Saturday, May 1, 2021

What is the deal with homework?

"It all goes back to balance!"

I remember George Costanza declaring that on an episode of Seinfeld, and as I look at my students' and daughters' workload, I am wondering this: "What is the deal with homework?"

My sophomore daughter dutifully has done Zoom school every day this year, 9:30 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. That's a lot of Zoom! Then, she has hours upon hours of homework every night.

The racial dynamic at both the high school I teach and the one my daughter attends embarrasses me. In both schools, there is a preponderance of white teachers and at least 68 percent non-white students in each school. Basically, white teachers insist on assigning homework to non-whites, even though all homework really does is teach compliance and rule following (See The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn).

My students keep telling me they are bombarded with homework, usually "meaningless homework," which likely is redundant. I believe homework should be renamed "paperwork" because that's what it really is. I hope educators follow my basic math to see that we often assign homework thoughtlessly and based on assumptions of yesteryear.

I understand that my class is one of six on my students' schedules. Then, a lot of my students have important extracurriculars, whether it be sports, band, a particular passion or whatever (mindless scrolling and being manipulated by Big Tech does not count). Some students actually have jobs, too. Then, many have home responsibilities. So in my students' lives, mathematically my class accounts for maybe 1/8th of their time and education, 1/8th at best.

Let's do more simple math. Please try to follow this:

Let's say that a student gets out of school at 3 p.m. and the student goes to bed at 10:30 p.m. That's 7 1/2 waking hours. Let's break down those hours and where potential paperwork, or homework if we must call it, would fit.

Let's deduct 30 minutes for a shower and hygiene (down to 7 hours). Let's account an hour for dinner, an hour for exercise, another hour for household chores and two hours for potential extracurriculars (we're now down to 2 hours). That's it! Our students literally have two free hours for homework in their after-school days. But that means that our students are not allowed for socializing, Netflix, video games or any pastime. That has been voided.

But here's an ugly truth: Our students are multi-tasking their way through non-meaningful school and non-meaningful non-school, AKA life. They' hardly focus on the homework anyway. It's pointless. They're overbooked!

Back to homework, I would venture to say "Two hours max per night!" is reasonable for all classes total. However, two hours, or 120 minutes, means that each of the six classes is allotted just 20 minutes per night. So here is an obvious declaration: Mathematically, high-school teachers should assign 20 minutes of homework max in any night.

But then I even wonder about the 20 minutes. Couldn't those 20 minutes be a part of class time? How much of class is spent lecturing? Is this homework meaningful and authentic? Can it be Googled? What is the deal with homework?

I've had math and science teachers tell me that homework is necessary for their classes. They've told me that's how you build skills and reinforce learning. OK. That sounds reasonable. But then, how much of that homework is in the "sweet zone," meaning it's at an appropriate level for the student? I fear that a lot of math and science homework is either way too easy, making it busy work, or way too difficult, making it pointless.

As an English teacher, I need to see my students' writing and help them develop their skills. I also need to see them grapple with narratives, arguments, informational texts, poems, difficult texts and more. They do indeed need to do some assignments, hopefully during class time, to show me what they understand. Unless we're reading books on our own or pursuing our passions in life, I honestly don't feel my students need to concoct any assignment outside of class time.

Now, I don't have all the answers, and in my 13th year of teaching, I constantly reevaluate and am open to new things. I feel empathetic and sensitive to what fellow teachers face in the classroom and what we've been put through this year. The wringer. Basically, we've been put through the wringer.

My fear is that the systemic over-assigning of homework is a manifestation of problems in education that are under-addressed. Is school simply sorting out social class? Is assigning homework one way we do that? If school is meant to be a precursor to work, is it aligned to actual work in the 21st century or olden times?

Big Tech has stolen a lot of our kids' childhoods and put them in front of screens. I'm hoping we teachers make some smart decisions to assign less homework, help kids actually grow and get off their screens.