Busy Work, Reading Skills, and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid

This week the children of Scoil Bhride celebrated St. Bridged’s Day–a happy day marking the beginning of spring that recognizes one of the first (and most famous) female leaders  of the Christian Celtic Church.  This day is especially important because the school is named for Saint Bridged- a point made proudly by a rambunctious girl named Josephine who was reading Matilda distractedly as we entered the classroom. She explained to us that the cross embroidered on the breast pocket of her uniform was St. Bridged’s, and that they had made crosses (like the one shown above) to mark the beginning of a warmer season.

Fittingly, the sun shone bright outside of the classroom windows. Unlike the monsoon conditions of last week’s trudge to Scoil Bhride, this week we turned our faces upward and smiled as we entered the double doors. The children of room 2 felt this same sort of Spring Awakening. Freed from the burdens of homework in celebration of the holiday, they sat chatting at their tables. The teacher apologized to us for their lack of work. To make up for it, she gave many of the children math and drawing worksheets to complete.

This busy work caused more harm than good.

Kuku pushed his paper away angrily. He was reprimanded and told to finish it by the end of the homework session. Though his math skills are above many of his peers, he was furious to have this assignment. The problems were too easy, they involved coloring (which he claimed to hate,) and all he wanted to do was read a book. On a rare day without homework, he was beyond frustrated to do something he didn’t want to do. He also explained to us that he had done the sheet before. Jaci (my friend and fellow tutor) and I spent the majority of the hour bargaining with Kuku–trying to get him to complete an assignment that we knew was both pointless and one that he had to do. We worked him through problem by problem–joking and reminding him that the faster he finished the faster he could read. For a child so motivated to learn, this worksheet had only a negative impact. It didn’t teach him anything (outside of the expectation that he should be constantly busy and quiet while in school) and it took away from his excitement for reading.

For Patrick, the boy I worked with for most of the homework session, a similar situation played out. Handed a worksheet, (again, one he had already earlier completed) he refused to complete a task he didn’t want to do. Instead, he spent his time reading to me from one of the famous American “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books. It was a book his teacher told him was “too hard” for his reading ability. She told him she didn’t believe he would read for the entire 75 minute session.

He did.

For over an hour Patrick read to me line by line about the misadventures of a boy and his mischievous older brother. We laughed together at cartoon pictures of a swim class full of boys in speedos, drums that tumbled in the back of the punk-rocker brother’s van, and images drawn by the protagonist’s younger brother.

When Patrick stumbled over a word, I asked him if he knew what it meant. Most of the time, he looked at me with wide eyes and shook his head. I worked through impromptu definitions and examples of words like  “hypothermia,” “fad,” and “exaggeration.” He listened and asked questions until he understood. I was amazed at how engaged this supposedly “poor” reader remained throughout our time together.

When Patrick grew tired of the book we were reading, he ventured to the back of the classroom to look for another chapter book. He was quickly turned around and told that he could only take books from the level-labeled books at the front of the room. When he chose a book about a computer giant marked with a red number 8, his teacher again told him that it was above his level. He didn’t take no for an answer, and he read it anyway. He only missed one or two words, and he talked about the brightly colored pictured animatedly.

I may have caught Patrick on an especially good day, but I got the feeling that he is a student who is underestimated. He has the capacity to be a fantastic reader and learner when given one on one attention. Yet, he has been told that things are “too hard” for him on a daily basis. One of these days he’s going to start believing it.

As I worked with Patrick, I practiced the techniques we witnessed in American instructional videos watched in class.

We read together– all the while “hamming it up.” ( I still get a kick out of that ridiculous expression that is so emphasized in the series of “reading to your child” clips.) I thought about the experiences I had reading with my parents, and the connections that are made when you share a story with someone. I wondered what homework club could be like if children were allowed to make choices–or at least given the chance to work in different subject areas.

The way the club is structured right now is undoubtedly beneficial for the children. It allows them to get homework that would most likely not be finished at home done in a short amount of time. However, it is an unpleasant and draining experience for many of them. Perhaps if there were stations for math, science, Irish, and reading (with a different tutor at each) the children would be less frustrated. The help of the tutors would be evenly distributed rather than lavished upon 3 or 4 individual children. The kids could collaborate and work with one another instead of being “shushed” constantly.

What it would take to propose this idea and make it into a reality is another story. At the moment I don’t have the authority (or the guts) to do so.  Maybe next week…




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