Wednesday, January 08, 2014

While I'm Home.. Let's Talk Homework


It is snow day number three today.  Still home.  And more snow is in the forecast for today.  Will it affect us going back tomorrow?  Who knows.  But, I figure it's high time I get back in to "teacher mode", so this post today seems appropriate to combine the two.

An old school friend posed me a question on my Facebook page last night about my opinion on homework.  Her son receives a high amount of homework each night, and she was shocked at how much homework her son was given to complete over Christmas break.  She explained he had to do a book report, memorize the states and their capitals, math problems, and reading and answering questions from science.  

She asked if it was a "normal" amount, and why kids received so much homework?

Unfortunately, I couldn't really help her with her quandary.  Her son attends school in Florida, and I have learned that each state has a different opinion when it comes to homework.  Heck, each county, district, individual school and classroom has a different opinion when it comes to homework.  I've been in districts that demand at least 10 minutes of homework per grade level each night, and I've been in districts that have a no homework policy.  

Read this article if you don't believe me:

Thankfully, the district I am in right now doesn't have an "official" homework policy.  And, I'm also happy that our principal leaves it up to each individual teacher to make up their own policy... although she has shared on numerous occasions that she's not a big fan of too much homework.  

But then, what is too much homework?

In my classroom, I have a small homework policy.  I very rarely assign specific homework (meaning an assignment that's strictly done at home).  But, I do have an understanding with my students that if some assignments aren't finished in class, then they are to be finished at home.  Not all, but some.  For example, if I've spent time teaching math, and we've done stations and practiced the skill in class, I may assign some problems for the students to complete independently and finish at home.  There is one assignment that I do assign as homework each week, and that is a spelling contract.  It's a menu of spelling activities (that take about 10 minutes each) that the students are to do one of each night to practice their spelling words.  I don't really like rote memorization, so I throw in some definitions, using them in sentences, along with the "write them 5 times" stuff.

However, I try my hardest to end our day with some study time.  That's the time when the kids can work on homework, get extra help, and learn some study skills.  So, even if I do assign a small homework assignment, it's very possible that the kids can finish their homework in class.

There are many reasons I have the homework policy that I do.

One being that I am a mother of two kids that are active in extra curricular activities.  Now, I am a firm believer that sports should NEVER interfere with academics.  However, I also know that it's no fun going to a game, getting home around 9PM, and then having my child up until 11PM finishing up homework.  That just makes them tired the next day, and then the focus that should be applied in the classroom is lacking.  On the other hand, just because my child has two hours of practice each night doesn't mean they shouldn't have some homework when they get home.  But, no child (in my opinion) should have more than 2 hours of homework.  In fact, I even think that any kid in 8th grade or lower having HOURS of homework isn't good. Half hour to an hour?  Sure.  But, when my children come home, eat dinner, and then sit at the dinner table until bed time... I have a small problem with that.  When is their time?

Two... There are several kids who just aren't going to do it.  It's a sad truth, but still a truth.  And it's not always the child's fault.  Sometimes the child has other responsibilities to take care of at home, and really doesn't have the time to do the homework.  Other times (and this has actually happened), I have a child whose parent forbids homework.. and doesn't make their child do it.  Then there are the kids that really struggle and don't have the help and support at home to get the guidance they need, so they can't do it.  And then, I have the kids who are down right defiant and even after 5 months of school still come to school on Friday morning saying they "forgot" to do their spelling contract and receive a zero for the only homework grade I give.  And no matter how many times I meet with parents because their child isn't making an A because the homework isn't being done, it doesn't change anything.

Three...It improves the quality of class work and focus. By that I mean, when a child knows that any unfinished work is homework, they are more likely to buckle down and finish the work.  But, my students also know that if they rush through an assignment willy nilly just because they don't want homework, then they'll have the entire assignment to do over again when they go home.  Instilling the homework policy I have has really helped curb some of the chattiness that takes place.  My students are far less likely to waste their time if they know that they have to take home their unfinished work.  The study time I give at the end of the day is a "free choice" time.  Meaning some kids will happily take their work home and spend that time reading, others will work in small study groups (with my permission and oversight) to work together to complete their work, some will work to make sure they don't have a single thing to take home, some may use some flash cards or review some notes to practice skills, and I have time to work one-on-one with kids who I know are struggling with whatever content I delivered that day.  Any student who chooses to waste that time gets some consequences thrown their way.  But, the last 20-30 minutes of school is usually a very valuable time for all my kids, and very rarely do I have to worry about time wasters.

Four...It's more work for me.  I know this sounds silly, but it's true.  When I assign work for homework, I end up making more work for myself.  Grading, hunting it down, etc.  Taking home assignments that were supposed to be done in class is different... that's the work they were going to do.  But why give them more?  Why give me more?  

