Beyond Old Windows: A Teacher's Thoughts Between Centuries

Phi Kappa Phi Forum Columns

Morning Meeting, Part Two: The Time

Posted on March 15, 2010 at 8:43 PM


Sometimes it is discussed within the first minutes of the class period. Sometimes it occurs at the end of a busy elementary day. It might be on a high school syllabus that delivers a term's worth at a time. No doubt, it is at all levels, in all classrooms. Homework is the tradition that lives on despite all other changes in education. Enduring but hardly endearing, it appears inescapable. Neither rain, nor snow days, nor the dark of power-failure nights provides a reprieve from the following morning's deadline. Every generation of students encounters homework.

Devising, explaining, assigning, recording, packing, completing, delivering, collecting, assessing, reporting, returning, filing, and sometimes readdressing homework: more teacher and student time than we might want to admit is spent on this one facet of each child's education. Is there a return value for time spent?

Consider a typical middle school assignment: an essay that summarizes a class discussion of, perhaps, a novel chapter, or a math challenge, or a science observation, or an event in history. How much time could this single assignment consume, after all? At first glance,one might expect that the teacher simply tells the students what it is, they write it down, complete it at home, turn it in the next day for a grade, and learning goes on.

In fact, at many early grade levels, it may take several classroom minutes for a teacher to assist individual student in locating their assignment logs, and several more in explaining and copying the assignment details. The student's investment of organizational time continues beyond this point, in the corridor packing the assignment materials into the book bag, unpacking the bag at home, deciding which assignment to address first, finding that assignment, deciphering the detail. Only then can the actual homework begin: reviewing the material required, planning a response, writing a draft, perhaps even editing and revising, and completing the final piece. More organizational time is spent in packing the assignment back into the bag, unpacking it in the school corridor, finding the right assignment for the right class by today's schedule, and putting the assignment in the right spot in the classroom. At this point the time investment shifts back to the teacher, who chooses whether to ignore the accumulation of papers until later in the day, or to take a few more minutes of class time to scan the stack for completion and/or pursue missing work. Outside of class, the teacher continues to invest in this typical assignment by establishing scoring criteria, correcting the work, and sorting and recording the comments or score for later reference. On yet another day, class time will again be taken to redistribute the reviewed homework, answer questions about the grades or comments, and assist students in storing the completed papers or in readdressing the assignment again to improve the quality and the score.

Consider that middle school students seldom go home with only one assignment. While varying widely, it seems safe to assume that a student taking at least five academic classes will go home with a minimum of two or three assignments daily. Consider also that the investment of organizational time will vary according to a student's personal style or level of development. Remember, too, that some students go home to relatively quiet, well-appointed study areas, while others will not go home until they have spent several hours on their own or in a care-taking program typically filled with athletic activities.

Is it the teacher's fondness for work outside of the classroom that perpetuates the cycle of assignments? Is it the parents' wish to watch over their children developing skills on independent homework? Is it the student's thirst for knowledge that calls out for homework? Is it a community's belief that improving academic achievement depends on increasing homework hours?


Almost fifty years ago, with my yellow sheet of paper hastily crammed into my red-plaid, metal, bologna-scented lunch box, I waited in the line of students for the red and yellow lights, looked both ways, crossed within the white lines and headed home, excitedly carrying the burden of homework that identified me as a full-fledged student. Not a pupil - I had been told that while pupils simply took up room in a classroom, students worked and studied and learned and became scholars. Such heady thoughts filled my five-year-old mind. I was barely in the door when I opened my lunch box, smoothed out the thin yellow piece of paper, and proudly asked my mother for a pencil.

"What are you going to do?" she asked, and I told her that my HOMEWORK was to go out in the street and trace numbers from a car's license plate. My brother snickered and said something about playing in traffic, but I knew this was not play, this was real work, and it was excitingly mine to do. I did it carefully, awkwardly holding the skinny yellow pencil and tracing the large, oddly shaped numbers. Finished, I brought it back into the house, and put it into my freshly washed lunch box. The thin sheet of paper dissolved almost instantly, and so did I. "My lunch box melted my homework."  Who would ever believe me? I had so innocently begun my career of false starts and rewrites. The struggle to be more than just a pupil was to be centered on completing and returning the homework without somehow losing it.

Ten years later, quarter in hand, my cracking green oilcloth bag cinched tightly and slung over my left shoulder, I waited at the subway station for the 4:45 that would carry me one stop to home. It was tempting to spend the coin on cocoa and walk home, but the streets were dark, the freezing rain would seep through the old bag's cracks, and my books would only be heavier. I had failed a science test and had a full chapter to copy in cursive handwriting in addition to my regular homework. I sneezed, pulled the zipper higher on my rain slicker, and thought fleetingly of taking a day off, but knew I could never cope with the missed quiz, make-up work, and two nights of homework that would result. I would do the English and math homework once the supper dishes were cleared from the table and would read the assigned history chapter until bedtime. I would then get up at 5:00 the next morning with my father, to copy the science chapter. I knew he would wake me early if I asked. I had already finished the Latin homework at the library before heading home. At least it was not my turn to do the dishes that night. But I knew, if I fell asleep while reading the history, I would likely fail that quiz the next day, and that would mean more homework. A cup of tea after supper would help.


