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Just after 3:40, Caitlin and Ellie tumble off the bus and pour in the back door. The talk is all of growling tummies and a new tire swing stunt called "jelly bean."
Finally, I bring up homework. "What have you got tonight?" I ask with dread. Two pages of math each. One has a paragraph to write and reading time to log. One has a set of worksheets to finish by Friday. I anticipate a lot of oversight to get through all of this, and I'm not far off.
After their snack, the big girls file upstairs to their room to start their work. I start folding laundry while Talie works on a gluing project. Within minutes, I'm up in the girls' room, answering math questions. Back down. "Mom! I need you!" Back up.
Pretty soon everyone's frustrated. Caitlin needs almost constant help with the math directions. Ellie needs more quiet to concentrate. Both of them are irritable about more work after working all day at school. Talie wants me back downstairs. I want to clone myself so I can be in three places at once.
The next night, I think Caitlin and Ellie are diligently working up in their room, but when I check on them just before dinner, they are doing a "set-up" with their dolls. Pencils and papers are untouched, which touches a nerve with me.
After similar scenarios play out over the next few days, it's clear we need a new approach to homework. Jumping right into it after school is too abrupt. Even 15 or 20 minutes to blow off steam and reconnect with each other after coming home seems vital.
So on the days we're not heading out to ballet or lacrosse after school, it's a snack then out the door for at least 20 minutes. We're lucky to have a roomy backyard, so the girls can swing, ride bikes, build fairy houses, or "skate" on the ice in the field.
A lot of times I join in for a game of tag or hide-and-seek. This puts everyone — including me and Talie — in a better frame of mind to settle down for school work at about 4:30.
Then, there are some logistics to deal with. Ellie needs plenty of quiet, so she works upstairs at a desk in the girls' room. If she gets distracted and slacks off, the next day she has to work in the kitchen or the living room. So far, this has been incentive enough to keep her on task. Caitlin works at the kitchen table, where I can help her with directions and spelling, as well as keep an eye on Talie and start dinner.
Several months into the school year, these tactics are holding up. Which means any day now the girls will come home with some giant project — a term paper on the common sea gull or a diorama of Icleand to make — and send us right back to square one.