Five...How many of you like to take work home with you?  Admit it.  After being at work all day, do you really want to go home and continue working there?  I know that one of my biggest complaints in pretty much every job I've had has been the amount of time I've spent working at home.  Being a teacher, it was a given that I was going to spend time working at home.  I accept that.  But, it doesn't make the fact of me enjoying it anymore.  When I get home after a long day, I want to relax, unwind, and do ABSOLUTELY nothing.  I want the weekends to be time I can spend with my kids, doing stuff together.  So, why should we make kids go to school all day and then continue their work when they get home?  Every now and then is fine.  The truth is, many kids are going to end up with some kind of job that has them taking home work.. so it's good practice, but not EVERY night.  I've heard complaints that kids do nothing but sit in front of video games or the TV all evening.  So?  I know that's what I do after a long day at work.  I also know that many kids like to go out and play with their friends after school, or ride their bike, or play a block game of soccer.  If they have a pile of homework, and parents that support the "homework first, play second" mentality (I'm one of those parents), then often that play time is gone.  Kids spend all their down time working on homework, eat their dinner, and then head off to bed without getting any chance to unwind.  Or worse, they decide to still get in a couple of hours of play time, making them go to bed WAY later than they should, and making them tired and unproductive the next day.

Six... You can't teach with homework.  I don't care what anyone's policy is on homework, it can't be anything more than practice.  You can't send home homework that's new content.  That's just silly.  Why on earth would a teacher send home worksheets with some directions and expect a child to learn something new with those worksheets?   They can't.  So all homework just has to be a review of what's already learned.  That in itself is OK.  Some kids do need some practice outside of school.  Some of the math practice I send home is to ensure that the students grasped the content we did together in class.  But if the practice is because they didn't get it in class, they're not going to get it at home.  If the practice is for a kid that does get it, the practice is kinda obsolete...they get it, and don't really need it ingrained in to their brains anymore.  And, 99.9% of the time, they are never going to cover something just once.  When I teach something, they are going to see it over and over and over again.  Different scenarios, more in-depth usage, but very rarely will they learn something just once and never see it again.  Meaning, they are going to get practice each and every time they see that skill.

One of the most stressful parts of my job is the homework saga.  I send home a little, but it's a downright pain to get every student to turn the work in (see reason number two).  That's why I make it a point to give some time at the end of the day, because I know that if some kids don't finish their work in class, I'll never see it again...and then the grades really suffer.  Which is frustrating on a whole new level.  There's nothing worse than seeing a kid that should be making straight As make Bs and Cs just because they don't do the assignment at home, like I've asked. 

I try my best to make my students earn their grades.  I'm not an easy grader.  I couldn't care less if a child has the potential of making straight As or has made straight As their entire school life, and then suddenly starts making Cs in my class.  If the effort isn't there, neither is the grade.  On the flip side, effort is always rewarded.  Just because a child didn't get a single problem right on an assignment doesn't automatically mean they get an F. If they've done what I've asked, and put in a valiant effort to get the right answer, they'll receive partial credit.  Some people may think that's terribly unfair, but life kinda works that way.

I know I have the potential of being an amazing teacher.  I've been a good teacher up to this point, but if I decided to go to work each day, sit at my desk with my feet up, and hand out worksheets like I'm "making it rain", then I wouldn't have my job very long.  Just because I know how to do something doesn't mean I earn the paycheck.  I have to show that I know how to do it.  Put the time and effort in to it.  And, I know that even with how hard I work, I still have areas of improvement.  But, because I work so hard, my principal gives me "partial credit".  She pulls me aside, gives me some constructive criticism, and sends me back in there full of hope that I can do better.  I feel hopeful even if I've failed.  

I have some kids that feel that just because they are super smart, they don't really need to put much effort in to their work.  Their grades reflect their effort.  I have some kids who struggle so much but give me everything they have to try and get through it.  Their grades reflect their effort.  So, it's quite possible I have a super smart kid making a C and a kid below grade level making an A.  

That's how I roll.  That's how I instill responsibility and passion and drive for success.

But, at the end of the day, there really isn't a "one size fits all" way of fixing the homework problem.  

No matter what the policy is, there's always going to be someone against it.

Don't give homework?  A parent is going to be unhappy because their child has nothing to keep them busy when they are at home.  Or, the parent thinks that homework is needed to help boost grades or give them more practice.  

Give some homework?  There will be parents wanting to know why there's only homework for math but not reading.  How come there's never any science or social studies homework.  Or the fluctuation in homework days puts a kink in the home schedule.  

Give a lot of homework?  The kids don't have enough down time, there's not enough time do other activities, kids aren't getting enough sleep.  They then start to hate school and their effort and motivation dwindles to nothing.

Now, after all this, I will say that having some homework while on a break from school isn't a bad thing.  In moderation.  Requiring a certain amount of reading.  Maybe a few practice math problems.  Stuff that keeps their minds fresh for when they return... but even that mentality has it's flaws.  There will be kids that do it all on the first night, and spend the rest of the break letting their minds melt.  There will be kids that wait until the very last night of break and cram it all in, making their night very frustrating because they have so much to do and so little time.  And there will be kids that don't do it at all because they "forgot".  

So, what is the best answer for homework?  

Good question... when someone comes up with the answer, can they please let me know?


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