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**

being the change

I didn’t get into teaching to “save the world.”

I know that is what every idealistic young teacher seems to be doing, but I wasn’t.  I really decided on teaching because I wanted to get paid to read and talk about books. I also wanted to maintain a life that was divided neatly into semesters.

I saw the movie Dangerous Minds as a senior. I wanted nothing to do with being that teacher. That looked hard. Inspiring, but hard.

The education courses I took on “classroom management” and “social & political issues in education” did nothing to prepare me for kids who fall asleep in class because he was up all night working to help support his family or the lack of support state governments actually give to local districts.  In fact, the policy that I had to read about my junior year of college was outdated and obsolete by the time I found myself with my own classroom less than five years later.

That stuff just didn’t matter to me.  I also didn’t care about getting students to write or learn grammar or vocabulary.

I just wanted to read books and plays and poetry and talk about it.  I wanted students to get as excited about Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech as I do.

I figured I would go to college, student teach in my old high school, and get a job in my old high school.

Yeah, that’s not how things worked for me.

The university I graduated from has a policy that all student teachers much do their placement in a district that fits urban/diversity requirements.  No one ever got placed in an “affluent” district.

This scared the crap out of me because I was from an affluent district. I was afraid of students who were not “easy.” Surely this white chick who has suffered a total of ZERO in her life and was from Whitetown, USA would never survive among kids with real issues.

But no matter how many excuses I came up with, I was placed in the school district where I currently teach.  That was thirteen years ago last month.

Now when students and others ask me if I ever tried to get a job closer to home (I have a 35-45 minute commute twice a day) and to a “better” district I say, “nope. Not ever. I already work in the best district! Why would I want to leave?”

I’m telling the truth.

The district for whom I work is amazing. The personal relationships and bonds the teachers form with our students is unparalleled anywhere else.  We are like a huge family.

That is why when I have students who are suffering, it weighs really heavily on me.

Often I find myself crying on my way home from school telling God, “I wanted to talk about books,  not change lives. Not save anyone!”

But this is what he gave me.

I do get to read books and talk about them. Today we read the scene in Macbeth where Lady Macbeth tries to repeatedly wash non-existent blood from her hands. The conversation was great. We will finish the play tomorrow and I have students who don’t want it to end.

But I also get students who tell me (verbally and in writing) about the struggles in their lives.

I spend a lot of time listening. I also share my personal struggles.

I give so much of myself and the only thing I hope for in return is for them to not treat me like dirt…to not throw my kindness back at me and trample on my heart.

To not let me down.

But it happens. More frequently than I care to admit.

I work with teenagers, not saints.  They aren’t doing it out of meanness (most of the time), but out of teenagerness. And troubled teenagerness.

You know, not developed brains and such.

I try not to take it personally, and most of the time I don’t.

But those kids.  Man, if I don’t love ’em.

I find myself praying for them.  And asking others to pray for them.

Man, I didn’t set out to save the world, and I still don’t think that is within my grasp, but something in me has changed.

Instead of just coming to work, reading and discussing, I am there for so much more.

I’m not just the person who assigns readings and papers and vocab.

I’m there to change a little something in each student.

I’m there to be changed a little by each student.

It’s not the world, but to some of those students it might feel like it.

I hope.

Teaching Inspires Teachers


My students say things to me about my job all the time.  ALL THE TIME.When I am quieting down the class and explaining something they don’t want to do (like in-class essay writing):  “Man, Mrs. Sluiter, I would hate to have to grade all our papers. Being a teacher must suck.” When a student says something totally off-topic and ridiculous: “Dude. I could NOT do your job.” When I explain something, ask if there are any questions, and start to tell students to get to it and a hand goes up and asks, ‘Wait. What are we doing?’: “How do you deal with this all day, Mrs. Sluiter? I could NOT do your job.”

There are times though, when I’m talking one-on-one with students after school or between classes or whenever, and there are those who say, “I think I want to go into teaching.” Some even go on to say, “Because of you, Mrs. Sluiter.”

