I’ll never forget one of my first back-to-school nights. I was in my classroom doing the usual meet-and-greet with parents when one of my students ambled into the room and before I could even begin the “h” in “hello,” he asked “Is there homework in this class?”
Knowing what to say yet not knowing how to reply, I gave him a confused-sounding “Yeah, sure there is,” and before I could say anything else he turned around and left the room.
On another back-to-school night, a parent asked me a question about the amount of homework I would have in my class and before I could answer launched into a long speech about students’ other commitments and being overscheduled and how I need to adjust my expectations if I was hoping to give a lot of homework. This time, I was a little more prepared and answered, “Well, this is advanced English so you should expect a decent amount of work at home, but I do my best to give due dates that students can work around and manage.”
And then there was this time when a parent saw that there were only a couple of grades in the gradebook at a certain point in the quarter and wanted to know why it seemed that everything seemed to be riding on an upcoming test and expressed concern that it was putting the “bad test takers” at a disadvantage. I said that there actually were graded assignments after the test which meant plenty more opportunities if that is what she was worried about, to which she replied that she didn’t understand why I wasn’t giving participation grades for my students’ reading and discussion.
Do you see a pattern here?
Okay, good, because there are times when I have had these discussions (and these aren’t the only three) and I feel like I’m going crazy. All right, I feel like I’m going crazy on a fairly regular basis–it comes with teaching high school–but there’s something about conversations like this that always make me uneasy, and maybe it’s because whenever I have them, I can only give so much of a straight answer.
“Is there homework in this class?”
Well, there is, but only when I think it’s necessary. I don’t feel the need to assign X amount of hours of homework per week because that just seems like it’s work for the sake of doing work. That being said, there are reading assignments, writing assignments, and projects that sometimes bleed over into the evening or even the weekend. If you’re in my advanced English class, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the reading you’ll be doing for the class will be homework so we can spend more time on discussion; if you’re on my yearbook staff, you are definitely going to have to cover after-school functions (games, dances, etc.) and will have to work on your yearbook spreads at home. That’s a long-winded answer but about as straight an answer I can give when I am not entirely sure if we will have homework on a regular basis.
“Why aren’t there that many grades? Why aren’t you giving participation grades for the work done in class?”
There are plenty of grades in my gradebook each quarter, but sometimes there are more than others because I don’t believe in grading every little thing that comes across my desk and I certainly don’t give participation grades. When we read a novel or a play in my general-level English class, discussion is usually facilitated through a “study guide,” which are worksheets of questions that are designed for everything from comprehension to evaluation of the plot, the characters, etc. Now, instead of making this one of those mind-numbing “read and answer the questions and hand them in for a grade” activities, the students answer the questions for the class either through Q&A or by writing their answers on the board or through other means of discussion. The function of the sheets really is to help facilitate note-taking so that I’m not constantly asked, “Do we have to write this down?” and we often have side discussions and conversations that are rewarding. But giving a grade because they showed up and participated in class seems a bit … well, insulting, to be honest. I’m not running mice through a maze here, it’s English class and I’d hope that students leave having loved what they read rather than happy with a particular grade.
“Do you realize how overscheduled these kids are?”
If you’re in my advanced English class, it’s a given that you’re going to be working at home, but if you’re concerned about the amount of work you can always check what I send home or my website and you’ll see that whenever I assign reading or a paper or a project (I think I assigned all of five worksheets last year and three of those were with substitutes), I hand out and post a full schedule of what is due when. No, I don’t expect you to read all of All Quiet on the Western Front overnight. Here is the schedule of what days we will be discussing what chapters. Yes, you have a 4-5-page paper due but you have two weeks to work on it and then after you get it back, you’ll have another week to turn around and hand in a rewrite for a higher grade. I do what I can to accommodate your busy life so that you can properly manage your own time.
Okay, with these questions out of the way, we can move on with the year.
But I do have a couple of questions.
First, why does this keep coming up? Why is it sometimes the first thing someone says to me before they even introduce him or herself? Is it really that much of a concern that there may be the potential for work in my class?
Second, do they realize what first impression this leaves? Here I am, dressed up and looking nice and smiling and saying hello and the conversation is about homework and grades before I even get a chance to introduce myself (or my other favorite, “I heard this class is hard“). I know I’m supposed to continue to give the benefit of the doubt after moments like this, but it’s human nature to judge upon meeting someone for the first time, and when I have conversations like this on the first meeting I wonder what the angle is. Are they afraid of failing because they never do homework? Are they trying to get a point across to their kids about being able to manage their time? Are they looking for someone to blame when the student complains or the grade is bad?
As I read through articles and posts that are concerned about or decry the amount of homework, I can’t help but think of all of this and how adversarial and confrontational the discussion has become. I never–as a student or a teacher–understood the line of thinking that homework was a pox or a plague or evil. Did I think it was unnecessary at times? Well, sure. But for every piece of obvious busywork that I ever did in school, I understood the necessity for pages I had to read or problems I had to complete.
And maybe that’s where things go haywire. It’s easy to have a discussion or write an article”about” homework when you’re looking at it in the context of how much and how much time it’s going to take, especially when your tone is going to be obviously negative. But when you start to look at why it’s there or why it can be necessary, the discussion gets more involved and sometimes even more complicated. Which, by the way, I think is good because it forces all of the participants to actually engage in said conversation instead of reacting or falling back on old rhetoric. But ultimately, it is the responsibility of all parties to want to engage in this conversation, because there is only so much I can do or say.