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Homework Part II

July 15, 2011

Teacher Musings:

This is the second in a series of a blogs that I am publishing this summer as flashbacks.  This is a post that I drafted earlier in the school year but didn’t post because I wanted to revise and re-think it.  Summer is when I have the time for this kind of reflection, so here it is!  Enjoy!

Also, Mr. Vosovic, if you are reading this, my sincerest apologies on behalf of the G-man!

The question of homework is one that has plagued me since I first started teaching.  When I was in high school I was an avid reader, and since the English homework was almost always reading (or writing an essay) I always did my homework.  In fact I was usually ahead of the class in the book and sometimes reviewed the chapters we were supposed to read that night before class so that I could participate in the discussion.  Yeah, I was that kid.  I now know that I was not the norm at my school (more to follow on that later) but I never knew English homework to be anything but reading a book or short story or writing an essay.

Fast-forward to my first-year teaching and I discovered the shocking truth when I first assigned reading homework to my students – they weren’t doing the reading!  Many were not even attempting the reading, and those that did read probably hadn’t understood most of what they read.  When I shared this shocking revelation with my husband, he reminded me that he rarely read for English class in high school.  He could pretty easily contribute to the discussion after hearing other students talk, and then he would read the book a day or two before the test.  This made me miffed not only because it just seemed wrong but also because he did better on those tests that me!  (We were in high school together).  But when he reminded me of his homework strategy it opened my eyes to the fact that far more of my students were like him than me, and some of those students weren’t even doing that well contributing to our “pretend” discussion of the book.

So my next homework strategy was to assign all manner of tools to hold students Accountable (yes, with the capital A.  Think of it like a title).  I gave reading quizzes, I sent home reading comprehension questions, all to little or no avail.  Then I fell into the worksheet trap.  I had never questioned the idea that my students needed to have homework, since that just seemed like a given as part of my pledge to hold them to high expectations.  I sent home worksheet after worksheet about all types of things we were doing in class, and it got to be that I could have put “proficient worksheet maker in word, pages and open office” at the top of my resume.  But, until I began teaching at my current school, I still didn’t get much of a homework return.  While now I could at least track what student were and weren’t doing for homework, since worksheets were collected or checked-off, I still didn’t know what to do about students who weren’t doing homework.

Then I started teaching in my current school and I suddenly started getting a 60-80% return on worksheets.  It was so nice and refreshing to give students homework and know that most of them would do it.  Pretty quickly though I realized something that through me for a loop – just because students were doing the homework did not mean they were learning anything.  And, frankly, it wasn’t due to their laziness or their lack of motivation, it was due to the fact that my homework was basically busy-work.

As I try to maximize the time my students spend on critical and creative thinking, deep reading and authentic writing, and minimizing the busy work, test prep and logistics, the more I only want my students to do homework that is either enriching or independent reading.  I’ll talk more about the independent reading piece in a future post, but thinking about what “enriching” homework would look like has been interesting.  The more I think about it and read articles, journals and John T. Spencer’s awesome blog Education Rethink the more I think that enriching homework has the following characteristics:

It applies to students already enriching experiences outside of school.  In my students’ cases that might be jobs, volunteering, reading books of their choice, helping their family, etc. 

It supports or builds some for of collaboration instead of discouraging it.  A lot of times my colleagues and I complain that students are copying each other’s homework instead of trying it for themselves.  This does not help students because they are not getting the practice they need if they are simply copying answers (many of which are wrong!)  However, I also think that it is a bit silly to think that students are supposed to work completely on their own in a world where collaboration-skills are key.  Of course, this requires us to teach students what it means to collaborate and discuss, not just copy (which is not something I have figured out!)

It is minimal.  This is what has been a big shift for me.  In terms of homework, more and longer does not necessarily equal better and more rigorous.  Many of my students face an hour or longer commute home, and many have personal responsibilities in addition to school.  They shouldn’t have to do more than an hour or hour and a half of homework each night, in my opinion.  Obviously they will have more to do during finals time, but they shouldn’t be drowning in work on a daily basis.  I get it that we are all trying to “compete” and my students are no exception.  But I haven’t seen the correlation between more time spent on homework and more advanced skills pay off in my class.  I think minimal but thoughtful and meaningful homework is the way to help students advance. 

What are your thoughts about homework?  Which of these ideas do you agree or disagree with?

Yummy Stuff:

Our CSA box has been full of cucumbers and tomatoes!  So, it was time for a summer salad.  This time around I made a wheatberry-based salad that gave us a dinner and lunch using the wheatberries from last year’s CSA box.  My quest to clear our fridge and pantry continues!

Wheatberry Summer Salad


1 cup dried wheatberries
1/2 red onion, diced
1/2 diced cucumber
2 grated carrots
1 tomato, cut into chunks
3 TB olive oil
1 TB of balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper


1. Cook the wheatberries but putting them in a pan and adding 3 cups of water.  Bring it to a boil and then cover and simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours OR cook in a pressure cooker for 30 minutes.  Drain the wheatberries and set aside.
2. While the wheatberries are cooking, prep the veggies.  Mix the wheatberries and veggies together. Add in the olive oil and vinegar and stir to combine.
This is great served on dandelion greens or other salad mix and topped with some chunks of avocado!

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