Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Homework: Not a Failing Grade

There I am in the 2004 Yearbook, posing beside the AP Chemistry teacher on the "Staff Standout" page above the caption "Most Likely to Give Homework Due After a Break."

Guilty as charged. I was teaching AP and IB Literature to high school seniors and often assigned reading over holidays. I wasn't dismayed by the student-determined distinction; I felt secure in my relationship with students and confident that I was a good--not oppressive!--teacher.  I was even voted "Most Helpful" the year prior.

All this was before, of course, I became a parent of a homework-doer myself.  Before I fully understood that for every novel I assigned, a number of students were not reading it.  Before I became an administrator and spent hours at high school sports matches, performances, and competitions--the same hours my students were spending before they went home to eat dinner and do homework. 

My perspective has changed.  I've thought about that often over the years since I took this job as vice principal, with its more global view of students' daily lives.  It was easier to forget, as my students' English teacher, that my students were also students of math, science, art, history...with teachers who valued their disciplines and their students' investments in them as well. 

I wanted my students to love books as I did, to love our discussions about characters, and to love writing, too.  In order to love literature, I knew they had to understand it.  To understand it they had to know it.  To know it they had to read it. 

So I required that they read, and they had to read a lot--almost as much as I had to read in college English courses.  But this was a college English course, you see:  it was an Advanced Placement English Literature course, which earns students a weighted grade and college credit if they pass the end-of-year College Board exams. 

And, my students were practicing for college, by not reading every book assigned.

But high school students are not college students.  Students in high school traditionally attend all their classes every day and complete daily homework for each course.  Colleges generally offer some flexibility in scheduling; students enroll in fewer classes which meet less often than students are accustomed to in high school. 

The daily grind of high school, overscheduling of children, and competition for college--along with parents and schools who are perceived as promoting and perpetuating these problems--are the subjects of recent dialogue.  "Tiger Mom" Amy Chua, profiled in The Wall Street Journal's article "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," has elicited outrage and a slew of responses

Meanwhile, parent groups brought the documentary film Race to Nowhere to audiences of educators and community members in our city, and it has prompted daily discussions and proposed policy changes in our school district.  Whom the film targets in its portrayal of the stresses wearing down our kids depends on the opinion of the viewer.  But there's no doubt that homework is cast as an antagonist. 

Homework is an easy target.  It's a universal enemy, as it represents the tasks imposed on us which we're obligated to perform, in seemingly Sisyphean ritual.  Even now, domestic duties--bills, laundry, cooking, dishes, assembling school lunches--loom each evening as forms of  parental "homework," enjoyable sometimes, but often inspiring take out and piles of unfolded clothes on the couch. 

When I was an English teacher I recall the various ways I both avoided and negotiated the burden of grading homework--by assigning myself nightly apportionments, by dedicating chunks of hours to the red pen on weekends, by doubling up so I could give myself a night off.  Under duress, under a serious time crunch, I would render inconsequential a pile of reading questions or vocabulary sentences on occasion.  My subsequent guilt reminded me to vow to assign only what I could humanly assess and give credit. 

But therein lies the rub.  Athletes, musicians, artists, writers, chefs, technicians, scientists all practice their craft for hours in excess of the moments--or performances--on which they are assessed.  It's not unreasonable for coaches and teachers to encourage their charges to practice, and to do so without the expectation of points or credit or reward.  It's possible that mastery requires more work than a coach or teacher can observe, assess, or comment upon.  Therefore it falls upon not only the teacher, but the student and/or parent, to determine when enough is enough. 

A senior approached me at lunch today to ask me if I would distribute "homework passes."  "To all students?"  I asked him.  "Yeah..." he nodded.  "Or just me...I had a game last night, and then I was tired, and I didn't do my English homework." 

