On Homework…And Rigor

One of the first battles a Teacher must face is the battle against “The Standard”. That standard is one that has stood, seemingly forever. It is one that is often perpetuated by those in our ranks. Many believe that the methods employed 100 years ago are still the standard that must be set today. Many Teachers still believe in the mythical standard of more being better.

There are so many buzzwords in education. One of the recent ones that has stuck is the word, rigor. Everything has to have rigor. Everything should be rigorous. Teachers should be rigorous. Students should take the most rigorous classes available because that will prepare them for the future.

All of that is absolutely true. There’s just one problem.

The majority of the education field misinterprets that word. The word, rigor is often used a synonym for the word, more in education. Kids should take more classes. They should take more tests. And, they should be doing more homework. Because of the misapplication, students are hurt, as they are not receiving a quality education that is driven by a search for knowledge and exploration in something they are passionate in pursuing.

That misapplication, however, is directly related to the battle against “The Standard” that exists in the Teaching ranks. One of the biggest psychological hurdles in a Teaching career is becoming comfortable with yourself and no longer measuring yourself up to others. It is the Teacher’s Lounge/Department Office bravado culture that drives this need to measure up. We give the super hard work just like everyone else. We give homework and have hard deadlines just like everyone else. We have these standards that are insanely difficult for “These Kids” to meet, just like everyone else. And, if a kid doesn’t fall in line, we are just as tough on them like everyone else.That standard is difficult to break, even for those with the best of intentions.

After five years of teaching at the Middle School level, I decided to interview for a high school position in another District, the only District I would’ve considered leaving for. I wound up getting the job and, 15 years later, it turned out to be the best professional decision I’ve made in my 20 year teaching career.

But, that first year was difficult. While it was year six of my teaching career, I was immediately told by two of the veteran teachers during our orientation that the high school standard was more than I have ever done and that I will have to really “up my game”. The two presenters went out of their way to tell us how homework was expected nightly and how parents expected nightly practice worksheets, reading, and essay assignments. They bragged about how many novels their students read. They bragged about getting through a grammar textbook and two vocabulary workbooks. Kids were busy from the second they walked into class until the bell rang. There was no talking. It was strictly business. They were proud of their order. 

There was one line that I still remember to this day:

“If you want to be taken seriously as a teacher, then you will give them a lot of work.”

There is that standard thing. The word rigorous wasn’t quite en vogue just yet, but if it were, it would’ve been used.

With that, I spent the next decade fighting another battle. It was the battle to do what I believed was in the best interest of kids and hiding it from the Standard. In retrospect, it’s almost embarrassing. Why would I care if someone else thought I wasn’t tough enough on kids?

My job isn’t to be tough. It isn’t about having kids fall in line or do what I say because I say it. That’s a misguided standard that has probably been outdated since its inception. We are a Country built on original thinking, free thinking, and, most importantly, inspired thinking. Our education system should be preparing students for that world.

We can and there are so many who are doing so. Luckily, those voices in the education industry are getting louder. Those voices are advocating for kids and for the profession. All of that starts with the idea of what it means to be rigorous.

Rigor doesn’t mean more, or even more difficult. It means challenging. All people need to be challenged. Our thinking needs to be challenged. It is our jobs as Teachers to challenge our students. Challenging doesn’t mean silent classrooms. Challenging doesn’t mean piling on worksheet after worksheet. And, challenging certainly doesn’t mean giving homework nightly. 

Challenging means inspiring students to think, not comply. Challenging them means inspiring them to find something they are passionate about and two want to seek more. Challenging them means to help them create a balance.

Homework, sadly, is used with the misguided definition of the word, rigor: a lot of it is given, almost none of it is inspiring. 

In the name of responsibility, preparation, and rigor, homework is still given out in uncreative and damaging ways.  Some will argue that this view is one of decades ago and that the industry has evolved. Sadly, it has not. High School students are spending, on average, about three hours per night on homework. For many, that’s after a day of work taking those rigorous (in a good way) classes, participating in an activity or sport, getting home, and, maybe grabbing some dinner. Then, it’s time for the average night of three hours of homework. That leaves little time for any other interests or sleep. And, that is not rigor. That is simply adding more to the day. Many Teachers have changed, but not enough. It is still a problem today.

