Thursday, September 01, 2016

The Great Homework Debate

The Atlantic seems to be running a series on how "experts" feel about various facets of education. One of their experts is fertilizer salesperson Michelle Rhee and another wrote a book called Substitute. I have a lot of respect for people who sub. It's a very tough job and I don't like doing it. When I don't know the kids and I know I won't be seeing them tomorrow, I take shortcuts. Kid is misbehaving? Who has time to find out why? Have the kid removed and let the regular teacher worry about it. I hate having my own students removed.

The problem, though, is that a substitute probably doesn't have to worry so much about things like homework. I'd never assign homework as a sub. Most of the time I'm not even competent in the subject I'm covering. What should I tell the physics or Chinese class? Hello, your teacher left this work. Please do it. Or hello, your teacher didn't leave any work. Please work or talk quietly at your desk. It's nice that this person wrote a book, and it's nice that a lot of one-year wonders write them too, but I'm not entirely persuaded that makes them authorities.

I am guilty of giving homework fairly regularly. Usually I will give ten minutes or so of review. I don't want to make kids miserable. Like Carol Burris, I am not persuaded that kids didn't copy. I make it a point to check homework if I give it, but I usually don't grade it per se. I will give 100% for any kid who took the time to do it, 50% for incomplete, and zero, of course, for nothing. In my department, homework counts for 25% of a grade. It's an easy way for a motivated kid to get a few points. Anyone who needs to copy homework I give won't be helped by those points anyway.

Sometimes I do writing in class. I will usually go through a few drafts with the kids, and then I will send them home to revise and rewrite it. I read, correct, and grade those assignments, and count them double or triple, depending upon length. There's no issue with copying because I notice when I'm reading the same thing twice. And while I don't like to brag, I can tell the difference between the writing of an ESL student and something copied from some hack writer on the internet. Sometimes I will find the kid's source. Other times I will point out a word, ask the student what it means, and then ask how the kid managed to use a word he or she could not define.

I'd be happy to dispense altogether with homework, but in my case I don't think it's a good idea. My newcomers, more often than not, live in homes where no English is spoken. If they watch television, it's often with their families in the native language. They usually select friends who speak their first language and share their culture. I understand that. If I were in China today, I'd be very happy to meet with people who speak my language, and I'm not even a teenager.

It's my job, though, to drag these kids into English. I'd rather not do it while they're kicking and screaming, but it that's the way it's gotta be, I'll take it. My class is fundamental to absolutely everything these kids are gonna do. Apologies in advance to teachers of different subjects, but I believe my class is the most important class they're taking.

I think it's important that my students bring English into their homes and lives. I'd love to dispense with homework and have them hate me just a little less, but I can't do that right now. At more advanced levels, I'd ask them to do short reading assignments at home. I don't really see the point of having us all sit in class and read silently, especially if we're doing something as time-consuming as a novel. People read at different speeds, and process differently, and while there are activities where we share readings and interpretations,  I think it's primarily a solitary activity.

So until some directive comes from some genius on high, I'll be assigning my kids homework. Just not that much.

What about you?
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