I think back to why I became a teacher and it was also because of the teachers in my life. No one in my family is or was a teacher; so I wasn’t following in anyone’s footsteps.

While I knew I had the gift of teaching very early in my life, it wasn’t until high school that the teachers I had helped me understand that I was made to be a teacher.

I bet if you ask any teacher they will tell you they were inspired and influenced by at least one other teacher. I don’t know any stories about choosing teaching that didn’t somehow include a teacher being a positive presence in their life. There were many, many great teachers in my life.

Mrs. Eaton, my Kindergarten teacher fostered my love of school from the get-go.

Mrs. Larson, my elementary school librarian, encouraged my love of reading.

Mr. Ambrose, my fifth grade teacher, was the first male teacher I ever had and pushed me in my writing.

Ms. Wheeler, my 7th grade math teacher, was hilarious and never judged me for not being the best math student, but believed I could do it anyway.

Mrs. Barnesse, my 7th grade English teacher, taught me that teachers are friends as she and Ms. Wheeler routinely called each other on the PA and razzed each other making us all giggle.

Mr. Gayler, my freshman Geometry teacher, taught me that teaching can be your forever career.

Mrs. Gase, my freshman English teacher and my sophomore Grammar/Vocab teacher taught me that not every teacher is going to like me even if I am smart. (And I am sure that all the kids who make my eye twitch are karma’s way of paying me back for making her eye twitch on the daily).

Mr. Jansen, my sophomore Advanced Algebra, junior Functions, Stats, and Trig, junior physics, and senior pre-calc teacher taught me that teachers can even like students who are just not good at their subjects.

Mrs. Bengelink, my junior American Lit teacher, taught me that I rocked at English class.

Mr. Walker, my high school band director, taught me that I am awesome and that I am a true leader.

Mr. Torgerson, my senior Brit Lit teacher, taught me that reading and then talking about reading can be a job…an awesome one.

Dr. Alan Webb, my prof for Teaching Literature taught me that teaching high schoolers about literature can change attitudes, lives, and the world.

Dr. Ellen Brinkley, the head of the Third Coast Writing Project and my faculty reader for my Master’s Degree Capstone Project, taught me that writing can change attitudes, lives, and the world.

It was all of these teachers who had me as a student along with all the teachers I have worked with and gotten to know in my decade of teaching that encourage me in my profession. I love my students and they amaze me daily, but if it wasn’t for the teachers in my life, I wouldn’t be in this career. When students tell me they want to become a teacher, or when I get word that past students have become teachers, I smile.

To know that I might be included on their lists of teachers who are the reason they are in front of a classroom is the ultimate compliment.

schooled

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The Truth About the Common Core

*The following is completely my opinion based on my experience as a teacher and mother. I do not claim to know what the Common Core means to a teacher or parent in a different situation from my own.

ccss

When I started teaching over a decade ago, I was handed a red binder that held all our district’s English Language Arts Standards (ELA). I was told to make sure I incorporated them all somehow before the end of the year. At the time I was teaching 9th grade and 10th grade English. I didn’t have to do what the other 9th and 10th grade English teachers did to meet the standards, I just had to meet them.

There was no test at the end to see if my students met the standards, just the grades I gave them.

Back then, students in Michigan took the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test. The test changed in my first couple years for 11th graders to be the Michigan Merit Exam (MME). This was the test the state of Michigan gave to make sure students were making progress.  Our school standards were created completely independent of these tests.

Later, Michigan rolled out standards that every district had to adopt.  There were over 90 for ELA alone.

That was just Michigan; each state had a different set of standards and a different definition of what “proficient” meant for courses and standards.

Now we are being introduced to the Common Core State Standards. The concept behind these standards is to unify the nations standards and to make common what all students at each grade level will master.  The idea is that a fifth grader in Michigan will master the same set of standards as a fifth grader in Maine.

