Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Moonlighting - thoughts on homework

This is a version of my August East Side Monthly education column, which the editors titled "Moonlighting" (way better title than I came up with originally!). It's not online yet but is out and about in the neighborhood.


There is so very much to love about summer: the beach, the sun and perhaps at the top of list for many parents, students, and teachers, the long, homework-free evenings. As I write this, school has only just let out for the year, and I am thoroughly enjoying not having to inquire about the status of homework. I expect that every one of this summer’s 65 homework-free nights to be just as delightful as these first few.

The uses and limits of homework are on my mind now because our kids are stepping into phases of their educational careers that will demand more of them. Our youngest son starts kindergarten, his third-grade brother faces the NECAP tests for the first time, and their oldest brother enters middle school.

Truth be told, in terms of the sheer volume of homework, I don’t have much about which to gripe. Last year, our elementary school kids had ten to 20 minutes a night, with a bit more demanded of our fifth grader from time to time. The work--worksheets, most of the time--provided a glimpse into what the kids were doing in class.

Rarely, however, was the homework joyful, thought provoking, or work that really needed to be done at home. That dullness tended to confirm my suspicions about homework’s futility. Research and advocacy supporting the case against homework from outspoken critics such as author Alfie Kohn (The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing) and filmmaker Vicki Abeles (“Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture”) intensified my own anxiety about homework.

As much as I am glad to be free of the homework grind for the summer, I wouldn’t want to do away with it entirely come fall. As kids do homework, parents and other adults (I’m thinking of afterschool program staff, who carry much of the homework-helping load) can observe their choices, coach them to improve, and give them a high five when they ace a question. Homework provides opportunities to see kids think and work through challenges. Of course, time spent on homework would be more valuable if the homework itself were more engaging and meaningful.

When my oldest son was in Ms. Abrames’ kindergarten class at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, he had one or two homework assignments per week, generally fun, manageable projects. He counted the number of light bulbs in our house and charted his findings or, with our help, created a family tree. These homework assignments were fun for a five-year old and easy for most families to support.

Just as we felt like we were getting the hang of what was expected, one mid-November assignment felt radically different. Ms. Abrames asked the children to keep a moon journal for a week. The task was simple: go out every night, look at the moon, and draw pictures of what you see. Parents could record kids’ verbal descriptions. After dinner every night, we put on coats and hats and went in search of the moon. Leaving the house with a little kid at that time of night was truly exciting (parents with young children in the Don’t Get Out Much Fellowship, you hear me, right?). During the school day, the kids shared their data and observations in a collaborative study of the moon and the night sky.

The moon journal homework held special significance for me because I had the same assignment in graduate school. As I worked toward a Masters of Education, I took in a course taught by Eleanor Duckworth, the author of The Having of Wonderful Ideas: And Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. Professor Duckworth asked us to keep moon journals that were fundamentally the same as those that Ms. Abrames assigned to her kindergarteners at King. We used them similarly immediate and concrete ways, pooling our data and observations in class to arrive at collective insights about our understanding of and assumptions about the moon. Professor Duckworth employed the moon journals to help her students internalize the irreplaceable value of direct experience and evidence in the act of learning.

Useful and meaningful homework--really any school-related work done outside of class--should share the qualities of both moon journal experiences.  Ideally, homework should not always rigidly insist on the “right answer.” It should foster independent thinking and effort, and the out-of-school setting really should make a difference to its successful completion. Perhaps most of all, just as the moon journals were essential to the classroom experience, homework should be tied to the in-class learning that happens the next time teachers and students convene.

Of course, not every assignment will blow the minds of young people. There’s a role for homework that reinforces and builds on what kids have learned, and not every assignment will thrill and scintillate. But there certainly is room for improvement.

Finally, it’s worth noting that “more, faster, better” is the mantra in many schools. Expectations are high all around and continue to rise. Kids need to be prepared for this, the twenty-first century, as they traverse the achievement gap and prepare themselves for uncertain futures. School structures such as expanded school days and longer, block-scheduled classes allow time both for instruction and the kind of independent work, necessary for learning, which is often assigned as homework. Ideally, kids should have the opportunity to work on essential schoolwork in school while also having the time to create art, perform music, and run around at recess. Their learning would improve and families’ frayed nerves would be soothed. I suggest that we use the extra time and peace of mind to go out and gaze at the moon.

1 comment:

  1. We've got one of these by the big window in the upstairs hallway.