Letting go of homework to nurture the whole child

I was hurrying down the hall at 7:58 when I saw one of my 7th grade Language Arts students in a side hall, crouched next to a sobbing little boy. I stopped and asked Sonia (not her real name) what was going on. With tears welling up in her eyes, Sonia told me this was her brother’s third day of kindergarten, and he was scared to go to class. 

I fetched our elementary counselor to calm the child down and get both students on their way, but for the rest of the day I was thinking about the position Sonia was forced into — part sister, part mother, part student. The image of Sonia’s tears welling up led me to think in a much broader way about the many needs my students have that are not connected to reading and writing.

Soon after, at a district Instructional Leadership Team meeting, I found myself in a conversation with a colleague from another school around the book Academic Conversations. We discussed the loss of “social capital” that can result from our educational practices, driving wedges between schools and the communities they serve and even taking away time family members need to spend time with each other. This teacher explained that her whole school had made a decision to stop assigning homework. I began to think about how many of my own practices are of the “teach how you were taught” variety rather than those made with the whole child’s needs in mind.

Teachers are under a tremendous amount of pressure to raise reading scores. Our test results are projected on screens in front of our colleagues and included in school report card grades for the world to see. For years I required weekly independent reading with a metacognitive literary response component, justified by my belief that that more practice leads to stronger reading skills for all students. I gave students regular take-home practice assignments, individualized as best I could for 150 kids, and at-home projects designed to hone their critical thinking skills and writing ability. Depending on the child, these homework assignments probably averaged 3-4 hours per week. And mine is not the only class they have.

But when I reflected on the actual results of this homework approach, I had to admit that the students most likely to complete assignments were those who needed it least: high-functioning students who were afraid of getting a bad grade. My readers who needed the most support often didn’t do the assignments at all. Then I was left trying to carve out time during class for them to do the work, which  meant them missing a lesson about something else. In many cases, those students needed a lot of face-to-face support to understand assignments and do them correctly, so the homework was more suited to the classroom anyway.

I also began to listen more carefully to my students’ other needs. Many of them have hours-long bus rides just to get home. Many have other responsibilities in the home such as taking care of younger siblings while parents work. Many are involved in extracurricular activities that keep them busy for hours after school. For all of these students, it seemed that my expectations might be adversely impacting their lives with negligible benefits.

I decided then and there that I would try abandoning homework for the year — despite the fact that I had just spent the first couple weeks of the school year explaining my homework requirements and trying to develop student buy in.  

My new message to parents explained that I would require students to keep up with novel reading at home when we didn’t have time to read everything in class, and that assignments they didn’t complete during class would also need to be finished at home. But I told them I wanted my students to be able to rest and recharge their minds as well as spend time together with family and just be kids.

Parent feedback was overwhelmingly positive. One told me, “Thank you for your consideration and kindness with respect to the other, non-academic aspects of your students’ lives… I look forward to the day when all teachers share your perspective of nurturing the whole child and kids can run around outside for hours every evening instead of sitting and doing more schoolwork!” Another said, “This email, seriously, almost made me cry with delight… A friend and I were just discussing THIS MORNING how checklist oriented we’ve become; you’re on the cutting edge of something.”

It was clear that, at least from the parent perspective, this was the right move to make. I am still concerned about getting my students to master all the content I want them to learn in the very limited amount of time that I have with them. It’s possible that my end-of-year reading test results in the spring that cause me to reevaluate my thinking. But for now, what I am mostly thinking about is Sonia being able to spend time with her brother after school, talking to him about how his day was and helping him to feel excited about coming back again tomorrow. Not doing Language Arts for an hour when she gets home will allow her to be the best student, sister, and mother that she can be.

*Update: This reflection is on changes I made to my homework policy in 2016. In the years since, my students have achieved the highest reading proficiency rates I have seen in my career.

One thought on “Letting go of homework to nurture the whole child

  1. In middle school, my daughter, who loved to read for pleasure came in from school one day with a very somber look on her face. She said, “Mom, don’t ever buy me any more books”! Being a librarian, I was very disappointed, but also concerned about her statement. When I asked her why, she said, “I have so much homework in middle school that I won’t have any time to read.” Sadly, this continued throughout middle and high school. And even more distressing, this class valedictorian, lost interest in reading for pleasure and never rekindled it…all for the sake of homework, which was basically an exercise in doing repetitive work that she had already mastered!

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