discussion, homework, no homework, Student-centered

From the Mouths of Babes – My Students Discuss Homework

Thanks to a wonderful Time For Kids article this week, my students engaged in a 30 minute discussion on whether or not teachers should assign homework (we ran out of time or it could have gone longer).  I started out taping the discussion, hoping to share it, but the camera stifled them, so I turned it off and instead just listened and asked a couple of questions.  And the result?  Well, it was mixed.

Many students believed that homework was a necessary evil at first, and by that I mean, they think they should be assigned it so they can learn responsibility.  However, when I asked them whether they could be taught responsibility in a different manner they all agreed they already were responsible in school.  After that they started changing their mind.  Some highlights for me were:

  • We already work our hardest at school and deserve to be done with school when the bell rings.
  • We are tired when we get home so homework does not represent our best work.
  • Some times our parents cannot help us and we end up more confused.
  • Teachers do not own our time outside of school, but why do they think they do?  They can’t for example order us to go to Target.
  • I want to have a life outside of school and pursue my activities.
  • It is ok to have homework during the week but never during the weekend or during holidays.
  • If a student works hard during the day and is responsible, they should be able to not have homework after school.
  • It is ok to assign reading and special projects but they have to be super fun and have student choice.
  • Homework does not teach us responsibility but instead teaches us to get it done fast.
  • Homework should not be graded since it is just practice. 
  • Homework should be assigned because school has to come first and that is our job.
I love the level of thinking I am seeing in these students as they develop their discussion habits. They are figuring out when to speak and reacting to each other’s comments.  I also love how they are evaluating the world and learning to speak their minds.  I believe the camera stifled them because some were nervous in stating their opinion, after all, they are only 5th graders, what do they know?
being a teacher, no homework

Why the Grade X 10 Minutes for HomeWork is a Fail

As I prepared for my first orientation day powerpoint as a new teacher, I knew I had to fill in homework expectations and how much parents could count on.  I was reminded to use the old formula 10 minutes times the grade of the child, excellent, 40 minutes of homework for a 4th grader.  Now this is what my brain should have thought;  “Wait a minute Pernille, 40 minutes of homework, a night?  Plus 20 minutes of expected reading with parent initials?  And a book report every 6 weeks?  And math tests every 3?  Not to mention science and social studies quizzes, which really are tests but just with a friendlier name.  What in the world am I saying?”  Except,  I didn’t and the rest, as they say, is history. Those kids had homework coming out of both ears because that is what I thought teachers did; assign work.  40 minutes seemed fair and reasonable and why shouldn’t it be?  Aren’t we in the business of making students accountable and responsible?  Aren’t we teaching them how to be effective workers, preparing them for the real world?

Except homework is really not thoughtful when you just spew the formula.  Homework then becomes the brainless act of repetition, not metacognition that we all should be striving for.  Homework becomes the incessant chore we all seem so hellbent on making it.  I know we are trying to raise responsible children, but is homework really the only way we can do this?  Can we not accomplish those same goals of responsibility, time management, and work habits without the insane amount of homework?  Can we, as educators, realize that perhaps we do not have the right to infringe on students’ lives outside of class up to an hour or more every night?  Haven’t students already given us 7 to 8 hours of work?

I, for one, limit my homework giving and not because I am a hippie that doesn’t believe in hard work.  We do work hard in my classroom, in fact, my students relish how much we get done in a day because it means they are managing their time.  It means they are creating a work ethic that says give school your undivided attention for a whole day and you will be rewarded with free time.  Do your job here right and then you don’t have to worry about it as much outside of school.  And a formula can never encompass that.

So it is time we give up on the formula.  It is time we realize that homework is not something we have to give just to give the kids work, that there are other ways to teach students motivation, time management, and effective work habits  There are other ways to ensure all of the curriculum is covered and that knowledge is garnered.

This year, on the first day, I will tell the parents that there may be work outside of school and that it will differ from day to day.  I will tell the parents that my mission is to keep work inside of my classroom so that the students may breathe a little bit.  I will tell them there that will be projects, there will reading, sure, but there will also be time to be a kid, to live a little.  No homework doesn’t mean no learning, it means school was kept at school and that is a good thing.

education reform, No grades, no homework, punishment

We Say it is All About the Kids

Time and time again I hear the statement, “I do it for the kids…” or “It’s all about the kids.”  This before I hear any educational philosophy or methodology, but I have yet to meet a teacher that does not think it is all about the kids.  So then what happens from that statement to our classrooms?  Where does the disconnect start because how can you say it is all about the kids and then assign punishment or rewards?  How can you say it is all about the kids and assign hours of homework even at an elementary level?  How can it be all about the kids when there are no re-takes, no extra chances, no resources allowed on tests?

