In a shifting literacy landscape where 40 Book Challenges are all the rage, I find myself constantly reminding colleagues that they need to do just as much homework as our students. We’re finally catching on that independent reading is arguably the most important activity students can do to become fluent. However, the way we implement independent reading isn’t refined yet, and can actually be detrimental to students love of reading and ability to read. I find this particularly relevant in English/Language Arts classrooms, where teachers assign whole-class novels and expect the entire thing to be read at home. Stop this, y’all! That is not what independent reading looks like, nor is it a militant approach to a trendy book challenge.
In addition, students are overwhelmed. Not only does our curriculum mandate that we teach skills developmentally advanced beyond their age, but we shove extracurriculars and homework clubs and after-school detentions down their throats. I have distinct and awful memories of being an overwhelmed 8th grader myself: cheer practice at 6:30 AM, school starts at 8:20, school ends at 4:10, athletic practice lasts until 6:00, dance practice (which I was always late for) goes until 9:00 PM. As a “gifted” student, my homework load was heavy; I’d crawl in bed at midnight guilty and distraught after half-assing 50 Algebra equations, a history textbook chapter, and some absurd amount of required pages read in A Separate Peace. Wake up at 5:00, and do it all again. I self-righteously and probably infamously hated my teachers for this. I hated literature. I hated the game I had to play to be a “well-rounded” student to stay in an advanced program of study. Nearly 15 years later, we still haven’t improved our practice. In fact, it’s arguable that it’s gotten worse thanks to higher-stakes testing and the increasingly bizarre pressure that all students need to go to college. We’ll save that discussion for a different time. Additionally, I am well aware that my experience is not representative of the majority of kids out there right now. I am lucky I had the problem of being too involved and too academic. I am lucky my problem isn’t that my home doesn’t have air conditioning, or that I had to take care of 4 other siblings, or that I had to take care of a child of my own, or that I didn’t have access to the Internet, a phone, or books at home. My parents are native English speakers. My father was on the school board. My mother taught math at the community college. My aunt is a scientist. My older brother was a nerd (sorry, Jim). I was surrounded by privilege and positivity, yet I still struggled with homework. As teachers, how can we realistically expect any and all of our students to perform and practice academics so intensely at home?
We need to be doing more independent readin in class. We need more guided, structured independent practice.
Teachers, if you are going to assign any amount of homework, you need to make sure you are doing just as much yourself. Many of us have this outrageous notion that since we are adults with families, we have more responsibilities than our students. Wrong. I recognize and think about my students at home on a daily basis. Many of them carry a load of responsibility I will hopefully never have to experience, and they are hormonal 12 year olds with peer pressure and bullying and school to worry about on top of whatever potentially awful responsibilities they carry at home (if they do have a home). We, as adults, have the freedom to schedule our out-of-work time. Minors do not. Therefore, we absolutely can accomplish just as much homework, if not more, than our kids. Try it out for a week. Scope out your colleagues websites and lesson plans to find what homework is due that week. Go home every day and do homework for a week. It is hard. When we talk about how awful and senseless standardized testing is (whuddup STAAR test—I’m talkin’ ’bout you), someone always brings up the observation that if our legislators sat down and took the tests, they would understand how idiotic they are. Why aren’t we doing the same with homework?
I expect my reading intervention students to read, complete, and respond to at least two on-level books per six weeks grading period (12 per year). They are given at least 20 minutes a day to read and work toward this goal. That means for me, I read, complete, and respond to at least 15 books per year. I am not a struggling reader and therefore set my bar higher. You may counter that we spend so much time planning and grading their homework that is should count as doing it. However, the cognitive load required for a learner completing independent work on a new topic is exponentially higher than the cognitive load required for us to grade: a practice we have been doing for years. Equate your time grading with the amount of time a student would spend on the bus or in football practice or at church or sitting at the dinner table. Then, begin doing your homework.
We often wonder why students hate school: we give them iPads and food and friends and education and heartfelt love and attention. We also give them homework. We give them unrealistic expectations. We give them shame and depression and goals that will never be achieved. We give them zeros and in-school suspension. Is this really what we want to give them?
Teachers, do your homework. Keep your students’ livelihood in mind. Find balance and offer help. Don’t give in to trends, and don’t sway to tradition. There are more important things in life than homework.