To Give Homework, Or Not to Give Homework: That is the Question

Today was the day before Winter Break and the big question on many of my students’ minds was, “Are you giving us a packet to do over the break?” Students will be out for a week and when they return a few days before the end of February they have four weeks before they take their New York State Assessments in English Language Arts.

Many teachers justify giving students some homework so that they will retain important skills and content that they’ve been taught throughout the school year. I’ve always felt conflicted about the whole “packet or no packet” homework debate. On the one hand, I agree that in order for the lessons we cover in class to stick, students must practice the content contained within the lesson at home — thus the term HOMEwork. However, as a teacher for seven years, I’ve copied and distributed enough packets to know that most students either don’t do the assignment at all or they rush to do it the night before they return to school from the break. That defeats the inherent purpose of giving them homework in the first place. In addition, as a parent, I can remember my kids being in elementary and middle school and receiving long tedious packets and projects to complete. This would kill the relaxed vibe of the vacation and, if we were actually going away during the break, turned  fun at the poolside into a bore.

That was a different time and place. My kids did their homework consistently each night. This is not the case for my students. Many of them don’t even complete classwork! For the past two weeks on Google Classroom, my students were assigned four New York Times Upfront magazine articles to read and annotate either directly in their magazine or using the online annotation features contained in the digital version of the magazine. They were given anywhere from 45-90 minutes each day in class to respond in writing to four questions per article using the structure of  Restate (the question), Answer (the question), Cite (two pieces of evidence to support the answer to the question that you provided), and Explain (the relevance of both pieces of evidence cited in relation to the answer given. This scaffolded structure for answering short-constructed responses is better known as “RACE squared,” a writing style that I have taught and re-taught my students since the second week of this school year.

Did I mention that they each had new MacBook Air laptops on which to complete every part of this assignment, and was able to work at their own pace and complete the assignment at home?  Well, they did — and you know what? In each of my classes, there were at least 40% of students who did not complete all of the assignment! There were even a considerable percentage of students who didn’t complete any of the responses — not a one!!!

The daily warnings, check-ins, writing conferences,and modeled instruction didn’t motivate them to take the plunge into the wonderful world of learning. Given this dismal outcome, do I turn around and give them the infamous homework packet?

Research on this homework debate has convinced many school districts to revise homework policies. In an article dated November 23, 2015 from Scholastic,

School officials in Princeton say students need time to rest and recover from the stresses of school, just as athletes need time to recover after a workout. They want students to use their holiday breaks to pursue interests outside the classroom.

“Breaks are a time for family, time to read for pleasure, time to play outside, and time to go to museums, concerts, and athletic events,” says Steve Cochrane, the superintendent of Princeton Public Schools.

But what if your students, like many of mine, won’t be attending any of those learning excursions over the break? Should their lack of opportunities for enrichment mean that I should give  them homework over the break? I went back and forth in my head about this conundrum, reading research and consulting with trusted colleagues in order to figure out what was best for my students.

I decided to meet them somewhere in the middle  by assigning them timed-reading passages and other test-taking strategies that they can practice at home. Drop Everything and Read (D.E.A.R.) time has been a part of our classwork/homework routine since the beginning of the year and, at the end of the day, I know that exposing them through reading to as much varied content as possible will help them prepare to do well on their upcoming exams, in other content areas, and in life. I’m learning to pick and choose my battles on these educational front lines. I surrendered this one today and I feel good about my decision. What do you think?

What do you think?

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