, and spelling counts. Did I mention they were fairly loosey-goosey with spelling at her old school?

Emma left the house in tears, angry with herself, and it’s entirely my fault.

I had asked her to take a piece of paper and list the provinces* and their capitals. After she was done she read them out to me. She got them all right. Then I asked her to carefully check her spelling against the map while I washed the dishes. By the time I was done I had less than five minutes to look over her work.

I asked her if she had checked her spelling. She says she did. I found a half-dozen spelling mistakes, pointed them out and corrected them for her. While I was doing this I asked her again.

“Are you sure you checked your spelling?”
“Because I asked you to check letter for letter and it looks like you didn’t.”

Unspoken translation: you did a crappy job. And I expect better.

Hello tears.

Ugh. I still feel terrible. I want to help her without making her feel like an idiot. I tried to sound as upbeat and positive as I could, but clearly it didn’t work.

What I need to do is make sure she has time to study. This studying thing is going to take some getting used to. Study time is different from homework time. When you do homework you just do it and stuff it back into your backpack when you’re done. But when you’re studying you need to find a way to learn the stuff, and make sure it sticks in your head before you’re done. It’s not a matter of do-it-and-be-done-with-it like a row of math questions.

Most importantly, I need to make sure she doesn’t stress about it. She’s only in fourth grade.

Any homework-related tips you could share would be helpful. Me: I need to be better at this homework thing. Gah.

* Here’s a great way to memorize the provinces and territories, from West to East. Imagine a note Nanny wrote her monkey as he was about to visit Queen NaNaNa’s pretty exciting island:

Be A Sweet Monkey On Queen NaNaNa’s
Pretty Exciting Island.
Your NaNny

16 Responses to "When Mummy needs help dealing with homework"

1 | The Veg Next Door

September 18th, 2008 at 10:08 am


Just wondering why did you switch school?

No tips on how to make homework and studying easy or fun. I was a stressed out student my whole life since school wasn’t very easy for me. What did help was during tests I would picture what written in my notes and somehow that helped but I would often start studying once a test was announced (not the night before).

2 | Jenn

September 18th, 2008 at 10:44 am


This brings to mind a fascinating show that we watched on TVO last night. It is Growong Minds Week and the show was called “Make my child brilliant”. Last night, the host went into a class room and picked out five kids that have talents and skills that may go unnoticed in the conventional school system. She narrows it down to one child and works with them to make it work for them through all kinds of mind games. It was very interesting and based on your post today I imagine you you enjoy it too. I believe it is on at 7 tonight.

3 | porter

September 18th, 2008 at 12:12 pm


Ahh the provinces and their capitals. I failed that test when I took it and I can still remember vividly what went down afterwards. My Mom asked the teacher to make me take the test again (not to get a better grade but to force me to do well) and every night she would set the timer on the kitchen stove and quiz me with flash cards. I HATED IT! I got a perfect score when I took the test again. I’m not suggesting you use the same technique….it was an unpleasant experience for me and I don’t recall feeling good about the perfect score either.

I have no advice for you Andrea. I’m just not there yet in my journey as a parent. All I know is that I think the trip to the park with you quizzing Emma probably was a much better way to learn than the second part of the story you told!

I meant to PVR the TVO shows that Jenn mentioned above. I heard an advertisement on the talk radio show I listen to and it sounded really interesting-will do that for tonight.

4 | andrea

September 18th, 2008 at 12:59 pm


I will check out that show! Thanks!

re: flashcards and timers.
I wasn’t flashcard kid, and I know my kids aren’t either. Maybe some kids thrive on it, but for me, the tick-tick-tick timer just adds a whole other dimension of unpleasantry and pressure to the something that is already pretty stressful. The trick is, I guess, to work with the student to figure out the best/least painful way to learn the work. But it’s not easy.

5 | Lindsay

September 18th, 2008 at 1:52 pm


Warning – the following is a rant, and contains little to know advice on how to deal with your situation :) Do not feel bad – I repeat, do not feel bad. It is not entirely your fault, nor Emma’s fault at all. It is entirely the fault of a crappy messed up school system with a crappy messed up set of priorities. Why are the provinces and capitals etc so important? When will Emma ever need to reproduce that info at a moments notice with no reference material and make sure it’s all spelled correctly? Yes, a good general knowledge of our provinces, territories and their capital cities is great. Geography is important and there are great fun ways to learn about it (like the amazing trip you guys took this summer!), but school should not produce tears and stress, and should not keep a mom and daughter from going to the park. You learned more there anyway. We are genetically, evolutionarily designed to love learning. Look how much fun babies and toddlers have, and all they are doing is learning, 24-7. It take a whole lotta effort to take that fun away, but we humans manage to do it. That amazes me.

