This post is going to be brief. Anyone who follows me on social media knows my position on homework. I’ve shared research on its efficacy and effects. Today I just want to focus on one aspect, and I believe it is THE most important.
We just had Thanksgiving, and for a month I was immersed in the gratitudes of others and learned what they valued in life. It was uplifting and inspiring. People listed friends, family, trips, nature, fun and games, and health. I have to believe these are the blessings that they wish for their own children as well. So for the month of November, those were the messages they were giving their children.
Sadly, for many children, those are not the messages they are given the rest of the year. The message they are presented nearly every day is:
The most important thing in your life is WORK.
That message isn’t delivered in those exact words, so much as it is in actions and reactions. Think about a child’s life. They go to ‘work‘ (because school is the child’s work) 7 hours a day, and then they are often given several more hours of work to work on after work. Homework is expected to be a priority after working all day-which was also a priority. For many, if they don’t prioritize homework first and complete it, there are negative consequences…failing grade, loss of recess, detention… shame.
The message many of them are receiving is that your friendships aren’t the priority (play with your friends if and when you get your work done), your health isn’t a priority (deal with that stress, anxiety, illness, or sleep-loss and get your homework done), your experiences aren’t a priority (it doesn’t matter that you went to your sister’s soccer game-you need to get your homework done), nature isn’t a priority (going for a hike with your dad isn’t an excuse), play isn’t a priority (no recess because you didn’t work enough), family isn’t a priority (your parents can be tutors and you, their student-instead of engaging in ‘normal’ family activities). I know these may sound extreme to some, but I also know that my kids have experienced every single one of these messages. They are often very subtle…but they are pervasive.
I earnestly want us to have conversations around this topic. (I haven’t even addressed the efficacy or other aspects of homework that warrant discussion) I want us to think about what we really want for our children. Yes, we want them to succeed, but I think we need to define what success in life REALLY is. What kind of life do we want for our children? What do we want them to value? What priorities do we truly want them to make for themselves and their own children?
What message do we really want to send to our children about our values and priorities? What role do we want WORK to play in our lives?
What’s On My Book Radar?
FINDING PERFECT by Elly Swartz
Molly’s mother leaves the family for a year to take a job in Canada. In trying to deal with this loss, she hatches a plan to bring her mother home: win the Lakeville Middle School Slam Poetry Contest. Molly finds herself trying to perfect her chaotic world, but her desire for perfection is turning into habits she can’t control. She’s not sure who she can turn to for help or advice. This is powerful story that can shed a light on a problem (OCD) that afflicts many people and bring some empathy and understanding for others’ struggles. If you are trying to offer more windows and doors for the students in your classroom, I would encourage you to bring this gem into your libraries. This debut novel from Elly Swartz is nearly perfect!
As I write this, it is approaching crazy o’clock at night and my 7th grade son is still up working on homework. He’s been at it over 3 hours after spending the previous 3 hours working on a project for a Showcase this week at school. I started to notice posts on Twitter and Facebook from other students and parents who were expressing stress and anxiety over the workloads and deadlines they were experiencing. It got me wondering how much thought went into the assigning of these tasks during the last few weeks of school. It made me wonder…
Are We Teachers Aware of Other Assignments Being Given?
When students begin to have multiple teachers, we need to find some way to increase communication regarding homework and assignments. It can be difficult enough when one teacher assigns a large amount of work, but it is excruciating when several do at the same time. The idea that “it’s just a few pages” only holds true for that one teacher, and not so much for the student who has those pages multiplied times each class they take.
Are We Teachers Aware of Other Obligations Students Have?
Sure it would be nice if we teachers knew about our students’ dance recitals, ball games, tournaments, church events or summer jobs that require them to start already, and how they might impact a student’s ability to complete projects or assignments. But students also have school based obligations and events that flood this time of the year that teachers should be aware of. Our family had 3 band concerts in 3 weeks, we have school based athletic events, we have art shows and gifted and talented showcases, we have multiple award nights for music, academics and sports-all school related!! We say we want well rounded children with multiple interests and talents, but many students are so stressed out by ‘celebrations’ and ‘culminating events’ that they do not feel like celebrating…they feel like crying. It’s crazy how May and June evenings are packed with school-based events after a full day of school for these kids.
Are We Teachers Aware of How Much Time the Assignments Take to Complete?
When I asked a teacher recently how long she thought an assignment would take her students to complete one night she responded, “I don’t know. An hour?” Now we all know that students DO NOT work at the same pace in school, so how would they possibly be expected to work at the same pace outside of school, where the distractions can be greater and the work environment may not be as friendly? I wonder how many of us teachers actually complete the assignments ourselves occasionally, to gain some appreciation for the demands of the task. If it takes us 15 minutes, we should double that for our better students, triple it for our average students and quadruple + it for our lower students to get a ballpark idea of the time commitment we are laying on these kids.
