Whose science project is it, anyway?
When teachers assign projects, parents are often unsure how much they're expected to help, particularly if the child seems overwhelmed by the assignment.
By Marian Wilde
Imagine that you're 7 years old and you've just been asked by your teacher to make a diorama of a Native American village.
Over the weekend you dig up an empty shoe box in the garage. You ask your parents for ideas on how to make teepees and rocks and trees. You "borrow" your brother's toy forest animals. By Sunday evening, you've assembled, glued and painted a humble and adorable replica of a Native American village.
The next morning you enter your classroom with your handiwork, only to be confronted by a three-foot-by-four-foot rendition of the meeting of the Sioux nation at Little Bighorn, complete with a working waterfall and 50 intricate tiny teepees. Instantly, you know that this is the work of Jennifer. Or rather Jennifer's mother, with Jennifer working as the assistant.
Your heart sinks as you ditch your diorama under your desk. You join an ever growing group of awestruck children gathering round Little Bighorn.
Sadly, similar dramas unfold with unfailing regularity in schools around the country. And, we may wonder, is it worse for the kid who didn't make the fancy diorama or for the kid who did (and must live with the fact that everyone knows she didn't actually make it)?
This is one of the trickier aspects of parenting: How far should a parent go to help their child with a project? At a time when many teachers are desperate to get parents involved in their children's education, there are others contending with the opposite problem: parents who want so much for their children to succeed that they regard the child's homework as their own.
A Teacher's Advice
"We want to see what the children can do themselves." —Linda Eisinger, third grade teacher and Missouri's Teacher of the Year, 2005
Linda Eisinger, a third-grade teacher in Jefferson City, Missouri, and Missouri's Teacher of the Year in 2005, notes, "We do have guidelines for parents now, but you have to be careful how you word it. Basically we say it has to be the child's original work. It can get kind of touchy if you don't think it's the child's original work and they're telling you it is. However, if you have the child in your classroom, you're pretty aware of what they're able to do on their own."
"We're a little bit loose with that when the children are 8 or 9 years old," she adds. "We know that they have to have some guidance and we're happy to have the parent involved. It's just difficult for parents to know when to let the child take over."
In Eisinger's classroom the children are asked to make a milestone chart as one of their projects. "They have to do a timeline of their life," she says, "and of course being only 9 years old they have to have a lot of their parents' input, only because they're not going to remember a lot of the milestones. I have some children that, even though the parents give them the information, are allowed to put it together in a format that you can tell is the child's idea. But then some come in with work that is all computer printed and with clip art, and it's obvious that the child had very little to do with it."
To combat the tendency some parents have to get over-involved in a project, Eisinger has started having her students do their projects in the classroom.
"Projects are my chance to see them spark," she says. "To see them sparkle and be creative, because everything else is 'this is what we need to know in science' and facts, facts, facts. So it's fun to see them cooperate with each other. It's fun to see who becomes a leader."