“This is not a time for worksheets. This is an opportunity (for those of us lucky enough to be at home and not in hospitals or driving buses or keeping our grocery store shelves stocked) to spend meaningful time with our children to the extent it is possible in any given family. Parents shouldn’t be thinking about how to keep their kids caught up with the curriculum or about how they can recreate school at home or how many worksheets they should have their children complete. They should bake a cake together. Make soup. Grow something in the garden. Take up family music playing.”
So says a Facebook post by Dr. Joel Westheimer, published on March 24. Dr. Westheimer is University Research Chair in Democracy and Education at the University of Ottawa and education columnist for CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning show. Clearly, he is qualified to talk about kids’ education. Some of what he said in his post rang true, but his screed against worksheets did not sit well with me. It smacks of judgment and a lack of understanding about what parents are going through as they deal with their kids being home from school for an indefinite period.
This is not summer vacation, which we are all mentally prepared for. This is a sudden interruption of the school year, with no end in sight. This is kids being home all day, every day, unable to be dropped off at a friend’s for a playdate or at the local cinema for a movie. There is no sandlot baseball or pickup basketball. There are just four walls enclosing all of us, all day and all night. And some of our kids would be bouncing off of those walls if it weren’t for the blessing of worksheets, either hard copy or online.
Dr. Westheimer assumes parents who use worksheets are “preoccupied” with whether kids will fall behind or ever catch up at school. That assumption is misplaced. Parents using worksheets or making any attempt at home schooling, no matter how informal, are not necessarily obsessed with their children’s achievement. We know our kids are resilient and will catch up. Worksheets aren’t about worries over our kids falling behind; they’re about giving kids structure and providing them with something familiar in these very challenging times. Worksheets and schoolwork are “normal” for a lot of kids. Doing schoolwork gives them a sense of accomplishment and some degree of focus, while also providing a connection back to an environment that is safe and secure (at least for most of them). Many will take comfort in doing rote math exercises or French lessons and in the realization that they still “get it” and will be prepared for the abrupt change of returning to school, whenever that might be.
Online lessons and worksheets also help frazzled parents. A lot of us are stressed, worried, and struggling through sleepless nights, all while having to explain to kids that we have no answers and can’t possibly tell them when any of this will be over. It’s a lot. We want to establish routines so our kids don’t feel that things are completely out of control. Worksheets can be part of that routine. They provide a roadmap kids can follow, independently, while we attempt to work (in some cases), plan meals, run the most necessary errands, cook dinner, and do all the other menial tasks that help us maintain some degree of stability in times that are anything but stable.
We’re all feeling a little prickly right now and schoolwork might help save the sanity of both parents and children. I’m sure Dr. Westheimer’s intentions were good, but having an eminent scholar tell parents they are wrong for using worksheets because of what he thinks they stand for–over-scheduling, discipline, rigidity–is not helpful.
Like everyone else, parents are doing the best they can to get through a difficult period. There is no one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter solution. What’s best for one family may not work for another. Some parents might bake cakes, make soup, and take up family music playing. (Seriously?) But others among us choose to “recreate school,” not to pressure our kids or give us something to post on Instagram, but because it helps us all cope. So, please, hold your judgment and let us decide what’s best for our kids.