As a middle school and high school teacher, I assigned a lot of homework to my students. And though writers such as Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, make sound arguments against it -- particularly the drill-and-kill variety -- I stand behind the homework I gave. Why? In the twelve years I taught in low-income urban and rural schools, I saw my students extend their skills, their understanding of their communities, and their sense of themselves when given well-crafted take-home assignments.
Credit: Kay Pat
My long-term goals for my students, and the skills I thought they'd need to reach those goals, drove what homework I assigned. I wanted all my students to have the opportunity to attend college, to carry a lust for learning into adulthood, to have engaging employment, and to build meaningful relationships. To do so, they needed to adopt some learning behaviors -- to engage intellectually outside of class, access resources, read independently, write and revise, and work with others.
Ideally, students have meaningful after-school internships where they would apply classroom learning, build independence, and foster relationships with peers and adults. Because we're not living that ideal, I believe the right homework can help.
My students didn't have instant access to an academic network, so often I required them to identify and use community resources: They got library cards. They identified tutoring centers. They frequently found appropriate adults and peers to engage and edit their writing. These assignments helped combat their teacher fatigue and required that they stretch beyond their comfort zones to ask bosses, older cousins, or former teachers for academic help. To be honest, some of these assignments mattered to me but were hardly the standards-based activities my administrators looked for during class hours; homework sometimes allowed me to address my standards, not just California's.
Metacognitive assignments also proved particularly effective. Students completed logs describing their thought processes during independent reading. Or, building on reading strategies I'd teach in class, they'd revisit chunks of text at home, recording their questions, connections, and predictions. Later sharing these responses with their peers, students made meaning of text together (often while I took roll!) and I quickly assessed what needed reteaching.
The more metacognitive strategies I taught, the more freedom students had with homework; by year's end students picked strategies from a huge "toolbox" to help them grapple with that night's text. Students overwhelmingly reported that metacognition, much of which has to be done independently, built their reading confidence and skills.
Perhaps the most motivating and challenging homework? Oral history projects. Students interviewed family members about immigration and migration, transcribed tape, created and revised narratives, and published their work. In the process, they didn't just address hard-to-cover standards, participate in organic grammar exercises, and handle equipment; more importantly, they connected with adults in their lives, learned about history (their own, each others', and California's), and started to see themselves as the community's storytellers. All these results came from the interviews, which took place in kitchens and family rooms across San Francisco.
These assignments worked for my students, and necessarily took place outside of school. Even simple journal responses to literature, letters to me, or bringing in found poetry gave students a chance at personal expression otherwise impossible in large classes. And when the assignment was right, students were active rather than passive, making connections between one day of class and the next, not waiting for their teacher to provide the next "show."
As with most conversations about education, we can't separate the question of homework from questions of equity. I'm not arguing that thoughtfully created homework levels the playing field -- affluent families surely assist and prod more than struggling ones. But I worry about the outcome if every U.S. school were to embrace Kohn's radical query: What if we just didn't assign homework at all? While middle- and upper-class families still took vacations, paid for tutoring, and enrolled kids in music classes and language schools, would children from families with less social capital have even fewer learning opportunities to help them in school?
Even if we wanted to, in the end, most teachers won't experiment with Kohn's imaginings and ban all homework. In our No Child Left Behind era of scripted curricula and diminished teacher creativity, few instructors have the autonomy to make such decisions on their own.
What the anti-homework camp does, though, is remind us that there are different types of homework and that those differences are significant. Teachers who read Kohn's argument against homework probably will, as I have, revisit what homework they assign and why. Kohn does for teachers what good homework should do for kids -- he gets us reflecting on experiences, thinking about practice, and talking to each other about the meaning of our work.
Lisa Morehouse taught secondary English for twelve years in San Francisco and rural Georgia. She is now a public-radio journalist and an education consultant.