That first day of High School Teacher Orientation did have an impact on me for a while. At first, it forced me to conform. Then, when I realized that I just didn’t have that in me, I played the hiding game–give off the illusion of MORE rigor, but doing what I felt was best for students. It is difficult for Teachers to break away from the perceived expectations of the field. Nobody wants to be labeled as “The Easy One”.

Here’s the thing–I am an extremist. I don’t believe in homework and truly think that education would be better off without it. But, extreme views are dangerous on both sides. There are many Teachers who do homework the right way. That right way sparks curiosity, engages them in class and their learning, and it is truly a learning experience. Those are the characteristics of rigorous.

Even with my extreme homework views, I will make the argument that I am even more rigorous than those who assign nightly homework, endless note taking exercises, endless dittos, and, most definitely, busy work. You can be rigorous without giving homework.

It is accurate to say that a Teacher is rigorous by not giving homework.

Giving Students Ownership

There is a common belief that students need to be told what to do at all times and that they must be checked every step of the way. But, being told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, isn’t rigor; that’s simply compliance. And, it doesn’t give students the ownership that would allow them to dive into a task and complete it with every ounce of creativity, thoughtfulness, and thoroughness. The way in which a teacher assigns work will not only inspire those qualities, but it will also inspire students to continue to work outside of the classroom. When you have that, you’ve set a truly rigorous environment.

Just today, I had two moments that proved this. I received a text from one of my colleagues who teaches 8th grade English. She is an excellent Teacher, but we do differ about structure and, to a degree, homework. She was originally going to teach the argumentative essay by assigning kids a topic or giving them a choice of two or three. Her reasons were sound and she definitely cares about kids, but we talked about the idea of giving kids ownership of the topic during our recent writing PD session.

She dove in with full force. She texted a picture of 20 topics that her class generated on their own to research and to write about. Instead of filling out a graphic organizer for homework, they went home and came back with topics that they were passionate about for the next day. It wasn’t work that was assigned, but they were motivated to do it. They were motivated because they were given the opportunity to complete a difficult (rigorous, but I am over using that word) task without being told what to do. They chose to go home and extend their learning.

As if it couldn’t get any better, I walked out of my office and saw another colleague teaching her 11th grade regents level class. While she was out on maternity leave, they were good, but they are definitely not an easy class. She is also working on argument essay writing and decided that instead of giving them nightly tasks, she is going to have them work on the piece throughout quarter. She had them breakdown the rubric in their own words so they would know how to evaluate themselves before conferencing with her. And, they would be working on it, evaluating their work, conferencing with her, and continuing to rewrite/revise until they are comfortable with their grade. As I walked into the doorway, I heard a student ask her if she was serious.

“Miss, you mean you aren’t going to grade us right away?”

“No, you are going to grade yourself and then rewrite it again. Once you get it to where you want it, we’ll grade it. If you want me to grade it and put it in the book the first time, fine, but you’ll rewrite it anyway.”

Even during that discussion, students were working on their writing. They have a Teacher who is having them take ownership of their learning and their grade. It isn’t something being assigned to them. And, they will choose when to work at home. She isn’t assigning minor tasks.

Both Teachers are teaching the writing process and having their students be active participants. The Standard would’ve been to assign a topic, assign it as homework, and turn in for a grade. Instead, students are choosing their task and learning how to actually employ the writing process.

What’s more rigorous–being given a list of instructions to follow or being asked to think through a process, complete a process, and continue to refine that process?

