For elementary-school teacher Sally Frazer, this is the perfect homework assignment: sending her science pupils outside with their parents to watch the lunar eclipse.
"It's the teachable moments that count," says the Grade 4 teacher at Fairview Elementary School in Red Deer, Alta., "[and]the time when you can engage the parents."
For teachers like Ms. Frazer, homemade castles and sheets of math questions are old school. Too many parents had a hand in the projects. And too many kids were left stewing over a blur of numbers.
As busy parents have become more vocal about homework, educators say that a new approach is taking over in schools - one that allows for longer deadlines and assignments tailored to needs of the students. A school in High Prairie, for instance, permits families to "limit or eliminate" homework - and students "are not to be penalized in any fashion for this parental choice."
And, while some parents simply refuse to make their child finish that "famous Canadian" biography at home, teachers say they also get their fair share of moms and dads grumbling because there's not enough homework.
"I tell them that they are free to give them more," says Cathy Reimer, an award-winning Grade 3 teacher at Aldershot Elementary School in Kentville, N.S., when she hears this complaint. "But I am not going to give them more."
In her class, homework is always based on what her students learned in class, and designed for each student. For English homework, for instance, Ms. Reimer, goes through each child's writing, finds the words they are consistently spelling wrong and uses that list to design a unique assignment, such as using the words in a story. Her students' parents have her home number so they can call if a problem arises at the kitchen table.
"Nobody gets the same homework," says Ms. Reimer, who has a class of 23 students, and recalls her own school struggles with her two now-adult children. (The most memorable: In Grade 8, her son was asked to write a paper comparing cats to dogs for March Break. Furious because it had nothing to with what he was learning in class, she wrote it for him - that one time, she adds.)
"When I had children, it certainly taught me about homework, because I understand what it means to have unrealistic expectations. And that there's a lot more going on in a children's life than homework."
In fact, the research suggests that teachers with children are more flexible about homework. After all, they are facing it themselves each night. And educators agree with parents that one of the homework issues is that even within schools, teachers may have widely varied views on how much work is going home - which is why many schools and boards have developed homework guidelines. But they also say parents needs to understand that the curriculum is jammed with subjects that must be covered, and, sometimes, students don't use their time as wisely in school as they could.
Sheri Birch, a Grade 7 teacher at Steele Street Public School in Barrie, Ont., says the homework she sends home is limited to work that didn't get finished in class. "They've made the choice to take the work home with them," she says. In that case, she expects it back the next day. But she never gives homework on Fridays and tells parents to close the books if the work is taking longer than 45 minutes.
"Homework has its place," she says, pointing out that even Grade 1 students bringing a short book home to read and discuss with their parents are learning responsibility. "But I don't think it should be assigned on a daily basis." And not, she says, pages and pages.
Educators understand more today about the different ways students learns, points out Don Lauzon, the principal at Calgary's Good Shepherd School, and that has slowly extended into homework. He applauds the recent decision by a local school to sign a contract with a family restricting homework to what the parents deemed necessary as evidence of this new approach. "For some families there may not be a need for that kind of [traditional]homework," he says, suggesting that reading books and talking about school on the car ride to hockey or ballet also counts as learning.
The way Robyn Ladner sees it, she'd rather her students read a good book, hang out with their families and get to bed at a decent hour than plod through homework each night. The students in her Grade 6 class at Silver Star Elementary School in Vernon, B.C., rarely get homework, unless it's something they didn't finish in class.
"I believe families are busy, most of my students are involved in extracurricular activities and I value that as much as their time in school."
What's more, she points out, the students who actually do the homework are often the ones who need it the least. "I need to know what my kids are doing right in front of me."
Bottom line, says Susan Roy, a veteran teacher at Nelson Mandela Public School in Toronto, parents needs to speak openly with teachers about what is happening in the classroom and what they can do at home to support it.
"My jury is still out on homework," she says, and over two decades of teaching she has come to give less and less of it. But at the mention of those cardboard castles that so many parents end up cursing over late into the night before they are due, she literally groans. "I quit giving projects early on in my career," she says.
But she's no pushover: Her students still go home, once in a while, with a few worksheets of old-fashioned English grammar.