Eventually, all students will also take the same test, the Smarter Balanced Assessment, to assess how well they have mastered the Common Core State Standards.

As a teacher and a parent, I totally support this entire program.

Everywhere I look on social media, however, there are parents bemoaning the Common Core and what it will mean for their child’s education.  Many are under the false impression that the Common Core will somehow mean their students won’t learn as much or that the federal government is dictating how and what teachers teach.  From what I have experienced so far, this is untrue.

First of all, they are very accessible. If you “heard” something about them, you can simply look to see if it’s true; The English Language Arts Common Core Standards can be found online for grades K-12. Gone are the days of having to go to your child’s school to ask to see a copy of the standards; now you can view them any time you want. This is awesome for parents because it helps you to be better prepared going into parent/teacher conferences if you have any concerns about how standards are being taught, how one of your child’s assignments fits the standards, etc.

I had heard differing things about the Kindergarten standards, so since Eddie will be in Kindergarten next year, I looked them up. I started with the writing standards for K. From there it was easy to navigate through all the ELA standards and then jump over to the Math standards.

One area I made sure to check was the Language area. I had heard Kindergartners were no longer being taught to write their last name. This sounded ridiculous, but I thought I should check. The standards in Language read:

Neither of these specifically says that Kindergarteners will write their last name, but that is an activity the teacher could use to teach upper and lowercase letters as well as when to capitalize letters.

My point is, not every activity that students need to do is in the standards.  The standards are broad skills that students need to master. They are STANDARDS, not curriculum.  The curriculum itself is still up to the local districts/teachers.

Let me give you an example from my class.

Here is one of the writing standards for 11th and 12th grade:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Under it are five sub-standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3a Engage and orient the reader by setting out a problem, situation, or observation and its significance, establishing one or multiple point(s) of view, and introducing a narrator and/or characters; create a smooth progression of experiences or events.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3b Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3c Use a variety of techniques to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole and build toward a particular tone and outcome (e.g., a sense of mystery, suspense, growth, or resolution).

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3d Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3e Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on what is experienced, observed, or resolved over the course of the narrative.

As many of you know, I started the school year having my 12th grade students write personal narratives. While I used the above standards to guide my instruction of how to write a narrative, no where does the standard tell me what activities I need to do to help my students master the standards.

We read a TON of personal essays. We analysed them for the above stuff. We wrote and wrote and wrote. In fact, we wrote every day. We analyzed our own writing for the above stuff. We revised. We edited. And we did it all on Google Docs.

(If you clicked on each of those links you would see that I also hit the standards from Reading and Language in my three-week unit).

My point is this: this was my lesson regardless of the Common Core Standards. I changed nothing based on the fact that we are now implementing the Common Core.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t done some tweaking to other units, but it’s mostly about how I assess/test rather than how/what I teach.

We have always taught Beowulf, for example. But now, instead of giving a multiple choice test after reading it, my students are working in groups to compare/contrast the values that Anglo-Saxons had of what a hero should be and the values we say heroes have today. They are creating a poster that they will present to the class in an appropriate manner.  Then they will write an in-class essay comparing these ideals in writing and using support from the literature.

Whew. There are more standards I hit in there, but I quit linking.

My point is that even if not every high school senior in the country reads Beowulf, they WILL be taught all the same standards that I am covering in my Beowulf unit–it will just be in a different way.

If you feel like your student’s teachers are sacrificing content for the standards, you can always ask. If Eddie wasn’t learning to write “Sluiter” in Kindergarten, I would bring the standards to the principal and ask why.  If my high school student wasn’t writing a LOT, I would bring this standard to the teacher and ask why. If my middle schooler wasn’t reading any poetry, I would bring this standard with me to the English department head and ask why.

Currently the Common Core has ELA and Math for grades K-12, History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects for grades 6-12.

Be informed. Be proactive. Be involved.

Being Chosen

On the first day of the college class I teach, an 18-year old freshman said, “Hey Katie, can I ask you something? It’s something I have asked every teacher since my freshman year of high school. Why are you a teacher? What made you decide?”

