Confession: I used to assign stupid homework

I recently saw a tweet from one of my favorite educational connections, Alice Keeler, that read “I Assign Stupid Homework.” This tweet linked to a blog post in which Alice confessed she used to assign stupid homework, because ‘how to assign proper homework’ was never covered in teacher preparation programs. Sure we have all done homework, but no one ever taught us how to assign homework – that’s when I realized that I too (used to) assign stupid homework.

When I first got into teaching, I was your stereotypical, idealistic, change the world one kid at a time, kind of teacher. I wanted my class to be rigorous, I wanted it to be challenging and demanding for students, I wanted to be the teacher that took them to the next level who they would remember for years to come.

I still want all these things for my kids, but the idealism has worn off and the realism has set in – I used to assign stupid homework.

My first teaching job, I came in guns blazing because I wanted to be the best teacher there ever was. Day 1, I meet the kids, I set my expectations and then I give them…homework. Shortly thereafter my mentor teacher comes into my room and tells me I ‘can’t do that’. What do you mean I can’t do that? This was my room, this was my class – don’t I get to do things the way I want to?

Sort of.

She explained to me that as an unwritten policy, teachers are discouraged from assigning homework because – simply put – the kids won’t do it. My first thought was: that’s not my problem. This is school, homework is part of school and the kids need to do homework. I went against her advice and sure enough, the kids didn’t do it. I know we have all seen those Huffington Post or Buzzfeed articles with the hilarious homework excuses, but I got none of those – the kids simply didn’t do it.

Albert Einstein once said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing and expecting a different result – and for my first year I was insane. I thought this was not good enough, the kids need to learn responsibility, they need to learn the material, they need to do homework – that’s how high school works! That might have been how MY high school worked, but that is not how high school works.

My homework didn’t challenge the student’s critical thinking, it challenged their time management.

My homework wasn’t rigorous, it was boring.

My homework was not a learning tool, it was a compliance tool.

So I decided to stop assigning stupid homework. Kids are not going to care more about commas with drill and kill worksheets. They are not going to become better writers by answering a million chapter questions on their reading. I also realized, that if I assign the homework, it’s only fair for me to grade it (an entirely separate topic for another time).

One day, I gave up. I stopped assigning homework altogether. I thought, spitefully, that if the kids weren’t going to do it, I just won’t assign it.  Well that was a disaster too. Ultimately, I came to a compromise: I told the students if we could work hard and get all the material covered during the class period, I wouldn’t give them anything new to take home. I told them that if they wasted the class time or didn’t finish their assignment that was started in class, then that would become thier homework. This compromise seemed like a fair trade at the time, and I’ve been doing it that way ever since.

Getting rid of stupid homework opened a lot of doors for me as a teacher. My kids worked hard in class because they didn’t want to take things home to finish them. I developed better relationships with my kids because I wasn’t frustrated with their “non-compliance,” I learned what my kids do when not in class – work, sports, hobbies – and, as I’ve learned after several years of teaching, it gave me a chance to take care of myself. This seemed like a good thing.

When I transitioned to a new school, however, something fascinating happened. My very first open house, I had a line of parents all night long and many of them had the same question/concern: “My kid tells me he never has any homework for your class, is this true? When will they start getting homework?”

I’m sorry, you WANT your child to have homework? This was news to me.

Each time, I politely explained to parents that I don’t assign traditional homework and here’s why:

  1. I know that my students have busy lives with band, football, art and working to earn some spending money – I want them to have those opportunities.
  2. I want my students to spend time with their families – once students go off to college, those opportunities won’t be as frequent.
  3. We all need a break. Kids are in school 8 hours a day already, they need time to unwind and be kids.
  4. It’s not a battle I want to fight. The kids hate it, I hate it.
  5. Lastly, and most importantly for my upper level classes: When students get to college, they won’t have nightly homework – they will have assignments due at a designated time and they need to learn how to manage that.

So, my confession is this: I used to assign stupid homework. It pained me when I was told not to assign homework because I thought that was a critical element of the educational experience, but since not assigning homework I’ve realized – it’s not. Don’t get me wrong this is not a post about getting rid of homework altogether, it’s just about getting rid of the stupid homework. My kids still do work at home – they have projects they work on, they read, they write essays, they interview friends and family, they make videos – my kids still have homework, but my homework is no longer stupid.

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