Homework and the middle-school mind

My guest today is Dina Strasser, who teaches seventh grade English in upstate NY and whose blog The Line I depend upon for consistent and thoughtful insights on life in the middle school classroom. Dina’s taking my previous post on homework another welcome step here, as do several other teachers who comment on my original homework post here. Keep your ideas coming!
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Middle-school readerHOMEWORK! I think I may struggle with this morally more than other teachers, as my formative experience with assigning work outside of school came from my eight years as an ESL instructor. I started to call it the Second Shift Principle. If an ESL kid couldn’t do the homework around a parent’s absence due to a second job (or the student’s own “second shift,” often a load of housework and child care), then the homework wasn’t worth doing.

I transferred this philosophy to my new mainstream English classroom three years ago, and am deeply influenced by the complementary work of Cathy Vatterott at ASCD—her book Rethinking Homework is essential reading. My school, also, has a “no zero” policy, and de-emphasizes homework in the calculation of grades. I myself explicitly assign homework very sparingly, and grade homework minimally (5-10% of a grade), and only for completion. As Nicholas says so poignantly in Fires in the Mind, you don’t want homework to be like “a test that comes at the wrong time.”

As an English teacher, in fact, the only homework I assign on a regular basis is—you guessed it—reading. However, my reading follows the recommendations of Nancie Atwell; it is a pre-set time of 30 minutes per day, to be completed anywhere at any time, on the book or reading material of their choice. I like this kind of work because it solves so many homework issues right off the bat: it is (hopefully) enjoyable, flexible in how it can be completed (who doesn’t read on the bus once in a while?), and automatically differentiated for the kid.

Here, too, however, I struggle with some completion issues. Even self-directed reading, in a book a kid will enjoy, sometimes plays second fiddle not only to the scheduled lives our kids lead outside of school, but to much more sexy technological reading. In addition, and in a complicated twist on the information in Fires in the Mind, I find that if my kids don’t get some kind of grade on the reading, they have trouble seeing its worth. This is even if I explain every single day (and I do) that reading is just like free throws—it has to happen in order for it to improve. This is a shadow side of teaching middle school kids. They’ve been conditioned for several years by a learning culture which pins total value on extrinsic motivators such as grades, and they may not know how to articulate their desire for choice and meaning otherwise, like the older kids in Fires in the Mind.

So, as a middle school teacher experimenting with homework, I would be especially sensitive to the fact that while your kids are conducting “triage” based on what’s graded or not, what they’re actually expressing is a desire for the meaning and impact of the work to be clear. I hope to improve on my own homework in the coming year by asking for short reflections on the daily reading which we go over in conference weekly, targeted to what the kids individually feel they need practice on in reading, and including text and email options for turning those in. I am also excited to explain the differences between tech reading and “slow” reading for them, and validate them both—maybe by including a week’s worth of deliberate on-line reading practice for them each month. I’m sure that will get done!

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One thought on “Homework and the middle-school mind

  1. The issue of thoughtful and meaningful homework has been highlighted in my mind in the recent weeks. I am a pre-service student teacher in the observational role. I see the homework that is assigned and wonder if what they have to do can be more effectively implemented. The majority of things they do for homework are chapter pre-readings. I don’t think having them do something before the chapter is a bad idea but what they do I think could be better utilized to make a more effective learning exercise. I really got to thinking about this once I read the chapters on homework and working towards mastery from Fires In The Mind. I want what the students do to lead them on the path towards mastery and expertise. I think homework is important but how much and what it is, that is where I struggle as a teacher learning the craft.

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