I get asked this question a lot.

How did I choose teaching?

I always answer with the cheesy cliche, “I didn’t choose teaching; it chose me,” because it’s really true in my case. I mean, I remember when I decided that I would follow the calling, but the itch to teach has been with me since my earliest memories.

Even though I don’t remember, I am pretty sure I’ve been a teacher since I became a big sister at the ripe age of 2.5 years old. I do know that I’ve been in love with school since I first started preschool at age four.

My little brother and I played pretend a lot: we played post office, church, house, store, and restaurant, but my favorite was playing school.  I think it’s because I got to be in charge.  Ok, I was in charge no matter what we played, but it was most apparent that I was the boss when we played school.

I vividly remember setting up our easel that had a blue chalkboard on one side and had a plain white side for clipping paper to for painting or drawing on the back. My brother–the victim of my teaching–sat where I told him to and did what I told him to. When he was barely four years old I taught him to read…or else I would punch him. My mom still tells this story with a chuckle. She called it the “Learn it, or Die” method.

Years later, I used the same method with our baby brother when he was four.

Some time in middle school my love of all the things school waned. I still loved school, but I was starting to realize I wasn’t brilliant at everything. There were some subjects (math..ahem) that were tough and I really didn’t enjoy thinking hard about how to do some of the skills (fractions…ahem).

In high school I realized I was completely uninterested in memorizing ions, writing proofs, figuring out velocity, learning the correct form for sinking a free throw, and many other things. School also started really early in the morning.  And there were people there that annoyed me…and they usually ended up in my group when we had to do a project.

Also in high school I had to start thinking about what I wanted to be when I “grew up” (heh. has this even happened yet?).

Junior year people started looking at colleges based on what they wanted to be. Part of me didn’t want to go to a college that everyone else was going to (that was so not me), but the thought of leaving home and being ALONE was terrifying. Plus I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

So I ignored it.

By senior year I was applying to all the local colleges and universities as well as a couple Big Ten universities because everyone else was. I knew I wanted to stay in state, but I had no idea what I wanted to do. I entertained the idea of studying law based on my love of arguing.  Typing that now makes me giggle knowing how NOT lawyerish I am. Back then I had no idea about laws and politics. I clearly had no idea what I was thinking. To be honest, I don’t think I was very seriously thinking at all.

Senior year kept trucking on and I had been accepted to every place I had applied, but I had to pick.

My parents wanted me to make a choice. I had no idea what I was doing. No one else in my family had gone to college before; I didn’t know what I was doing. It was so much pressure! DECIDE YOUR LIFE NOW.

Then one day in 12th grade English while discussing the novel 1984 by George Orwell I blurted out, “THIS. This is what I want to do with my life. This right here. I want to read books and talk about them. And get paid for it. What job is that?”

My teacher looked at me. He blinked and said, “That’s my job.”

Huh.

So I went to my band director (I am assuming that all high school band directors also double as therapists for their students, am I right here? By the way, Walker? I”m pretty sure I left a permanent dent in that leather couch thing in your office while I sat and did my self-centered angsty teen thing. Sorry not sorry), and I told him, “Torg thinks I should be a teacher.”

“You should. You’d be good at that. Go to Western.”

Ok, maybe that isn’t exactly what he said. I”m sure what he actually said was more inspiring since I took his advice, but that is all I remember.

So I went to Western Michigan University and majored in English and minored in Spanish.  How I got that Spanish minor is another story of procrastination and last minute decisions that change my life, but that is also for another time.

Along the way through college and grad school and even now there have been (and are) teachers and students and professors and family members and friends who have shaped who I am as a teacher.

Teaching has also shaped who I am as a parent.

I am going to start telling those stories here. And sometimes I might just talking about writing. Because I don’t just do that here,  I teach it too.

It’s time this giant part of my life came home to the blog.

Back To School 006

(not my current classroom)

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