Two Educators: On Homework

“Two Educators” is an occasional series with Brian Kulak, Chief Academic Officer at Collingswood Public Schools. In this series, Brian and Dylan usually tackle one topic from their unique perspectives as an administrator and a teacher. However, for this post they have invited Ofonime Idiong, a senior student at Collingswood High School, to share her perspective as well. 


mother-trying-to-help-frustrated-daughter-doing-homework

Fenton: As a student in high school, I hated the average homework assignment. I usually rushed through it right before it was due, didn’t do it at all and hoped the teacher wouldn’t collect it, or (get ready to gasp in horror…) copied the homework from any friend who was too nice to say no to me. And to be honest, I didn’t feel that bad about it.

This is how I justified it: I thought the homework I got wasn’t important.

I figured that teachers usually only graded it for completion (if they graded it at all) and I did well on everything else, so what was the point? It was usually abstract, tedious, time-consuming, and so much less alluring than whatever book I was reading, friends I was hanging out with, or current hobby/obsession I was into at the time that I could rarely bring myself to sit down at home and actually do it. It represented a meaningless hoop I had to jump through, and my only real objective was to figure out how to jump through that hoop. But now, as a teacher, I find myself assigning homework on a regular basis.

This is how I justify it: I think the homework I give is important.

The majority of the homework I give is in the form of reading. No logs to fill out, no study questions to complete, no worksheets. Just read and come to class prepared to discuss, analyze, and think deeply about that reading. I want my students to become lifelong readers and lifelong readers usually read every day and do the majority of their reading at home.

Logistics is also a consideration. It would be nearly impossible to get through full-length novels if all of the reading took place in class. The 547 small-print pages of Great Expectations? It would take a sophomore class over half the school year to get through it if all the reading were done in the classroom. That’s just not practical.

And what about the old advice that college students should spend three hours out of class studying for every hour they spend in class? It takes discipline to sit down and do work without a teacher/professor/adult nearby to make you do it. Shouldn’t we be attempting to develop that discipline in our students to prepare them for their future?


I know that to some of my students, the homework I assign…is a meaningless hoop to jump through for them, just like it was for me.


But I’m not oblivious to reality. I know that to some of my students, the homework I assign, whether reading or otherwise, is a meaningless hoop to jump through for them, just like it was for me. I know that they don’t always do it and that my assigned reading doesn’t always inspire a love of reading. And I feel terrible about that.

As someone who struggles with work-life balance, I see the appeal of not giving extra tasks to our students. Kids’ lives are getting faster, busier, and more complex, and there is less and less time for the stopping and smelling of roses…or just going to basketball practice and spending time with family.

So what if I stopped teaching long novels, taught shorter texts instead, and stopped giving homework? Would students, parents, and colleagues see me as less rigorous? Would students curse me years from now for not teaching them how to work outside of the classroom? Would all my students grow up never having read a novel? Would I be a lesser teacher?

I don’t know.

But what I do know is that, while I remember all of the challenging projects that teachers assigned, field trips I went on, and bits of wisdom my teachers passed on, I don’t recall a single valuable homework assignment from high school. And the truth probably is, many of my students won’t either.


Idiong: I believe that homework is an integral part of school and is essential to the growth of students. And before I go on, yes I am a student, and no I am not being paid.

What most students don’t realize is that homework is a tool that helps you in both understanding and retaining the information that was taught in school. You don’t want to go back to your Algebra II class the next day realizing you still don’t understand the information because after you left that class you forgot about what you learned.

Homework is also another great way to study. I am one of those people who cannot just sit there looking at a book underlining. It is through the work that I do both in school and at home that has helped me retain the information.

Now, with that being said, I also believe that a lot of teachers today do not know how to assign homework or what to do with it. There are two kinds of teachers when it comes to homework: those who assign busy work and those who actually assign valuable homework.


It is through the work that I do both in school and at home that has helped me retain the information.


 

For example, I had a teacher in the past who would assign two pages of problems…every night. Most of the time when I actually did the homework, I would spend almost an hour on it: one, because I didn’t know what I was doing and, two, because it was too much! That wasn’t even the worst part about it; the worst part about it was that the teacher would never take the time to go over it in class. I ended the year with a bad grade because I never got the material and gave up.

On the flip side, I now have an amazing teacher. Now don’t think that the teacher doesn’t give homework, because they do…every night. But it is never busy work, and there are nights when we only have four problems to work on. I finish the work in less than half an hour and, most importantly, they go over the homework in class. There is no time limit on how long we spend going over homework, and because of that I get the material. If more teachers adopted this way of thinking when it came to homework, more students would want to do it, and more students would do well.

