Freeing Students—and Teachers—From Homework
A second-grade teacher explains how she got rid of mandatory homework—and the surprising results she found when she did.
I stopped assigning homework to my second-grade students last year, and something surprising happened: They started doing more work at home. This inspiring group of 8-year-olds used their newfound free time to explore subjects and topics of interest to them. Even better, they excitedly reported their findings to their peers—who then became inspired enough to explore their own areas of interest. I wish I could say that this was part of my master plan and that I’m just that good, but my students get all the credit for this one.
These are just a handful of examples of the in-depth learning that occurred at home once my students were given the gift of time:
Student 1: After learning about weather patterns during our science unit, she decided to learn more about the effects of Hurricane Sandy on our local community. She created a cardboard model of the aftermath in Belmar, New Jersey.
Student 2: After learning about Harriet Tubman during social studies, she made a 3D model of the Underground Railroad, complete with a map showing a route from slave state to free state.
Student 3: After learning about the Civil War, he made a 3D model of the Battle of Gettysburg and a trifold display with key figures, a timeline, and interesting facts.
Student 4: After learning about Martin Luther King Jr., she took the initiative to learn more about his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and created a cardboard model of the March on Washington, complete with a book report.
Why did I get rid of homework? It’s become abundantly clear that it’s time to break this habit. The minor academic benefits to assigning mandatory nightly homework simply do not outweigh the substantial drawbacks, which include potentially turning young children against school at the beginning of their academic journey.
A Five-Part Plan to Break the Homework Habit
1. Explain it to parents. Back-to-school night is a perfect opportunity to explain your philosophy on homework to the families in your class. Don’t send your homework policy home in a letter—parents get a ton of paperwork in the first few weeks of school, and it’s nearly impossible to read through it all. Instead, create a presentation backed with research and walk parents through it in person. Most of them will be on board immediately—homework causes a lot of stress and fighting in most families. And you’ll be able to answer the skeptics’ questions on the spot and avoid a drawn-out email exchange.
2. Encourage at-home reading. The key word here is encourage. During your presentation, explain the benefits of reading at home. You can even send home reading logs, but don’t assign a due date. Your students should not have mandatory reading time every night. Reading should be a choice, not a chore. We’re trying to create lifelong readers, and when we make reading a mandatory assignment, we take away from the joy and pleasure of the experience.
3. Send home weekly spelling words and math facts. At the beginning of each week, send home a list of spelling words and math facts that need to be mastered. It will be up to each child to figure out the best way to learn to spell the words correctly or to master the math facts. If you want to send home a choice board for the students to use to help guide their studying, do it. Just don’t make it mandatory.
These spelling words and math facts are covered in class, and if you provide your class with differentiated spelling lists and math facts, it levels the playing field and all students can do their learning in class. And since parents often want to track what their children are learning, at back-to-school night I go over different ways parents can support spelling and math fact mastery—that’s the reason to continue to send the list home, even with no mandatory work.
4. Create voluntary monthly family projects. I send home family projects at the beginning of each month. These projects are designed to inspire a dialogue between the student and his or her family, and they’re meant to be fun. Some examples: Cover a pumpkin with family photos, complete five random acts of kindness, make a bird’s nest out of household materials. The students and their families have the entire month to complete the project. The students bring in their projects on the last day of the month and present them to the class.
I’ve had a few students choose not to complete a monthly project, only to change their mind after they saw their classmates’ presentations and bring one in the following week or even the following month. They’re never penalized for an incomplete or “late” submission.
5. Create voluntary lesson extensions. Some children love homework. I had two students last year who would bring in a binder and ask me to fill it with assignments for them to complete at home. Resist the urge to give such kids busy work. Instead, create lesson extensions and post them on Google Classroom or send them home each week. Point students to outside resources to expand their knowledge on a topic covered in class. Give them the opportunity to report their findings back to their classmates.
Thoreau eloquently said, “It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” As educators, we need to strive to provide authentic learning opportunities for our students. Busy work is a waste of time for all of us—students and teachers alike.
Not only that, but our youngest learners are losing precious free time that could be used to engage in play and group activities like organized sports, music lessons, and clubs. Eight-year-olds should not feel stressed about getting their math homework done so they can get to soccer practice or piano lessons on time.