Thirty-five years out of high school, I try to remember the classrooms of my childhood, the lessons, my friends' faces, but what more clearly comes to mind is the homework - not the content of the homework, but its existence, its relentless consumption of hours of time, daily, the worry it caused me, and its weight on my shoulders. Attention today is being focused on the heavy book bag; rather than seeing a lightening of the load, we see companies designing back-saving straps and wheeled luggage-style book bags to alleviate the burden that students carry.

Recent studies claim that homework has value only at the middle school level and beyond, yet elementary schools continue to assign homework, believing that they are helping students build good work habits. Yet, many middle school teachers honestly admit that all those elementary school years of "training" students to carry homework back and forth successfully have not helped those students who are organizationally challenged. Some middle school teachers now provide students with a weekly agenda of assignments neatly typed, carefully detailed, and consistently scheduled. They talk to each other in team meetings and plan their homework syllabus to stagger major assignments and avoid overloading students. Creating the syllabus requires an additional investment of time but also gives students and their parents a tool for discussing the academic program, and helps a family plan adequate and appropriate time and materials for homework. Still, many students struggle with the workload.

In the weeks of traumatic sadness following the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks on our nation, concerned child advocates support parents' call for more family time, time to be used comforting their children, having conversations and transmitting their family values and belief systems to their children. Parents and teachers are also working to maintain predictable routines and reassure stability for our children, to help alleviate stress and provide a psychologically safe environment for our young charges. At first glance, this may not seem the best time to alter routines, to change expectations concerning amounts of required homework. However, it may be the best  time to begin such changes, particularly if some of the homework tasks altered or reduced are those that are not individually tailored for a student's interest or learning style. For those students and families challenged by limited time together, such a reduction might significantly reduce stress and open channels of shared interests.


Can you imagine a school week, or month, or even an entire semester, of little to no homework? What would change in your own family life, and in the family lives of your students? What would change in your classroom? How much more could you address in class if you weren't dedicating fifteen to twenty minutes each day to organizing, assigning, collecting or returning homework? How might you assess and grade your students without the facet of homework? Which students would begin to shine more in your classroom? How different would parent/teacher conferences be? How many more individualized pursuits of knowledge would occur? How would the library circulation numbers change? Which area of your curriculum would blossom? Which area might pale? How would standardized test scores be affected? What would really happen to children's skill levels, aptitudes, and interests? Would you dare to imagine?

The saying goes, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is our gift; that is why it is called the present." Savor today with your students. Enjoy them for who they are now, not for what they might become. Let the future happen in its own time. Relinquish the temptation to model skills needed at the next level to the people who teach at the next level, for they have the students who have reached an age that allows them to practice those skills. Middle school teachers will help children adapt to the middle school setting. High school teachers will do the same at their level. Help your students to set goals, but allow them to live in their present. Be honest in assessing the legitimacy of the homework you assign.The knowledge you share, the confidence they gain, and the patience and skills they practice with you in your classroom today could carry them farther than we might anticipate. Imagine.

by Terry Palardy. Copyright National Forum: Phi KappaPhi Journal Fall 2001

Afterword: Although technology has advanced in power and fallen in size and price, many families today still face the complications and expense of providing multiple computers for their students ... and the bookbags students carry remain as heavy as a decade ago, and the schedules students carry continue to include multiple activities outside of the school day ... Teachers, instead of providing weekly homework agendas neatly typed, maintain websites updated daily that students and parents are offered as tools to help supplement assignment books and lessen frustration over homework ... but perhaps now, at the end of the first decade in the new millennium,  it really is time to look at our yearly school calendars and hourly schedules to find a less contentious approach toward expanding our students knowledge, and their experiences.



Categories: homework, students

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Reply Terry
8:07 PM on May 8, 2010 
"I fear that the homework debate will continue long after my kindergarteners have graduated from school...."

We are two for two on that score ... perhaps when your daughter's granddaughter and grandson reach elementary school age, it will be a kinder, gentler place with regards to homework ...
Reply Trish
12:12 AM on May 1, 2010 
As a teacher, I once assigned homework with impunity. At home, I had a kindergarten student who was thrilled with homework; to sharpen her pencil and swing her legs from the chair at the table to do her addition sheets. Then a few years later another kindergarten student, for whom the work did not come so easily, showed me the tears and frustration that homework causes so many families. I fear that the homework debate will continue long after my kindergarteners have graduated from school.