I’m pretty happy to be done with last year. I always love the invitation of a new year to reflect, reimagine, reboot. The season of resolutions offers a chance to resolve those issues we keep meaning to have settled and to renew our resolve toward the goals yet ahead of us. In that spirit, I was remembering a practice I began last year that worked really well but like so many healthy habits, I’d somehow let it fade. It started out as a way to tackle chores and evolved into a tool for keeping life in balance. As I look at it again I’m seeing that it might also be useful in rethinking homework.
In January of last year I posted this photo of our kitchen dry-erase board with the following message to my friends.
“My littlest kiddo and I did this. I needed a little more order but am not into chore lists. So we ended up with this reference for all of us to use…Aiming for at least one thing in each category a day…for balance. Thought this might be a good time to share the idea if you want to make your own.
“Abrazos to all of you who are feeling out of balance, overwhelmed, fatigued, daunted. We are strong and we can stay strong.“
This “Take Care” chart was the result of a history of failed attempts to get my family going on regular chores, a crushing and largely self-inflicted pressure to be a dynamo mom, the creeping aches and pains and disillusions of middle age, the mounting effects of a steady diet of deeply troubling news, a teacher-impulse to organize ideas and create systems, and a decision to really breathe deeply and get a little perspective. We started out diligently circling off items every day with glorious color-coded satisfaction to mark how we each were staying true to our commitment. It didn’t fix everything, but it did help! Things were humming along with more ease, we were thinking outside of ourselves as well as looking within, the house was better organized, and we were better at pulling ourselves back when we veered off course. Gradually it felt like a strong enough habit, a mindset even, so we began just referencing the chart to mentally acknowledge our daily successes. Over time I guess we figured we didn’t need the tool anymore and anyway, we needed the space for things like grocery lists, team photo magnets, and funny notes to each other.
But January is here again and unsurprisingly, some revitalization efforts are due. It isn’t that we abandoned all those good habits but we certainly have provided ourselves with evidence that sustaining something sometimes takes more energy than starting something. So this morning, finding myself in the mood for some rebalancing, I went digging through my photo files to find this chart image, having long ago wiped it from the dry-erase board. Looking it over with fresh eyes and through the post-vacation-back-to-school lens, it occurred to me that it might have potential as a tool not just for households but for classrooms; a shared tool between homes and schools that reconceptualizes homework.
It isn’t a wonder why this came to me now. This first week after winter break has my three kids chipping away at the procrastination pile-up of ongoing projects and struggling to get back into the groove of dealing with daily undulations and inundations of new assignments. For the most part they love their teachers and their classes but in this moment in our house we are: a) down on homework, b) feeling down about homework, c) not down with homework, and d) all of the above.
For the record, I am generally neither anti-homework nor pro-homework. That doesn’t feel like a particularly useful binary to me. I do believe that homework policies, practices and assignments should be thoughtfully considered with regard to purpose and design and be considerate of the people they affect. From the angles of my experience as a student, then a teacher, and now a parent, I think homework practices that can work for everyone do exist but these are not as common as I would hope. So many approaches to homework seem to grow out of a problematic belief system that defines rigor as “more, faster,” success as “high test scores,” and assumes that daily stress is a norm we need to accept.
This stress, which can all too quickly escalate to anxiety about homework (which can make it all too quickly pile up into a sisyphean task) undermines the very goal of homework–to support the learning that happens in the classroom. It can rob kids of time, rest, motivation, and brain power–which kind of wrecks the odds of having positive learning experiences at school. The weight my own kiddos feel sometimes about homework and school stuff reminds me of the aforementioned crushing pressure that I have felt about my own stuff, and of how things can and do get heavy for everyone.
Anyway, this week we were all feeling a bit LADEN. So I turned to this dry-erase chart to see if it can help us out again and I wondered, what if this chart WAS the homework? What if our schoolwork was to do deep, engaging, demanding, joyful, supported learning all day and our homework in the evenings was simply to take care?
So I remade our family’s Take Care chart into tool that anyone may use:
Here are the design features we had in mind in making our family Take Care chart and that I used to create the more general version I am sharing here:
Worthy. We focused on the ideas of well being, balance, and time well spent. We framed it with categories that represented important facets of our existence and brainstormed examples of actions that were nourishing to our whole being. We made the “why” clear and we made the activity the antithesis of busy work.
Collective. We created something together to use all together. We did not make distinctions between kid chores or adult tasks. We set expectations that were inclusive and we purposefully selected and phrased the examples for each category so that they could apply to any of us.
Possible. We set ourselves up to be successful in our goal to do at least one thing in each category every day. We listed examples that ranged from time consuming to swiftly done, simple to complex, from requiring lots of initiative to easily integrated. We mixed it up, doing tougher things sometimes and easier ones at others, so it could all happen with a reasonable amount of time and energy. We recognized overlaps and allowed one action to count in multiple categories (e.g. trying something new, by inventing a dance, with your cousins could count in 4 areas)!
Co-constructed. We worked together to brainstorm examples in each category that were real and relevant to us, and anyone could add examples along the way. We varied and evolved how we used it based on what made most sense for us and our goals.
Flexible and fluid. We made it structured enough to be consistent but changeable enough to keep it fresh. We offered initial options and added more along the way. We created options within the options, wording examples so they could be openly interpreted according to each person’s need and choice (e.g. “a long talk” could be many things; a heart to heart with a friend, a session with a therapist, a prayer, a discussion with a mentor).
Hefty but not heavy. We worked to pick examples that could be both substantive and appealing. We included a variety of examples in each category on a spectrum of practical to whimsical. We held tight to the idea that hard work does not have to be drudgery–it can be lighthearted and uplifting.
So if you are moved to do so, please use it! Use it for yourself and your kids! Print it! Laminate it! Adapt it (here’s a blank version)! Play with it!
I’ve already adapted the Take Care chart a few times myself. In addition to using it as a daily thing, I once added some fun items and gamified it sort of bingo-style so my three kids could guide themselves through worthwhile activities over those last dragging days of August. If I were to go back into the classroom, I can imagine changing up instructions, setting different requirements or challenges, or making new versions with students and parents (e.g. ones for different seasons, ones with specific connections to units of study, personalized ones for individuals).
Whether you use it as is, tailor it, or just chew on these ideas as food for thought, my hope is that in some way it helps to strengthen our resolve to take better care of ourselves and our students, and consider how we might reshape homework and other practices in schools to better nourish our learning communities and help each other flourish.