Do We Teachers Explain the Learning Target for the Assignment? Do We Know It?
Is the homework a series of tasks that seem like busy work to students or could students actually explain what the expected outcome for the assignment would be? When I asked my son what he was learning in his ELA homework he said, “Just reading and answering questions.” Now I wouldn’t take that answer as an indicator of the teacher’s competence or a complete accounting of the needed skills, but when I looked at the reading passages and the copious amount of questions that followed I had to wonder why he wasn’t reading a book! We laughed at the ridiculousness of some of the questions and the tiny size of the boxes in which to ‘construct’ a response. My son reads all the time and has incredible comprehension as a result, what he was being asked was pure busy work, and when there are so many amazing books waiting to be read out there, I was frustrated that he needed to spend an hour with a worksheet and not diving into the pages of an amazing book!!
Do We Teachers Understand the Purpose for Homework?
These questions aren’t meant to be flip or disrespectful. Do we as teachers ask ourselves, why would I give this assignment as homework? Does this child need extra practice with this skill? Does this child need to gain automaticity or fluency with some behavior? Is this task best done without my help, supervision and feedback? Could this task confuse, frustrate or misguide the student? If so, what are the repercussions of that? Does it matter if parents help (because some will and some won’t -or can’t)? Can the child already do this? If they can’t, will sending it home be the best way to help them learn it? Does this task have application to his/her real world skillset needs? If not, would it be best done in school? What is the cost-benefit analysis for all of this work?
Over the many years I’ve been teaching the issue of homework seems to boil down to:
If the student already knows how to do something, why does he need homework to do more of it?
If the student doesn’t know how to do it, shouldn’t we be there to model, demonstrate, teach, guide and provide immediate feedback?
There are a few tasks that require subtle degrees of practice, such as reading, writing, computation that might benefit from additional practice, and some authentic practice could be accomplished as homework, but we also need to consider:
Do Schools Have a Right to Dictate What Families Do In Their Own Homes?
We cringe sometimes when we are told how to do our jobs by those who do not reside in our schools and classrooms. Yet we often have no problem telling children and parents what to do with their precious time together. Are we robbing them of conversations around the dinner table, walks or bike rides together, family movie nights, read alouds of favorite books, hobbies or crafts they enjoy? Kids need unstructured time to explore, create, play, negotiate rules, solve boredom issues, get lost in a book, nap, hang out with siblings, or do whatever THAT particular family values.
Does Homework Work?
Does anyone have any hard evidence that assigning homework statistically increases that student’s learning? Are they thinking deeper? Are they computing faster? Are they problem solving more effectively? Are they more prolific writers? I think it is time we looked at the efficacy of our policies around homework and in particular assignments and projects at the END of the learning year. If we are cramming it in because we didn’t get something in the curriculum ‘covered’ or because we want them to ‘demonstrate’ a year’s worth of learning in a project are we fooling ourselves into thinking real learning is taking place?
What Are Some Alternatives?
As the year winds down, take time IN CLASS to reflect on the learning that has occurred. It is a great time to examine a students’ learning history with samples of work that demonstrated his/her abilities. It is a time for the students to reflect on themselves as learners. What do they do well? What do they enjoy learning? What did they overcome? Instead of piling on more tasks, it is important to take time to savor the learning that happened, to appreciate all the effort and commitment the students have put in. Recognizing achievements rather than cramming in more expectations will create a more satisfying ending to the school year. If you REALLY want homework, encourage those conversations to happen at home. Have them talk with their parents about their school year and reflect on how they have grown. Sure, you could create a template…or not.
Create a plan for battling ‘Summer Slide’ WITH the students. Have them take part in creating ideas, activities, book lists, games, etc that they might enjoy over the summer. Share with them information on the benefits of reading over the summer. SHOW, don’t TELL! Help them set some goals and some methods for accountability. If they don’t have ‘skin in the game’ there is very little chance they will follow through.
RELAX, REFLECT, REJOICE! You don’t have to stop teaching and learning, just don’t feel the need to do it all in the last few weeks! It has been a learning-packed school year. Take time to appreciate it. Take time to enjoy your students before they leave you. Take time to leave a positive impression of your time together. Your students will thank you. Their parents will thank you. You will thank yourself!!
What’s On My Book Radar?
Unless you have been living under a rock, or have no teens in your life, you may be unaware of a HUGE event happening this weekend…
If you have not yet read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, RUN, don’t walk to your nearest bookstore and get your hands on this brilliant book. Then grab your tissues and a teen and head to the theaters. It is not to be missed!