The never-ending debate trudges on. Should kids have homework? If so, at what ages and how much? In order to examine homework and it's implications, Valencia Clay and I have taken on some required reading on the topic. We have examined our own situations at teachers of fourth and eighth grade students, we have measured socio-economic factors and composed a conversation on the topic. Our collective goal is not necessarily for everyone to up and abandon homework, but rather to pull back and think about how it is used and whether it can ever be a catalyst for "leveling the playing field."
Fellow edu-blogger, Valencia Clay, teaches 8th grade and I teach 4th. The purpose of homework differs between elementary grades and middle grades, so we can came together to have a conversation about the issue.
“Simply put, American parents no longer have the time to give their children the help they need with their homework.”
SR: Our children spend on average seven hours a day, thirty-five hours a week in educational settings. Most full-time working adults average approximately forty hours a week. When I step back and think about these numbers and think about what has already been asked of my nine year olds during those thirty-five hours, providing them with an absence from homework seems to be the only humane option. With families working multiple shifts, childcare being vastly different in each home, and guardians working to spend just an hour or two, maybe just minutes with their children a day, it really does seem that time has run out. One might counter with an argument that the parents that do have time, do not spend that time supporting their children with their after hours work. My attitude is this, American parents and guardians (most of them) want what is best for their children. When we leave them no time during the week to make it happen, it is not unbelievable that weeknights with families end up being for talking, enjoying a meal together, shuffling kids to after school activities, or passing like ships in the night. As educators, we must understand that the makeup of our lives outside of school, do not always look the same as those of our families.
VC: In the middle grades and beyond, that notion is unacceptable. However, as educators, we cannot allow the heavy freight of homework to fall on our students’ parents alone. An interloping line between parenting and teaching forms when we do not consider who they are as individuals and the amount of work they do to provide for their families. We have to be demiurgic and intentional when setting expectations that revolve around family engagement. Teachers can begin assigning family-based tasks that allow parents to be their authentic selves, let their child see them as intellects, and give them the chance to model critical thinking.
Before any assignment is tasked, a parent-homework survey should be completed so that we, as teachers, will know what to expect from parents. It may include questions about their educational background, work hours, and whether they are in favor of family-based assignments. Make the questions as respectful as possible. Show a peer that is a parent before sending it home to make sure that it portrays your true intent: to build community in their home that engages around completing homework.
“The demands we make of our children often reflect the worst as well as the best in ourselves.”
SR: Alfie Kohn once said “In most cases, students should be asked to do only what teachers are willing to create themselves, as opposed to prefabricated worksheets or generic exercises photocopied from textbooks. Also, it rarely makes sense to give the same assignment to all students in a class because it’s unlikely to be beneficial for most of them.” When I first began my career as an educator, I gave generic homework because all of the teachers around me were doing the same. Guess how many of those teachers were creating their own homework? Almost none. Guess how many of them individualized what they sent home to actually meet each child’s needs at that given moment? None. I am in no way suggesting that this fits the mold for all educators, but we would all be kidding ourselves if we acted like the vast majority of teachers did offer homework in this fashion. What if students instead of spending time on traditional homework modeled more of the homework many of us do? The kind of homework with pure curiosity at the core. That kind of work where our engagement level is up because we feel empowered by the possibility of learning something new, something that means something to us. I am talking about the work where we have to know the answer to our question, because it is burning inside of us. How can we support this kind of inquiry with our kids?
VC: This is so true. At my worst: I have gone weeks without a homework assignment. Then, when I tried to assign something for the students to do outside of school, no one got it done. It was a joke. That experience made me become the teacher who gives arbitrary homework every night, just to maintain consistency. I could not even keep up with grading those daily assignments and my students began to catch on, which meant they took the homework as a joke, again. Both of these instances could have driven me to end homework once and for all but I could not do such a thing because I knew my students needed and deserved exactly what Stacey described as, “homework with pure curiosity at the core.”
At my best: We do not call homework homework, we call it life-work. When we are in the heat of a lesson, I may come up with an assignment on the fly, something that is directly related to the lesson of the day and was conceived out of a teachable moment. Generally, I may assign an ongoing, independent critical-thinking question on a Monday and allow students multiple days, over the course of their learning that week to complete it. This is where the term life-work comes in because the question is always one that makes them look at things from a new perspective… its life changing! I also make many of their assignments visual now, instead of forcing them to do writing assignments that I cannot keep up with or reading assignments that drain them after a long day. Visual assignments are much more fun and creative. For example, if we are learning about theme, I may have them bring in an item from home that metaphorically displays the theme of the short story we read. This, I find, is actually more challenging than just writing a 5-sentenced paragraph about the theme. For some kids, it becomes so hard that they need a couple of days to see the examples their peers bring in. No, not all teachers are assigning tasks like this but it is not because they cant or do not want to, it is because they have not learned how to do it yet. We should not end homework, we should put our energy into teaching teachers how to be innovative when assigning it.
