The End Of Homework?

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hillman students 3I received this email from a great high school English teacher the other day. In it, she wrestles with the difference between assigning homework and having her students live a writing life that involves work outside the confines of the classroom. At the end of this post, I attach a portfolio specification sheet that describes the kind of work that her students are doing, for context and for anyone who is interested. Here is her email:

So, with my senior classes, I did a warm up today (which took up the whole class, not a problem) where I asked them their opinions of the French president’s proposal to ban homework for all elementary and junior high age children.

You can imagine – many made compelling arguments in support of the abolition  of homework. They reasoned that they would be less stressed, more productive in the things they actually loved, and one student cited the Finnish model of education (which I need to read more about)…

Then one senior looks at me point blank at the end of the discussion and says, “So why do you make us write logs every weekend and do projects outside of school? Why are you part of the problem?”

What a moment! Silence drained the room.

I came back with some pretty valid responses, if I say so myself, but I left the conversation full of contradictory thoughts –

I stand by what we are doing more than I have ever stood by anything I’ve done in the classroom. As a result of these new methods, they are stronger and better thinkers, speakers and writers. There is no doubt of that!

But, I can’t help but wonder, how would you have answered that senior boy’s question if you had been sitting in the classroom and where do you stand on the abolition of homework? Do you feel the classroom should be changed in such a way that all logs, essays, projects (however awesome they are) should be done during regular school hours?

Am I part of the problem?

Here is my response:

Great question posed by the student! The distinction that I make is that our goal within the class is to design meaningful work that breaks down the barriers between classroom and the world. This means that the work that we are doing should inspire passion and interest that makes the work far more important than just doing it for a class. The work that we do in school should be personally meaningful. We should want it to be a part of our lives, part of what we do, part of the way that we see and interact with the world. Most traditional homework does not meet this criteria.
Second answer that I give, when confronted with this issue with my students, is that in order to become really good at something, we need to practice it. Practice involves meaningful and difficult rituals and routines that we do consistently and mindfully over time. This means that the practices cannot just happen in the confines of a classroom. They need to happen at other times in our learning lives as well. The key is that these practices need to be meaningful. We need to feel over time that we are developing, becoming stronger, getting better. These practices should enrich our understandings, the way that we see the world. These practices should enable us to do and think things that we have not done and thought before.

The kind of question that the student asked is a perfect opening for a work conversation around what it means to be involved in a discipline. How do we live our lives in ways that enable us to develop skill in something and to understand the world in deeper, more nuanced ways? Also, I tell my students that if the work of the class is not meeting this criteria, we need to sit down and work together to make it so. That planning meeting can be one of the most productive and enlightening experiences of the year for all concerned!

Here is a specification sheet for a writing-based portfolio. It intentionally pushes students to work as writers in four distinct ways – writing critically about what they read; writing many drafts of stories, poems, plays, essays, speeches, etc.; reflecting in writing about their life and their work; and asking questions and researching those questions in interesting ways. I have found that this kind of portfolio challenges the traditional practices of homework, putting the responsibility more on the student and connecting the work of the class in genuine ways to the lives of the students.hillman students 2

Portfolio Specifications

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