Considering homework

Posted: November 16, 2017 in Uncategorized
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So I’ve been thinking about homework. Anyone who has taught for any length of time has thought about homework. I have assigned a lot of homework in my time, and I don’t say that as a badge of honor or to brag.

My ideas about homework have changed over the years. Some of that has to do with my experience assigning, correcting, and reflecting on the homework that I give my students. And, some of that change has to do with my experience as the parent of students who have to do the homework that others assign. Full disclosure–I know there are those on the no homework at all bandwagon; I just can’t get there for reading and writing. 

When I first started teaching I was just trying to make it through the day, follow the directions, and not mess up too dramatically. My school had rules and expectations about homework, although we did not necessarily have the resources in terms of books to follow through on those rules, and I tried to do what I was supposed to do. However, in the end, I really could not give much homework.

When I came to 5th grade at my current school, there were a lot of resources and therefore a lot of potential for homework– spelling, vocabulary, reading, writing, and math, sometimes social studies, projects etc. I won’t pretend that I have never assigned less than worthwhile homework, but I can honestly say that over the years I worked hard to strip away anything that I didn’t think was really worth the time. Teaching in a self-contained classroom, I gave the vast majority of the homework. So, I could balance things. If I wanted students to do any social studies, I cut way back on language arts. Language arts represented the bulk of 5th grade homework, and there were not many other items. Over the course of two nights, I generally assigned some reading and a blog comment. It definitely took students some time to do the work, and I honestly felt I saw the positive results. The comfort with writing that my students developed and the level of thoughtfulness and critical thinking about the reading that they acquired over the course of the year would not, I think, have been possible without this very regular practice that happened at home and was then discussed and expanded on in class.

Looking back on it now though, and comparing it to the homework load that I see in high school and in my own kids in middle and high school, one of the key characteristics of that fifth-grade homework was that there was generally one key item. There might be some vocabulary that from this distance might qualify as skippable (is that a word? Maybe we shouldn’t skip the vocab), there was some math practice, not a lot, and then the main item–usually language arts. Students always had two days to work on a reading and writing combination. The work was structured in such a way that there was, if students did not put it off, time to read, think, and write. What I heard from families was that students did spread the work out, as intended. 

What I worry about with the homework that I assign now (to seniors) is that it doesn’t get translated into a chance to spend some time thinking and working at a personal pace on ideas that we are talking about in class. When I started teaching in Upper School, I was told assigning work in two-night chunks was not going to work. I was told this repeatedly, by many people. Students would just put it off and then not complete the work. As the newbie, I believed it and made my assignment sheets accordingly. I’m starting to wonder if I should rethink this.

Time to ask the people actually doing the homework. Duh. When I asked the 5th graders, they were overwhelmingly in favor of the two-night plan for reading and writing. Why aren’t I asking these almost-adults?

  1. Personally, I’m not much of a fan of homework, but I can’t get around assigning it (for lots of reasons). Most of what I assign can be accomplished during class time if students are diligent and manage time wisely, and we always start things a few days before they are due. I can’t imagine why that wouldn’t work with older students except for just the sheer amount of material needing to be read in a literature class.

    • mseiteljorg says:

      Philip, thanks for reading and commenting. The vast majority of what I assign is reading. There is just no way around that if we want to be able to read complete books and compare texts. When there is writing, I also devote a lot of class time to that work. As you mention, “if students are diligent” is the wildcard in many ways.

      The thing I really appreciated about our short blog writing, with my 5th grade, was that it propelled the conversation forward and meant that students had tried to do a little thinking about the reading before we started our conversation. I would like my seniors to have done a little more thinking about the reading so that our conversations can be more substantial. The public nature of the blog was another bonus. (I could go on about the blog. I will spare us all.)

      In an effort NOT to assign other work, I have not been doing much in the way of short posts etc with the reading. I do list ideas to consider as a preview of what we will discuss in class. However, “please think about and be ready to discuss…” continues not to be very useful. I suspect it is because without having to explain that thinking (either in written or spoken form) it’s easy to say ‘done’ once one has read the question.

      So, back to your point about class time, I have been thinking about expanding (again) my use of these short online comments but putting them as the first 5 minutes of class. My concern is that they will turn into 15 minutes. I certainly won’t be able to perfect this plan until I try it!

      • What if you used some type of backchannel to ask a couple of open-ended questions and elicit student responses? This could be a bell ringer, homework, or left to student choice between the two. (They could respond within a character limit or to a minimum number of the questions posed. I’m brainstorming now.)

  2. mseiteljorg says:

    Great minds think alike! I was thinking that if the question was online (I will use our LMS discussion option) then my students could do it either in the evening or as a bell ringer. Plus, if I use our LMS discussion feature, the work would be available for ongoing comment and review.

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