Welcome to part 2 of my series on Why I Stopped Assigning Homework. This will make more sense if you read part 1, but you might still get useful information and insight if you read this entry first.
In part 1, I discussed how I noticed a correlation between student demographic and homework completion. I met another teacher who changed how I looked at homework and late work. I knew I needed to make changes.
But I still faced another reality: demographics. I began to realize that no matter how much some of my students might want to complete their work and see the value in the assignment, their home lives simply didn’t allow them to do it – at least not consistently. What was I to do? Well, I stopped assigning homework. It was that simple. I took the assignments I would normally have assigned as homework and I had students do them in class. You might ask how on earth I was able to get through the necessary material if I was taking up class time with work other teachers would have assigned to be done at home. I think that’s sort of like asking a mother of triplets, “How do you do it?” You just do. Once you set parameters and boundaries for yourself, you learn to live within them. I streamlined my classroom management. No longer did I have five minutes to waste on attendance. No longer did I have five more to waste passing out or collecting papers. I figured out ways to delegate secretarial tasks to students and ways to make my “housekeeping” tasks more efficient. I found the instructional minutes I needed so students could do the practice they needed, but in class.
I didn’t anticipate a side effect of this, which was to help with missing work due to absenteeism. Like it or not, demographics are related to absenteeism, too – for a variety of reasons. However, I found that because I started having my students do all their work in class that when they came back, all they had to do was the classwork we’d done from while they were out. They just worked on it in class until they caught up with the rest of us. I’ll have more on how I handled absent work in a later post, because it really takes a whole system to make this no-homework approach work.
My students’ achievement soared. Where once I had over 50% failing rates, I was now having only 3-5 failing students in a class. Did every student do every assignment? No, of course not. I had students who refused to work. I had students who refused to make up things they missed. I had students who refused (okay, “forgot,” “lost,” whatever) to turn things in. It wasn’t perfect, but no longer did I participate in the teacher discussions lamenting the incompletion of homework. When I would chime in that “I don’t assign homework,” I would get looks like I’d grown a third head. To each their own.
The flip side of this were the high-aptitude, low-motivated students. Most of my bright/gifted students came from situations where homework was expected and capable of being completed. If I stopped assigning homework to these students, many parents would have pitched a fit. But I still had a problem. I had students who didn’t do their homework and I had to fight tooth and nail with the parents to get it done. Or the kid failed. At best, he would earn a grade well below his potential. So I had to focus on purpose. I had to focus on challenge. Here is where I began to differentiate my students’ work by product. I gave them more options to complete assignments (drawing, technology incorporation, etc.). I piqued their interest. I made the assignments interesting (I refuse to say “fun” because my job is not to make things “fun.” I tell my students that if you want to have fun, go to Disney. My job is to make learning meaningful, engaging, and purposeful. If you have fun, great, but that’s not my goal.) and the completion rate went up. Sure, I still had students who were obstinate and just plain old refused to do the work, but dealing with one or two kids in a class as opposed to eight or ten was a huge lifesaver.
You might be wondering about the situations where I had the student from a low SES background in a class where the majority of students were from higher SES backgrounds. My school grouped (I won’t use “tracked” because that’s such a taboo word, right?) students by ability level. In middle school there were three groups: regular, advanced, and honors. In high school, there were regular and honors in 9th and 10th and then AP in 11th and 12th. You would be correct if you assumed that these groupings followed a demographic trend. “Regs” and most “Advanced” students came from lower SES backgrounds and “Honors” kids were almost exclusively from high SES backgrounds. Same with Reg vs. Honors/AP in high school. So yes, I did occasionally get a student or two whose background and home life did not support homework. But again, with my new system, this meant I was working with just one or two students in a class in this situation. And I had the authority to be flexible. We were usually able to make it work.
I just had to keep it in perspective. Why was I assigning this? Did it matter where it was done? Could a student complete it in class if s/he had the time? If so, why did it matter where it was completed? If it had to be done outside the classroom due to necessary materials (research on the internet, art materials, etc.), what could I do to make sure that students who didn’t have the ability to do those things at home could get them done somehow at school.
It was about purpose. Once I began to look at homework in that light, things changed. I didn’t have to fight the weary battles. My low SES students didn’t have homework to complete and my high SES students were more motivated to complete the homework they did have because it was more purposeful. And I had less grading to do, too. It was a win-win.
I hope this has made you think about your homework philosophy and how it benefits (or doesn’t) your students.