So if it is true that it is all about the kids, then perhaps we need to rethink what that means.  The way a lot of educational systems are set up is apparently all about taking time away from the kids and making sure the teacher is in focus and in control.  Do we not think that all about the kids could mean the kids had a say, were more in control and were even listened to?  Because if inane classroom management, pointless homework, letter grades with no explanation, and test upon test is what is meant by being all about kids, then no, I am not all about the kids.

assumptions, being a teacher, inspiration, no homework, students

We Are Not the Most Important Piece of Life

I used to think student vacations meant lots of projects for them to do,  but then again,  I used to think a lot of things. This year with the advent of limited homework and more in-school learning, I stopped that practice. First I felt guilty; after all, wasn’t I supposed to assign lots of work for students to be engaged in when they were not in school? if I didn’t assign work, would they remember what it means to be in school, to work hard, to learn?  And yet, I knew that it had to be done.  Students were asked to read, maybe blog if they felt like it, which some did, and otherwise just be with their family.

The result; happy students who came back eager to learn and share all of their experiences.

As one of my students struggles through the sudden loss of her beloved grandfather, I am strengthened in my resolve to not encroach.  To not impose too much on the outside life, to let my students breathe, reflect, and in this case, mourn, without the pressure of school hanging over them.  For me, it is time I embrace a radical notion;  an education may be important but it is NOT the most important thing.   Life is the most important, and the chance to live it fully, remember it, and grow as a person will always beat the things we do at school.  We are important pieces, but we are not the biggest piece of a person, and nor should we be.
alfie kohn, being a teacher, inspiration, no homework, students

So What’s My Problem with Homework?

I just read a frightening and excellent post by Mark Hansen discussing homework in a real-life example with his son and immediately I wanted to comment on it.  But then I realized that would be rather lengthy, so instead I offer this post.  What is my problem with homework?

I never use to hate homework until last year.  Something hit me when I told my husband that I knew exactly which kid would hand in the homework with “some” help from the parents, which kid would hand in something half-finished, and which kid would never hand it in but instead take my punishment.  And punish I did.  Oh, I used to be the queen of taking away privileges.  It was awful.  There we were, staring at each other every recess trying to figure out just how much help was needed versus how much effort needed to be exerted.  It was exhausting for me and the kids.

And guess what, I was right!

I knew exactly which kids would not be able to complete the homework no matter how much help I gave them in school; they simply did not have the skills or resources needed to finish it at home.  Over the summer, this was the point I kept returning to, wondering if I could be “radical” and get rid of homework almost altogether?  And so I did.  This year, there is very little homework in my room and here is why, in no particular order:

  • Homework is an excuse for the stuff we didn’t get to.  I stated this in my parent/student orientation and most parents nodded their heads.  We always have one more thing we just need to get to when the bell rings.  Well guess what?  Then we need to restructure our day and get to it, rather then slip it in to the backpack for the kids to deal with.  I know there is pressure with curriculum but if you know what your goal is for the lesson, then get to it!
  • Homework is practice – for some kids. Some kids will take 5 minutes to do homework because they already get it, some will take 30 minutes because they need parent help, others will never finish.  This is not fair.  If we do not equip students with the correct knowledge to complete the homework then we should not assign it.
  • Homework is not fair.  You know which kids will ace it and which kids will spend hours trying to solve a math page.  One sheet/assignment/report does not fit all.  If you already know how a kid will do on something then why are you bothering with the assignment, seems to me they have already shown you where their skills lie.
  • Homework steals away childhood.  Every minute of homework that you assign is an infringement of your students’ time spent experiencing the real world.  We say we want well-rounded students, but then have them spend an hour or more practicing school skills.  We already asked for 7+ hours of their time, let them have some free time to do the things that exposes them to the big world and in turn helps them become better people and students.  You will end up with kids that might just be excited about school, rather than exhausted.
  • Homework does not always fit the learning.  Worksheets are on the way out in many classrooms, and yet, we fall back on them all the time to check for understanding.  However, not all skills that we teach transfer onto paper very well.  I agree that math lends itself nicely to paper pages of problems, but why assign 3 pages if you can get away with just a couple of problems?  Before you assign think of the purpose of your homework; does it really give the students a way to show off their knowledge or will you just help you assign a percentage better?
  • Homework is maybe not just done by the student.  There are many helpful parents out there that really want their child to succeed.  As parents nothing gets us more than our child not understanding something.  How often do parents tell us that they had to help their child finish their work?  How often do we get projects turned in that required hours of craft work way outside of the range of your grade level?  The parents have already been to school, stop asking them to do work or in some cases, stop giving them a way to relive their school days through projects.
I know that there are times and situations where homework becomes a good extension such as sending kids out into the community to interview elders for heritage days, or continuing research on their own.  
I am not against all homework, what I am against, though, is the homework just for the sake of assigning homework.  I used to tell my parents to expect about 40 minutes of homework every night in 4th grade because I had been told it is about 10 minutes times the grade level.  40 minutes!  And then we ask students to read their books and do projects on top of that.  No wonder our students are exhausted when they come back the next day rather than eager to learn.
Think of what the purpose of homework is in your room, look really hard at your reasoning; why do you assign it?  Is it a meaningful learning experience that will help students become smarter, more knowledgeable, better people?  If yes, excellent.   But if no, not always, then stop, re-evaluate, clean it out, and then tell your students.  You will marvel at their response.
I was petrified to stop, worried that people would think I was skimping out on my job duties.  Almost all of my parents now rejoice in this year of calmness.  They know that if I assign something, there is a valid reason for it.  They also know that their child is learning as much as any other student in the 4th grade.  Stop the homework insanity and let these kids be kids.  We can accomplish the learning without the extra work.  You just have to believe in your own capabilities as en educate, so educate, don’t assign.
grading moratorium, letter to Jeremy, no homework

