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Mark Gardner | February 15, 2013

Homework

2

File511ea3ff0fb8fA couple of weeks ago it was finals week at my school. My English 9 semester final included both skills and content assessments which represented the culmination of the work we'd done for 18 weeks, and included assessments in reading comprehension, literary terms, writing skills, and speaking skills. Overall the class performed quite well.

One portion of the final asked students to use TPCASTT to annotate a poem that was unfamiliar to them, and then compose a one-page analysis of how the shifts (or juxtapositions) in tone or structure within the poem helped to illuminate a central theme or main idea of the poem. 

For that particular part, I had high standards. And sadly, low expectations.

In the weeks leading up to the final, we'd practiced those two skills (poetry annotation and evidence-based written analysis) and the results were underwhelming. In total, if students did what was asked, they wrote a total of eight paragraphs, each one receiving formative feedback from me, to get practice and demonstrate progress toward the final.

Too often, my feedback went unheeded and mistakes were repeated, nuances of the poems missed or written analysis underdeveloped. I fully expected this written portion of the final to drag everyone under.

Of course, as teenagers are wont to do, they surprised me.

While I'd like to claim that my brilliant formative feedback on their practice paragraphs was what guided them to their deep insight and strong analysis that was shown--almost universally--in their writing on their final.

In reality, credit ought to be given to the clock. With all the other parts of the test, most kids had about five to eight minutes to read, understand and annotate their poem, and then only about ten minutes to compose their written, evidence-based analysis.

Those other paragraphs which had given me such a sense of pessimism? Each had been allowed the seemingly generous timeframe of one or two evenings at home for their completion. Of course, I'd often see these being frantically and half-assedly composed in the hallway right before class. 

Initially, I tried blaming things. I saw those paragraphs as practice, so I was only giving formative feedback, not a gradebook score. Thinking that perhaps a score would motivate them, I shifted this for the last four paragraphs and kids who did a quick hallway write right before class got hammered. Still, no difference in effort or performance.

You've already figured out the obvious, especially if you know a teenager. When that final bell rings after sixth period, the world changes for a kid. I don't mean the ominous heading-home-to-suffering story--though that is absolutely a factor in the haphazard performance of many of my kids. I simply mean that phones and texting are allowed after that bell rings, there's often little structure, little predictability, minimal routine. In the classroom, I can facilitate their self-discipline. After the bell is when their self-discipline is tested...and they're fifteen in a world that doesn't particularly promote self-discipline.

The juxtaposition between my students' homework performance and their performance in an on-demand context was dramatic in a way I'd never noticed before. I'm faced with a quandary: Do I now require less homework in favor of more in-class, structured work time and reward what many would consider a lack of self-discipline by giving no homework? Do I focus on my charge--to advance my students toward increased proficiency on specific skills--and abandon homework as an ineffective strategy for practicing and deepening a students' skills? Conversely, there is so much we have to get through, so many standards to cover, how can I do it all if they don't do work outside of class...so, do I rail against them and continue to morph and shape and tweak my assignments in hopes that I can design the right task that will make a kid walk into their house at 3:05pm wanting nothing more than to do their very, very best on their homework for English?

What I do see with my learners right now is that when they do their work in my room, between the bells, their work is better even if I never say a single word to guide them while they're in process. Send the same task home and what returns--if it returns at all--is too often a steaming pile that I'm then compelled to harangue about.

If the purpose of homework is that it should be practice to strengthen and deepen a kid's understanding--and if the same task that produces lackluster work as take-home produces strong evidence of skill and knowledge if completed in-class, then I think I have my answer.

It isn't just the task, it's also the time. I've known that all along, but for some reason admitting it feels like a conceding to lazy teaching. The teachers who assign the most homework are the "best" teachers, and the students who have the most homework are the best students, aren't they?

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I ended up talking about it with my students, to get their perspective. So much of the broad public discourse seems to be about how "overworked" and "overscheduled" kids are, but they flatly denied that this was really the case. They freely admitted having plenty of free time to do homework, and that only occasionally did they feel like they truly "didn't have time" to do it. However, they confirmed that they often didn't see the "point" in homework (a few tried to soften it by saying "except for your homework, Mr. G!") and I couldn't help but agree in many cases. I have noticed that with my crew, certain kinds of homework have a much higher return rate, but if the homework seems (a) redundant or (b) intimidating then it won't come back...the logic is obvious there.

There's no correlation between the amount of learning and the amount of work. There's a lot of correlation between the amount of learning and the type and quality of work.

It's been a looooonnnnnnng time, like maybe ten years, since I've assigned only the bare minimum of homework.

Here are my reasons:
1. Other teachers assign (I think) too much. It's busy work. It takes forever. Kids don't have enough time between 2:20 and bedtime to do it all.
2. Creating meaningful homework takes time.
3. Grading homework meaningfully takes time.
4. Given that teachers have almost no time to plan, I'd rather spend that time creating great class work and responding thoughtfully to classwork.
5. Many teachers have free time, a slow start to class, or show movies. I'd rather use every single second and assign no/little homework. There is no freetime in p-9, no holiday parties, and no movies. I'm no fun.
6. If anything, homework should be practice. It's not an appropriate tool for assessment or new learning. Practice should take only a short amount of time, or it's busy work.
7. If you have good management, you have a good chance of getting through the material in class. Bad management = "Well, we didn't get this done, so you have to do it tonight." That's either wasted time or bad planning, both of which can be avoided.

So I'm with you. I think the work they do in class is more authentic and more thoughtfully done. We can coach them through it. I'm not against homework in general, but I don't think it is learning, necessarily, and I think it's often not worth the time it takes to create, do, or grade it.

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