I've struggled with homework for many years. When I was a new teacher, I struggled with homework logistics: managing my time grading it; getting students to do it; having a coherent, enforceable, sustainable absent/late policy.
My third year teaching, I came up with a homework system I liked: I began letting students 'grade' their own homework and I graded the quality of their corrections. Here is a blogpost on this homework system. Many of my teacher friends use this system--and I still like it. And it addressed some of the logistics problems. But something still bothered me about homework.
This year I began to notice a few things. These things were always there in front of me, but I didn't really see them until this year. First, I noticed that the handful of students that didn't do their homework in each class tended to share a few characteristics. They struggled in class; but they also struggled with 'doing school'. Which often meant struggling to complete homework. And their grades suffered because of it (I changed my grading policy a long time ago so that no student could fail for not doing homework). But all the zeros still dragged their grade down.
I also noticed that in parent emails, IEP meetings, or conversations with AVID teachers (or teachers of other support classes), one of the first topics to come up when we discussed struggling students was homework. I feel like the assumption we were making is that if the student worked a little harder outside of school on their homework, the other problems would go away. Like, not doing homework was the cause rather an effect of a greater problem.
I also started noticing that I often said (and I often heard other teachers say) things like: if it's a review topic just assign it for homework. Or they can do it for homework and ask questions if they have them.
One reason I think these things were on my radar is because I read Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler over the summer. It's a great book and the chapter on homework was a game changer for me. Boaler really helped me see the inequity in homework. Homework is a social justice issue. Homework is an equity issue. If you haven't read Mathematical Mindsets, I would definitely recommend the book!
At the start of this school year, I began to think about what it would mean to not give homework. And, one day in October, I got the courage to ask the teachers on the algebra team what they thought about me not giving homework anymore.
Then, during our winter break, I decided to change my homework policy for the coming second semester. I decided I would no longer give daily, content based homework. Instead, I would give students a weekly Lesson Reflection. I loved some of the reflection questions I saw in Jo Boaler's book so I used those as a starting point.
|this is a slide I would show students at the start of each class to help communicate my expectation for quality of their work|
I also invite students to keep their Lesson Reflection for the week on their desk during class. That way, if they come across an interesting problem or a point of confusion, they can make note of it during class.
Has this system solved all my problems? No. Absolutely not. There are students that still don't do homework (remember the students I mentioned earlier that have trouble 'doing school'...they still do not do homework). But I've taken the content out of homework. And that makes things feel different to me. I used to get frustrated because students that didn't do their homework seemed to be at a disadvantage compared to their peers that did the homework ("you didn't get the practice you need to be successful!"). Now I don't feel that frustration because what I teach isn't dependent on assumptions about what students having done something content related outside of class.
But grades haven't changed. Students that did well on tests still do well on tests. Students that struggle on tests still struggle on tests. So, the outcome hasn't changed (and i'm willing to admit that is a fault in my system). But that also means that the traditional homework I used to give also wasn't an important factor in understanding/not understanding math.
But what has changed is my relationship with the students: I don't nag them for homework because homework has become low stakes in my class. And when I talk to them about their grade (or I discuss their grade with parents or support teachers) we don't talk about homework. We talk about what the student does and does not understand IN CLASS. And what behavior/habits the student needs to change IN CLASS to be successful. And this feels more powerful to me.
Moreover, I'm not making students that struggle with school do content work OUTSIDE of class. Which is how I think homework becomes an equity issue. Why have I been asking students to do math outside of class for the last 6 years?? I don't want kids doing math in isolation, at home, without support. I want them doing math with me and their peers. Celebrating new findings and puzzling over challenges together. Supporting each other in our learning. Math is social. Homework is anti-social.
Also, this is all new to me. So I can acknowledge it is not a perfect system. And it is a new undertaking during a year when I'm doing a lot of new undertakings (Stats Immigration Project, Social Media Stats Project). So this system isn't perfect. Ideally, I would have a rubric to help guide the quality of students work--and I will make a rubric for next year. I do grade the Lesson Reflection, but each one is only worth 5 points. And the impact on the overall grade is negligible.
For now, reimagining my homework system was more about me: my willingness to take a risk and challenge a school tradition that has never felt compatible with my teacher identity. And Jo Boaler helped me understand why homework felt incompatible with my teacher identity. And the Lesson Reflection is a baby step in addressing that feeling of incompatibility.
Lesson Reflection (basic version)
Lesson Reflection (upcoming test version)
Lesson Reflection (lots of new vocab version)