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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Work With the No-Homework Kid

Editor's Note: Holden Clemens (a pseudonym) is an educator who has dedicated his life to providing hope to students in his classroom. He is also a humorist, and he hopes to bring smiles to the faces of hard working educators around the globe. This is the first in his series on how to teach to a variety of different student archetypes.

I wanted to talk briefly today about a series of posts I have entitled: The Other Student. The Other Student is about those kids in your class that seem to fall between the cracks of our great educational system. (It's hard to believe that a student can slip by in a class of 32 with varied special needs, but I heard a story once where a child was left behind, and it made me sad.) Today's post will be on the Missing Homework kid.

Back in the day, I taught at JFK Middle School in the great state of Ohio. I was a vibrant young history teacher ready to take on the world. The year started off smoothly as 36 of my students came to class and were ready to learn. However, student 37 did not come to class prepared to learn. We will call him Kevin McAllister. Kevin was a bright kid that knew the material and was always engaged in class. He would take notes and he would even help other students with their work. I even saw him help his older brother Buzz with his Math work once! Despite those good things, Kevin was failing my class. Kevin failed to turn in much of his homework and this was hurting his grade in my class.

These Ideas Didn't Work

My first instinct as a teacher was to worry about the other 36 students who were doing the homework. They wanted to learn, so I focused on them. Surprisingly, this approach did not help Kevin. Next, I started to punish Kevin for not turning in his homework. I figured the failing grades were not influencing him, so missed recess time and calling him out in class would do the trick. You would have to imagine my shock when these tactics actually made matters worse. Kevin stopped participating in class and started to show up late. I was vexed. I was forced to approach the manner in a very "outside the box" way.

But This One Did...

One day, I decided to talk to Kevin. I know many of you think that is crazy, but talking to a student turned out to be one of the best things I've ever done! I asked Kevin how he was doing and he looked up at me with surprise. It turns out nobody asks Kevin how he is doing. He wasn't sure what to say. He had that "deer in headlights" look that Sec. Duncan gets when someone asks him an education-related question. You know the one I'm talking about.

After striking up the conversation, I shifted to homework and found out the problem. Kevin was embarrassed of his handwriting. He didn't want other kids to see his handwriting when he passed in his work. I didn't think about it until he mentioned it, but the homework he failed to turn in was all hand-written material. Classwork was done in class and he would just keep it. All work done at home on a computer or in the computer lab at school was turned in without a problem. I told Kevin that he doesn't need to be embarrassed about his handwriting. He just needs more practice. Kevin and I set a time once a week to work on his handwriting as long as he promised to turn in his work after class when kids left the room. It was a great deal.

What Happened?

As time went on, Kevin's homework was always turned in after class. As he got better with his handwriting, he would start to pass work in with the rest of the class until it was decided that he didn't need to stop by and work on it with me.

There are "Kevins" in many classes around the country. The issue might not be handwriting. It could be the lack of paper at home or an ESL issue. Kids have many different ways to hide what is going on. Most of school for some kids is trying to get by and they will do whatever it takes to move on. That even means failing classes.

The Benefits of Asking

In our crazy days in the classroom, it is too easy to forget that these kids are people with real problems that might be to embarrassed to talk about to anyone. Also, it is sometimes hard to believe that your class is not the most important part of their day. Reaching out and talking to the student might be the start of a relationship that changes a student's life. Take a moment and connect with all of your students. You might be surprised to find the real reasons behind some of their actions in class.

Until next time, learn them kids gooder every day!

Feel free to leave a comment or contact me on Twitter @HoldenClemens!

Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Thiago Fernandes's picture

Have you ever asked students whether they even want to do homework? Seems to me teachers just assume kids "have" to do homework.

Alyssa's picture

If a child truly has dysgraphia (which is much more than simply messy handwriting) no amount of handwriting practice is going to improve the appearance, fluency or ease of writing by hand. Students with dysgraphia need to use technology in order to complete classwork and homework. Requiring that a dysgraphic student practice handwriting in order to be allowed to submit typed homework is cruel and inappropriate. Let the student type whatever he needs to type without holding him hostage to practice something that won't improve with repetition.

Fr4nk_H0lland's picture

I can relate to student. I have atrocious handwriting (and I have to put it on the white board for all to see). An early memory of school watching every other student in class allowed to use blue pen, while I had to use a grey pencil. To this day, I have a passion for blue pens.

I live in constant fear of one day the school I work in will be raided by pen licence inspectors and my lovely blue pens will be taken away and I will be dragged before the school assembly as a fraud who has worked as an educator all these years without the pen license.

C. Brown's picture
C. Brown
Fifth grade teacher from Hayward, CA

This is a nice reminder to avoid missing simple solutions, sometimes we look for the "big" fix. Teachers should make some time to talk to every student. Listen to what interest them, but always convey your interest in their education and their future. That being said, my no homework students are the no pencil, no paper, no backpack,no breakfast,no involved parent...you get the point. I think new teachers are more excited and make more time to talk to students, but if I'm wrong this is a good article for newer teachers perhaps. However, most of us realize this is over simplified.

Susan Mulcaire's picture
Susan Mulcaire
Author, The Middle School Student's Guide to Ruling the World!

Nice reminder to never assume the worst!

Morrissey-Pulvers's picture

Why did this teacher weight homework assignments so heavily? A "bright kid who knew the material and was always engaged in class, took notes and even helped other students with their work" probably got very good grades on his tests as well, and therefore did not deserve to fail. Frankly, it's unethical to include grades from homework assignments in a student's average because a kid can ask a friend, a parent, or an older sibling to do his assignment for him. We all know kids who turn in perfectly completed homework in unfamiliar handwriting and can't explain how they got the answers. For some students who are homeless or transient, there simply is no time or place for them to do homework; other students may not have school supplies at home, and still others may not understand the material due to a disability or English Language Learner status. Penalizing students for a situation that they have no control over is unfair and cruel. Our first job is to make school a safe place where students can tell us what they need in order to learn, and we meet those needs the best way we can.
While I agree that making a personal connection with students is the best way to get them invested in their own learning and often helps us figure out how to reach them, I absolutely do not agree with the procedure that caused Kevin's problem in the first place.

Kevin Crosby's picture
Kevin Crosby
Educator and School Counselor / Trinidad School District #1

William Glasser puts it this way:

Seven Caring Habits
1. Supporting
2. Encouraging
3. Listening
4. Accepting
5. Trusting
6. Respecting
7. Negotiating differences

Seven Deadly Habits
1. Criticizing
2. Blaming
3. Complaining
4. Nagging
5. Threatening
6. Punishing
7. Bribing, rewarding to control

Rural schoolmarm's picture
Rural schoolmarm
jr high teacher

Punishing is a deadly habit? Can someone clarify that? If a student makes a bad decision, shouldn't they have to live with the consequences?

Rural schoolmarm's picture
Rural schoolmarm
jr high teacher

Have you ever asked students whether they even want to do homework? Seems to me teachers just assume kids "have" to do homework.

So... should kids only do what they "want" to do? What a wonderful world that would be.

wanyi wang's picture

I believe that it makes big difference to our teaching via building good relationship with students. When students know you care about them, you treat them with respect, they will in return show their effort in studying your subject. We have many students, we do not have to talk to every student often, but talk more with or pay more attention to those struggling learners. I have had some similar experience with Holden. Teaching is not simply teaching skills and knowledge to students, teaching must be related to caring. Effective teaching works when teachers care.

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