Sunday, September 18, 2016

Can we talk about homework?

Me in first grade
Could you assign oppressive amounts
of homework to a face like that?
My introduction to homework came in first grade. Every school night, I had to write my numbers from 1 to 100, copy spelling words, and fill out some sort of worksheet. It took hours to complete: not because the assignment was difficult, but because I filled my time with distractions and dawdling to avoid the dreaded task. As I went through school, the assignments got better, but my attitude never did. I was a certified homework hater.

As a teacher, I found the other side of the homework situation wasn't much better. I did my best to assign meaningful practice in math and language arts, but it just didn't work. I found the students who most needed the practice didn't do the homework, often because they needed more assistance than they had at home. The students who reliably turned their homework in would have been better off using the time spent doing homework on reading or an extension activity. In addition, class time and relationships were sacrificed to extracting completed assignments from the kids who didn't get them done at home.

One of the benefits of switching from teaching fifth grade to my current position was that homework was not an expected part of my classes. The students who came to me were responsible for homework assigned by their regular classroom teacher, the time spent in my room was for enrichment.

Now that doesn't mean that I never wanted my students to take my class home with them. I challenge my kids to read 40 or more books a year: there isn't enough free reading time in the school day to make that happen. When my kids are confronted with a challenging idea in math or an argument from something they have read, I hope it's compelling enough that they will think about it overnight.

Last year, my entire school had a discussion about the necessity of homework. We read articles, surveyed families, and shared opinions about it. We didn't create a blanket homework or no homework policy, but an agreement that any homework assigned would be intentional and meaningful.

This week, my school's homework policy ended up on the front page of the Coeur d'Alene Press and in a KREM 2 News segment. It caused me to do even more reflection on how we want to build a bridge between school and home learning for our students.

This 3 topping pizza would cost 9.7¢ per
square inch at my favorite pizza parlor.

Image: Pizza Toscana in a box
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I want my students to continue thinking about what they've learned in school. When I show up dressed as Charles Pinckney on Constitution Day, I hope a few kids will go home and look up the text of the Constitution and learn more about the compromises made during the summer of 1787. If we calculate the cost per square inch of the Giant Sicilian pizza, a few of my kids are going to figure out the cost per slice of their family's dinner, right? If they want to break our class speed record for counting by 8s, won't my students practice at home?

The more I think about it, I don't know if my kids are taking their learning home with them. So, this year I plan to be more intentional about suggesting how they can practice, study, and engage in their own academic exploration after the bell rings at 3:30. No homework isn't the same as no learning at home.

In addition, I am going to encourage my students to take advantage of the enrichment opportunities available to them. Maybe less "homework" will mean more Invent Idaho projects, more entries in our local library's writing contest, and better preparation for our school spelling bee.

The big question is how to get that message to my students and their parents. How can I help my students become self-directed learners to the extent that they look for opportunities outside the school day? Do you have an answer? I'll be seeking them all year, and I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine...