Monday, January 23, 2006

Homework: Responsibility verses Compassion

It is a question that every teacher has, what do you do with students who don't complete their homework? A couple typical responses are:

Give them a zero – they weren't responsible with their time.
Give them more time, but deduct points for late work.
Keep them in at lunch/recess/after school until the work is done.
Grade only what is completed.

When I first started teaching, I believed in the first response. It was the students' RESPONSIBILITY to get the work done. My responsibility was to assign it. Like most first year teachers, I had an idealistic view of the classroom. Smiling children, hanging my every word about the elements of literature, eager writing in their notebooks and pondering the author's meaning. I was also naïve. I came from an educated family that valued reading and writing. My mother had been a secretary, our school librarian, and then later she worked at Waldenbooks. Our house has more books than most families read their entire lives, and I loved it. As a child, I played school with my dad, who was a dutiful and polite student. Then, my first year, I encountered students completely different from me. Some had farm chores from school's end to dark. Others didn't have a single book available in the house, much less a dictionary or encyclopedia. Some didn't have a parent at home. Yet I was going to teach them responsibility by assigning them homework.

At my next teaching job, the situation was completely different. These students were extremely privileged and could have almost anything they wanted. However, it was an oral culture, not one of literacy. Students much preferred talking over writing, and usually not speaking in English. As a middle school team, we agreed that daily homework would be 50% off for being late. Projects or writing would lose 10% each day it was late. This seemed to make more sense to me. It allowed the students to have a bad day, but still make it up. However, it was a nightmare for me trying to keep track of who turned what assignment in on what day.

As I made another move, the policy of -50% for daily and -10% for projects was unworkable. These new students had not been held accountable for due dates. If I enforced that policy, I would be facing many upset parents. With teaching four grade levels and three subjects, I felt I didn't have the energy to re-educate both students and parents, especially if other teachers did not hold to the same policy. The end result was lists of names of the board for incomplete homework. The week before mid-quarters or quarterly report, there was a flurry of work turned in – some almost four weeks late. How did that help students' learning? How did that help me accurately assess their learning? Not even to mention trying to grade so much late work was driving me crazy. The following year was better, as we added some staff who expected more timely work. We also rewrote the homework policy in the handbook explaining the purposes of homework. Here is the written policy from that school:
  • “Homework is an essential part of formal education. Meaningful, regularly assigned homework helps students reinforce what they learn in class, master various skills, and develop interests in different subjects. Homework is not simply “busy work” to be done at home—it is a learning activity that increases in complexity as the student progresses from grade to grade.
    Homework is usually of the following nature:
    Drills and additional practice to strengthen new skills and clarify concepts in the classroom. Completion of unfinished classroom assignments.
    Work on projects of a short-term or long-term nature.
    Research activities in locating facts and data.
    Independent reading for pleasure and enjoyment.
  • Parent AssistanceParents can aid in their children’s education by creating a positive “homework environment” at home, one that encourages the child to do his/her homework, while having a positive attitude about it. It is important for students to have a quiet, well-lit place to study at home. When homework is not assigned, parents should encourage their children to use the established study time as a recreational reading period.
  • Amount of HomeworkAISV teachers assign homework to supplement, complement, and reinforce classroom instruction. Homework will be tailored to the students’ needs and capacities, and will not be unreasonable in amount. Homework is given at the discretion of the teacher and varies in amount depending on grade level and course. Upper School students may have as much as two to three hours an evening, depending upon factors such as upcoming tests, papers, projects, and assigned readings. The AISV staff will coordinate testing and projects to ensure equitable loads.
    There will be times that students are expected to stay after school to work on group projects or to do research.”

In my current school, there is a stronger culture of homework. The school is older – 75 years old – and based on the American philosophy of homework. The minority of students who regularly skip homework are followed up through parent phone calls, conferences, and keeping them in at lunch and after school. Other teachers also support these tactics, which generally keep students on track. When students transfer to our school from other countries, this is one of the first culture shock they experience. Many school experiences around the world do not involve homework. The learning is supposed to take place in the classroom, not at home. Also, for some poorer countries, there aren't enough supplies to allow students to take books home.

Here are some good links to get you talking and thinking about homework:

Recent Research on Homework: an Annotated Bibliography
Rethinking Homework: Dr. Cathy Vatterott
Focus on Effectiveness