Practice Is Supervised

One of the most common reasons for homework being given is that it helps students practice what they’ve learned. Here’s the thing about the practice deal. In any other walk of life, whether it is athletics, a trade, or even the Teaching profession, practice is never unsupervised. Practice is always done with the supervision of a Coach, a Mentor, or a Cooperating Teacher. Why? Well, we know that practicing the wrong thing is actually quite detrimental. A pitcher who goes home and throws from the wrong arm slot because he doesn’t have a coach to remind him to get his elbow through before landing can develop such a poor habit and most likely a serious injury. A tradesman who learns a skill incorrectly risks not only hurting himself, but performing the task poorly enough where it can hurt someone else using the finished product. And, if a student teacher isn’t corrected…ok, you get the idea.

Yet, that is what we do with homework. Many kids are sent home to practice a skill that they haven’t mastered. They need help; they need a Teacher, not a parent who is now forced to play a different role or a sibling, or a friend who can give them the answer.

The rigorous classroom is structured in a way where students practice with the Teacher’s help. They are then given options to demonstrate mastery and they aren’t graded until they have had ample opportunity to learn the skill.

What’s more rigorous–a classroom designed to teach and allow students to have supervised practice or one that has a teacher fail to finish a lesson and say, “finish this at home”? 

If You Give Homework, Rigor Is Not Grading

As I said I am an extremist. There are Teachers who do homework appropriately, They give students options. They give time to process and think. They are give assignments that allow for opportunities to deepen student knowledge and to personalize curriculum. But, the best sign of a rigorous room is that homework isn’t graded.

If homework is truly about deepening understanding, allowing for students to experience the curriculum, and is something valuable to the learning experience, why should students be graded? Why is perfection expected in the process of learning? Most educators will agree that homework is not a valid assessment as there are many factors out of the Teacher’s control—parental involvement, student access to technology, student home responsibilities, poverty, etc. If that’s the case, why the grade? It then becomes punitive. Once that happens, it is no longer about learning; it is simply about keeping a kid busy and in check,

Rigor involves being thorough and going beyond the expectation. Grading homework does the opposite. It discourages deeper thought and students being willing to be creative.

Of course, the classic argument will come up stating that students won’t complete the homework if it isn’t graded. Well, there are a couple of simple responses. First, if students are inspired and have ownership of their learning, they will complete. And, two, the students who don’t complete it weren’t likely to complete it if it were graded. There’s a deeper problem there.

Rigor Doesn’t Mean Exhaustion

I am the Teacher who doesn’t give homework. I believe in maximizing class time for me to teach and for students to work. Class is structured so that students can conference with me almost every day and there is always email communication. It is set up in a way where students can get the work done in class.

Yet, I get emails most nights with questions from students. They are working at home, even if I am not requiring it. It goes back to earlier—they are invested. They are working because it is their choice.

But, some of that is out of a sense of obligation. They are good students and they want to do well. When the long term due dates for projects come up, the emails usually come later in the night. One night, two nights before a draft of their project was due, the emails started coming in fast. Once the clock hit 10:30 PM, there were 20+ emails. They were still working. This was the night after I received an email from a student who was working after 3:00 AM. So, I decided to actually say what I felt and post an announcement on our Google Classroom page.

They needed to be told that being serious students didn’t mean losing a balance between life, work, and rest. It’s my job as a Teacher to instill a work ethic, which they have. It’s my job to get them to invest in something, which they have. And, it’s my job to teach them that there is a balance, which they needed to hear. (Two Side Notes: 1. They finished the work the next day in class. 2. Obviously, I don’t grade homework that I don’t give in the first place. I put the line in about not losing points or anything because it is their AP projects that are graded by College Board. I knew they would ask). 

Rigor does not mean working tirelessly. It means working with a focus and an intent. And, it means knowing how to maximize that focus and intent.

Final Thought

The Standard is one that we, as field, must fight against. It is archaic and impedes our ability to teach kids how to be the creative problem solvers that the world needs them to be. The Standard of homework is in need of serious reform. With zero evidence that homework indisputably benefits kids, we cannot let the status quo interfere with our jobs. Homework isn’t a sign of rigor; we can do our jobs in an efficient way that not only benefits kids, but provides a challenging environment that will spark curiosity and the desire to achieve.