Homework in the Context of the New Family – Ch. 2

This chapter focuses on the varying differences of parent values and teacher values.  Parents can range from the belief of “more homework is always better” to “there are better things than more homework.”  Teachers need to be aware of these varying views, and be respectful of the wishes of the parents.  At the same time, it is impossible to please everyone.

Gone are the days in which everyone in the community shared the same values, making things predictable.  Now, people need to fear the legal ramifications of holding students to a moral standard that may not align with how the students were raised.

One example of differing priorities that is present on pages 32 and 33 reminds me of several students in Franklinville.  They are responsible for helping out at home after school.  When a school district mandated after school time to improve student grades, something that is similar to what we do, one parent complained of having to pay for a babysitter.  As we continue to explore ways to help failing students, we need to keep in mind the parents’ values.

Since it is impossible for a school to demand homework on families, some teachers have found ways to be flexible: assigning work weekly or monthly, or even handing out a course syllabus (p. 34).

The variety of parents starts with parents who think helping their children with homework is not in their job description.  At the other end of the spectrum we have parents that do their child’s homework to ensure good grades.  As teachers, we need to be more aware of the level of difficulty for each student.  The ideal, obviously, would be work that students could do on their own, without relying on the help of their parents.

On page 38, we see that homework is one of the leading causes of drop-outs.  “The inability to keep up with homework was a critical factor in the decision of lower-class students to drop out of school.”  The reality in Franklinville is that the majority of the demographic is of lower-class.  There is little draw for a middle-class family to come to (and stay in) Franklinville.  I believe that homework is a major factor for a few of our students who have dropped out, or are at risk for dropping out, even this year.  I have been analyzing the Warning and Ineligible Lists for the year, and many of the names on there are people that have dropped out or that I am concerned for.

Parallel to the change in dictatorial parent relations, there was a change from dictatorial school relations.  Schools and teachers used to be accepted as the experts on education, and parents saw schools as an institution that needed their support – simply because the school demanded it.  Now, in a consumer-driven world, schools are viewed as a service that owes something to the parents, instead of the other way around.  Schools that are in a lower tax-base area, and therefore do not have the funds to support themselves, no longer have the support of the parents as well.

This lack of volunteer involvement can be seen in other aspects of society as well.  People no longer feel obligated ot help out at the local church, nursing home, library, or fire department.  Instead, they are looking for involvement that can benefit themselves or their families.  The only students involved in any kind of community service are either mandated by the court, or are seeking to bulk up their resume for college of National Honor Society.

On the other hand – in the minds of veteran teachers and administrators – supportive parents meant parents willing to do whatever a school said without question.  Certainly those days are over.  It may be perhaps that parents are more involved today than they used to be, simply because they are taking a stand as to what their child will or will not participate in during school.

So, how do we proceed?  How do we close the gap between parent expectations and school expectations regarding involvement, especially with homework?  The book gives a few suggestions on pages 46-54.

  1. Get real – We cannot control every aspect of the child’s life.
  2. Resist the temptation to judge – As we all know, whining will get you nowhere; accept what you’re given and welcome the support you do have.  It’s easier to call students (and possibly their parents) lazy than to analyze our own teaching models.
  3. Revise expectations of Parental Support – Schools shouldn’t expect all parents to be involved, yet subconsciously, we do.
  4. Suggest (not mandate) guidelines for the parents’ role in homework – We (as a school district) need to be in constant communication with parents – letting them know what we expect from them at various grade levels.  Parents need to be letting us know when an assignment is too difficult, or the students needed help with something.  This way, when it returns completed, we don’t assume that the child understands the content.  Wording these guidelines can be tricky, so some examples are given on p. 50 in Figure 2.1.
  5. Establish formal methods of parent-teacher communication – There are a few surveys that are available on pages 51-53 that can serve as a tool for parents to communicate to the schools about homework views.  The homework card (Figure 2.2) should be filled out for each individual student.  The Parent Survey (Figure 2.3) would be easy enough to include in beginning of the year paperwork, and be made available to the teachers, so that the parents only have to fill out one each year instead of per child, save for question #1.  There is also a Parent Feedback checklist (Figure 2.4) designed to go along with every assignment.  I would send these out the first week that homework goes out, and then as different styles of homework go out throughout the year.
  6. Set parents’ minds at ease about homework – Parents who have tried communicating with the school and feel that they are not being heard are weary of doing it again.  They see talking to teachers about homework the same as talking to a wall.  We need to collectively reassure them that their child will not be penalized for not completing homework that the students gave their best effort on.
  7. Endorse a set of inalienable homework rights – There is an example of one such Bill of Homework Rights in Figure 2.5 on pg. 55.

We need to work together as a school district and community to figure out how best to handle homework for our students.  It will require patience, respect, and effort from both sides.

The Cult(ure) of Homework – Ch. 1

Homework has been such an institution in our educational system, it may be difficult to even think of not having it.  However, while our method of education has changed and evolved in the past 150 years, the concept of homework has changed very little.

