Monday, February 4, 2013

Breeding a Culture of Homework Zombies

Greetings and Happy February! We have survived the worst of winter (we hope) and the days are getting longer. I would hope the warmer weather would mean that kids of all ages would be back outside, romping in the snow, and releasing their excess energy. Not so. Bad behavior abounds in the classroom. No amount of threats, shooshing, emails/calls to parents, seating changes or flat-out yelling seems to affect them.

What is the next step? Strap on their winter gear (or lack thereof) and make them run a lap around the school in the 10-degree weather? Bring in a squirt bottle to squirt them like a cat when they misbehave? Enforce a class-wide nap time? Make them work in silence all hour? Turn them all into REAL zombies instead of just seasonal ones? 

While I continue to ponder the answer to this conundrum of winter sillies, I stumbled upon a student Facebook post, whining about "a whole hour and a HALF of homework tonight", like s/he was so tortured to have more than half an hour. I couldn't resist clarifying, "You mean thirty minutes of homework per subject, right?" To which I got an immediate reply of "NO!" (which was quickly "liked" by another student). I reminded  the student that the following grade regularly reports 2-3 hours of homework per night, even on the weekends, (NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). Can you hear the crickets chirp? I may have just been un-friended ;)

Which led me to re-open the conversation in my brain about homework in general. As an institution. Students don't like doing it. Teachers don't like grading it. There is growing data to support that assigning large volumes of homework, especially math, is actually detrimental to test scores. At least any more than the "times 10" rule, of a student's grade multiplied by ten. For example, my seventh graders should do 7 x 10 = 70 minutes or so of homework per night. Considering that they have 3 long classes, that regularly assign homework, and three short classes that most often do not assign homework, they should be doing about 20-25 minutes per night of homework for their core subjects.

Whether or not you include free reading time in the equation, is up to you. Data has been shown that assigning free-reading as homework does actually improve school success and raise test scores; whereas, doing any more than 15-20 minutes of math is going to shut down a kid's brain as fast as running for 15-20 minutes does for most adults (it used to for me!!). Where am I getting these blanket statements? I've heard them many times before, but I hate to pass on incorrect or unsubstantiated claims. I found a fascinating article that sums up much of the recent research on homework. It also gives concrete tips for teachers and parents to make homework valuable, meaningful, and engaging. It's totally worth the 10-15 minutes it will take to read it all. 

Click here to read all about it. (From

The article brings up a lot of good points about the generalizations that dominate common teacher practices today; even new teachers who are trained in modern pedagogy. We tend to revert to the way we were instructed in school, because it is comfortable and convenient; thus perpetuating antiquated beliefs that may or may not have any value. Or may have not have ever had any value. 

I have blogged before about "no homework" weeks. But I felt the need to restate a more permanent philosophy that I can stick to, not just for special occasions, but on a daily basis. I don't want my students to become homework zombies who are programmed to jump through hoops just because they're told to. I want them to be creative thinkers who push themselves further than they thought they could, because they want to. As far as homework is concerned, my goal is to stick to these guidelines:

1. Assign 15 minutes or less of homework per night (unless they've wasted their class work time and have to bring it home, that is their choice)

2. Assign homework that can be done independently, and doesn't strictly need a teacher/parent/tutor present to complete it. (like taking notes on readings, watching a video, participating in an online discussion, doing a home-based project, completing a small quantity of independent practice, taking an online quiz, playing a content-related computer game)

3. Offer differentiated assignments (variety of levels of difficulty and learning styles) that involve meaningful skills. Worksheets can be engaging, depending on the topic and delivery. Our Holt/McDougal worksheets are awesome. And we have 6 different choices for every lesson! And chapter projects! And online study resources. Really, I don't make any money off these little plugs, but if you are looking for new textbooks, I highly recommend this one.

4. Grade assignments timely and meaningfully. Or make students grade/peer-grade their work themselves if at all possible. Making students take ownership in grading is the best way to get timely and relevant feedback; especially if students take the time to ask for help if/when they bomb a worksheet or don't understand a concept. 

5. Avoid assigning homework on weekends and holidays (except makeup work and extra credit). Students need family time and re-charge time, just as we do. I keep reminding myself how miserable I feel leaving school at 5 pm on Friday, after working two hours after the students leave, and still having another 3-4 hours of work to do over the weekend. And I'm an adult. Kids need time to be kids. 

6. Make myself available to help students after hours. It really doesn't take long and it doesn't have to be in person. I currently have an open-text policy and an open email / schoology messenger policy on my iPad. My phone and iPad beep when I have incoming messages, which are usually only 3-5 questions/comments per night. 

I'm sure I could think of more, but 6 goals seem like plenty for now. You may think the Zombie is crazy already, just off of these six. Wish me luck! Now go make your own list.

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