alfie kohn, classroom expectations, no homework

I Don’t Think Your Students Are Ready – When We Don’t Assign Homework

Mathematics homework
Mathematics homework (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“….I worry about your students next year, I don’t think they will be ready…”. My heart is pounding so hard it sounds like a truck, I can feel my checks blazing, my hands are clenching. She worries? About my students? About those kids that I have poured everything into? Those kids that have set higher expectations for themselves than any other grade I have taught? Those kids that demand a better education, a deeper discussion, a better understanding of what we do and why we do it. This teacher worries about my kids? My ears fail to listen and I feel the need to explain myself, to defend and argue but instead I raise my gaze and ask simply, “Why?” The answer is swift, “You don’t have any homework…” I wait, what else, but there is just silence. Homework and not giving it once again the center of a discussion.

So what is it about homework and whether to assign it or not that becomes such a flashpoint in education? Both sides are passionate in their reasoning for or against but the discussion seems to happen more outside of our schools than in them, not amongst colleagues. This teacher had decided, without speaking to me, that since I did not assign homework, students were not held responsible for their learning. Students were not held accountable for showing what they knew and I had no idea of how to challenge them. This was not a fair assessment by any means but still the one that had been made. So when others are misinformed about what a “no homework” classroom really is like, is it up to us to reach out and educate? Or should we expect them to come to us to become informed before they pass their judgment?

We may have all of the answers ourselves but how do we communicate them to other staff? How do we make others realize that there is a way to still deeply teach something without assigning outside of school work? How do we help others realize that homework does not have to be an integral part of what school is and that children will still be prepared for what is to come? Are we only fooling ourselves when we do boast that we are still creating responsible, accountable, time managing students without the use of homework? Can we truly not prepare students for the “rigors” of school if we do not do what others around us do? Can my fifth graders still be succesful in middle school even though I did not expect them to do two hours of work every night? Have I fooled myself into thinking that I am helping them become deeper thinkers when all I am really doing is robbing them of their chance for success? Was that teacher right? Should I be worried about my students?

achievement, alfie kohn, assessment, being a teacher, No grades

Not Grading is Awful

I am just going to admit it; not grading sucks!  Not grading means I cannot assign an average, translate it into a grade and be done.  Not grading means I have to have anecdotal evidence to back up my final grade on the report card, anecdotal evidence I have to collect throughout the year and then actually keep in one place.  Not grading also means that my students have not been given percentages at any time throughout the year, which means that when I have to give them a letter grade (as mandated by my district) it is my job to make sure that they have an idea of why they are getting what they get.  Not grading means I cannot just zip through a pile of papers, correct them according to my answer key, and whip out my calculator.  Not grading means that a product can take weeks to truly be complete because that student has to rework it or revisit it in some way.  Not grading means I have to find the time in our super packed schedule to have discussions with kids about their progress.  And it sucks, honestly, because it is so much work.  I am not going to lie.  It is a lot of work not to grade in the traditional sense.

And yet, despite all of this, not grading in the traditional sense of percentages and letter grades makes so much sense to me.  Giving feedback rather than a letter leaves room to start a conversation.  It leaves room for the student’s voice to be part of the deliberation.  It leads to more learning situations as I cater my curriculum to fit the needs of that particular student.  It leads to much more time spent with the student rather than at home going through their piles.

For one, sitting down with my students to discuss why they have assigned themselves whatever grade is eye-opening.  To hear 5th graders take control of their learning, to own up to where they should have worked harder, to set up the future path for learning they need to travel, wow!  I even used my Livescribe pen for some of these conversations just to record what the students had to say, even though no one but me would listen to it.

Second, I am amazed at how often my students and I land on the same grade.  These kids really know where they are in their learning journey and they know why they are there.  It is rare that I have to steer them toward a different grade and even then it is something we discuss.