Before I sound any less like a student, I will say that I completely understand why most students don’t do homework. Students have extracurricular commitments that they have in and outside of school. Also, they have work from other teachers they need to do. I know for a fact that my junior year there was homework I did not do just because I did not have time for it. I always did my AP work first, but if I did not get to other work, oh well.    

However, I would not be as successful a student if it were not for homework, but teachers need to also know how to assign homework. There is a point where the homework is not helping. There has to be a balance, and that is something that not a lot of teachers have found. I am not one of those students who believes that we should give up on it, because I know as a student that homework has been an important tool for me in my journey through school, but dear teachers if you’re going to give homework, give it because you are trying to help your students, not because you need assignments to fill up your gradebook.


Kulak: I remember doing homework with a kind of clarity and precision usually reserved for other, more passionate pursuits. I was a senior in high school, in the fall of 1993, and I was lying belly down on the floor of my bedroom working on SAT vocab words for my honors English class. The exam was coming up, so I was paying particular attention to the rote, mindlessness of my task: write the word, write the part of speech, write the definition, write a sentence with the word in it.

Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

But that’s not what I remember about homework.

A few words into the twenty for which I was responsible, a song came on the radio, without a throaty-voiced deejay introduction, and I thought to myself, “Man, this song is awesome. And it really sounds like Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam).” I continued to work on my vocabulary words while beginning to pick up the chorus of the song, “Hearts and thoughts they fade/fade away…” When the song ended, the formerly absent deejay confirmed what I knew, “That’s Pearl Jam with ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,’ the latest off their newest album, Vs.

All at once, I was proud of myself for knowing the voice of the man who provided my generation’s anthem (“Alive”) and was making a call to a buddy. We needed to buy the album that night.

That’s what I remember about homework.

As a student, I did homework because I was told to. I respected my teachers, was obsessed with doing well, and my dad was kind of militant when it came to meeting (read: exceeding) expectations. Honestly, I didn’t mind homework because it wasn’t difficult, and, frankly, it was the thing to do.

As a teacher, I didn’t understand the point of homework. Though I realize the incongruity of that feeling, I simply couldn’t shake it. When I started teaching in 1999, (which predates so much of what has become our cultural and professional norm: Danielson, PARCC, Instagram) I knew, even then, that homework would provide me little proof that my kids were learning, but only confirm that they were certainly doing. Or, in most cases, not doing.

In fact, as a high school English teacher, what was I really asking them to do for homework? Create an outline for the chapter they just read? Work on a Venn diagram of the characters in the chapter? Or, I know, write every vocabulary word twenty times each!

And now, as a parent, I have both feet firmly on the why-are-we-assigning-homework side of the fence. My first grader has two tasks each night: work on her spelling words (8) using a prescribed list of approved activities and work on that day’s math assignment in her math workbook. In neither case do I have any sense she’s learning. She’ll take each quiz on Friday and do well, and on Monday, we start over with no confirmation that either was actually learned.


Education, and the times we recall as being watershed or transcendent, isn’t about compliance and completion.


Now, years later, I question what, if anything, I learned from homework.

See, what I remember about homework is the experience of doing it while listening to Pearl Jam.

What I remember is the way my Geometry teacher connected with me through Syracuse basketball, which convinced me that he would make it his mission to help me overcome my mathematical deficiencies.

I have no idea what homework he assigned.

What I remember about my International Relations teacher is her asking us to create an American time capsule to send to friends in Russia and the intense effort we made to ensure what we put in that capsule had real meaning.

I have no idea what homework she assigned.

What I remember about my hero, the man who made me want to become an English teacher and who I would later replace, in the exact same classroom some six years later, is the time he told us about how it infuriated him when his wife would squeeze the toothpaste tube from the top instead of from the bottom. Because that made him more than a teacher. It made him human.

I have no idea what homework he assigned.

Education, and the times we recall as being watershed or transcendent, isn’t about compliance and completion. In its most pure and effective form it is completely experiential. And while we may need to brush up on those pesky proofs or amendments to the Bill of Rights from time to time, doing so with other people, in a way that’s shared and authentic, during a time that is devoted to those concepts, and with a person who cares deeply about that content, well, that’s learning.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Two Educators: On Homework

  1. I found your site through Edutopia and I am glad I did! I love the style of this post, providing three different viewpoints on the same topic. Well written and thought provoking. Thanks!

    Like

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