In the early days of our educational system, one-room school houses were the norm, combining many grade-levels for one teacher, with attendance being even more sporadic than it is now.  Assessment of knowledge consisted of students memorizing facts and reciting them back to the teacher.  To better prepare for these assessments, students would study at home (hence, homework), (p. 3).

Since those early days in the late 1800s, assessment procedures have evolved to include projects, papers, and other more creative things.  While these methods of assessment are better suited for the goals that we have for our students – encouraging higher cognitive activity – these methods are also time consuming.

Unfortunately, teachers have precious few hours of class time for instruction, let alone assessment.  As a result, these time-consuming, elaborate projects get pushed on home time.  Moreover, the projects often need the help of parents to make sure they are done, and done well.  This begs the question: What are we assessing?  Are we assessing how well the students know the material, or how well the parents can help them accomplish something elaborate and beautiful?

There are compelling arguments on either side of the “To (give) Homework or Not To (give) Homework” debate.  For those in favor of homework, their arguments are in bold.  The rebuttals to these arguments will be found directly following them.  These bolded beliefs are straight from the book, and can be found on pages 10-13.

#1 – The role of the school is to extend learning beyond the classroom.

While it may be true that some students do not have the parental support teachers wish to see, does that make it the educator’s responsibility to make up for the supposed lack of parental support?  Do we really want to control every aspect of our students’ lives, giving them no break from school?  I don’t want to put words in my fellow teachers’ mouths, but if people demanded me not to have a break from school EVER, there may be a mutiny on our hands.  Of course, most teachers are so passionate about teaching that they cannot get enough of it, and spend a lot of their free time researching to make their teaching more effective (such as, if you are bothering to read this right now).  But, they CHOSE their profession for their passion.  Students do not have the luxury of choosing their homework.

#2 – Intellectual activity is intrinsically more valuable than nonintellectual activity.

While I agree that intellectual activity is important to the growth of a child, I also believe that a child needs to be well-rounded.  They need to grow socially, emotionally, and physically, as well as intellectually.  They need more than just academics to survive as a citizen in this world, and we would be stunting them of this growth if we demanded that they only focused on the academic aspects of schools.  After all, experienced teachers know that a child learns best by doing.  It would then make sense that the best way for them to learn social skills is to participate in social events: play dates, unstructured play time, etc.

#3 – Homework teaches responsibility.

As they argue on page 11, when they say responsibility, they really mean obedience.  We are not teaching responsibility in assigning an hour of homework a night, we are training them to be obedient.  There are better ways to reinforce responsibility, that will be explored in future chapters.

#4 – Lots of homework is a sign of a rigorous curriculum.

In other words, the curriculum is so busy, we cannot possibly teach you everything you need to learn in the classroom, so you must have homework to continue the teaching at home.  I believe homework should be a time for practice, not a time for instruction; but more on that later.  This idea of more homework caters more to the parents than to the students.  Most students see the homework involved with a class or teacher and the more there is, the harder they think the class is.  Students figure this out in September, from the opening week expectations that teachers share.  Some may even be so tuned in that they notice the year before, watching their older friends and their work load.  “Oh, I don’t want Mrs. So-and-so.  She gives a TON of homework!”  Therefore, before they’ve even experienced it for themselves, students have a defeated attitude.  For many of them, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

#5 – Good teachers give homework, good students do their homework.

This statement sums up the other 4 statements.  It is a mentality accepted by all; an unspoken truth.  Non-tenured teachers think it is expected of them by administration, and often times fall into the trap of using homework to extend their instructional time.  Parents have come to expect it because, after all, “that’s how we got through school.”  Students are trained to think it, getting rewards for getting their homework done (good grades, stickers, tickets, etc.), and punished if they’ve forgotten it (bad grades, loss of free time, etc.).

On the whole, I don’t totally disagree with the idea of homework.  I do believe that we can get tunnel-vision and lose sight of the true reasoning behind it.  I believe homework should reinforce what has been already learned in the classroom.  A very wise teacher once told me that she never assigns work that she wouldn’t be willing to do herself.  This has helped to keep me in check over the years.

I write this as I am surrounded by students at an extra-curricular activity.  Any down-time that the students have is devoted to rushing to complete their homework.  I’ve heard a few offer to trade assignments with each other just to get it done.  Students are smarter than we give them credit for, and they too can see there is no value in giving homework just to give homework.

Reflections on Rethinking Homework

I have currently started reading a book that I’ve had for some time now, and would like to document my ideas and thoughts about it on this site.  The book is Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs by Cathy Vatterott.  I received this book from a colleague earlier this fall, and am finally creating time to read it and analyze it.

Since this is a borrowed book, I don’t want to write all over it, like I normally would.  So, this is my outlet for organizing my thoughts.  Plus, there is a committee of teachers at my school also reading this book.  I would love to be able to share thoughts with them on it as well.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on homework, and to pick-up your own copy of the book (or borrow it from a friend) – it’s a very thought-provoking read.