Finally, having these reflective discussions is a great way for me to culminate the year.  The students give me feedback on what worked for them, they give me ideas on how to improve and we discuss where they are headed.  All of them set learning goals for the summer, not through assigned homework, threats or promises from me but because they want to read or want to remember their math concepts.

And yet, I still struggle with taking that conversation and distilling it to a letter grade.  That letter seems so shallow compared to the rich discussion we have had.  That letter doesn’t seem to reflect all of the growth they have done.  That letter doesn’t seem to describe their journey at all but instead boils them back down to a percentage, to a number and a grade that says nothing.  So I return to my constant state of reflection on grading; what am I trying to accomplish with it?  What is the true purpose?  What am I trying to classify and portray?  How can I ever hope to capture the essence of a child’s growth in a mere letter?  And the time?  Where will I continue to find the time as our school gets more focused on tests and data?  I am not sure I have all of the answers but in my heart and mind I know what I am doing makes sense for me.  Even if it is one of the most time consuming changes I have ever integrated into my room.

alfie kohn, assessment, Be the change, being a teacher, change, choices, grades, homework

Change Doesn’t Have to be All or Nothing

I remember the first orientation day when I had to face parents and explain to them that their child would probably not have much homework in my classroom.  I remember the fear that almost made me choke on my words, the way I had to remind myself to look up, the way I held my breath waiting for a reaction.  Then I added that instead of letter grades students would get feedback and we would set goals, grades would only show up on trimester report cards and no where else.  By now I was breaking into a cold sweat, my stomach churning, hands were clammy.  Somebody had to react, and then…nothing.  No raised hands, no sour faces, just a quiet wait for what else I had to share. 

Big changes for sure coming from this sophomore teacher.  Big changes that I felt had been necessary for me to be a better teacher and to provide a better education for the students.  Big changes that I had decided to do all at once.  And yet, you don’t have to.  Even though I speak passionately about how throwing out grades or limiting homework has been the best decision I have ever made, that is exactly it; it was my decision.  Something that I knew I had to do to restore my sanity, my passion for teaching.  And yet, that doesn’t mean it is going to work for you.  Perhaps my ideas are too extreme, or just do not fit with your educational philosophy and that is perfectly fine.  But maybe, just maybe, you would be willing to try it for just one little assignment?

Perhaps you are curious but just not ready to go all out.  Perhaps the idea of limiting homework overall sounds insane but maybe it could be tried for a unit?  Perhaps rather than a letter grade, for one project, feedback could be given or students could assess themselves?  Perhaps just trying something different one time will work better for you?  Perhaps, you might like it, perhaps you wont, but perhaps one time will change your mind?

As a first year teacher, if someone had told me to limit homework, or to get rid of grades, I would have rolled my eyes and not listened.  I would have thought them radical, extreme, or totally clueless.  I was not ready for that type of teaching.  I was not ready to take my teaching in that direction.  That direction had to come from within me, the timing had to be right, as did the purpose.   And that is ok.  It is ok to not embrace what Alfie Kohn says.  It is ok to have faith in whatever one believes is the way to teach, there is room for us all in education.  But perhaps, we should all try something else, just once, and then see if that change is meant for us or not. 

alfie kohn, classroom management, discussion, no homework

But How Do You Really Get Rid of Homework and Still Know Where Students Are At?

Image from here

One great thing about blogging about what happens in our classroom and to me as a teacher is that I am often asked to clarify how all of this works.  So after my latest post “My Kid iS Drowning in Homework” I received an email from Mr. Feltman asking me some questions.  I figured my answer back might be helpful to others as well, so with his permission here is our communication.

Mr. Feltman wrote;
If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask a few questions, that would assist us in this endeavor.

Do you have research or articles backing this up?

What percentage of tests and other activities make up the students grades? (another way to ask is when you switched to “no homework” how was your class grading scale affected?)

How do you assess their mastery of learning (especially poor test takers)?

