Sunday, July 14, 2013

Tonight's assignment is....

Ah, homework.  We had it, our parents had it.  It’s good for kids and has positive benefits.  It helps kids be responsible.  When I first started my career I dutifully assigned it because “I was supposed to” and my mentors said I should; each night Spelling pages, Math book, Science worksheets, read 20 minutes, etc. 

And then things suddenly changed for me.  Dear boy happened to have several early years with gobs of homework each night…this was tough; the square peg, round hole scenario…home was supposed to be safety away from it and it turned our whole family upside down.  One night, right about the time I got the H out in the word homework, we were blessed with yet another knock down drag out.  He was supposed to do his obligatory daily reading and journal entry plus Math worksheets. When he had finally started regaining human breathing rates and pulled himself together enough he screeched, “I hate reading anyway and this makes it worse.  Why do they keep forcing us to do this!”  Here I am a teacher and am supposed to support fellow teachers, but this stopped me in my tracks, speechless, hit me between the eyes kind of thing!  He saw this as being forced on him, there was NO love for reading, NO buy in as to what he was doing, NO sense or connections being made…stress was caused, shutdown happened, fight or flight fully engaged, World War III ready to commence.   Not only was on the front lines of a battle with my own flesh and blood over something I hadn’t imposed on him, but I kept thinking of the kids who DON’T have support at home and had to struggle through these assignments by themselves.  Although I caused a fuss, I couldn’t change minds then, so I did things on my own terms in my own home.  

Ultimately, I knew I had to change things for those kids who walked through my classroom door who were just like Dear Boy.  It was time to change the way I “assigned” nightly reading.  First up?  The kids had to keep track of the “most creative way to read” (treehouse, bathtub (yep, I’m partial!), under covers, under bed, using closed captions on the tv, etc), not minutes spent watching a clock or recording exactly what was read, and it was amazing to see the enthusiasm as we shared those places each day… I watched as the kids' love of reading grew and NO one mentioned a clock! 

Things changed again when Bea recently had a research project assigned.  The topic wasn’t terribly interesting and her “buy in” to the assignment was zero.  She had taken on a few extracurricular things and had MANY projects due at the same time (I always find that intriguing!) and she simply had had it.  I came home one day to find my enthusiastic, over achieving daughter a mess – a friend had told her that she turned in the 75 required note cards that were a significant part of the research project grade and (please sit down and hang on to something) the teacher FELT THEM, looked at her, and said “Yup, it’s 75.  I’ve been doing this long enough to know if you have the required number of cards”.  I believe at this point fire blew clear out of my ears and my heart rate reached that of a jaguar on the final approach of a kill.  Furious doesn’t begin to explain – this teacher has NO idea how much respect Bea lost for her that day and how belittling it was to those kids who worked so hard to complete that assignment to simply “feel them”.  If you’re going to assign homework and take up a child’s and their family’s time, in my opinion, you best make time to thoughtfully and carefully go through every line and letter of what a student did and provide feedback to help them improve.   Bea begged me “not to cause trouble” and not talk to the teacher or principal (ah, knows her momma well!).  I told her I wouldn’t, but she needed to consider something.  Forgive me for what I’m about to say, but I needed to do this to get a point across & selfishly, if she did follow through, I wanted to conduct a little system of checks and balances.  Knowing she’s too much of a rule follower to do it I asked her what she thought would happen if she left 10 cards blank, repeated the same short fact on another 10, and mixed them in as part of the 75.  Perhaps unprofessional, but I was tired of these kinds of assignments and the same unrealistic demands on my kid, a very enthusiastic learner, who had NO excitement, NO buy in towards what was being asked, and was quickly losing her zest for learning.  At this point I not only lost any lingering faith in this teacher, but also in the hope that she was even going to read this research paper, which in the end I believe is what happened.  The project came and went and Bea received an A+, whatever that meant…no feedback, no mention of things that were great or needed work, just a letter… summer came and so did another year. 

This past year, I decided to change things up a bit more with homework.  Each day I went out of my way to pull out my best actress and get really excited about websites I had seen or documentaries I knew were coming up, we continually “wondered” out loud about various things in our room, in their lives, in our world, we literally would stop the day to question and wonder about something important to my kids; I knew I had to “up” the excitement about learning and discovering on their own. I asked my kids to do the same things with reading at night (most creative place to read, etc.), asked them to be sure to practice facts (although they had ownership on how they studied  - flashcards, paper, apps, etc.), pick a chore to do to help out at home, record anything “extra” they did, and have their parents initial each.  Monthly, they brought home learning logs/journals and had Parent/Kid Conferences where they discussed their learning, progress, struggles, and goals which was included as an assignment to be completed during the week.   My homework checker simply recorded the number of things each child did each night.  Most nights every child did read and practice Math, on their own terms, but generally everyone went above and beyond with what they did – averaging 6 or 7 recordings each night.  I had to create that “buy in”, foster that intrinsic motivation, trust that I provided my kids a strong foundation to be motivated at home, and record their work.  Would worksheets and packets have created better learners?  Would a demand of using flashcards result in better scores?  Would documenting facts on note cards create "buy in"? Had I forced a bunch of requirements on them, I truly believe I NEVER would have had this year’s kids be as creative as they were, work as hard as they did at home & school, or be the motivated learners that they had become.

Have you thought about homework?  I mean REALLY thought about it?  Who are the “positive benefits” really benefiting and what are they exactly?  Is there research to back up the benefits? WHY are we assigning so much homework?  Does it truly serve to strengthen learning and foster responsibility?  I STILL keep going back to Dear Boy’s thoughts on homework (and education!) – a bright kid who has never liked school, but, post high school, has INCREDIBLE insight and thought provoking questions for me!
I’m a bit of an Alfie Kohn fan and love this quote from him, “For anyone willing to shake things up in order to do what makes sense, beginning a conversation about homework is a very good place to start.”  Simply Googling “Alfie Kohn homework” brings up many great links about rethinking homework.  As we slowly begin to think about a new year, I encourage you to reconsider homework - think about one change to make.  It may feel uncomfortable, but with time and a lot of thought the benefits can be incredible!

As the year wrapped up, we were talking at dinner about the kind of homework I have been assigning this year.   
Bea announced, “Mom, I have to tell you something…...”  
heart dropped…felt like a confessional... 
“.....remember the 75 notecards that I had to do last year?”  

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1 comment:

  1. My daughter....who is now a 12th grader STILL talks about the homework of watching her favorite show....with the volume down and closed captioning on. Brilliant on how it challenged them in a "different" way...and STILL read!!! Looking forward to more posts!