On Homework…And Vacation

“Well, it’s A.P.”

That’s a phrase I have heard so often during my time in education. I never really understood what that phrase meant because I never taught that level of class. Truthfully, I never really wanted to. I was always the Teacher who prided himself on doing well with all levels of students, but I felt AP was a level where I wasn’t really needed. And, if I am honest, it was a level that I believed would restrict my freedom as a Teacher.

For years, I have seen AP students doing a monumental amount of work. And, it is necessary. They are taking a college course that culminates in a difficult exam. Over the years, I have seen these highly motivated students navigate boatloads of annotations, complete hours of historical reading and the accompanying questions, write up labs, and do whatever other high level assignment is thrown their way. They do it because, well, “it’s AP”.

I’ve always been in awe of Teachers who teach these courses. The depth of their knowledge is impressive. But, it is their laser-like focus that always impressed me. There never seemed to be a time when they kicked back. They could after the exam in May, but from September through that last week in April, AP Teachers are focused on delivering every bit of content in order to prepare students for the exam.

With that focus and need to deliver all of the content, AP courses typically have quite a bit of homework. The rationale is that the curriculum is so dense that it is impossible to cover it all without giving homework. My answer to that sentiment is AP is a poorly designed experience if that’s true, but that is a topic for another day.

I start with the AP story for two reasons. First, homework is an issue with every level of class, but it is magnified at the AP level. And, homework seems to be accepted as needed in order to reach success. But, AP is just another level of class where this tradition just sort of lingers without any proof of actually helping a student succeed. It is no different from a standard level class to a remedial level class in that regard. Without a single long term study proving that homework actually leads to student success, AP is the same as any other level when it comes to the homework conversation.

The other reason for the AP story is that I am finally a rookie AP teacher during year 20 of my career. It wasn’t by choice, but it happened. I am currently teaching AP Seminar to a group (89 in all) of brilliant sophomores. Seriously, they are a tremendous group of young women and men. The AP Seminar course is the ideal course for me to facilitate because it is all about student choice. The students choose their research questions. They choose their perspectives. They choose their own research. They can work with topics they have a passion to explore. There are great conversations. The structure of the course allows me to easily work one on one with students. And, there is never homework. Students can work at home, but it is completely their choice.

And, that’s true, even on Spring Break, which just so happens to fall three weeks before their final argument research paper and presentations are due to College Board. And, this Spring Break has been impacted by the 17 million snow storms that have caused school days to be lost. As the snow days piled up, students and parents began reaching out to me, wondering what the work would be like during break. Many students’ families had already paid for vacations so they would not be in class during days that were originally slated as vacation days, but added back because of too many snow days. They wondered what work I would assign because, they figured, it was getting too close to get it all in.

My reply was simple: there is no assigned work over vacation.

Yes, the AP Seminar course gives the flexibility to do this because it is a very independent course, one that isn’t driven by daily content. But, my classroom neighbor is teaching AP Literature and Composition, a course that is the epitome of dense curriculum. She isn’t assigning homework over the break either. Good for her. There are others, especially my English Department colleagues, who are doing the same.

Our students will be better off.

Unfortunately, there are still many who believe students should be given homework over vacations, no matter the level of course. Many students walked out of school before Spring Break with packets to complete, assigned reading and annotations, projects, essays, and any other concoction that could be mixed to take time away from a vacation. Those students will be forced to either comply or face the consequences of returning from a vacation without work complete. Either decision will lead to a negative experience that results in practically zero learning. Again, there is no actual, tangible proof that homework leads to success other than a Teacher “believing” it does.

I realize that fighting against assigning traditional homework during the regular school week is difficult and that it could, when done perfectly–emphasis on perfectly–, help kids a bit. But, there is absolutely zero reason to give homework during a vacation.

First, assigning homework during a vacation is arrogant. It basically tells the student and his/her family that the course work is the most important thing in his/her life. That work is so important that the student must either take time away from a vacation, from his/her family, from pursuing a passion, from leisure time, and from recharging to complete that work. There is absolutely no real-life equivalent of this practice. That does, indeed, include the Teaching profession. No Teacher HAS to take work home over vacations. No Teacher HAS to grade papers, write lesson plans, complete professional development, complete school paperwork, or complete practice teacher scenario worksheets (the equivalent to the busywork of a math packet)over break. Teachers can choose to do those things, but they are not mandated. They certainly won’t receive a big fat zero in their paychecks if they choose not to do so. Why do we expect students to do something that nobody else has to do?

