Fighting the Good Fight

Sad truth: Homework makes my kid hate school.

After too many hours watching my tween sweat through her nightly stack of worksheets and textbook chapter summaries, I’m now questioning the validity of most homework assignments – both the ones she’s given and the ones I assign.

When my kids were really little, they had monthly homework packets. The teacher gave a list of stuff to do, and my kids got it done by the end of the month. Later, the routine shifted to a weekly task list, always assigned before the weekend. Two hours of work on Saturday morning meant almost every weeknight was easy breezy; we’d cook dinner together, play ball in the park behind our house, or read together in the hammock. Those were the days.

Nightly assignments for secondary kids, though, are rough. Each afternoon as I navigate the labyrinth of mom-mobiles and slow-roll up to the middle school loading zone, I send a silent prayer to the Homework Gods. Be merciful. My daughter hits the books as soon as we arrive home (I supply snacks and encouragement) and some nights everything is done in 90 minutes. Other nights, it’s a four-hour Odyssey of Awful. (Can you tell my classes just finished our Greek mythology unit?)

While I’m not ready to join Alfie Kohn and throw out all homework (or grades, for that matter), I am seriously rethinking my own homework practices. Some homework is necessary, but, more and more, the homework assignments I’m choosing to assign involve just reading a chapter or article so we can work with that chunk of text the following day.

I’m also ready to embrace a few fresh homework policies (below) because rigor ≠ more homework.

Some New-to-Me Homework Strategies:

1. Reading now tops my list. If we’re going to dig deep into a section of text, the kids have to, you know, actually read the text ahead of time. Some reading can be done in class, but most chunks of pages need to be read at home. Fifteen minutes or so of reading most nights is reasonable. And I’m keeping my quizzers.

2. Skill-builders (grammar work, vocabulary building, etc.) are important, but I’m going to let the kid decide when and where the work is completed. Borrowing from those kindergarten and first-grade packets, I’ll give students a generous time window to take care of nuts-and-bolts homework tasks. I already know this will work because of my flipped lecture experience. Two years ago, I flipped my grammar, lit. terms, and vocabulary bell-ringers into five-minute video lectures for my freshmen. The links to the video clips are emailed to students at the beginning of each semester. Some students knock out several weeks’ worth of lecture notes on a lazy weekend afternoon; others chip away at them on the regular three-times-a-week schedule. I even had one young woman complete all of the lectures for the entire spring semester over a recent three-day weekend. As long as kids have their work to show me when it’s due, I don’t care when they actually put pencil to paper.

3. Make some assignments optional. I have built study question worksheets for every major piece of literature we study. Some kids love the worksheets because they help guide their reading and can be used as excellent test prep materials. Other kids prefer to look over the questions and think about them, but they don’t have the time or desire to write their answers. Still others don’t need or want to use the reading guide questions at all. It’s all fine by me. Different brains need different things to learn. Oh, and here’s another crazy idea. I’ve already hit my district-required number of essays this year, but I’m thinking of adding an additional optional essay. This essay (maybe another dip into the Argument Writing pool?) won’t earn any points in the gradebook, but will give students who want more feedback on their writing a no-risk opportunity to learn. carrotsWithout an extrinsic carrot or stick, I wonder how many of my grade-conscious students would take me up on such an offer. Hmm…this could be an interesting experiment.

4. Allow students to test out of some work. If a kid already knows how to wield a semicolon, she doesn’t need to do that section of grammar homework. I can keep a running list of students who are excused from specific task sets and/or I’ll spend some time this summer building extension activities for kids who pass the pre-test. This approach is similar to the early-finisher activities that our elementary friends use to engage their precocious little ones.

5. Whenever possible, offer a menu of options that allows students to demonstrate mastery of the material. Let’s say I need to know that my students understand how complex characters develop over the course of a text. I might give the option of creating a growth flow chart for two important characters, writing a reflective paragraph, or building a multimedia Prezi/Google Presentation using clips from a film adaptation of the novel. In my own teacher evaluation this year, I was given a choice of three options from my administration. Why not extend the same courtesy to our students?

6. Whenever possible, essay writing will be done in class. Yes, this will eat up some class time, but writing in class allows me to see exactly what students – not the internet, not their writing tutors, and not their parents – can create. Also, students will no longer agonize for hours over their drafts (my freshmen can be a little tightly wound) because writing time will be capped and I’ll be there to help them over the speed bumps of writer’s block.