I’m guessing you had some good reasons for changing schools, but the last one sounds like a gem. I’m so sorry your family is having to deal with this problem. I don’t have much advice as my little one is just 3 months old, but you seem to be an wonderful mom, and you turn almost everything you do with your daughters into a fun learning opportunity. I hope you find a good solution. You could always homeschool them :)

6 | Ginger

September 18th, 2008 at 4:13 pm


Helping a child to study…that is a very difficult thing. It is one that I struggled with as a teacher. In my first teaching job I would tell my 6th graders to study for a test or quiz. The majority of them would fail or do very poorly. But when I questioned them they could answer my questions. After much frustration and tears on my part as the teacher I realized late one Sunday night that my students did not know how to study. So I made it my job to teach them study skills. We learned all different ways to study.

We made note cards (similar to flash cards). We learned how to take notes in different ways. We drew pictures to help remind us of certain ideas. We made graphic organizers or charts or venn diagrams. We made up silly sayings to memorize things (like you gave as the example).

There is no one way to study. Every child learns differently and remembers differently. And for that matter, one child usually needs several different ways to study for different kinds of material. There is a big difference between learning math facts, geography, history, and science.

My suggestion to you would be to have a conference with Emma’s teacher and ask him/her for suggestions on study techniques. And then practice different ones until you find what fits her learning style best. If her teacher cannot help maybe talk to her teachers at her old school. If that doesn’t help there are tons of books out there with good suggestions.

And you are correct, homework is very different than studying. Homework is practice. My last suggestion would be to break big study tasks into small daily chunks. This requires planning and for Emma to communicate upcoming tests and quizzes with you in advance. A daily planner is something we utilized in both schools I taught in. Students could write down homework assignments, projects, quizzes, and tests. It helps them learn to plan and be organized.

I agree that there are lots of things that students are expected to learn and memorize that seem quite pointless. As a teacher there were things I had to teach that I saw no point in teaching. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the child has to learn it and will be tested on it. I always told my students that we might not agree, but we have to be prepared and it was my job to help them be prepared.

Andrea, I think you are an amazing mom and I know that you and your girls will come through this after some adjustment time and some time exploring what works best for them. Your girls are lucky to have parents who love them so much and who are involved in their learning. That, more than anything else, will help your girls to succeed in all that they do!

7 | LO

September 18th, 2008 at 4:18 pm


Why did you have to change schools??? Too bad.
Sounds like the school she WAS in was more like my daughter’s school (she’s in third year aka third grade). My daughter attends a kick ass (oops sorry can i say that here??) Montessori school and the stress is not there the way it is in the regular system which i experienced with my son. True Montessori allows children (by guiding not traditional teaching) to become citizens of the planet-they learn to take care of each other, to shake hands, make eye contact and be kind AND they learn methods and theories to apply to all avenues of learning. It’s a wonderful way to learn and the majority of kids learn really well in this autonomous environment. For homework/studying help have your daughter review every night in a fun way. Don’t cram it all into one time period rather every night for a few minutes. And then, practice with writing everything out and then working on spelling out loud. My daughter has the same ‘homework’ every night-spelling words, dictee practice and math questions. Fortunately all projects and such are done in school. The only downside to her school is that it is private and costs $$$. BUT it is worth the money….

Good luck:)

8 | BeachMama

September 18th, 2008 at 4:21 pm


I have no advice to offer. I was terrible at studying and only remembered stuff that I was interested in. As for the Provinces and Capitals, I don’t even remember learning it in school. But, I do remember staring at a blank map and holding back the tears because I didn’t know them.

I hope you find a good way to help her and share it with us so we can all learn for when our time comes.

9 | DaniGirl

September 18th, 2008 at 5:34 pm


Oh, I do not look forward to those days. When I was a kid, my mom made me write out lines and multiplication tables as a punishment. While I’m not sure about the lesson in “learning as punishment”, I’ve always learned well by summarizing and rewriting… maybe that might help?

