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. Without 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!