7. Boil things down. I’m guilty of overpacking my class calendar. To make room for 20Time this spring, I had to pare the curriculum and make some difficult choices. My juniors, for example, won’t read A Streetcar Named Desire this year. It hurt to push Tennessee Williams aside, but I needed to make room for my students’ self-directed in-class projects. We already read (and, mostly, enjoy) two other plays, The Crucible and A Raisin in the Sun, in my American Lit. class, so do they need a third play? Not really. What they need is the real-world skill building and intrinsic excitement for learning that has begun to sprout from their 20Time work.

8. No large projects done outside of class and no group projects assigned, unless everything can be done during class time. My teens are incredibly busy (some would argue over-scheduled) and it’s nearly impossible for groups to align schedules to meet on weekends. If teams want to get together and work on something, great. But it’s not something I will require.

9. Hit the pause button and occasionally give a no-homework night. How about once a month? Breathing room = Mercy

10. Other than independent reading, I won’t assign homework over vacations. Everyone needs time to recharge those batteries.

11. Spread the word. Talk to colleagues and parents about their experiences on the Homework Battlefield. Any reflection on why we do what we do can only result in good things for our kids.

12. Know that you are already part of the solution. Look at you. You could’ve done a million other things with the past 10 minutes, yet you chose to read a blog post about homework policies and made it all the way to the end. In addition to being one of the most attractive members of the blogosphere, you are also, obviously, one of the most caring. Good teachers think deeply about how to best serve their students – and that’s what we’re doing here.

I realize not all of these ideas will work in every classroom. I realize that these shifts are slight and won’t dramatically change my students’ lives because they still have a bunch of other courses to manage. And I realize many teens will procrastinate and create their own stress. Still, I’m a fan of reflective practice and don’t want to be part of the reason kids grow to hate school – and maybe even learning altogether.

Teach on, everyone!

16 thoughts on “Fighting the Good Fight

  1. Laura ~ I regularly read your blog and want to say “thank you” for your inspiring attitude; I appreciate how you are always looking for new ways to be successful in the classroom and make an impact upon students’ educational lives. As for this latest one about homework, I agree that it should not overburden them but exist to enable them to better understand the particular concept. Again, thank you for your insight and inspiring courage to never stop trying to be a better teacher! ~Amy

  2. Thanks, Amy, for this note of encouragement. It means a lot to me. 🙂 Ever onward, ever upward!

  3. Laura – I so enjoyed your post on homework! I am not a big fan of homework neither as a parent nor as a teacher. I watch my 7th grader do that same 90 min – 4 hours you spoke of and my SpEd 4th grader has 30-60 min every night – it’s too much!

    For my students my practice in my first two years of teaching has been that homework is either stuff they didn’t finish in class (usually do to poor time management) or larger projects that for one reason or another are not practical to be completely in-class assignments.

    Thank you so much for being my mentor from afar!

  4. There is something oddly comforting in knowing that Team Randazzo isn’t alone in this, Nancy. Maybe we can’t change the world, but we can definitely change our worlds, right? I’m also holding onto the hope that my daughter ends up in my own classroom when she hits ninth grade. (Though I’m sure that will bring with it an entirely different kind of stress.)

  5. Laura,
    I stumbled across your blog recently and this post was too timely and wonderful not to comment on. I myself have lived the 90 minutes-4 hours as a student and have worked hard to keep homework time to a minimum and to make it valuable. I am particularly intrigued by the flipped skill building idea and am thinking about how that would look for high school Earth Science. Are your flipped videos available online and if so, do you have any that you are particularly fond of?

    I appreciate how you are getting to the roots of your curriculum and what is critical for your students. Allowing students to test out of assignments is something that I am trying to tackle as well in a very diverse classroom. I have come to look forward to your posts, thank you for your positive, student-focused ideas!

  6. Hey Alyssa, thanks so much. A science teacher reading an English blog? Gotta love that! I don’t have all of my video clips publicly posted, but I’m happy to share a sample that might give you an idea of how this works in my world:

    Also, I know there’s already a ton of video content available in the world from textbook publishers and cooler stuff posted on YouTube, Educreations, and other sites. No need to reinvent the wheel if you can just grab a url and link to pre-existing content that you like.

    By flipping some of the more routine skill-builder lectures, I’ve been able to free up a lot of class time for deeper discussion and group activities. Also, an unexpected benefit is that I’m not as tired at the end of the day (I’m in my 40’s now, you know) because I haven’t been performing the same lecture five times each day. There’s just a lot more gas in the tank at the end of the day, and the kids like that they can slow my pace and rewind me as they like.

    Find a way to make this work for your kids, Alyssa. It’s one of the best things I’ve done.

