“Why, why, WHY??”
The kid, a junior in my third period English class many moons ago, is banging his head against the two-inch thick literature textbook on his desk.
“WHY do we have to do HOMEWORK!!??”
Although his antics left me unswayed — I still assigned homework that night, and most every other night that I’ve been an English teacher these last seven years — I can sympathize. Not only did I, like every other red-blooded boy who’d rather be kayaking or skiing than thumbing through the Middle Ages, harbor the same bitter resentment toward homework when I was 17, but even now, at 35, there are a lot of days when I want to let loose a not-dissimilar scream:
“WHY can’t these kids ever just DO THEIR HOMEWORK!!??”
For years my response was the same: just keep assigning it. I had to do it in high school, so they do too. But lately — ironically on the heels of a particularly successful teaching year in which I assigned *less* homework — I’ve been wondering if I wouldn’t be better off, after years of banging my head into the desk, reconsidering my approach. There is another question to ask — one that I’d never really considered until this year:
Why not just stop assigning homework?
The idea of homework is well-intentioned. Although school can feel endless, it’s actually quite short — just 5.5 hours of class, plus an hour of lunch and transition time. That’s not only 30% shorter than the average adult’s work day, it’s infrequent — just 180 days out of 365. Stretched over a calendar year, kids attend class an average of just 2.75 hours per day. They attend my English class an average of just 17 minutes per day. Seventeen minutes! I’ve spent more time deliberating over what socks I’m going to wear. Homework was dreamed up not to wrench kids from their families but to supplement this wholly insufficient diet.
And homework doesn’t always conform to the worst stereotypes of needless busywork; at its best it builds on knowledge and understanding gained in class, or provides the raw material for what we actually discuss in class. You read The Great Gatsby for homework, then you come into class and discuss the symbolism of the green light on Daisy’s dock, or the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. Essentially, you’re reading so you have something to talk about and think about in class. It’s the very opposite of busywork; it’s integral.
But what if the students don’t do it?
Here’s a typical conversation that I had last year with one of my classes.
Me: “So, what did you think of the part in Paper Towns when Margo gets revenge on all her enemies?
Me: “Why are you all avoiding eye contact with me?”
Me: “Did some of you not finish the reading?”
Me: “Did any of you start the reading? (Pause.) “Do any of you know what book we’re reading?”
Dead air: that’s what it was. Suddenly, I’d gone from having a carefully scripted lesson plan to — poof! — having nothing at all, because my plans had taken for granted that the kids would do the reading. And what can you do? I don’t want to assign any homework that isn’t going to be important to next day’s class. But in doing so, I’m relying on students to come in reasonably prepared. And that’s a big risk.
Years ago a former student, a bright young man, confessed, “You know, I didn’t actually read any of the books for your class.” My mouth dropped open. I remembered giving him decent marks, even praising his engagement. “Guess I fooled you, right?”
I was furious at first, but then I turned sad. More than conning me, this young man had conned himself — right out of an education. He’d missed out on a year of improving his vocabulary, his inferencing, his ability to process new information. How many others out there slide through public high schools reading very little besides text messages and the occasional SparkNotes page? By my count — lots of them. And it has to stop. Because even worse than the awkward dead-air and the wasted teacher labor is the deeper truth: these kids aren’t getting better at reading. Why? It’s simple: they’re not practicing.
So should we abolish reading books for homework?
It’s not as far-fetched as you might think.
In my view, the No Child Left Behind era unleashed a new urgency in elementary schools, causing grade school teachers to double down on homework for young children. At the same time, a counter-movement began in American high schools: reducing homework in favor of giving students class time to complete traditional homework tasks, such as writing essays. When I entered the profession in 2010, I was shocked to hear many of my colleagues make impassioned pleas to abolish homework entirely.
Most of the kids who don’t do homework, they opined, come from homes that, in the parlance of our profession, “don’t support a good learning environment.” From the noise of the television, to the fact that mom and daughter share a bedroom in a run-down trailer, to subtler cultural barriers, there are almost a thousand forces keeping these teens from being able to curl up in a quiet space to read “Macbeth.” Punishing them on Monday morning because they didn’t finish their Geometry problems — when they didn’t get enough food this morning and still haven’t decompressed from the alcohol-fueled antagonism that landed Mom in the hospital — is not only bad teaching practice, but wholly unjust, say homework detractors..
I can’t understate how pervasive this idea is in American schools — this divide between homes that do support learning outside the classroom, and homes that don’t.