"What you need to do is own it; be honest," I suggested.  "I pay bills late once in a while.  One late bill is no big deal, as long as my other bills are on time.  But if I continue to pay them late, my credit score will suffer.  Tell your teacher you chose not to do your homework last night, but you'll do it from now on.  And it." 

He looked at me.  "Ms. M, you are no help." 

Maybe putting homework in perspective is what we all need to do, in an effort to stem the fear, the drudgery, the shortcuts and copying, the shame, the excuses, and the overemphasis on it.  As I've chronicled, homework has the potential to hijack our household, and there are nights we set it aside.  But I wouldn't argue for getting rid of it altogether.

Here are my reasons why:

1.  Homework connects families to what children are learning at school.  If Big Sis didn't have second grade homework, I wouldn't know that there are better methods for adding and subtracting than borrowing and carrying.  Observing your child doing homework provides clues about how your learner approaches problems and what your learner finds easy and challenging.

2.  Homework reinforces prioritization.  There are nights when homework should take a back seat and the consequences of missed points and credit are worthy prices to pay.  Having Something You Have to Do, though, around the Things You Want to Do, is simply a function of Real Life.  The extent to which one wants one's school--or work--life to infringe upon the rest of one's life becomes one's own discretion.  With consequences, of course. 

3.  Mastery Requires Practice.  And learning a topic in depth often requires reading outside class time.  We don't eat all our food in restaurants (or the dining hall) (I hope).  We eventually have to go out, gather ingredients, mix them up, work it out, hopefully eat.  That's real life.  We do better when we've had independent practice.  It can't all be served up on a platter.

And here are suggestions for more wholesome, healthy (dare I say happy?) homework:

1.  Advance Planning.  In college, professors hand out syllabi for their courses on the first day of class, with due dates and exams calendared.  In elementary school, students often get packets for the entire week.  With this kind of information in hand, a student and  family can plan ahead and around major events.  We enjoy nights of no homework--evenings for dinner out or with friends or for Family Games.  Having it all up front and the chance to get ahead helps.

2.  Creative Approach, and Choices.  One of the functions of homework is to assess mastery.  But where practice isn't the purpose, assessing critical thinking skills should be, and inspiration can reign.  Not all homework will or should be exciting, but proof that students read the chapter can take many forms, and options for students improve motivation. When I experimented with genres and allowed students to write essays as dialogues between characters, writing literary analyses became more intriguing to students, and grading them more fun for me.  Educators must vow to fight fiercely associations with "busywork."  As Lily Tomlin said, "I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework."

3.  Balance.  How much homework is too much depends on many variables, including an individual student's preparation or capacity to tackle the material and how efficiently he/she works.  An educator's healthy practice includes reflecting on assessments and their volume, purpose, and necessity.  If homework functions, in part, to determine what and who needs more attention in the classroom, then balance means not assigning or grading so much that careful feedback isn't possible.

Parents can do their part by recognizing that a rigorous and challenging curriculum isn't measured by the volume of homework in their children's backpacks.  In my AP Literature course we moved through novels at a steady clip that required outside reading, but I acknowledge that I sometimes assigned homework to maintain the daily habit and routine.  I recognize now that as a collective team, my colleagues and I were providing students with the discipline of daily homework.  As individuals, we shouldn't feel compelled to pile on because of the unspoken expectation of daily homework in every course. 

Balance ultimately means putting homework in its place as only one seat at a table reserved for a large party of aspects of a child's education.  Schools must continue to determine ways to level the playing field for those students without the benefit of parents who supervise homework or a home environment that fosters learning.  Schools can help by providing supports for students who struggle to meet standards, who don't complete homework, and who fail.  Teachers can help by continuing to reflect on the value of homework in achieving their courses'--and individual students'--objectives.  Parents can help by reinforcing healthy approaches to schooling at home and honest accountability for schoolwork, both finished and incomplete.  Students can help by offering teachers respectful feedback on what they find valuable and meaningful, and by acknowledging the role of their own efforts and investment in their education. 

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