acheivement, alfie kohn, assumptions, being a teacher, believe, change, choices, communication, difference, elementary, get out of the way, grades, homework, learning, parents, promise, trust

How Homework Destroys

It finally happened; a parent decided to disagree with my new take on homework. They do not feel that I am providing enough and thus am doing a disservice to the students by lulling them into a fake sense of security in their skills. My response at first was indignation; how dare so and so question my fantastic educational shift in philosophy. Why are they not enlightened or believers as well? And then it dawned on me; I have not shown them the way.

I spend a lot of time speaking to students about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what the goal is for their learning but not enough explaining that to the parents. And while I hope that parents have faith in me, I cannot take it for granted. I am, after all, messing with a system that has been set in place for many years and that these same parents are products of. So, of course, my system may come as a shock at first, and without the proper explanation it will continue to be so. After all, parents have been trained to think that for every grade level you figure out homework load by multiplying the grade level with 10 minutes. So by 4th grade, students should at the very least be doing 40 minutes of homework a night. And yet, my students don’t. They do most of their work in class, even staying in for recess so that I may help them, and I never willingly send home a piece of homework that I know they will struggle for hours with.

Homework should be practice, a showing of skills. It should not be a two hour time consumer where both mom, dad and the encyclopedia gets involved. I explain this to my students and the sense of relief is visible in them. They know that I will challenge them in class but at home they may pursue life instead. So if you work hard at school then the reward is rest, family time, and a pursuit of happiness. And it works. My students are still learning everything they should for the year, albeit in a more hands-on manner. I am shying away from worksheets and instead having conversations about learning. Our favorite tool is our dry-eraseboards that allows me a quick check in for understanding. And the students are noticing the difference. No longer dreading the afternoon because I will continue to haunt their day. No longer dreading school because it means so many extra hours of works. No longer dreading learning because they are realizing that learning is something you do at school and that it doesn’t come form worksheets.

When I recently welcomed 9 new students into my room, one “old” student told me that she was looking forward to seeing how the newbies would react since I “teach a little crazy.” And perhaps that is true. I am loud, obnoxiously so at times, and I have high standards. I push kids to learn, I push kids to understand, and then I back off. I let them think about it, let the learning resonate within them, and then I challenge them to dredge it out again the following day.

By no means, am I the perfect teacher. I have many years of learning to come, but I do know that I am on to something here and I stand at a fork in the road signaling a massive shift in my whole educational philosophy. I believe these students are learning, I believe I am preparing them as well as any other teacher, and most importantly I believe I am letting them be kids at the same time. My students know that if something is homework it is for the benefit of their learning and is important to do, not just another piece of paper that their teacher didn’t get to in class. They know that I only assign it if it is truly valuable, and not just something for me to use for grades. They know that we will meet and discuss their learning, always knowing what is missing, what is accomplished, what the direction should be. They know that if I assign something to them it is because they have the skills needed to do it. Do yours?

expectations, grades, homework

So I Wrote to Alfie Kohn…

This weekend marked the first ever Reform Symposium, which was an incredible experience of people involved in education all coming together to tear it apart and perhaps puzzle it all back together.  There were many stellar talks but my favorite presentation was by far Joe Bower´s on Abolishing Grades, although I must admit I am partial here because I already admire Joe´s work and dedication.  Joe did not disappoint and the backchannel talk was lively as well.  I certainly only became more passionate about my quiet revolution in my own room of perhaps, just maybe, removing grades.

However, to do so though there are people I must get on my side, the first one being my principal, so as any passionate teacher does, I have been gathering my research, thoughts and ideas as I prepare for it.  Once again, it has been a wonderful experience to find that I am not alone in this frustration with grades and a particularly grateful thanks go to @MrMacnology and @Joe_ Bower for their non-exasperated answers to my endless questions.   

And yet, I wanted to see if there was anything I was missing, so I decided to write to Alfie Kohn and by golly he answered my request for help to speak to my principal.