The other argument to jettison homework that I heard was simple: the kids won’t do it. Now if they wouldn’t do anything, that’d be one thing, but that’s not the case. Instead I began to notice something strange: slap the most dreary and daunting worksheet down in front of these kids during class, and they’ll put their heads down, roll up their sleeves, and start chugging. There is a dirt-practical, “get ‘er done” ethos at work — not to mention a healthy school climate in which students are eager to hold up their end of the social contract in exchange for caring and tolerant teachers. But hand those same kids a whimsical eight-minute assignment to be completed over a long weekend, and the same grim sense of duty that they displayed in class will vanish into a haze of irresolution and unaccountability.
“I just didn’t get it done,” they’ll admit.
Others will put up a fight: “I work six hours a day after school; I can’t do homework!” — and they’re certainly not mollified by suggestions that they need to do their homework lest their shift at 7-11 shape the contours of their future earnings forever.
That dichotomy — the industrious worker during class and the do-nothing at home — only fueled some of the arguments I heard against homework. I couldn’t decide whether these arguments were charitable or a bunch of hogwash. I inclined toward the latter. After all, here were the kids who needed extra practice the most. Must we burden them further with the soft bigotry of low expectations?
Because as the rich kids and the smart kids imbibe their nightly medicine, they get, well, smarter — and someday, theoretically, richer.
And just because some students DO lap up the homework that we give them doesn’t mean it’s right, only that it’s effective. Advanced Placement and upper-level students do their homework, but knowing this, all of their teachers assign it, piling them higher and higher with essays, lab reports, and history chapters to read until most of these students are staying up nights, complaining, and constantly forced to triage — focusing on basic completion rather than inquiry, depth, and quality. The detrimental effects on our kids’ mental health resulting from the college-industrial complex, the vicious meritocracy of American education — “Get into a good school or your life is ruined!” — have been well documented. I once knew a man who was a psychiatrist in an upscale college town. He was not going broke.
It’s tempting for educators to simply blame parents, but it’s not that simple. Most parents want to support homework, but they don’t know how to. I’m not sure I would know how to were I parent either. We are a culture that prizes work-life balance. Children model what they see, and what they normally see are adults who resolutely leave their jobs behind once they enter the front door of the house — sometimes heroically so, in order to “be present” for their kids. Even if they *do* presume to enforce nightly homework, isn’t their very example, conforming to our culture’s healthy notion of work-life balance itself undermining their very message?
Then there is the prevalence of absurdly captivating entertainment technology, most of which allows us to steer far away into virtual worlds with the flick of our digits, and you’ve got a culture that struggles to set a studious example after hours. One only needs to look at the hypocrisy of my own profession: teachers who cry foul at any work expected of them outside of the contract day while simultaneously bemoaning their own students’ inability to do homework. I’m not sure about you, but I’m not about to sit down at the kitchen table and model two hours of sustained study after dinner. By the time I get done with a full day of teaching, I’m ready to go out and set a bad example. We’re not going to crack open War and Peace after a hectoring day at work. We’re going to dial up the most mind-numbing media we can find, and frost it off with a nice cold beer. The children, as always, learn what they see.
Curiously enough, while we English teachers have continued to assign reading homework, we’d largely abandoned assigning writing homework right around the time I stood in front of my first blackboard. By 2010 it was taken for granted that we’d give the kids two full class periods to complete an assigned essay. This year I took that approach to its logical end, designing a writing course that contained no class books read for homework at all. Suddenly my curriculum could not be undercut or found out or made into dead air because there was no variable I couldn’t plan for. This class was almost entirely homework free, and almost universally successful. The students improved because I set aside swathes of time for them to do the thing I wanted them to work on: writing. I had them write only during class time — when I could prowl the room and swoop in at the first sign of Facebook. Could we have covered more if they’d been able to write for homework? Yes. But did they improve markedly and did they appreciate being given class time to get their work done? Yes and yes. The class has been one of my greatest successes as a teacher. At some point, you must cut your losses and eke out what you can from these kids. Nothing should be sacrosanct — not even homework.
That’s why next year I’ll be doing the same thing, but this time with reading. I’ll be giving my literature students large chunks of time to read in class. Instead of emphasizing talking about literature and writing about literature, I’ll emphasize reading literature — and demonstrating analytic skills in activities like two column notes, reading journals, trying to re-instill in kids a love of reading by doing it together. And also trying to instill an ability to pay sustained attention for long periods to something difficult.
Not all of their reading, mind you. We won’t be abolishing homework completely. But we’ll be abolishing most of it in favor of what I know works. Until we Americans decide we want more for our kids than 2.75 hours a day, we’ll use the class time that we have. Besides, we’ll be going a long way toward admitting what teachers have long known in their hearts: there’s no easy answer to teaching reluctant kids. But whatever it is, it can’t be a lie.