I love my field; I love the educators I work with. I love all the great things I see happening in schools today. I have more hope for where the field of education is heading now, more than any point in my career.
That being said, I still hate homework.
It is a time tested tradition that many parents feel is necessary, that teachers are afraid to let go, and is a big reason kids lose the love of learning as they progress through a sometimes archaic education system.
My feelings for homework are no secret. I have become known as the “anti-homework” guy in my District. Some applaud my effort to change homework, some see it as a means to dumbing down what we do. And, others just think it is my goal to do away with any form of home learning.
I have tried to stay open to other points of view; I have learned from educators I respect who see it differently. Yet, it still does not change the fact that I hate homework! At least, I hate it in its current form.
Is it my goal to completely rid our schools of homework? Not really, but I wholeheartedly believe that if we did away with all homework tomorrow our school system would instantly be better for it. Maybe not better than if we were to look at it differently, assign it differently, provide feedback differently, and assess it differently, but certainly better off than we are now. There are so many compliance based, mindless assignments that inflate the grades of students who know how to play the school game and deflate the grades of those who don’t. These types of assignments often put students living in poverty with one more obstacle to overcome in their effort to climb the monetary ladder and live the American dream.
I started to tire of hearing myself talk about homework. After a few pieces written on homework, several meetings on the topic, and my 15 minutes of fame as a story regarding our efforts to examine homework practices broke on the news, I was homeworked out.
That changed last weekend. Our family had one of those weekends that are a great part of life and a great part of celebrating families. It was also the type of weekend that leaves you needing another weekend to recover from the weekend. It started with my oldest’s varsity football game. “Friday Night Lights, Rockland Style” has been a joy. Watching Justin as the starting center on his team has left me beaming with pride. I am even more proud of the fact that he comes to the sideline after every game, win or lose, to thank his grandparents for coming to watch him.
This week was a bit more stressful, not because his team faced their first loss of the season, but because at half time of the game, I was running around picking up last minute items for my youngest’s confirmation party. Saturday morning we hopped into the car, drove an hour and a half to the church, which was followed by a party at my ex-wife’s house. The party was one of various families coming together to celebrate Scott, highlighted by the presence of my ex-wife’s mother, who I like to refer to as Mommy Dearest. If I am being honest, that moniker may not be a fair one…to Joan Crawford. We not only survived, but actually were able to have a good time and give Scott a great day.
From there, we headed to a 50th anniversary party that was an amazing celebration of two people who are still in love all these years later. Some may refer to the groom as cranky and, sometimes, stubborn, yet I never once heard him utter a disparaging word about the love of his life in the 15 years I have known him. My current wife misses my talks with this friend that would set me straight and force me to remember how lucky I was to be with the love of my life.
Our weekend of celebration was not over. The next afternoon we headed in the other direction to Long Island for a Bat Mitzvah. We finally finished our weekend after a long battle with Long Island traffic and I crawled into bed around Midnight. It felt great to get into that cool, soft bed after successfully completing all of my family responsibilities for the weekend.
Unfortunately, I found myself awake and not even sure where I was 45 minutes later, hearing some frustrated sounds coming out of Andrew’s room. I tried to ignore it, but guilt got the better of me. As I walked into Andrew’s room I found my family huddled around the computer frustrated to the point of losing it because of a homework assignment that wouldn’t print. Luckily, I was able to fix the issue and was able to play the hero. I decided not to tell the crew the issue was resolved by plugging in the printer that I had unplugged the night before to charge my phone.
I was frustrated that my son, who had a jam packed weekend of family events, football, and school president responsibilities, was up at 1:00 am completing an assignment. Justin really loves this teacher and I am sure he wasn’t given the standard “This is an AP class and I have to get you ready for college, or AP classes are difficult you have to show that you are willing to do the work.” But it was 1:00 AM, I wasn’t thinking straight, and I needed a villain to turn my anger to so I decided to draft an email explaining why I hate homework. I gave a litany of reasonable reasons. Thankfully my wife read the email before I hit send and deleted it. My reasons included:
- There is no research that supports a positive effect on student achievement in elementary schools and very little that suggests it can be advantageous for secondary students
- Copying from classmates has become easier with group text messages
- It is often trivial work rather than high level thinking
- It takes away from family time
- Time could be better spent playing Fornite
Ok, the last one not so much, but I often hear that argument that if kids didn’t have so much homework to do they would just spend more time playing video games. That argument seems a bit counter productive to me. Let’s fill up their time with boring meaningless tasks so they don’t have time to waste playing video games. Instead could we not offer our students some meaningful options? Could we educate them on the value of nature, friendships, family? Could we not teach them to be more observant, to discover hobbies that may bring them a lifetime of joy? Encourage healthy habits like exercise, eating well, and getting enough sleep?
I see it as our responsibility as educators to develop people who ask questions, who push the status quo, who are present with life, and who truly enjoy life. Is that not better than robots who comply, check off all of the boxes in an effort to get ready for the next stage of life rather than living and enjoying the one they are in.
I don’t claim to have all of the answers. I certainly understand that homework is a different animal at the various levels, but here are nine suggestions for doing it better.
