Homework-Eugh!

February 8, 2012 — 4 Comments

Add my voice to the growing number of teachers who admit to hating homework. The most recent admission came from  NY Times blogger Jessica Lahey’s  in her column (Motherlode) on 2/3/2012 titled “I Hate Homework. I Assign It Anyway”. In this confession, she articulates both her dislike of assigning homework along with her recognition of homework in education as necessary to “achieve the same mastery of the material.”

I know how she feels. Over the past 10 years, I have been assigning less and less homework in my English classrooms, but not for the reasons she gives. Lahey reflects how she has always assigned homework  “because that is what teachers do; if I didn’t, word would get around that I am a pushover, or don’t care enough about my students to engage their every waking moment with academics.” She now measures an assignment’s worth against her son’s schedule.  She calls this the “Ben test” and states, “if an assignment is  not worthy of my own son’s time, I’m dumping it.”

For me, assigning less homework is a process of adaptation. I have been assigning less and less homework because fewer and fewer students actually complete homework. In grades 9-12, in the college-prep classes, I find myself collecting smaller percentages of homework assignments in class for any one of a number of reasons. Students are busy with sports. Students are busy with work after-school. Students have life responsibilities that take priority over homework. Students forget.

There is also the reality that there exists a cacophony of  demands for their attention after school. These “digital natives” are tied to their social media, their music, their video games, their movies, and their own intellectual pursuits. Homework’s nagging voice lacks the seductive glamor of  Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr and the adrenaline rush provided by Call of Duty, Madden NFL, or even Angry Birds. The quiet necessary for assignments that require focused writing and reading simply does not exist for many of my students.

So, I adapt. I must teach the students who are in my class today, not the students from a different time. I must prepare the students to accept responsibilities in ways that are not always punitive. After all, a teacher cannot look in a grade book and see a series of incompletes or zeros in the homework column and feel successful.

Much of the reading content that had in the past been assigned for overnight reading is done in the classroom during silent sustained reading (SSR)sessions of 25 minutes twice weekly. Should a student want to read to “catch up”, audio book recordings are made available for students to access after school. Study guides are combined in packets that are completed over a period of several weeks as extended project assignments. Assignments are begun in class and “polished” overnight.

I also try and make assignments that are exciting and original enough to engage a student to want to complete. So, I have them write (and sing?) protest songs, create mock Facebook pages, bring in childhood pictures for essays, or retell a fable. I do not have worksheets; I have video clips for them to watch and discuss the next day.

As a result, there are fewer “homework” assignments in my gradebook, and I have developed a new category “class participation/homework” to reflect the way homework is blended into classwork. I find this category  an easier explanation for parents who ask if their student is doing his or her homework. There are of course the students enrolled in the honors classes or Advanced Placement programs who still accept the more traditional demands of homework. And there are students in the college prep classes who still understand the opportunity homework, really well designed homework, offers in order to reflect on what was taught during the school day.

I just hate assigning homework to students that is not done. I hate homework that becomes an obstacle, not a teaching tool. Like Charlie Brown and the Peanuts Gang, I hate homework.

4 responses to Homework-Eugh!

  1. 

    Thanks for the post – and like you, I have complex reasons for backing off on homework, only one of which is the realities of my son Ben’s academic life. Homework has been a source of cognitive dissonance for me for years, as I watch my students struggle to keep their heads above water in their over-scheduled lives. My next post at the Times will be about the realities of the “skyrocketing” homework load, and I hope you’ll stop by and read it! Thanks for linking to my piece, and thanks for continuing the discussion. I write about this stuff all the time at my blog, http://jessicalahey.com, too, so stop by sometime!

  2. 

    This year, with a schedule change, the whole homework has absolutely gone haywire. Now my IB Prep students have 7 advanced classes assigning them homework daily. As an English teacher, I too have backed off assigning as much homework, although I do still need them to read outside of class. Some of my colleagues question the accountability factor. How do I know that they actually read what they are supposed to read? What are your tricks for the accountability factor?

    • 

      Truth is, you don’t know. Research bears out that many students do not read what is assigned. For that reason, we are moving towards more selected texts by students in the hope of engaging them. Our 9th graders read 4-6 books independently; 4 assigned. In the more traditional approach, our honors and AP students always have assigned reading for homework. There are some who use the Sparknotes/Schmoop etc. sites, but they have problems with reading check quizzes because I usually use quotes from the text on a quiz to determine who has read. For the CP level in grades 10-11, I find we are including more in class time for reading. Students will read in class for about 10 minutes at the beginning or end of class. Sometimes, I will read aloud a section or use an audio tape to give students an author’s “voice” in their heads. Whenever possible, I place audio texts on our class wiki so students can listen to a text. I also do “collaborative quizzes” for certain texts (Lord of the Flies, The Road) where two or three students share a grade for a quiz they take together. Usually one or two of the students will help the other (catch up on plot), but I switch up those teams occasionally. My most successful activities for accountability are activities that have the students respond to a significant passage…that way I know they have read that section of the text in writing the response.

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