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Homework Musings: Part I

May 10, 2011

Teacher Musings:

Homework has been a thorn in my side ever since I second grade.  I remember bringing home my first homework assignment in first grade – I was super proud to be such a big kid and I couldn’t wait to get home and start my homework!  I proudly sat down at the dining room table and drew my picture (or whatever it was I was doing).  I’m sure my mom chuckled at my enthusiasm.  After finishing my homework I went right back to what I normally did – played games outside, read books with my mom, etc.

However, by second or third grade homework started to get in the way.  I always did my homework, and when it involved reading books I usually enjoyed it.  However, the worksheets just got longer and longer as I went through elementary and then middle school and then high school.  I always did all of my homework assignments, whether or not they were collected, because I lived in fear of showing up to school and (horror of horrors) NOT BEING PREPARED!

When I first started teaching I saw homework as the way to show that my class was hard.  For real.  Rigorous!  As far as I could tell, the more homework you assigned, the harder your class was, so the more challenging a teacher you were.  But when I assigned a lot of homework, I got a few students who did it, a few who b.s.ed their way through it and a lot who didn’t even pretend to do it.  I didn’t know how to understand this phenomena as a first-year teacher who had always done her own homework, so my new solution was to assign as little homework as possible.  However, this mean that we were reading Catcher in the Rye 5-10 pages at a time, which is no way to read a novel!

As I have grown as a teacher, and thought about what real learning looks like for me, and what I want education to look like for my son, I think that homework (as I understand it and see it used) is way more about the teachers than the students.  The point of homework (really of ANYTHING we do in education) should be to help students learn something, come to new understandings of things, and apply their knowledge to the world around them.

And, frankly, the worksheets I have given them as “homework” do none of those things – unless the purpose of homework is to teach students how to fill out a worksheet.

My students overall have complex and often rich lives outside of school.  Many work, take care of siblings, deal with family stress, play sports (all things I did at various levels, by the way).  I want to find a way for them to tap into those rich lives and see the lessons from my English class in the world around them.  I want them to describe something they read that made them think a new way.  I want them to discuss the moral dilemmas they faced at work and how that relates to Atticus Finch.  I want them to do what two of my students did voluntarily – research a topic that was tangentially related to what we did in class, and then come in and share the texts with me (and the class).

Instead, I am at a cross roads.  I still need them to “turn in” homework because I fear that they will not take my class seriously if I don’t.  We also cannot read enough in class – they must read outside of class (although I wish that we could read more of books they chose).  So, they read two nights a week, and they post a reading log on our class wiki once a week (where they can see each other’s work) and they write once a week.  All tasks that build on what we are doing in class, and all tasks we start, at some level, in class.  Someday I hope to move more in the direction of authentic learning and individual choice both inside and outside the classroom.  But for now, I’m going to be content with avoiding worksheets like the plague.

What are your thoughts on homework?  What do you think is/should be the purpose of homework?

Yummy Stuff:

I’ve said it once and I say it again.  Greens ROCK!  I’m still totally into my green smoothies, and last night we had Garlic and Greens Soup from Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s The Vegan Table.  I’m going to let Colleen give the recipe this week with her own demonstration of this wonderful and hearty dish!

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