When the school day ends, I have a million things to do. I need to run by the bank, feed the dogs, pick up groceries, make dinner, hit the gym, grade papers, add finishing touches to the next day’s lessons, clean my house, do a load of laundry, and more. These tasks are critical to my sanity and overall well-being. I can not ignore them or put them off for too long. And there are even some nights when my to-do list consists solely of finding a soft blanket, making hot cocoa, putting on some Game of Thrones, and zoning out for a little while.
It is my professional opinion that, that is okay.
It is okay for teachers to have evening plans that don’t include grading or curriculum planning. It is fine for me to take time for myself by meditating or reading a book or playing board games with my friends. For many of us, that is where happiness is found, in those little moments. The breathing room. Between school, which I love, and my home life, which I love, I can make a little time for me. And just like it should be more acceptable for teachers to have those ‘me time’ moments, we should respect our students’ time outside of the classroom, too.
That’s the reason that I do my absolute best not to give homework to my students.
There is an amazing amount of research done on both sides of the spectrum for assigning homework to kids. This particular study done by a Duke University professor suggests a positive correlation between homework and student achievement, while a Stanford researcher shows that too much homework can cause serious negative effects. Within both of the studies listed, there are caveats that hide in the gray area of their research. Is homework better in secondary education than elementary? How many hours of homework is too many? With all of the pressures to be involved in extracurricular activities, is anyone surprised when homework goes undone? How are teachers supposed to regulate the amount of homework in regards to the achievement capabilities of the child?
Students should be permitted to have lives outside of the classroom. There are some students who are forced to have part-time jobs due to financial struggle, while other students simply want that part-time job for work experience. Other students want to spend time with their friends and family. Still more just need time to relax, develop their hobbies, and exist peacefully. I struggle with the concept that students should not be allowed these freedoms due to homework. If teachers, myself included, can complain about the burden of grading and lesson planning, how can we turn a blind eye to students who are drowning in homework?
Whether homework is good or bad, one of my biggest issues with the concept is quite simple: when homework doesn’t get done (which is more often than teachers would like to admit), students mentally check out of my class. Period. Didn’t do last night’s reading of Midsummer Night’s Dream? Better stare at the wall mindlessly for the next ninety minutes since you can’t participate in discussion or other planned activities. Didn’t finish the graphic organizer assigned last night? Now you’re frantically filling it out as the lesson goes on, unable to participate. Didn’t complete your section of the group project yesterday? Now your classmates don’t trust you and you dread coming to English class even more.
When not doing your homework means that your class time becomes irrelevant, that’s when I have a problem. But that is one of the most recommended ways of assigning homework that I was taught in college! Teachers are told that the homework needs to be absolutely critical to the day’s lesson plan, so students know that they have to do it to succeed.
While that sounds good in theory, my experiences in the execution do not lead to positive results. Ideally, a student would come to class once without their homework done, feel the pressures of the class moving along without them and do their best to get caught up, shocked into academic perfection by being confused for one class period. This is not reality for the bulk of my students.
Instead, they get lost. They sit in the back of the classroom and wait patiently for the next unit, because they think that they’ve completely lost their footing on the current one. Asking questions would be an admission to the teacher that they failed at doing their assignment, and when they turn to their peers they are either ridiculed or wrapped in the even more toxic community of, “Yeah, I never do homework for this class.”
To say that I never assign homework would be a lie. But I do it with intention. I build my daily lesson plans so that there is a great deal of work time for students to apply their learning. For example, my students are given at least 90 minutes to write a two page essay. They are given several weeks to complete their research for their research project. This time is structured and pointed; my students know exactly what they should be working on and what resources to use. Everyday is accompanied by minilessons and a set of tasks to complete. During their work time, I am constantly answering questions and walking around the room to make sure that everyone is (1) focused and (2) aware of what my expectations are.
With the time I give them to complete their work, if it still is not done for whatever reason, then they have homework.
This is different from my own high school experiences. I was given nightly homework with the expectation that it would be done the next day. There was very little time built in to the class to allow me to ask questions. It was understood that I would use my peers and internet resources at home to figure out what I didn’t know, and come to class a little better for it. I also took almost entirely Honors and AP classes. I chose that life. I do not think teachers have the right to force this type of schedule on their students, and my classroom structure of providing large chunks of work time solves for a lot of those issues.
My system is not perfect, but it is better than assigning hours of homework. I do have students who spend their entire class period doing nothing, despite my constant prodding and assistance. Those students frequently have homework in my classroom, and I have come to terms with that. They are only a few students; I could count them on one hand. For everyone else, they only have homework when they need more time to complete an assignment. Usually, I time it so that there are not many of them, either. I keep an open discussion about homework in my classroom. I let them know when I need work done and why I need it done.
It is important to keep in mind that I teach ninth grade English Language Arts. I have four sections of on-level English and one section of Honors. I have only taught higher grade levels during my student-teaching, and while I think my opinion still stands strong for older high school students, I can not speak with certainty. Additionally, it is of note that I do assign a fair amount of homework to my Honors section of class. Students who have chosen to be in a more rigorous environment, as I did when I was in high school, should have higher expectations for homework. The curriculum we cover is fast-paced and requires outside work to be completed fully. My students and I address the copious homework on the first day of school and I give them plenty of time to move their schedule to a different class if they so desire.
With all of this in mind, I do not understand the justification of giving students homework blindly. I understand that units cannot be covered as quickly, but I would argue that the quality of a student’s work is much higher when completed in class with a teacher nearby. There are tons of ways that teachers are trying to combat homework. Flipped classrooms, where tutorial style short videos are to be watched by students out of class and traditional ‘homework’ is done in class with the teacher present, could be an intriguing way to battle homework. Some teachers have even started assigning optional homework, which is something that I could absolutely be on board with, with further research. Teachers have options and more are being created each and every day by innovative educators.
The time has passed for teachers to fervently adhere to the, “I give a lot of homework because when I was a kid I received a lot of homework” point of view. We can’t know our students lives. We can’t predict what obstacles they face at home. And even if they are lucky enough to not face any obstacles at home, they still deserve time to themselves, hobbies, and sleep.