Stop Grading It
I know what you are thinking. If I don’t grade it, they won’t do it. My answer to that is: so what? The reality is many kids don’t do it anyway and many who actually turn it in have not put forth any effort, or have not actually done the work themselves. Some believe that the true purpose of homework was to reinforce concepts taught in class and to teach responsibility. If we explain to students the concepts and skills that we want them to reinforce and some options on how to do that, will that not be a better way to have them regulate their own learning and be a better way of teaching responsibility than having Mom do the homework?
Tell Them “The Why” They Are Doing It
Because I have to get you ready for Middle School, High School, College is not an acceptable reason for assigning homework. Neither is because you are a 8th grader now, this is a honors class, AP class, etc. If we are explicit with students as to why a particular assignment is important for them and their learning, students are more inclined to complete assignments, and we are probably more inclined to think about what it is we are assigning.
Make It Authentic
Give students a cause, an audience, a real task that can make a difference and/or be noticed in our world. Having students come up with a way to improve the environment in their town is a better learning experience than having them complete a packet on recycling or global warming. Kids are more likely to give effort and actually learn if they are asked to convince local officials to add a stop light at a dangerous intersection than to ask them to write an argumentative essay, one in which you provide them with the sentence starters and template for success. Get kids excited to do something meaningful and I suspect more times than not they will rise to the occasion. What do we have to lose if they don’t? A few less packets completed or a few less essays that caring moms have dictated to their children?
Use Technology To Your Advantage
Practicing math problems is essential for long term retention. My math teacher friends often remind me of this when I get on my homework soapbox. They are right; you have to practice completing math problems to increase your long term retention. That being said, if I can’t do the problem or if I do it wrong, I am just making it worse and reinforcing the wrong skills. Today, we have sites like Khan Academy that will provide mini lessons on how to do just about anything. Include mini lesson videos from Khan Academy, other sites, or teacher created ones to go with assigned problems. Another alternative to traditional problem solving is to have the students create a video of their own explaining how to solve quadratic equations. Free technology sites make it easy for teachers and students to create their own Khan Academy-like video. Here are some resources as outlined in the informative Tech and Learning magazine.
Coping facts from a textbook and rewriting them into a complete sentence is not only painfully boring, it does little to retain facts long term. Having students passionately debate the causes of the Second World War and what events could lead us to another World War can be a natural way to have students garner interest in history while honing their debating skills. Teachers could use Google Classroom, Class Dojo, Seesaw, Padlet, or Voxer to pose a question that students respond to. It can be concept related prompts such as who is the most influential person in the world today? Or, is the electoral college fair? Or, it can be individual question such as…One thing I learned in class today was? One thing I am struggling with is? One thing I would like to see us do in class is? You get the point.
Adults today complain about this generation of kids. They are on their phones too much, they don’t go out and play enough, they don’t know what is going on in the world, they are not observant enough. Our parents’ generation saw our inadequacy and their parents before them. There is so much information in this world that kids and adult miss. How about home learning experiences that ask students to study nature, architecture or just being more observant? How many different types trees are growing in your neighborhood? What do you notice about how they grow? What would your neighborhood be like without trees? You can build similar strands of questions on a variety of subjects including buildings, cities, waterflow, trafic, the night time sky, their mood, their energy level, and so on. Encouraging observations about the world they live in will not only make concepts you are teaching more real, you are also teaching students to be more present and naturally curious of the world they live in. This is a gift they carry throughout their lives, unlike the packets that get tossed in the circular file each time the clean out lockers.
It is our job to teach our students how to be good people, people who can successfully interact with others. Yet how much time is spent discussing how to talk to people? Respectful conversations, eye contact, not taking out your phone when you are speaking to someone? I was shocked last year when one of my leadership council students explained that they were never taught how to write an email and his generation really didn’t “get” email much like I don’t “get” snapchat. How valuable would it have been had my son been asked to discuss what it was like to flee Nazi Germany with his grandparents and great uncles at the Bat Mitzvah we attended rather than the stress inducing assignment we completed at 1:00am? Students can be taught how to initiate these conversations, brainstorm respectful questions to ask, then have them discuss in class. This seems to be a much more authentic way to explore enduring questions than traditional means? Our families have rich stories to tell and lessons to teach, but it does not have to stop there. Emails, letters, questions, real life exploration and research may not be as easy to qualify as a worksheet, but they certainly offer skills and knowledge that will endure much longer.
Involve Students In Their Learning Plan
Despite popular belief, homework does not teach responsibility. Expecting students to take ownership of their learning and showing them what that can look like teaches responsibility. Only when we let students know what it is that we expect them to learn and then offer various ways they can get there are we truly helping them to take responsibility for their learning. It is so important to keep in mind that it is not our job to teach students compliance because that was the way we were taught. Keep asking yourself: what is it that students truly need to learn and master? Then tell your students. Education should not be a secret and it should not be the same for everyone.
If you plan to assign homework, you should most definitely provide feedback. There is nothing more disheartening for a student when they spend hours on an assignment only to have a teacher check the top, indicating they completed it. If we expect our students to give time and effort, the least we can do is reciprocate. If students do not receive feedback on assignments how can we expect them to grow from it,
I do feel that there is a place for homework in our schools, but not how it is structured in most classrooms today. We can do better. Our kids deserve better. I remember a time when I would take it personally when a student didn’t do what I asked. I wanted my pound of flesh. Then, I realized it is not personal, it is not about me, and that it is about getting my kids to where they need to be. When they don’t do homework, it is no more personal than when students and parents harbor ill will towards teachers when they are trying to print out homework at 1:00 AM.
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