exploration, feedback, no homework, parents

Can We Prepare Students for Middle School If We Don’t Assign Homework?

I wonder if my child will be overwhelmed in middle school by all of the homework since they have not had much with you… The comment stares me in the face and I immediately think up excuses; but we had homework, we just did it in class, but it is not my problem what happens in middle school, and why didn’t this parent bring it up before? And then I pause, re-read the comment, take away the personal insult I had added to it and see it as feedback, see it for what it truly is; a learning opportunity. 

Homework, that integral part of going to school, that bastion of what afternoons should be consumed by, how school should look. We grew up with it, we survived, we learned the lessons and now our children should go through the same. I used to believe that home work taught a deeper lesson, that without it children would not learn lessons such as time management, responsibility, accountability. I used to believe that if a child did not do their homework then they were not taking school seriously, that the failure to complete their end of the deal exonerated me from any further responsibility. Really all I had to then was punish and move on, hope the kid got the homework done and understood the bigger lesson. And now I know how wrong I was in those beliefs. I know how homework became something expected but not contemplated. and yet how do you communicate that to those kids it affects? How do you effectively have parents place their faith in you when how you run your classroom is pretty different than what they ever tried?

So for next school year I will not just mention my homework policy. I will thoroughly explain it and also stress that it is not that my students do less work than the other fifth grade classes, it is just that they do it at school instead. It is just that they may not get worksheets but rather delve deeper into projects, dedicating class time to learn those same lessons of accountability, responsibility, and time management. I will leave the doors for discussion open and encourage the questions, not afraid of criticism but welcoming the process, carefully explaining why I make the choices I make and how the students will indeed be prepared for middle school.

And so I continue to read through the feedback and I stumble upon one that is just as unexpected, just as deep… “I wish I had had a teacher like you in school, I am sure I would have liked school more if I had…”. And I smile and I reflect and I am grateful for all those that took the time to tell me how they felt.

We only grow when we open up to the good and the bad, we only grow when we realize our own imperfection. We only grow when we reveal our vulnerability and then really listen, I would not want it any other way.

alfie kohn, exploration, Passion, questions, Student-centered

School: The Killer of Curiosity

“What is that?”  “Where does this go?”  “Can I do this?”  All questions overheard during my school’s recent kindergarten visitation day.  There they were: fresh, eager, curious, asking questions about everything; where does this go, what does this do?  I marvel at their spirit.  And then I think of later years of students, despondent, going through the motions, routine focused and mostly okay, but not asking all of the questions.  Where did the questions go?

As teachers we do not set out to kill the joy of learning, at least , not anyone I know does.  We state in our missions that we want to change students’ lives, motivate them, inspire them, and keep them eager to learn.  And yet our mission seems to be at odds with our school system.  Classrooms are set up all facing the teacher so that the “sage on the stage” can be the center of attention.  The whole day is rigidly structured so that subjects do not overlap, routines are taught and mastered and hardly ever broken.  Punishment goes hand in hand with rewards and grades become the ultimate reward in the end.  An A will always be better than a B no matter what the teacher says.  We divide our students into winners and losers and hope they all have a nice journey through school. And then we wonder why students lose interest, lose relevance.  By the time we get to high school, the eyes are on the prize; graduation, where they will break free of the rigidity of school  Students count down until summer vacation so that they can be free.  Free.

As Alfie Kohn has stated, “School is not an institution of learning, it is an institution of listening and memorization.” (Said in in a LeanBlog Podcast 2/24/09).   And this I believe is killing our school system.  Test-obsessed and score driven, we no longer let children develop their curiosity to provide them with a real stake in learning.  We no longer offer them choice because we have too much curriculum to cover.  Our homework is not set up for meaningful exploration but rather to teach time management and study skills.  Time management?   Like our over-scheduled students need more time management?  When students fail to hand in their homework we assume that it is either because they are too lazy or because they didn’t feel like it.  We do not assume that perhaps it was uninteresting, irrelevant or perhaps even too hard or meaningless.  We almost always assume we know best.  And even if we know within our hearts that the piece of homework assigned probably wasn’t all that engaging, we assign it anyway, because we have to assign something and we were forced to do inane homework when we went to school so why should our students be exempt.  But the system is broken, we know it, and we have to change it.

There are exceptions, of course, thankfully.  There are pockets of teachers and schools that are taking a different approach. That are actively combating this curiosity-killing school system.  Those that let their students explore, those that weigh their options, assign meaningful homework, that question their practices rather than go with the status quo.  They provide inspiration for some and shudders for other.  Perhaps they are just too different for some to even recognize them as schools.  Yet they are part of the answer.  We must bring back exploration, we must give teachers time to fully engage their students.  We must spark teachers’ curiosity as well so that we all can love learning again.  They say that curiosity killed the cat, let’s not have the lack of curiosity kill our schools.