How do we handle holiday homework?

Ankita Rajasekharan

As the winters give way to hotter days, the mood in schools moves from annual day and sports day events to completion of syllabus and preparation for exams. Amidst the anxiety of exams and revision, there is always the hype of the quickly approaching summer break. I, for one, would make lists – lists of places to go to, activities to do, books to read, recipes to try and more. And somewhere on the list, would also be a schedule to complete the holiday homework. It would feel like an oxymoron – holiday and homework weren’t supposed to be in the same sentence! The schedule was never stuck to; the work was always left for the last few days. In a frenzy to complete it, to avoid reprimands on the first day of a new school year, I would rush to put together projects and journal entries of the month in a week’s time. Very often, I found myself enjoying the work too!! Afraid to admit it then, but the holiday assignments weren’t boring, they weren’t repetitive or difficult. They were, in fact, rather interesting. I still have some of my projects from back then. But no matter what, it was always addressed and completed in a rush in the last week of holidays.

It has been over 10 years since I have had to submit holiday homework. The experience of it however, doesn’t seem to have changed much. Children, even today, when given a choice say they would prefer not to have holiday homework. Is it because it’s difficult or boring? “No”, they say, “Sometimes, we get research projects and they are fun to do. I just don’t like it when the homework is some worksheet that we have to copy or lot of math problems,” says Maitri, an 8th grader from a CBSE school. She adds, “Last holidays, we were asked to do some research on forests in India. It was really nice and I enjoyed it because I got to know about so many things that were not there in the textbook.”

There is a very simple, straightforward explanation then as to why, even when the assignments are exciting, most children prefer no homework during holidays – “Holidays are meant for rest and to do other things that we can’t do when we have to go to school. It keeps us too busy if we have to do school work,” says Zion, a 7th grader from an ICSE school. However, if they had no choice but to work on some assignments, every child spoken to suggested research-based work as the most preferred medium. It had to be work that added value over and above what the school offered; if it didn’t have that element of extra learning or challenge, in addition to keeping them busy, homework kept them bored and disinterested. There was no winner; neither the learner nor the school.

Who are these people giving the homework and what is their take on this, you wonder. Well, the teachers of today’s schools seem to feel the same way the children do about homework during vacation. “I think children work hard during the school year and the holidays should be a time for learning through other experiences and the school shouldn’t have to force its way into that sphere,” says Suchitra, who teaches at a Montessori school in Hyderabad. Holiday homework, if at all, should be need based, according to some of them. There are children who have had a hard time keeping up with the syllabus during the school year and re-working and practicing during the vacation would ensure the child is not completely out of touch when he/she rejoins and has some sort of a head start in their own learning curve. Some teachers do make that extra effort of assessing children’s progress and making individualized holiday assignments to meet individual learning needs. “The main intent of holiday homework should be for children to get out of their homes and explore their neighbourhood and learn about the people, culture and systems around them,” says Swetha, a teacher from Sittilingi, in Tamil Nadu. She encouraged children to conduct short surveys in their neighbourhood and within their family – find out the languages spoken, collect some interesting recipes or stories, observe plant and animal life around and more. “Holiday assignments become a way of getting to know the children better. They come back and share their findings and observations, and in doing so we all know so much more about each other and our lives. These are always an optional assignment and some children chose to do it and some chose not to,” she adds. Does it become an added burden for the teachers to design homework and correct them once done? Not so much when the objective of the assignment is to come back and share with the rest of the class, one’s findings and stories of exploration; not when the homework is not equal to grades. “Designing the homework assignments is not that difficult. There are so many resources these days and the Internet is full of different kinds of worksheets. We just need to select carefully. Correcting the work later sometimes does become an added responsibility. We try to practice peer feedback so that helps to ease the process,” shares Kavita who works in an international school in Hyderabad. This however is not the experience of teachers everywhere. While most managements don’t enforce rules on holiday homework, teachers across have shared that most often, it is the parents who seek homework for their children during long breaks. The understanding is that the child may lose touch with concepts or that they should have something ‘useful’ to do during the break or they will just ‘waste’ their time.

“Children forget about subjects when they have a lot of time away from school. It is good to have something to do everyday, maybe for an hour. This homework should be something the child can do on their own without parents’ help,” shares Maya, a parent. It is a way to ensure the child stays tuned in to the discipline and routine of school work. Is it just a way to keep the child occupied? Probably, but also parents live in a lot of anxiety in current times; wanting their child to be on top of academic work in addition to other activities. However, in homes where both parents are working, the perspective is slightly different – “I don’t have a problem with children being given holiday homework. But there should be an age limit. Children below 9 years shouldn’t be given take home assignments. It becomes my responsibility to ensure the completion of the work and sometimes if it is work that the child can’t do on their own, it becomes very stressful,” shares Sheetal, a working mother. Parents seem to be encouraging of homework as long as it is engaging and allows the child to work independently. It should be something that aids and supports what is already learnt in school and not a spillover of what couldn’t be completed in school. “Some parents are very enthusiastic and also have the time and tend to interfere with the child’s work. There was one project where one of the parents drew the entire picture and gave it to the child and my child had taken print outs. But she came back feeling bad. And even the teachers made a big deal of the parent’s ‘contribution’. These things become difficult to deal with,” Sheetal adds. In today’s times, the pressure of performance at school is no more directed at the child alone; parents find themselves being watched, judged and assessed via the performance or the lack of performance of their child.

The popular opinion then seems to be that holiday homework, when given or when unavoidable should be one of exploration, interest and research-based. While that is certainly positive and reaffirming, the underlying thought to grapple with then is…why shouldn’t this be the case with all learning within the schooling system? Why should exploration and research be something to engage with during the holidays when there is the ‘time’ for pursuits as these? Shouldn’t time at school, during school hours and during the school year be able to and actually make it their business to accommodate the same? Learning and education, isn’t something that is solely within the purview of schooling. When we begin to treat experiences and opportunities outside of the schooling sphere as having potential to be educational, the concept of holiday homework may become redundant and questionable for a lot of us; something to deconstruct and redefine.

The author has been working in the field of education as a teacher for four years. She is currently freelancing and working with children on socio-emotional skill development while indulging in making art, spending time in nature and reading leisurely. She can be reached at 27.ankita@gmail.com.

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