It is a very challenging time to be a teacher. That’s not to say it wasn’t a demanding profession twenty years ago, or even one hundred years ago in the age of chalk slates and less than 10% of enrolled students graduating high school. The challenges are different today, and overwhelming in their own way.
For instance, there is a growing movement to curtail the amount of homework given to students, or in some cases do away with homework altogether. Books like “The Case Against Homework” by Sara Bennet and Nancy Kalish, among others, argue that homework has no place in the American school system anymore. That homework is actually detrimental to the fragile psyche that is a young studen’t mind.
Just like eveyrone reading this article, I remember coming home from school and realizing my time still wasn’t my own. My time was still caught up doing school work. There was math problems to do, essays to write, or books to read. But it was an expected part of my life. I dreaded some of it, I loved other assignments, but I did it all. Well, mostly all.
Now I find all these parents and educators going on about how homework does nothing for a student. Homework is an undue burden for students. Homework is, in short, an evil that must be stopped.
Ridiculous, say I.
Homework is an important and vital part of a child’s educational process. Sitting in front of a teacher and regurgitating answers with twenty to thirty other students is all well and good. It allows the teacher to see you are following the lesson. It does not, however, allow the teacher to say with any confidence that you are able to do work based on the lesson by yourself. And that is where homework comes in. The work that a young student comes back to their teacher with is a testament to their own ability. And for that reason alone, it will always be important.
So the question then becomes, how do educators get students interested enough in homework assignments to put forth a good effort ? How do teachers inspire their students when the mere mention of homework causes a roomfull of groans? There are, in fact, several ways for teachers to ensure successful homework efforts. Here are just a few.
The first one is obvious: Make the assignment interesting. My son’s school likes to give summer reading assignments for the upcoming year. This way the teacher has something to discuss with them from day one. That’s all well and good, but the books they assign to him time and again are boring even to me. And even though I put on an excited face when it’s time to bring that book out, I can tell he’s bored with it too. And being bored with it, he’s not going to retain much of the story in his head until September starts the new year. So what’s the solution? It isn’t to eliminate the reading assignments. Rather, change them. Instead of a story about a child who is being bullied in 1945, like my son’s school did, have them read “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid” (he’s in fourth grade). The Wimpy Kid books are popular now, and let’s face it, more engaging to children of that age while still having the same message of how bullying makes children feel. Interested students equal active students when it comes time to discuss their assignment.
Next, don’t make assignments too challenging, but don’t undershoot your target audience either. A teacher’s target audience, of course, is their students. Don’t assign your sixth graders homework that requires them to do basic two digit multiplication, for instance, because they will be bored and not interested in putting forth an effort for the assignment. At the same time, don’t expect them to be excited about a math sheet of differential calculus.
Almost hand in hand with this last idea is this: Challenge your students. Dare them to do better. Who can find the most examples of different tree leaves to bring in tomorrow? Tonight I want each of you to write a poem about a bug, and tomorrow I’ll pick five to read to the class. I’m going to split the class into groups, and each group is going to compete with the others to build the best castle defense system, tonight you’ll need to research online or at the library and you’ll bring your ideas to your group tomorrow. Not every assignment can be handled this way, but continuously passing out assignments like this can soften the blow when you send your students home with five pages of math homework.
Field trips are always welcome. Are you discussing farming? Bring your class to a local dairy or farm that is open for group tours. Talking about economics with your class? Go for a drive (pre-arranged, of course) to a local pizzaria or donut shop, and have them “work” for an hour or two. Go on a tour of a local police station or government building. And, let your class know ahead of time that when they write their essay on the topic of discussion, they can include details from their field trip.
Teacers can give their students a say in the homework assignments too. Let each student write out two possible test questions for Friday’s quiz. You, as the teacher, will need to go over them all yourself to make sure they make sense and, of course, that the answers to them are correct. For the more advanced groups, see if one or two students have ideas for homework assignments. If you like them, use them. If they were ones you were going to do anyway, don’t let the student know. Just praise the student for their contributions.
Speaking of praise, don’t just collect homework and grade it. Point out things that students are doing well. If you have a student that is struggling inparticular, make sure to point out something good on a homework assignment the’ve done. That will encourage them to put forth an effort on the next assignment also. They’ll know you look at their work individually, and care about them as an individual.
And: Be excited yourself. If a student has an animated, excited introduction to the homework assignment, that energy from the teacher carries over to the student when they take the assignment home. A teacher who stands at the front of the room, and passes around pieces of paper, talking in a near monotone discourse on what is expected for tomorrow, will not engage their students. I know it’s hard as an educator to maintain high levels of energy all day long, all week long, all year long. But the results are well worth it.
Being a teacher is hard. Asking students to go home with assignments that will take an hour or two out of their evenings is not a welcome task. But it is an essential one. And it is one that can be handled well, or handled poorly. As it is said, the measure of a teacher is the success (or failure) of their students.