Homework for the beach

February 11, 2008   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — As I plan our spring vacation, I’m dreading how much homework my 8-year-old son will have.

During our winter holiday in Hawaii, too many beach days were cut short by our laboring to get through the inventory of five pages of math, four pages of writing practice, three pages of reading comprehension drills, two geography quiz sheets, two independent reports, an English alphabet sheet, a book log, a diary and a Japanese card game.

Japanese elementary schools don’t believe children should hang loose during extended vacations. “Unless you are vigilant, you could end up spending time passively,” warned my son’s school’s newsletter.

Teachers assign large amounts of homework to make sure students don’t lose their academic momentum. Entrance exams for the next level of schooling loom ahead, after all. Studying during the holidays prevents delinquency, too, by keeping children busy and off the streets.

The holidays are also viewed as a time to tackle that project you couldn’t get to during the school year. “Do you want to organize your drill sheets and test papers,” suggested the newsletter.

For non-self-starting children, such questions might as well be directed to the parents who are expected to save the day.

“Please make sure the work includes some ideas or thoughts from your child,” my son’s science teacher told parents last summer when explaining an assignment to invent a useful appliance. No engineer myself, I turned to my cousin, an architect. He already knew the drill, having once built a miniature Swiss pasture on a music box for a pre-school homework project.

About 25 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 14 have their mothers nearby when they do homework, according to a 2006 Japanese government survey. Every August, museums, parks and major stores offer homework fairs to help children with their summer homework projects.

Such heavy-handed instruction from all corners doesn’t give children much opportunity to think independently or play with ideas, and it may be one of the reasons Japanese students lack initiative and motivation.

Among 57 countries surveyed in 2006 by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, Japanese students demonstrated an understanding of scientific facts and theories but showed the least amount of confidence in their abilities to apply that information.

If left alone to tackle his homework, I was sure my son Yataro would not make a dent in the load. So apart from a furlough for Christmas day, I doled out daily quotas for him and enlisted all the help I could find.

Yataro spent one afternoon in a research center where the president supervised the writing of 20 sentences of Chinese characters. I scouted out the location of an exotic Sausage Tree that bears giant sausage-shaped fruits for an independent report. My scientist ex-boyfriend took us to a museum where we painstakingly copied an illustration of a rabbit that also looks like a bird for a paper on optical illusions. And late at night, the melodious voice of my old college classmate reverberated down the hotel corridor as she chanted some of the 100 poems that Yataro needed to memorize to master the 13th century card game.

One day, a fed-up Yataro fled our Waikiki hotel room to seek refuge with a friend from school who was staying at the hotel next door. No matter. The friend’s mother, my comrade-in-arms, sat the boys down to write their diaries. “I am dashing over to my friend’s heaven,” wrote Yataro in a breathless description of his adventure. “I rode in the corner of the elevator so it would be hard to see me because in America you are not allowed to go outside alone.”

During all of this I couldn’t help notice what other kids in Hawaii had for homework over the holidays. It was far less; one book to read or a few drill sheets. Yataro’s friend Darian, also a third grader, had one coloring sheet to fill and a reading log. Watching the two boys building Lego and racing cars, I had no inclination to believe that Yataro was accumulating any skills that would have him outpace Darian in the future. And which boy was enjoying the holidays more?

We left Hawaii yearning for more time at the beach, but our homework on target. I’d survived another holiday. But spring break is just around the corner.