10 | andrea

September 18th, 2008 at 7:07 pm


Thanks for your supportive words everyone! It is appreciated. fyi – Emma changed schools because of the French program at the new school.

11 | lacoop

September 18th, 2008 at 7:35 pm


You know, I have vacillated back and forth on both sides of this issue. My son went to the “alternative” school and like Emma’s when it was time for him to move on he was caught in a system that evaluated via tests and he had no clue as to how to study. I think that the school he went to was a great school, but not necessarily for him. I have a much younger daughter who is in the more conventional system, which is also good but does have its limitations.

Having been through the two systems of schooling here is what I think:

It is important to teach our children to be kind, co-operative and compassionate human beings as LO stresses in her reply

It is also important that parents and teachers find the ways that their children/ students learn best- work with their strengths

I believe that it is also important for kids to be taken out of their comfort zones in order to grow and thrive, we cannot continue to buffer a child from the stress of making mistakes (mistakes need to be made in order to learn), a child who has to face adversity does learn from it (things like empathy, perspective and what their strengths and weakness are) provided they have good support either in the classroom or at home

And whether we like it or not they have to grow up and participate in the world as it is, and they will be evaluated, judged and rejected in their adolescent and adult lives, harder to take when you have not had to exercise that part of your self. How can we hope that kids can grow into adults who can make positive change if we are afraid of letting them deal with their own struggles, disappointments and failures. It is one of the toughest things a parent will have to do, but also one of the most important.

I believe if we set the bar higher for our kids they will have no trouble reaching and surpassing it. I also believe that it IS important to have more than cursory knowledge of world geography, let alone the geography of one’s own country. Why close doors on a future that is so unknown?

12 | LO

September 19th, 2008 at 6:49 am


lacoop adds some great thoughts and insights:)
Like ’em:)

13 | The Veg Next Door

September 19th, 2008 at 2:50 pm


Not a fan of memorizing information that may not serve you later in life. Yes, knowing Canada’s geography is very important but stuff like that is learned from experience (taking a trip, pulling out an atlas and making a game out of it).

I remember in grade 8 having to memorize ALL the countries in Africa and where they were located in the continent. Useless piece of information that I stressed over for days and did poorly on the test. Ask me now where so-and-so is and I couldn’t tell you.

I also had a French teacher who insisted on making us memorize five-minute speeches and presenting them to the class without q-cards (sp?). Yet again, another useless and frustrating task.

Part of my frustration is that I didn’t have hands-on parents when it came to homework. Because of the language barrier I was on my own to remember to do my home and actually do it correctly. There was no checking or helping with assignments.

So there’s my rant. Not what you expected when you posted, eh?

You’re a great and creative parent. This is a growing pain. Once she settles in her new school you guys will figure out a process that works for her. So what if she’s not able to memorize a map? Learning should be fun and not frustrating.

14 | JoAnn

September 19th, 2008 at 9:32 pm


Hi Andrea
Reading all of the comments provided above makes me glad that our children out of the school system. My first thought was Andrea, you would make a great home school teacher. You have been teaching them since the day they were born and I truly believe that you would be successful in this position. There are numerous resources available now for families considering this route.
But I also agree that we can’t shield our children from the world and some challenges are useful and necessary.
Although this doesn’t really give you any answers just have the confidence that, like other difficulties you have had and will face, this too will work out for all of you.

15 | Scattered Mom

September 20th, 2008 at 6:18 pm


(hugs) I felt so badly for you and Emma as I read this.

I really think you should meet with her teacher and let her know just how this affected Emma and maybe together you can come up with a solution.

As far as the spelling goes, that irritates me. Is the point of the activity to teach geography, or spelling?, Who else can spell Saskatchewan or Fredericton correctly anyhow? (I got As in spelling and just got them both wrong and used spell-check).

16 | andrea

September 22nd, 2008 at 1:23 pm


Follow up – Emma got 9/10 on her first official spelling test and 31/40 on that Canadian geography test. Not bad!

During this process we’ve figured out a few things:

– we need to aside regular time for homework and studying
– Sarah needs to be doing homework at the same time, otherwise Emma feels slighted she’s missing out on some kind of fun
– Emma needs to remember it’s okay to need extra time to do things.
– She can use extra time in the morning to review … as a morning person this seems to work for her.

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The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human offspring: Emma (23) and Sarah (21). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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