And here is my answer (emphasis added by me);
I do have research and articles!  A big push for me came from Alfie Kohn’s book “The Homework Myth” in which he collects a lot of research about it, and other sources which I have some of here

I did want to do my research as well so that my principal would back me.

Along with the no homework I am opposed to letter grades, however, my district is not.  So the compromise I have figured out in my room is that students only get letter grades on their trimester report cards, and those  are decided through discussion with me after we have decided as a class what each letter grade means.  The limited homework that does go home is therefore not used to determine grades but rather to determine instruction needs.  So my grading scale was affected in a positive way since students know that if they do work in class and hand it in, we discuss and dissect it and then figure out their needs from there.  There is no final letter-grade assigned to it but rather a common conclusion is given and we determine the path from there.

Tests are part of my formative assessment and students are mostly given a chance to revise and rethink their answers.  I do not want a snapshot of that kid at that time, I want to gauge their overall understanding.  Because the pressure of letter grades (and the finality aspect of a test) has been removed, students also tend to work through assessments much more calmly because they know I am looking for their depth of understanding rather than the pressure to perform right then and there.  This has provided me with a much more comprehensive view of the child’s abilities, which in turn I communicate to parents through feedback and observations.

Mastery of learning is shown in many ways.  I always think of what the large goal is or the skill and through conversation or even in-class work I can figure out if they have mastered that skill.  Math tends to be the only area where there is daily work (class time is given for this) but other than that most students are involved in longer projects covering a range of goals from the common core and district standards.

I know giving up homework can seem daunting but once you take the plunge it really isn’t that scary.  Sure you will have some parents that do not understand it but if you communicate your intentions clearly; mine are to keep school at school as long as the students work hard, then parents seem to come on board.  Getting rid of homework means I have to be much more on top of class time and what we need to get done with a focus on the larger goals rather than small worksheets where the students just regurgitate information or daily work that could be covered in a long-term project.  

Thank you for the email Mr. Feltman and good luck!

alfie kohn, merit pay, testing

Yes They Grew But Can I Take Credit For It?

We are in the midst of testing season at my school.  The students are doing MAP tests, as well as their writing assessments and we gather to discuss the results, to think of strategies.  To rank, to sort, to file.  To highlight, to shine a light, and to discuss what is working and what isn’t.  We pat some teachers on the back – look at that growth, and we wonder what else we can do.  We wonder if merit pay is on the horizon and how we will be ranked, filed, and sorted.  That will be based on these test results on those students gains or losses and yet, can we really take credit for the gains that our students may have made?  Can those test results really be accredited to the teacher?

I often wonder how much growth my students do on their own?  How their brain creates new connections, new ideas, and new strategies for conquering the learning we do?  How much of that growth can be attributed to their parents or home environment rather than the school?  How many of those new connections can really be chalked up to their natural development as a growing child who all of a sudden gets it more?  Or even how much of their growth should be attributed to their first teachers, perhaps in daycare, pre-school or kindergarten?  Those teachers set the foundation, taught those students that school was safe and an environment they could continue their learning in.  Can I take credit for any of the growth shown a piece of paper?  I don’t know.

alfie kohn, being a teacher, grades, questions

Is the Report Card Obsolete?

Today I was asked what I have against report cards and as I stood there explaining my stance on grades something dawned on me; if we keep parents informed throughout the semester or trimester, do we really need report cards?  After all, I continuously meet with my students and offer them feedback and we set and work on their goals.  I send home more detailed feedback for parents to peruse so then doesn’t the purpose of the report card become obsolete?  In fact, the report card may work against our philosophy of students as developing learners since we chunk their development and their learning into artificial calendar dates as determined by the district.   Something unnecessary and just a tad bit redundant.

So I leave with this thought; could we abolish report cards altogether?  Or are they a necessary component of our reporting to students and parents?  Are they simply an overview or a snapshot rather than the entry ticket into college and free pizza?