“Because schools cannot control the home environment, homework raises the profoundly difficult question of how to achieve a leveled playing field.”
SR: If we want a leveled playing field in education, homework is not the arena. Homework will never, under any circumstances, ever, be a level playing field for our kids. While some children are listening to audiobooks in the back of their mother’s minivan on the way to soccer or music lessons, some are cooking their siblings’ dinner. Some of our children are homeless and do not have materials or a space to use to do their work. And while one might be swayed with heartfelt stories of resilience, shaming children or acting as though they are not doing enough in these latter situations would show a complete ignorance of the real lives so many of our kids are already leading. Punishing a child for not having their homework done, a child in a situation where survival is the number one priority, continues to be one of the most shameful practices of the US Educational System.
VC: If homework is the only way to achieve a “leveled playing field”, we should all consider ourselves doomed. Homework is by definition, a reinforcement of the learning or a pre-assessment of what will be taught – never should it be considered the lesson. The classroom is where we prepare our students to live in their limitless potential, despite the degree or nature of the home environment.
In places where we know a student does not have parents at home or a home at all, we can use that as a reason to pair them with a mentor in the community. Chances are, they will appreciate the mentor and maintain a love for learning at the same time. Homework does not have to remind us of the differences between our students but when it does, we should never ignore them, we should embrace them.
“How can we raise “whole children” when they have little time to do anything other than school work?”
SR: I find it hard to believe that so many educators expect my nine year olds to hold not one, but two full time jobs. A child attends school weekly, averaging almost the equivalent of a full-time job an adult might hold and then is expected to put in overtime when he arrives at home. The moments that should be spent taking a deep breath, running, playing, talking, exercising, relaxing, just being begin to not exist for children. I often hear teachers complain about children lacking problem-solving skills. It is in these moments that I wonder if these teachers realize they are the ones robbing our children of the very experiences that build problem-solvers. Experiences like play, and knowing that if our children do not have the opportunities to feel safe, loved and carefree at home, then we better be pulling out all the stops so they can have these chances at school. Life lessons are learned at the hands of those in our families. Storytelling is valued and honored in many different cultures and across religions. Are the overtime requirements placed on children providing them opportunities to connect with their families and learn their stories?
VC: Unfortunately, this research has proven to lack the timelessness that I expected when I initially purchased the book. It was developed way before the Internet was a common household tool, before social media, and before the marking of the neo-civil rights movement that we are living in today. In urban areas, like the ones I have taught in, many students do not participate in more than 1 extra-curricular activity. The lack of funding for youth programs leaves our children with more idle time to find who-knows-what online, while intentionally crafted homework assignments prompt freethinking time. Who says a reading teacher cant assign a musically-grounded homework assignment? Who says a math teacher can’t do the same? Is it a crime for the science teacher to ask to students to go the museum on the days that it is free to do independent and fun research of their choice? If homework is assigned intentionally, we can use it to shape and mold our children into this “whole” child we want. However, I believe building the whole child has less to do with homework and more to with teaching our students to identify their triggers and adopt tools for social-emotional adversities such as anxiety, doubt, and depression. This, again, is about more than homework – its life work.
“It’s simply the fatigue factor that keeps these programs from having the desired outcome.”
SR: Alfie Kohn spent much time with the research around homework as he prepared for his book The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. To quote him again “For starters, there is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school. For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement. At the high school level, the correlation is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied. Meanwhile, no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits.” Can it be the fatigue factor when the research so blatantly states otherwise? Are we blaming parents and guardians for something we already know to be ineffective?
VC: I have taught in a school that begins at 7:30AM and ends at 4:30PM. These hours make the requirement of homework sound like pure torture. Students do not need adult level responsibilities but it is our responsibility to build on their creative stamina, even after the school day ends. The research may not prove homework to be effective but should we allow social media to take the place of practicing newly acquired skills? Do we really want to engender a generation of followers and consumers instead of leaders and creators? I understand the need to create or finish a product can become daunting and lead to perfectionism and depression but the reality is, the power to create is not easy to harness, assigning at least 1-2 independent, research-based, or artful assignments a week will be a catalyst for the determination and drive that our students will use outside of the educational setting.
“Maybe its time parents finally admit… homework disrupts family life beyond a tolerable limit.”
