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Homework

The following is the first of several postings I'll write that synthesize my experiences as a first year teacher.

When introducing igneous rocks, I show a short video clip with a catchy song and dance. It's designed for grade school kids, but my students also find it funny. It begins with two children standing on a cliff looking down at a river asking each other, "How do we get down there?" A monster comes up behind them and yells, "HOMEWORK!" which scares them so much that they jump down into the river. My students did not gasp or laugh at this part, because they aren't "scared" of homework in the same way as the students in the video. In fact, they seem to have no response to the idea of homework at all. Homework was on of the single biggest failures I had as a first year teacher, and I think I finally understand why.

Read more below about how homework functioned in my classes.

I remembered having homework in high school each and every day in my classes, so I designed my course to include regular daily homework. The first homework assignment I assigned, 51% of the students turned in the next day. Of those, 20% had put so little effort that they received a score of zero in my gradebook. I was shocked. "How do these students expect to pass if they don't do homework?," I remember myself asking. Panic stricken, I sought advice from experienced veteran teachers. They asked me, "are you sure your assignments are worthwhile? Are they too hard?" I revised my approach and changed assignments making them easier, then harder, then easier again hoping to get results. I tried to integrate assignments into class time to make them seem more "essential." The school issued every student a planner, and I started requiring students to write the assignment in their planner. Still, the rate of homework completion just went down. By the end of the first semester, 40% of the students that started turning in homework to look good on the first day had dropped off. Fewer than one third of the students turned in the last assignment.

At the end of the semester, I passed out an evaluation form. One of the questions asked, "If you chose to do less than 50% of the homework, why?" I expected to find that my assignments were too hard, or perhaps too easy so that they seemed like a waste of time. Or maybe students had too many things to take care of at home. Instead, the answer was almost universally, "I don't like doing homework. When I go home from school, I'm done with school. I don't want to think about it anymore. The last thing I want to do is more school work once I get home." I even inquired further in class and they explicitly said it had nothing to do with my assignments. There is just a culture of not doing homework.

Second semester, I got a fresh new crop of students. This time I was determined to make a change. I hadn't made my expectations clear enough as a new teacher. I told my students the story of the previous semester and told them that I had to fail a large number of students that were engaged in class but never did any homework. I had my students calculate the score they could expect if they never lifted their pencil to do homework (a D+ if you get 100% on every test and every quiz, an F in the more likely scenario that your average was closer to a B on the other work). I gave them a quiz on the classroom expectations, and they all understood this concept. I set up a "Weekly Homework Bonus" where I awarded 5 extra points to every student that completed all the homework for the week by the end of the day on Friday. I reminded them that without homework, they wouldn't pass the class. I made the student planner a required part of the class and took away points if they forgot it, walking around with my clipboard to check off that they had correctly written down the assignment at the end of each and every class. I made my expectations crystal clear.

The first day of the new semester, they all dutifully wrote down the assignment in their planners. Only 42% of them turned it in the next day. Each week, I reminded the students about the grading policy and the expectations. I talked with individual students trying to motivate them. I did get results -- almost the same percent, 41%, turned in the final homework assignment of the semester, so I did not see the fall off that I did the first semester. Also, every student turned in at least some homework, but the problem was consistency. Only about 15% of the students received the "Weekly Homework Bonus" signifying that they turned in all assignments. This was usually the same group of students, usually about 5 or 6 in each class that provided consistent effort all semester long. Among the other students, they would typically turn in 1-2 assignments a week. There did not appear any systematic order to things -- no single assignment was popular or unpopular. The culture of not doing homework is too strong...

Why don't students do homework? There are certainly some undeniable obstacles. The household environment is not ideal for most of my students -- many live with grandma and share their room with younger cousins. Mother works two jobs and father is out of the picture. Grandma has had three strokes so far, even though she is in her late forties. Phone got disconnected because family can't pay the bills. Cousin got shot last week and the funeral is tomorrow. Mom has been sick a lot recently, so student has to work the night shift cleaning toilets so that she doesn't lose her job. Mother is a drug addict. Father murdered mother. It's frightening what some students have to deal with. No human should ever have to endure these things, let alone a 14 year old kid.

Perhaps they could stay at school to complete their work? Nope. In order to maintain safety on campus, students without organized activities are forced to leave the campus grounds immediately after school. Even if they weren't most return home by bus, and buses leave exactly 10 minutes after school lets out (sometimes they even leave early). After school help is almost totally out of the question for many, though there are a few under utilized tutoring programs on campus. The successful ones have a budget for snacks.

While these are obstacles, we remind our students that they cannot be excuses. The sad tales I mentioned in a previous paragraph are actually true statements about some of my best, most responsible students. These devoted students are able to somehow overcome these obstacles, so it can be done. The problem is not entirely in the obstacles, it's the will to overcome them.

My students told me that I was the only teacher to assign homework every day. I checked into this and of course it's not true. However, I am one of very few teachers that actually collects and grades the homework every day. I asked one teacher about it, and she said that there is no way she could handle the grading load (as much as 3 hours a night for me) to actually check student work every night. Students know this, so they allocate their time appropriately. She said that she used to have homework worth 30% of the grade like I do, but then cut it back to 15% because so few students were turning work in. She couldn't handle having so many students receive low grades because of lack of homework, so she made homework less important. I can totally understand and sympathize. I eliminated weekend homework because I typically had only one or two students complete it. It was a waste of my time to create meaningful assignments that nobody would complete. But there is a serious problem when we lower our expectations like the other teacher and I have done in order to accommodate our students desire not to work hard at their education.

Because teachers have lowered their homework expectations so far homework in non college prep classes has basically been turned into a useless joke at my school. "I grade for completeness, not correctness," I once heard a teacher announce to parents at her back to school night. Students have learned to operate efficiently in this system (they are "lazy," not "stupid"!). Because many of our students have limited academic skills, the homework that they can typically tackle on their own is fill-in-the-blank. Many teachers assign only simple worksheets, but these are incredibly easy to copy from other students. Operating efficiently within this system, students have learned to copy. Most copying of homework happens during class times in other classes, and is easy to circumvent if you are vigilant, but it takes a lot of effort. One of the comments on my evaluation in response to, "What does Mr. d'Alessio do best?," the answer was, "Stand over you making sure that you only do on work from his class." The culture of not doing homework is so strong, that students don't even want to take the time to cheat at home.

As you can imagine, a culture that does not value doing work at home will begin to bleed into the classroom itself. We have somehow failed as a system at giving students the desire to work. We haven't proven to them or justified to them that there is a reason to work. The students are smart, and like good engineers they all know how to get an acceptable result at the lowest cost. They perform that calculus to perfection each and every day as they avoid homework, cheat, or do a second rate job at it. So while I did a good job establishing expectations of hard work, I failed miserably at showing them that it was worthwhile. I did not prove to them that hard work had a payoff. For students from more stable backgrounds, that might come at home. But for my students, it hasn't come yet.

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