Setting the Precedent

In a week my firstborn will be done with Kindergarten and ready to start what he calls, “the number grades.” He had a great year in Kindergarten and never once did I wonder if maybe we should have held him back because he still isn’t even six yet.

Nope. Eddie was ready for absolutely everything–even homework.

As a teacher, I am not the biggest fan of assigning homework, but Eddie’s teacher didn’t give the kids more than was appropriate for their age. Eddie brought home five books from their Just Right Library each week which he read to us nightly. In the beginning of the year, they would bring a writing packet home on Mondays and it wasn’t due back until the following Monday. And occasionally he would need to bring in things like seeds or leaves. He also had one large project that they started at school and had to complete at home by the end of spring break (it was assigned two weeks before spring break, thus giving us plenty of time to prepare).

Everything about this school year felt to me like we were setting precedents: what we expected of our children as far as getting homework done, the quality of their in school and out of school work, their behavior, their effort. This school year we discussed kindness to others and when to walk away from an argument. We talked about being respectful to adults and peers. We discussed when you need to get help from an adult.

And we also set a precedent for parent-involvement in homework.

Obviously we prize reading in our house. Most of the time getting the Just Right Library books read was not a big deal and didn’t cause too many struggles. Writing packets started out rough, though, and in the end I told Eddie if he did one page a night he wouldn’t find himself crying on Sunday afternoon. I also told him I was not going to make him do them. That if he really didn’t want to, he could bring it back undone and tell his teacher about why he chose not to do it.

He never left his homework undone. He didn’t want to disappoint his teacher.

By the middle of the school year, Eddie was more and more excited about things they were doing in school. Just before spring break each student chose an animal they would like to make out of clay in class. Then, at home, they needed to create the animal’s habitat using a box (diorama-style). The habitats with animals would be displayed above each student’s locker.

We decided to do ours over spring break since Alice had just been born, and spend the couple weeks before then brainstorming and planning. Cortney did all the morning drop-offs and most pick-ups and reported that habitats were already starting to come in and be displayed–and you could totally tell the level of parental involvement in each one.

I had to tread lightly.

As a perfectionist, I wanted to tell Eddie exactly how to create a rabbit (his chosen animal) habitat, and then maybe take over when he didn’t do it how I wanted. But as a teacher, I knew I needed him to do all of the thinking and as much of the execution as possible. I just had to help him get there.

So first we talked about it. I asked a lot of questions: where do rabbits live? What do they eat? Where do they sleep? When he wasn’t sure about something, we Googled it and read the information together.

He started telling me what he wanted in his habitat: trees, a burrow, berry bushes, and a sky. So we thought about what we could use to make those things and he started a list of what we would need with check boxes. Then we went to the craft store. He brought a pencil and checked things off as we went.

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I was very proud of him that he was taking such ownership of this project and that he seemed to want to get it just right. Not once did I have to prod and say, “come on, you need to do this.” In fact, he sort of pestered me about it. Once we had the supplies every day he asked, “are we going to put it together today, mom???”

Finally spring break arrived and one day during Charlie’s nap, I actually got Alice to sleep at the same time. We hurried to get some of the painting portions done so they could dry before we attached them. All I did was get the paint out for him. He did the rest. The next day, he worked during nap again to get it all together.

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He asked my advice, and I sat by him holding things for him here and cutting things for him there. I never told him how to do any of it other than once saying, “I don’t think you can glue that rock there and have it hold. But if you want to try, you can.”

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Once he had it all done, it was all he could do to be patient until Cortney came home so he could show daddy his finished product. He had trees (because rabbits live in a forest), a log with fluff and feathers (because that is the burrow the rabbit put her nest in), and berries (because rabbits like to eat berries for dessert). It was his idea to gather real leaves and grass. It was his idea to collect TP rolls for tree trunks.

It was also his idea to cover the diaper box in blue paper because he didn’t want his friends to see he used a baby diaper box. Apparently your baby brother and sister’s diapers are embarrassing in Kindergarten. Whatever.

This year we have watched Eddie grow and learn so much.

When he went in he could read a handful of sight words, now he is reading like crazy. He even reads bedtime stories now instead of me doing it.

When he went in he thought toots and buns were funny, but now he thinks farts and butts are funny. And poop. And he says “Oh my gosh!” and “I’m just thinking out loud here…”

He is sassier and bolder with his talking back to us, but he is also a better playmate and role model for Charlie.

And he is like three inches taller or something crazy like that.

I’m excited for him to start First Grade in the fall. I’m  pleased with the high expectations we have set both for him and his siblings.

As fellow oldest children, Cortney and I know what it’s like to have to “go first” with everything in life. To have to be the ones that are the precedent setters for the younger siblings. To be the “Guinea pigs” for strategies to deal with behavior.

We don’t want to go “easy” on Eddie because we empathize, rather we want him to know we are all a team getting through this whole thing called parenting and school and life together.

Why I Don’t Assign Homework

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.

Why I Don't Assign Homework

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.

Why I Don't Give Homework

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**

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