  7. This is such a great blog post! I have been stressing far too much over the homework the past few years and just recently did *some* of the same things you are talking about here. I have not tried it with Grammar yet, but this might be a great way to find a balance between “drill and kill” and lack of grammatical explanation.


  8. Jenn Willes says:

    I have been thinking along these same lines about homework. Thanks for the insights.

  9. Hi Laura, saw a pin on pinterest and just dropped by. I think many teachers have a similar dilemma with homework, no matter what year level they teach. I was reading point 4 of your new homework practices and I thought you might like to think about using a site like the one I have just started using with my students. I’m a teacher in Australia and we have an online program called Study Ladder which has online activities (interactives, games, videos, printable worksheets) for all of our key learning areas. Maybe IXL or KHAN Academy would be useful for setting ‘tests’ and extension activities for your students individually. You could set up pre-tests at the beginning of the semester and then use the results to set skill builders individually based on the areas students need to work on.

    By the way, I’m now following your blog. I like your other ideas for making homework more meaningful, too.

    =) Mel

  10. Thanks so much, Mel! I’m already in love with Khan, but haven’t yet played around with IXL. Another summer project, perhaps? 🙂 I really like the idea of automating some of this and letting kids test out/hop over instruction they’ve already mastered, so I’m in!

  11. Grace Allen says:

    I’m a third-year, first-year English teacher, which means I’ve changed grades or schools every single year I have taught. It’s been an uphill battle, but I will finally be teaching the same grade next year, so I am celebrating the opportunity to tweak instead of invent!

    My confession is that I am spending all of my free time from now until the end of Spring Break reading of your blog posts to prepare for the last nine weeks and get ideas for next year!

    One of my nightmares is over-teaching something that the kids are already know, and as a result, letting some things slip through the gaps. Is there any way you could share more of the logistics of your fourth tip? How do you keep track of everything? What are the requirements to test out of a skill? Any more details would be great!

    Thanks for your positivity and generosity in sharing all of your ideas!

  12. For sure, Grace, life will be much better next year when you’re able to finally repeat lessons you’ve already built. Hang in there! I’ve had success with tailored essay corrections and grammar exercises. Once I know what skill particular students struggle with, I give them focused grammar worksheets from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (The OWL) for those kids to complete during SSR time instead of having the whole class complete the exercise. Also, a bunch of colleagues are raving about, something I’m hoping to be able to play with this summer. There’s a free mini-version, but then school admin. has to buy a subscription. Don’t know what that costs, but definitely worthy of investigation. Hope this helps! 🙂

  13. kristi Heckman says:

    When I asked my students last year what they disliked most about the school, homework was the #1 answer. I made it a policy that only work not finished in class and reading were done as homework. With that, they might have had 1 day of homework a week. Unfortunately, I still had students say they had lives and didn’t do the work or they were busy doing makeup work in their other classes. These are the first back-to-school classes, 9th and 10th, who never learned how a multi-class school works. They missed middle school and everything else that went with it. No time management, assignments don’t have to be done on time or if they are put off, they don’t have to be done at all. This was a survival technique a lot of teachers had to take in the virtual world.

    I am now thinking that they need the ritual of some form of homework to learn how to manage their time and to get the assignments turned in on time. I don’t mean hours, maybe 30 minutes 4 days a week. Once I see they are all, or most, have mastered the skills, then I will go to homework as needed (Work not finished or reading). To keep the stress down, I plan on offering choices, such as for reading they can listen or read, then use your 3-part quiz to check if they have done it. Thank you for the great suggestions.

    A little context into my teaching background. I have been subbing since 2015, mostly long-term, in math, science, history, and ELA. I finished my credentialing at the start of the pandemic shutdown and just started teaching the second semester of the 2021-2022 year in my discipline, English. I am also in my 4th career and starting when most teachers are looking at retiring in the next few years. I have depended on TPT and quite a few of your specific resources to do the teaching I have and can’t wait until I begin a school year, in my own classroom with students who I will have all year.

  14. I hear you, Kristi. I wrote this post 5+ years ago, but so much of it still holds true. Post-COVID, students do need to rebuild that routine/discipline muscle, only I’d scale back from 30 minutes. Maybe shoot for 5-to-10 minutes? Even at 30 minutes, if they have six classes and every teacher did this the students would be facing 180 min./3 hrs. a night. I realize this is an extreme example and wouldn’t hit them every night, but it still feels out of line with the goal of helping students love learning. More and more, the nature of work seems to be changing, with flexibility heralded by a growing segment of workers. I value discipline and diligence, two things our students need to build successful adult lives. Wondering how best to help them achieve those traits given the limitations of our current system…

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