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?

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.

discussion, no homework

We Don’t Need Any More" How To Cope With Homework Lists" – What We Need Is a Debate!

Summer is coming and with that an onslaught of parenting magazines on how we can help our children cope with homework.  Cope – what an interesting word when combined with homework.  I know when I assigned homework regularly I thought I was adding to my students’ educational experience.  I thought I was deepening their thinking, to perhaps help them, teach them, deepen their knowledge.  Instead, it appears, I was merely helping them develop coping with a necessary evil. I was setting them up for whatever adult job that requires homework, I am still looking for this one,.

So, parenting magazine, how about an article on why homework should be revisited, why the whole merit of homework is diminishing and why homework really doesn’t need to be assigned.  How about giving parents a resource to start the conversation, the discussion that should be happening at all schools, particularly primary ones, about why homework can be outlawed.  How we can still teach students time management, perseverance, and study skills without homework?  Who will publish that article?

assumptions, no homework, summer, teachers

You Don’t Own Their Summer

Thea enjoying her vacation

Summer vacation is starting to sneak into our school minds as stealthily as the first signs of a cold.  A mention of a vacation planned here, some raised trepidation about next year, begging for me to transfer to 6th grade.  And so while we plow on through all of our projects, still staying focused, I think of the things the students could be doing during that break; math facts, reading, fixing mistakes in their brain so that they start fresh the following year, perhaps even a little bit ahead, ready to conquer the world of 6th grade.  And then I am reminded; I don’t own their summer.

Already we have been given gentle recommendations to assign math games over summer. Some students know they will be expected to finish a math book, others to read a classic book or two.  And my outrage starts to bubble.  We don’t own their summer, we don’t own their summer, we don’t own their summer.

Summer vacation in America may be too long for some kids.  It may lead to the infamous summer slide, loss of knowledge, skill setbacks that will lead to worse test results, but we don’t own their summer.  Their summer is for them to explore, to renew, to breathe, to invest in whatever catches their interest.  Perhaps their summer will have nothing to do with school and yet everything to do with learning.  Perhaps their summer will be spent reading book after book, perhaps just being at a pool.  Whatever they choose to do with their time is none of our business.

And sure, of course those that assign homework for a class that starts after summer, they have the best interest of their students in mind.  Yet the truth is, you have no right to that time.  You have no power over whether they do it or not.  You cannot expect them to come having read 2 books, or written a paper, or done a packet of math problems.  You can ask them to, but you cannot demand it.  You may say that the summer work is like preparing for a job, but guess what, even jobs give you time off.  You may say that summer work is in the best interest of the students, to keep them out of trouble, well, let them make that decision.  You may say that if they don’t work over the summer you will never get through everything you have to cover; that is a time management problem not something you can push onto the students.

You can hope that their summer is spent learning.  That their summer is spent finding new interests.  That their summer wasn’t just a big break from anything strenuous, but you cannot decide what they should do. You cannot decide what constitutes summer learning or not, because, yes, that’s right, you don’t own their summer.

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!

discussion, homework, no homework, parents, questions

My Kid Is Drowning in Homework – Why Parents Should Be Speaking Up and How

Mathematics homework
Mathematics homework (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thea is only 3 and is nowhere near the homework assigning level, thank goodness. And yet, already it is an issue I come back to frequently in my mind, particularly as I get my fabulous 5th graders ready for middle school.  Speaking to some middle school teachers and hearing to expect at least 1 1/2 hours of homework every night and that no regard is taking for homework assigned by other teachers.  Yikes.  From a teacher perspective I have made my stance clear on how I feel about homework and how over-assigned it is, but what about for parents?  What can you truly do as a parent when sending your child to school to help them handle the insanity of homework as well as to maybe, just maybe, start a dialogue with their teachers?  Here a few things to start you out.

  • Get clarification on general statements.  If a teacher throws out an arbitrary number for homework minutes like I used to do on orientation day, ask them what it looks like.  When they say 50 minutes of homework, which child are they referring to?  Are they referring to a well-adjusted, high-level learner, or to a more sluggish paced child?  Which child will spend 50 minutes? Is that the maximum any child will spend?  At the very least it may make the teacher think about the 10 minutes X grade level rule so many of us have used as our standard.
  • Ask whether there will be punishment involved.  What happens to the child that does not do their homework?  Different teachers have different policies.  Some take away recess, something I shy away from because I don’t think I have the right to, others give them a chance to make up for it.  Some, like me, simply ask them to bring it the following day or try to not assign much.  This is going to directly effect your child and their view of homework, so do ask what will happen if they don’t hand something in.
  • Figure out your parental level of involvement.  Are you supposed to help or is this homework only for the child?  How are you allowed to help?  Would the teacher rather know if the child cannot complete a task by themselves (one would hope so!).  These are all important questions to ask as well and leads directly to the next point.
  • Ask what the purpose of homework is.  Is it used for grading?  Is it used for assessment?  Why does their homework look like it does and what is the end result of that homework?  This discussion goes way beyond just a general statement but it is vital.  Too often we assume that whatever a teacher assigns must have value otherwise it wouldn’t be assigned.  Having been that teacher I can tell you that is not the case!  So find out what the purpose is.
  • Search your soul.  Many of us think homework should be something certain because of what we experienced but even for this youngish teacher, school has changed drastically since I graduated.  Make sure that your homework expectations are not based on what you feel helped you as a learner, figure out instead what will help your child, after all you do know them better than the teacher but they are not you, no matter how much we see the resemblance.
  • Ask questions.  I am never bothered when parents ask me questions, in fact, I cherish their feedback and often wisdom about their child.  I differentiate assignments, I give class time and I try to not involve parents much simply because it is not them that need to learn a concept.  Yet I still fail sometimes, I still learn from my mistakes and I don’t always have the answer to something.  So start a dialogue and start it early, it can be something as simple as a line or two in an email and does not need to be often.  It will benefit all parties involved all year.
  • And finally, stand your ground.  As a parent I will expect Thea to apply herself in school and to give school her best in the hours she is there.  Once she is home, homework should not take up the majority of her afternoon and evening.  As she gets older, sure, there will be projects, papers, reading etc.  But she should not be having to give up most of her free time for worksheets or other repetitive tasks, and I will discuss this with her future teachers.  You can do this nicely and it may lead to a very interesting conversation.  Simply said; it is ok for parents to question a teacher’s homework philosophy.