SR: I will admit, as a parent, that homework does disrupt family life. My oldest daughter will be a third grader in approximately two weeks. She is a child who loves to learn, but does not love school. I saw it in her with the “optional” packets sent home in kindergarten. She had no interest in spending her time outside of school working on worksheets. Who could blame her? When first grade rolled around, it got even worse. Homework that year was required and my bright, articulate, rule following child would scream, kick and cry her way through her work. Work, by the way, that required little to no thought on her end. What was the point? It was certainly hard to see it as a parent and educator watching the social experiment unfolding before my very eyes. I was watching a genuine love of learning being pulled from my child. She could have been playing, interacting with her family in positive ways or problem solving as she lived her life. Instead, she spent many nights fighting with me over something I understood had no value. Disruption, unlocked.
VC: This can only be said if a school is not collaborating on the assignments. Homework should be given in collaboration with other teachers, parents, and the voice and choice of the students. Yes, 4 hours of homework a night is unacceptable. This is why each subject should claim their homework night and move forward as a school in fidelity to such agreement. Administrators and teachers of the arts should be assigned the task of working with subject areas or grade-levels to alleviate “homework packets.” If the assignment is not meaningful, it should not exist.
“As Americans, we don’t like to talk about class, but when we talk about the homework spread across the kitchen table, we have to recognize that some tables are bigger than others. Our class position in this society influences our ability to help children with their homework in subtle and complex ways.”
SR: Class affects us all, like the quote says, in subtle and complex ways. It provides us all with opportunities or maybe it doesn’t. It baffles me just how many educators lack the skills of picking up on these subtleties. Maybe you send home a homework assignment where children are to write about their favorite thing they did over summer break. If you are not being mindful about families and their experiences, you might be thinking this is an assignment anyone can be successful with. It took a child telling me that his favorite part of summer was when he got to walk to the Carryout with his dad. I had other kids talking about trips to Disney World and this child is talking about a visit to the local gas station. Other things like expecting all parents to have access to smartphones, the Internet and printing capabilities, again, just show our own ignorance and lack of understanding about our families. Not all guardians work 9-5 jobs or have their own means of transportation, yet teachers are rolling their eyes at the empty chairs during parent-teacher conferences. Until we step back and do the work when it comes to getting to know our families, homework becomes yet another startling reminder that we aren’t trying hard enough. Do parents have access to support so they can assist their kids? And do our assumptions about what parents “should already know” get in the way of building partnerships? Are you available to help coach or even speak with them at a time that works for their schedule?
VC: Its equality versus equity. Differentiation is key here. If we recognize that there are nuanced representations of class in our students, then we must develop a homework schedule and assignment bank that all students can access. In the case of homework, every student should be tasked with what they need as individual learners. If we are rallying to end homework because we do not want to go the extra mile of differentiating it for our learners and developing a burgeoning rapport with their parents, we should not be teachers.
“Rather than connecting us in a meaningful way with the school, it often alienates us from our children as they are forced to take on their role as student while we don the teacher cap.”
SR: We know that a child’s first teacher is their parent. The ways our families teach us are organic. They submerge us in language and touch, little nuances that are special to each family unit. This is the kind of genuine teaching that should be expected of parents and families. When we replace storytelling, survival techniques, religion and customs with basic comprehension and direction following, we pull at the strings of the parent-child relationship. We put strain on the unit by forcing children to participate in mundane tasks with their parents at the front of the ship. Mindlessly tasking and dragging them along, kicking and screaming out of sheer boredom. If we want our children to have strong family units, we should find ways to help support their connections with one another, not add unnecessary strain.
VC: My grandmother, who raised me, dropped out of school in the 8th grade. She never read to us, helped or checked our homework unless it was an assignment that required her to do such. I remember reading Shakespeare in 9th grade English. We were told to analyze the quote, “What’s in a name…” and to find the meaning and history of our names. Only she knew the history of the Clays and why my mother chose Valencia as my first name. I also remember having to write a list to make a recipe for chocolate cake in my math class, and yet again, only she had that! Together, we were both students when completing these assignments. She was learning about Shakespeare while I was learning about myself. These are just a few examples of authentic homework assignments that can be done in a home of parents who may or may not be educated to the highest standard. It is okay for parents to feel like students at times. This does not mean that we are donning the teacher hat, this means we are promoting learning as a life-long process.
“Homework must be examined in the context of how it affects the organization of the family and the family structure as well as how its impact is felt across socioeconomic lines.”
SR: Bottom line, we know the research and it supports not giving students homework. We also, as smart educators, examine a lack of equity when it comes to the playing field of home education. Taking all of these things into account: the strains on the family unit, impact across socioeconomic lines, lack of effectiveness supported by years of research… what’s the point? At what juncture do we decide that the quickest move we can make in the work of leveling the playing field of education is to actually pull homework from the table?
VC: I totally agree. Homework must be examined but not ended.