We Can’t Look Back

This letter is part of a series taking place as a conversation between Jeremy Macdonald @MrMacnology, a 5th grade teacher in Oregon, and Pernille Ripp @4thgrdteacher, 4th grade teacher in Wisconsin; two educators who for the first time are attempting a no grades classroom as well as limited homework.  We work under the confines of our districts but with passion and belief that this is the way forward.  To see the first and second letter, visit us here

Hi Jeremy,

Ah yes, the realities of fall – catchty title and very apropos.  It is amazing what we thought we could accomplish this summer as we prepared for fictitious classrooms that, of course, had some needs, some diversity, but most of all lots of eager minds.  Don’t get me wrong, I had read about most of my students, labored over the notes from previous years and planned my approach to these varied learning styles.  And then school started and learning began and the train was set in motion.
I remember feeling like things ended before.  An assignment was given, preferably with a worksheet tied into it to show their learning and then when that had been graded, that portion of the year was done.  Now, it continues, never ending as we refine our approach, chastise ourselves for missed opportunities of true wisdom and push ourselves to do more, be more, teach more.  The learning you see does not stop when you get rid of grades.  An assignment is never quite finished.  I can never assume that something has been mastered until they have shown me through later recollection or work that it really has been settled into their brain.  So what’s a girl to do?  Well, like you, I have my dirty secret stash of spreadsheets.  I check off my goal lists for science, social studies, writing, and math and I ponder and evaluate.  Sometimes I wonder whether my spreadsheets are up to the task and some days I wonder whether I know what I am really doing.  On those days I give myself a break and think of all the amazing opportunities my students are having.
As teacher, we love to beat ourselves up.  And why not?  We are after all the changers of the world, the people who are responsible for creating America’s future.  So when we change systems, approaches, philosophies, we are meddling with real kids, not imagined ones, and so the outcome is real.  That should not stop us though but instead propel us forward, cradling the immense responsibility as the gift it truly is.  I know that this is the right path forward.  I have 24 pretty well-adjusted students in my room that know that even if there is no grade tied to their work, it is serious business.  They are their own worst critics, I have come to find out, but they are also the best suited to take control of their learning, and that is what we are letting them do.  We are giving them responsibility.  We are allowing them to be part of the process, the knowledge acquiring and giving them a voice in the learning process.  My students know exactly what the goal of any lesson is because they have to.  Otherwise they will not know whether they have mastered that goal.  Never before have I had students that are so aware of what they are supposed to learn, and that is a great thing.  So those checklists are ever changing as I realize that what I thought was a goal is something else entirely.  I am forced to really think about why I teach something and how I can best teach and when that happens the students will always benefit.  So don’t be ashamed of your checklists, but use them for the right purpose; to shape your teaching and to help you evaluate.  Just because we do not grade does not mean we cannot assess.
Doesn’t it sound good?  It is, but then reality smacks me in the face again.  Conferences start on Thursday and what will I share with the parents?  Or rather what will my students share because I have also decided to let it be student-led conferences rather than me led.  This way students have to know what we are learning, once again they are asked to take part in what goes on in the classroom and not just show up.  Of course, some kids are freaked out but others are deliberating their approach, figuring out how to showcase their learning, getting ready for any questions.  I have provided them with conference sheets and self-assessments (And why by the way did you not share your student self-assessments with the world?).  I tell them that I will be right there with them, ready to jump in, to support, which should always be our role.  We cannot be the sole keepers of the knowledge, we have to be the bridge instead and by continuously creating opportunities for these kids we are allowing this to happen.  
So Jeremy, we are not careless, we are dreamers.  And to dream you must dare.  We believe in the power of our students so now we must believe in ourselves as professionals.  Our lives might seem easier at first if we go back to the old ways of worksheets and grades.  Slap a sticker on it and done.  But our entire philosophy of education has been irreversibly changed, and so our core beliefs will forever ring an alarm if we go back.  This is our maiden voyage and every year will be easier.  Will everything be figured out this year?  Probably not but that is the magic of teaching.  We evolve along with our students, always trying to give them the best possible educational experience.  No grades to me means no more crushing dreams.  I have not had the power to tell a child that if they do not finish this work then they will fail.  And that is a power I do not ever want to have again, do you?