Assigning homework over vacations counteracts the exact purpose of a vacation. There are numerous studies regarding the benefits of short term breaks from work. Sonnetag and Fritz conducted research about the benefits of taking breaks in the work place. While the focus is on more breaks during a work day, there are a number of conclusions that lead to the idea of having a bit longer of a period of time for the brain to relax such as a short vacation. It is a similar concept to periodization in sports, the idea that muscles need down time in order to recover, regenerate, and become stronger.

That sounds like the reason why we have things like winter recess and spring break. Students need the time to re-energize. They need time away to come back reinvigorated and refocused on curriculum. If students are assigned work during their breaks, their brains, their stressors, and the psyche are never relaxed. They may return to class with the busy work complete, but they will return in worse mental shape, having not had the time to rejuvenate.

Inevitably, one will say that these kids need to be challenged. That’s true; kids need to be challenged. But, isn’t that what the 180 days of school are for? Shouldn’t we be skilled enough in our profession to challenge them during the 180 days, rather than intrude on their free time?

And, sure there will be the argument that kids need to practice skills and concepts so they remain fresh in their heads, so they don’t forget. Again, is there a study that proves this to be true? More importantly, give me a rejuvenated kid who may need a quick refresher on the first day back from a vacation over the kid who complied by getting the work done, but is back in the room without any benefit of rest. Over the remaining school year, I’ll bet the rejuvenated kid will work better and learn more. That’s just like how I am a better Teacher after having a week away from the classroom or how any professional is better and more focused after time away from the office.

Homework, especially vacation homework, is a crutch for the Teacher. While the intentions of having kids practice are likely pure, there is something else that often goes unspoken. Vacation homework shows a lack of confidence by the Teacher. The Teacher is insecure that students are mastering concepts. The Teacher is insecure about what parents may say if their child doesn’t have homework and then does poorly on an AP exam. So, the “look” of piling on homework is more about covering the bases rather than sound pedagogy.

This is where we really need to rethink the idea of the purpose of curriculum, especially at the AP level. Are we teaching these AP courses so kids get high scores on tests or are we teaching them to give kids high level exposure during high school? Are we teaching for a number or to challenge? If we are teaching for high level exposure and challenge, then we really want students to be aware of the world around them. We want them to see the connections between what they are learning in the classroom and the real world. We need to allow them time to actually see that real world and explore it. Vacations seem like a good time for kids to do that, rather than have to turn in a math packet, complete 3,000 annotations, or, even worse, complete test prep activities. If we have the mindset of teaching for the exposure and challenge, those test numbers will work out just fine. True learning isn’t about a test, it is about a deep dive into a concept and using it in a very real way. Vacation homework, packets, and test prep are the exact opposite of that.

If we stop with vacation homework, we are giving kids credit for being learners. We are saying that we trust them to explore something meaningful and to also recharge. In other words, we would be treating them how we behave on our vacations. Sometimes we do nothing, other times we pursue things that better us.

And, there is that concept of choice again. If we allow kids to pursue something they are interested in or take a much needed break, they will come back to us more passionate, more willing to dig in, and more willing to take on a challenge. If the education industry is being built on the idea of differentiation, home life, especially during a vacation, must be treated the same. Kids need time to develop and foster passions. We expect much from kids, as we should, during school time, so their time is limited. Their off time should their time to read something of interest to them, do something of interest to them, or to learn something of interest to them. That is how you develop a love of learning; it is definitely not developed by a packet.

Both scientifically and pedagogically, it is absolutely correct to give kids breaks from forced academic work, especially during vacations. Without proof of any benefit to the student, the tradition of vacation homework should be abolished. But, there is one more reason that should outweigh them all.

The idea of family time is one that shouldn’t be ignored. Sure, it’s not a scientific reason. But, if our mission in education is produce well rounded citizens, part of it is allowing them to spend time with family without the pressure of school. One student in my class was concerned about the project because she was going on vacation and would likely have zero internet. She was so concerned that she was arguing to miss a family vacation that involved generations of her family. Worse, she was fighting with her family about it. I talked with her and told her that she should not miss her trip and that it was far more important than any work, even our AP work. We then laid out a plan for before and after her trip. She agreed and is now on her trip with her family.

Is that what school should be about? Are we saying that our assignments are more important than a once in a lifetime trip with generations of a family? As I said to my student, I would give anything to have my grandparents back and have time with them. The work is important, but it isn’t life. We should be developing the balanced mindset; it’s alright to work hard and place an importance on that work.

But, family is always more important.


Even when “it’s AP”.

I can recall so many family memories when it comes to the holidays and vacations. I can’t recall one single memory from a homework packet.