This summer as I saw my niece, who is now a sophomore, we inevitably spoke about her reading life. She used to be a voracious reader, we could not get enough books in her hands. Then she came to the whole class novel, which inspired this post, and since then her reading life has been limping at best. This summer I asked, as usual, “What are you reading?” She told me The Kite Runner and then scoffed. Surprised I asked why the reaction. She then told me that she had read the book and loved it but now had to reread it to annotate it. “The whole book?” I asked. “The whole book.”When I asked her why she was not quite sure, perhaps they would use parts for discussion.
I wondered then, as I often do, when I come across homework assignments that appear nonsensical, whether her English teacher had done their own homework? Whether they had taken the time to annotate the entire book themselves. Whether they understand the labor that was involved with that task and how it would take away from the enjoyment of the book. It seems to me that once again something that is meant to teach kids how to better thinkers, instead is implicit in the killing of their love of reading.
Several years ago I started to do my own homework. From the stories we wrote, to the essays, to the speeches, and to the presentations. I started to experience what I was putting on the shoulders of my students and I quickly realized that what I thought would just take a few minutes never did. What I thought would be easy hardly ever was. What I thought would be meaningful sometimes wasn’t. So I stopped giving homework, except for reading. I stopped going by the formula of grade times 10 minutes. I stopped handing out packets and instead vowed to stop talking so much and instead spend the time in class on discussion and work time. I expected pushback or concern, but have hardly gotten any in the last six years. Most parents express relief instead.
So every year I make a deal with my students; if you work hard in our classroom, you should not have to do work outside of English. If you give me your best then besides reading a good book you don’t have to give me anything more after you leave our classroom. And for most it works. Most of my students come ready to work, ready to learn, and they hand their things in. Not everyone, just like when we have homework we have those kids that do not get it done, I also have kids that do not use their time wisely. So I work individually with them, after all, the acts of a few should never determine the conditions of the many.
So if you are still giving homework, I ask you for this simple task; do it yourself. Go through the motions as if you were a student and then reflect. Was it easy? How much time did it take? What did you have to go through to reach completion? In fact, if you teach in middle school or high school, do it all, truly experience what we put our students through on a day-to-day basis. I would be surprised if the process didn’t shape you in some way.
I still do my own assignments, although I have been slacking lately. Whenever I do, I am reminded of just how much time homework swallows. Of sometimes how little actual practice it gives, or even learning. How homework is unfair because we have already been given hours of their time in school. How those who really need the practice do not need it at home, but instead with us as support in our classrooms. Do your homework, tell your students, and see how they react. Then ask them how they feel about homework. Let their thoughts shape you as a teacher, I promise you won’t regret it.
I am currently working on a new literacy book. While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher. The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge. So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.