Homework: The eternal struggle of student, parent, and teacher.
I see it all over my Facebook feed and Twitter feed. The lament of parents bemoaning the amount, the complexity, or the sheer ridiculousness of their children’s homework.
Homework seems to be the bane of everyone’s existence, doesn’t it? Teachers hate grading it; students hate doing it; and parents hate begging their kids to do it. So why is it a thing? What good does homework do?
I will admit up front that as a high school teacher I give very VERY little homework. I never had a theory grounded in research other than my own, but what I saw was that students who did the homework were the “good” students and those who didn’t do the homework were the “bad” students. After about two weeks of school I could pick out who would always do the homework and who would never do the homework.
I started asking myself questions starting with “If a vast majority of my students are not doing the homework, what is that homework for?”
And if the homework isn’t necessary to passing the class, why am I assigning it?
And if it is what makes a child FAIL my class, is their grade really reflective of their ability to meet the standards of my class or is it reflecting their irresponsibility/lack of resources?
Which lead me to wonder what a grade in my class was really communicating vs what it should be communicating.
The past couple months I have spent much of my free time devoted to reading about homework practices and wondering if I was off-base with my beliefs. Many teachers give me the side-eye when they find out I give next to zero homework to my high school seniors. It seems that the idea is if you don’t give homework, you must be “too easy” of a teacher, and if you pile on the reading and writing you must be a “hard” teacher and therefore “good”.
In the book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs by Cathy Vatterott, I read about the culture of homework and how these ideas of “more is smarter and better” have become ingrained in our society’s theory of a quality education.
Most parents who bemoan the endless hours of homework their kids have, also question a teacher who gives less (or no) homework. What is that teacher doing? Why is there no homework? The teacher’s credibility as an expert in her field or in his profession get seriously questioned.
The idea that doing homework makes students better or smarter, and not doing homework hurts students is a false dichotomy.
Homework is only as beneficial as the assignment given and the purpose behind it. Homework for the sake of homework is actually doing more harm than good.
When I am deciding whether or not to put something in the gradebook, I ask myself, “Is this task showing that the student has mastered (or not mastered) a standard for this unit?” If the answer is “no”, I don’t grade it.
This has resulted in my gradebook having WAY fewer assignments than most teachers, and it has gotten me emails about what else will be going in the gradebook toward student grades.
Just because there are fewer graded assignments and virtually zero homework, does not mean we are doing nothing in my class, which seems to be the popular conclusion.
Each day when my students walk in there are goals (which align with my standards) on the board next to their bell ringer assignment (what they work on as soon as they enter the room). My classes are busy from bell to bell. Lately, we have been reading Macbeth.
Yes, I could assign the reading for homework, but where does that leave slow readers, students who are still learning the English language, and/or students who do not have the time due to family/personal obligations? What happens when only one student “gets it” when reading on his own?
School is not supposed to be full of traps to try to fail students. School is supposed to be a tool to help students learn and learn TO learn. We read literature like Macbeth together because the stopping and explaining helps students know when to do stop and question on their own. While reading, I teach students to write in the margins of their copy of the play. I teach them to re-read sections and make meaning.
The homework I give falls under the categories of “practice” or “pre-learning.” Practice means I KNOW the students understand the concept and they just need to put forth some practice. I might ask students to choose a passage from something we already read in Macbeth and look at the figurative language of it. When they bring it to class, we would discuss what they brought back, but I might not grade it. I’m looking to see if they “get it” so it can be formally assessed later or if I should re-teach it.
The “pre-learning” homework is like having students read something that I know they can handle. Maybe I will have a chapter due for discussion. I don’t give points for having it done, but I do informally assess whether the reading is going Ok and if they are “getting” the concept we are working on.
When I do assign outside work, I remind my students of their options for getting it done.
Our school offers extended library hours for students, so those who don’t have a good place at home to do it, can do it with teacher guidance at school.
I make myself available after school almost every day to help students or to just give them a place to do homework.
We also have something called Third Period Extension. This is a half-hour block between 2nd period and 4th period for students to do everything from ACT practice to homework time. At least once a week students get their grades checked by their extension teacher.
In the end, I am not going to assign students homework just for them to not do it. I am also not going to punish students with zeros for assignments that are not showing mastery of a standard.
When a parent looks at their child’s grade in my class, I want them to know that the grade shows what level of mastery the student is currently at in English 12. Not that they are good at getting work turned in. Not that they struggle with finding time between basketball practice, taking care of their little sister while mom works 2nd shift. Not that they are still learning English.
I still manage to make my class rigorous and challenging; I just don’t do it by assigning loads of meaningless homework.
**read more about the studies on the effectiveness of assigning homework**