This week’s reflective task:
Write a journal article which describes the type of work you do with the children at the club, concentrating on the variety of tasks they are asked to perform for homework and the role you play in motivating and supporting them. Also, make some comment on the organisation and structure of the club you attend, analysing the roles that the club leaders assume in terms of discipline and encouragement of the children. Finish your journal entry with a description of the major challenges you have faced and relate these challenges to some of the points you have read concerning homework clubs in the articles on Blackboard.
Soaked to the bone in Galway rain, we walk through the brightly papered hallways of geometric kindergarten designs, lockers smelling of the contents of lunch boxes, and computer labs filled with uniformed children typing with their pointer fingers about the nocturnal habits of bats. Our stop is at the end of a long hallway behind a white door with a golden metal 2.
Stepping through that doorway, there is a semicircle of desks and a dozen raised hands waving frantically in greeting and request for “help.” The teacher circles like an adored mother shark, pacing back and forth, bananas and apples in hand. After assigning our group of three volunteers to various children and watching us out of the corner of her eye as we settle into kneeling positions beside miniature wooden chairs, she calls the class to attention. “How many want bananas?” she asks with authority. Arms are raised, bananas handed, and a chorus of “thank you, teacher” rings out. Once the plastic bag where fruit scraps are to be placed is pointed out, she resumes her habitual pacing. She taps at papers with a frown when the ten year olds begin glancing distractedly about the room or rummaging in their backpacks. She urges them to finish their snacks quickly, and to work carefully through maths problems and sentences explaining science experiments. As we help the children we’ve been assigned to, she reminds them not to accept too much help from us–doing “their own work.” Unlike the doting elementary school teachers of the US, she does not offer constant praise. Her eyes are kind, but her words are reprimanding. When the children finish their work early, she looks at them as if she doesn’t believe they’ve really done it all. Then she sends them off to find a book to read quietly.
The Irish school children are incredibly organized. They painstakingly copy problems from their spotless exercise books into charted notebooks. They rewrite sentences and fill in the blanks. They line up their homework in an orderly stack and cross off their assignments one by one. I help a boy named Zuzu with clocks–experimenting with three different ways to show him what a clock looks like “thirty five minutes before five o’clock.” We finally settle on addition- showing that 25 + 35 is 60 and 4:25 is therefore 35 minutes before 5:00. He tells me happily “now I understand!” He thanks me politely. Like my experience last week with a boy called Tommy, he laughs at my lack of knowledge when it comes to the Irish language. He rattles off sentences of foreign letters and phonetics, smiling in disbelief when I still don’t understand. He asks the teacher once for the spelling of a Gaelic word. She complies. The second time he asks, she says “Am I doing your homework, or are you?”
A girl named Monique reads me a story about the pied piper. She points out the details in the illustrations, and wonders about the rats that have taken over a village called Hameline. She is quiet and curious. The boy sitting beside her called Joe works conscientiously to finish a description of an experiment he did earlier that day. He tries to describe the procedure to me, but I don’t quite understand. Finally, after reading through the directions we figure it out. A light bulb goes on. He understands why the experiment helps us to understand distance and the ability to perceive it best with both eyes. After erasing his answers three times, he is satisfied with the neat letters printed across black lines.
I struggle when children like Tommy refuse to go back and correct mistakes in their sentences. I have trouble motivating them when they say they don’t care about school and think that college is out of the question. I wonder if my high minded liberal arts ideas are practical for a group of children faced with far different realities from the opportunities I experienced as a young student.
Working through English and Maths and Science and Reading, my job as a tutor in this homework club is to keep these kids on track–and to support them in a way many of them are not used to. When an older boy takes Zuzu’s banana and swaps it with his own bruised one, I do my job by swiftly switching them back with a quick “That’s not your fruit. Give it back.”
When Joe tells me he can’t think of a way to explain how he worked with his partner in the science experiment, I tell him of course he can. When he does, I tell him he’s done a great job and to keep up the good work. He smiles with bemusement.
When Monique reads about the way the rats poured out of apartments, I ask her what she thinks will happen. She excitedly talks about the Piper’s flute. When the kids turn to talk to their neighbors, I take on the attitude of their teacher and tap their papers, reminding them to do their work. I try to find balance between authority and affection. I ask them about their lives outside of school when they’ve finished with a subject’s exercises.
As Corno mentions in an article regarding the “meaning” behind homework, a club like the one we participate in at Scoil Bhride is an important bridge for social, cultural, and educative issues. As tutors from the foreign and decidedly “exciting” (at least to these third graders) United States, we extend these students’ sense of community. We try to get them to the point of “flow” in their work–a state where homework is completed easily and naturally and brings a sense of enjoyment and satisfaction. For most of these kids, homework is just work. It is a daily grind that the adults around them see as valuable for future skills of time management and discipline (Coutts) but that the children see as taking away from time spent riding bikes and running with friends after a full day of draining classes and strictly enforced exercises. I wonder if part of my job as a tutor might be to make the experience of homework club more like play–to teach the children that fun things can happen inside school walls. I want them to be creative with assignments and to understand that there is almost always more than one “right” answer or way to solve a problem. I want to ask them questions and to help them develop intrinsic motivation in the space currently filled with monologues of “I can’t” and “I definitely won’t be going to college.”
According to Coutts, studies show that children would rather go to school for longer than have to go home and complete hours of homework instead of being allowed to unwind. The atmosphere of this homework club allows this possibility. It reminds me of the structure of KIPP charter schools in the United States. The children in this club lack academic support in their home lives. This is a space for them to find support and encouragement from role model adults and older students. I hope that I can fill the shoes of those expectations, and present these kids with new expectations of their own.