Sunday, May 1, 2016

Stop the Homework Insanity!

Teachers of all levels, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, are under an immense amount of pressure to cover more material more deeply and efficiently than ever before. As my older daughter, who is in 5th grade, has progressed through elementary school, I have seen a steady increase in the amount of homework that she has received. She’s a great student and will do whatever is asked of her--even if it means coming home from school and doing homework for 1-3 hours that night, in addition to her after-school activities. As a teacher and as a parent, I often wonder if her homework is truly benefiting her at all.
In elementary school, my daughter is asked to sit still for several hours a day, sometimes without recess (which is wrongfully viewed as a privilege that can be denied for her class’s poor behavior), and then to come home and sit some more and do her homework, which almost always consists of worksheets and reading a book of her choice. We have a childhood obesity problem in this country. Sitting for countless hours per day not only exacerbates this problem, it is also developmentally inappropriate to expect young children to sit for so long every day doing work. By the time they come home from school, they’re done being students and are ready for their after-school jobs of household chores and just being kids. At the elementary level, completing worksheets is not helping my daughter become more successful at anything. In fact, according to a recent Time magazine article, homework at the elementary school level has the opposite effect--it causes students to dislike--even hate--school.
I invite you to think back to a time when you did a worksheet in elementary school and it changed your life.
Having trouble? Yeah, me too.
It’s no wonder that parents have to fight with their children to do homework--assuming that the parent is physically home to accomplish this feat. Many parents work in the afternoons and evenings, and it becomes someone else’s job to check the child’s homework, if it gets checked at all. Children frequently receive failing grades for not doing their worksheets for homework, and the societal issue of parents being physically unavailable--in order to pay the bills and put food on the table--is certainly at play.
The only thing that students realistically should be expected to do after elementary school each day is to read a book of their choice for 30 minutes. Instilling a love of reading for pleasure has been proven to boost students’ vocabulary, test scores, and their overall productivity as human beings by helping them develop critical thinking skills. Oh, and it’s authentic. Just for clarification, reading for pleasure does NOT mean reading to acquire Accelerated Reader (AR) points, which is readicide (killing the love of reading). No one outside of a school setting reads books for points.
As a high school English teacher, the issue of homework is something with which I have had to grapple. I ponder questions like: Should I assign it to my students? If so, how much? What should it look like? Is it relevant? Will it be graded? How will it help them be successful in my class and in life? Would I want to be a student in my own class and do my homework?
Though homework is developmentally appropriate for high school students, I rarely assign it. Usually, my homework consists of finishing work that the student did not get to finish in class, and (if you had not already guessed) reading a book of their choice. I also realize that many of them have jobs after school, and no matter how important the homework is that I would have assigned, the after-school job will always take precedent. In short, homework for my class is authentic, because students basically assign it to themselves.

If you are a principal at one of our elementary schools, I implore you to ban all homework outside of reading a book for pleasure. If you are a teacher at one of our elementary schools, I strongly urge you to consider the purpose of why you assign homework, and if it is more important than letting kids be kids and enjoy their childhoods. Wouldn’t it be great if our elementary-age children could stop worrying about balancing homework with after school activities like gymnastics, cheerleading, drama, basketball, football, or merely playing in the yard?

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