Here is my plea for help:

Dear Mr. Kohn,
I am 3rd year 4th grade teacher struggling with why I grade students.  For 2 years now, I have fudged grades, assigned worksheets to make sure I have enough stuff to make an average from, and dashed students love of learning when they received a poor grade.  For 2 years I have fielded parent phone class on why their child got a particular grade and graded papers until i was ready to fall asleep.  I have dozed off during meaningless book report presentations, and fought with homeless students to turn their homework in.  I am done with grades but have to still convince my principal.  Do you have any strong points that i should bring up to him to convince him that learning should be for learning’s sake and not to produce a grade? 
best,
Pernille Ripp

Here is the advice I received:
Thanks for your note.  I’ve written about why grades are unnecessary and harmful in two books (Punished by Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve) and in two articles (www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/fdtd-g.htm and www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/grading.htm).  The first of those articles is a little more accessible, I think.  It’s focused on grading at the high school level, but I think one can argue that its points apply more strongly to teaching younger children since there is even less of a case to be made in favor of giving kids grades.  (One can’t even rationalize them on the grounds that colleges care.)
A Canadian teacher has lately been working hard to persuade other educators to join him in refusing to give grades on individual assignments (even if they have to turn in an end-of-term grade).  Some of the resources on his blog may be useful to you:  www.joebower.org/p/abolishing-grading.html.  Of course, persuading the principal to stop using grades at all — on a schoolwide level — would be much more desirable.
Also of possible interest:  this account of a middle school administrator and a high school teacher who have gotten rid of grades (www.alfiekohn.org/miscellaneous/newsarchive.htm#grades) and the first two clips from my DVD that summarize some of the key reasons that grades don’t make sense:  www.alfiekohn.org/gandhvideoclips.htm.
Any or all of these resources can be shared with parents and other teachers, the idea being to organize opposition to grades so you’re not fighting this all by yourself.
Good luck!

— Alfie Kohn

I am once again amazed at the power of reaching out to others for help in this quiet revolution against grades.  I am excited to meet with my principal, and hopefully persuade him to let me try this.  And most of all, I am excited about joining up with all of you that think,  discuss, evaluate and listen every single day; never too tired to ponder, “Are we doing the right thing?”
Be the change, curriculum, grades, homework

But We Worked So Hard On It…

Those words, uttered by a parent disagreeing with their child’s grade has made my hair bristle more than once. You worked hard on it, meaning you and your child? Wait a minute, this was not meant to be a parent and child homework assignment but rather a well thought out learning experience for your 4th grader. And yet, parents decide to help. At first, I thought it was because they were helicopter parents, obviously not having severed the proverbial umbilical chord, marching their child toward a successful life always monitored by the parent like a shadow. Then I thought the parents were suckers, after all, nothing can ruin a weekend more than a child whining that they don’t want to do their homework. Maybe these parents lacked self-control, discipline, dreams, a life? Maybe they just really wanted to re-do 4th grade curriculum because it was so much fun. Oh, those illusions kept me and my irritation going for two years.

This summer, on my Twitter revolution I started reading more about parent involvement, grades and their effect on classrooms, all posted by the formidable force that is Alfie Kohn. And yes, I had an epiphany, an ugly one; one that I hoped not to have, and yet it was so necessary. These parents, who obviously had to do the work with their children, did it because my assignment was too hard, too all-involving, too removed from learning and not based in real-life. So all that frustration should have been directed toward another source; myself. After all, the puppet-master of the homework strings is me.  So this year I am making a change:

  • I will not assign homework because I need something to add to my grades so that I can do a bigger average.
  • I will not assign homework because I was long winded and didn’t get to the point, leaving no work time.
  • I will not assign homework just because the book tells me that I should.
  • I will not assign homework because my team members assign this piece or someone else who has taught the same unit.
  • I will not assign homework because it is a long vacation and who knows what sort of trouble student’s need to be kept out of.
  • I will not assign homework because the learning did not happen in my classroom.
Instead, homework will be limited.  It will be re-evaluated and contained within my room as much as possible.  I am changing my grading system, more on that in another blog, and no longer feel the burden of needing enough things to grade so that I can fall back on it for my report cards.  My mantra for the year is “Authentic Learning” and with that comes the responsibility of teaching students within my room, within my time, within the standards, but also within their capabilities.  Learning has to be relatable for them for it to stick.  No more dull repetitious packets, no more book report dioramas, but rather conversation, blogging, hands on experience.  Maybe then those parents will find something else to do, something that they want to spend time on, and maybe I will finally get a clue.

So why do you assign homework?  How do you not assign homework?