Kathy Oliver is a third/fourth-grade teacher at Discovery Elementary School in Gig Harbor. She is quoted in Alfie Kohn's new book, "The...
I used to assign more typical homework. Then, several years ago, a parent asked what my goal was for the assignments. It made me think, and I realized I was assigning homework because I thought that’s what parents expected and wanted.
Daily homework in my classroom is for students to read books of their choice, and/or have a parent read to them. In addition, I will send home other activities that support classroom learning, such as a math practice page once a week, or an activity related to classroom projects.
For example, if a student is working on a research project in class, a homework extension might be for him or her to find resources about the topic to bring to class. I don’t want them to do the whole project at home, because it’s often the parents who do the work and not a true reflection of the child’s ability. When the parents offer too much help, the child may be more of a passive observer and won’t have the same depth of learning.
I sent out a survey, which I have since done several times, asking parents their views on homework and what they wanted in my classroom. What I repeatedly found was that most parents didn’t want hours of homework each night, and that they were very supportive of daily reading as ongoing homework. They were also relieved to know they didn’t have to fill out forms, keep track of reading minutes or have their child punished (stay in at recess, miss points, miss the pizza party, etc.) because he or she didn’t turn in paperwork.
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I encourage students to be critical thinkers and self-directed learners, and we often brainstorm ideas for homework as a class. Instead of typical reading, writing and math assignments, learning at home can include building with K’Nex or Legos (future architects!), artwork, music, science projects and board games. These all involve higher-level thinking and are important brain-builders.
I don’t need to grade homework, because I know who is and who isn’t reading by our classroom discussions. Students will often share their homework with the class, so there is an audience. Other students will be inspired to do more at home and share with the class as well. By not grading homework or checking it off, I find more students become motivated to create homework projects on their own. They do this without an adult coercing them, and the learning actually has depth. This is in contrast to completing activities that are of little interest that are done just to get someone off their back. The reward in the homework, then, is the actual learning.
When the typical homework boundaries are removed, students begin to soar and will often choose to do research on their own, read for much longer periods and/or create new projects to share with the class. It becomes a very dynamic process that reinforces student interest, motivation and purposeful learning.
Another shift in my thinking about homework is that we are in a very changing world. Many families don’t sit down to dinner together, there are great demands on time in the evenings and stress levels of daily living may be high. Too much homework may be stressful and create a negative attitude toward learning. We work hard all day in the classroom, and my preference would be that families have time to talk to one another over dinner, read a great book and pursue areas of interest at home.
Education is in a different political climate than many years ago, with our modern focus on the WASL and other assessments. Many teachers feel pressure to assign more homework and practice WASL items to help improve test scores. Often, test preparation replaces quality teaching activities months or years ahead of testing periods. My belief is that good teaching/parenting on a daily basis helps support children in learning, as it builds their confidence in challenging themselves academically. The WASL requires critical thinking, strong communication skills and motivation; these skills are built each day and help students not only prepare for the WASL, but also for lifelong learning.
As I enter my 30th year in education, I am able to reflect on what makes sense and what works/doesn’t work, and I constantly question why I do what I do. If the only answer is “because it’s always been done this way,” then I know I need to search for a different path that supports students, provides depth in learning and brings joy to education.