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Parents: How to Help with Homework

Education Expert Advice from Barbara Callaghan

Q: My child, who is in 6th grade, brought home an "invention" assignment that requires parents' help. I never had this kind of experience when I went to school because I was born and educated in a foreign country.

How should I help her? I just don't know where to begin.

A: This is the time of year that schools frequently have invention fairs. The purpose of these projects is for students to exercise their creativity and become better problem solvers.

Begin by asking the teacher for guidelines for the project and how involved you should be. The degree of teacher help and in-class discussion of the projects varies from teacher to teacher.

Coming up with an original idea for a useful invention is often the toughest part. You can help your daughter get started by asking her to sit down with paper and pencil and brainstorm all the chores she does each day, and any problems or annoyances she experiences with them. 'Brainstorming' involves letting your ideas flow freely without putting any restrictions on them. It's a great way to get the 'creative juices' flowing.

After she has a list of problems, ask her to go back over the list and brainstorm solutions for each. It's best for you to step back and let her do this part all on her own. After she has done this second round of brainstorming, step back in and discuss which ideas are feasible for her, considering cost, time required, skill, etc. She should circle her favorite ideas, and cross off the ones she doesn't like.

It's all straightforward from here. The teacher will give specific requirements for documentation, prototype, and display of the invention. It is important for your daughter to understand from the beginning how the project is going to be graded so that she can budget her time. This is usually a long term project and cannot be done the night before it is due.

Some examples of invention projects that I have seen over the years are:
- a piece of clothing that prevents snow from getting up the jacket sleeve;
- an edible spoon to get dog food out of the can (so the spoon doesn't have to be washed but can be eaten by the dog);
- and a gadget for the mailbox that alerts you to new mail.

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After teaching in California for nearly ten years, Barbara Callaghan moved to New Hampshire in 1985 and became a principal. After 10 years as a principal, she returned to teaching, her first love and true vocation.

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