To Homework, or not to Homework...That is the Question

Even after reading thought provoking blog posts by my friends dayle timmons and Silvia Tolisano about homework, I've been pondering whether to share what I have to say about the subject. A few years ago, I probably wouldn't have shared because I know people have such strong opinions about homework. I think I would have argued with my own self several years ago...but personal experience has taught me a lesson.

Most of the years I taught in the classroom, I had this written somewhere on or inside my students' homework folder: Homework is a way of reinforcing what we learn and do in school each day. I truly believed it. I felt like it was a necessary task. I assigned what I deemed appropriate amounts in a variety of subjects and provided rewards...and lost playtime for unfinished work (I'm ashamed to say). Just as I do now as an educator, I only did what I thought was best at the time...

Being a mommy changed my mind about homework.

I have a 19 year old daughter, a 13 year old daughter and a daughter and son that are 5. My oldest daughter sailed through elementary school. Every day, from kindergarten on, she brought home homework that never took her more than 5 or 10 minutes. Frequently, she finished it on the bus on the way home. I never had to study for a single test with her. The most I ever heard about homework was when I had to purchase supplies for a project. I never really thought about it at the time, but now I look back and think...did that really help her? Was that necessary time spent or could she have been doing something better with her time?

My second daughter had a much tougher time in elementary school. I had to sit with her every homework night from kindergarten on to encourage her and prompt her to do her best. By the time she hit fourth grade, it became what I honestly think of as traumatic. She didn't really understand the concepts the first time they were taught, so the evening's practice was totally worthless. I tried my best to review the work with her again, but she was so frustrated, tired and unsure that we inevitably ended up writing a note or talking to the teacher to get extra help. Fortunately, she had great teachers who gave her as much as she needed during the school day to get her through the toughest times. Teachers helped her. Homework didn't.

Now, in middle school, she needs help almost every night to complete pretty meaningless practice work. She frequently says to me, "I'm just not smart," when I tell her to try her best. Many times, I am unable to follow the directions on the assignment myself! Twice this year, she was assigned "seek and find" word puzzles with more than thirty words to find. Not only does it take her a good hour to do something like that, she does not learn the words in the puzzle as she "seeks and finds." She managed to make good grades this year, but I promise you it wasn't due to homework assignments. How do I know this? Because if it weren't for my help and input her homework would have never gotten completed. It was really more my thinking than hers.

But, I digress, because this really isn't about what is being assigned. This issue to me is: should there be homework at all? I would have to say: NO

The students working above grade level are speeding through their class assignment, the below level students are struggling through and either practicing their work incorrectly or are unable to do the work. What is that teaching either of them? I tried differientiating homework once, and the kids that I felt needed practice the most never did it anyway!

I think that students extending their learning at home needs to come willingly. If they are inspired they will go online and look for more information about what you taught them in class. They'll build their own blog or wiki. They mashup what you have taught them into something new and much more meanful. I can agree with the fact that we may need to provide some tools for home use, such as books at a child's reading level and/or practice activities for a parent to use if they request it. We may even need to spend some time teaching our parents, to help them understand how their children are learning now and what is expected in class.

I've had this conversation with some of my colleagues and we must agree to disagree. I respect their opinion. I have to because I used to have the same opinion. Everytime I ask a teacher why they feel we HAVE to have homework they all have very good reasons. But when I ask them if all of their students do it they all say, "no." And so...are the kids that truly suit those reasons for giving homework really benefitting from the practice work? Does it really "help" kids?

I don't think so. But that's just me. Please feel free to share your thoughts.


Building a Kid PLN

I have always encouraged my 12 year old daughter to blog. In the past she has gone through periods of wanting to write a blog post and periods of not wanting anything to do with blogging. But this year, she has embraced blogging as her personal place to share. I have tried to inspire some of her topics and motivate her, but my influence can only go so far. She looks for comments and cluster map hits. Just like adult bloggers, her audience is important to her.

I explained to her that if you read and comment on other blogs, those blog writers may, in turn, come visit your blog and comment. We set out to find blogs written by kids, for her to read. The few we found weren't up to date, so I put a message out on twitter. Those of us that had some links to share decided it would be nice to have a place to find active kids' blogs to, the Kid Blogs wiki was born!

My daughter's Personal Learning Network (PLN) has begun. I showed my her how to use a Google Reader. It's easy enough for even elementary students. Please utilize this space and spread the word! Kids that are actively blogging need an audience to encourage them. Let's help give it to them!


Bringing Flat Stanley into 2009

Have you heard of Flat Stanley? It was at least eight years ago when I first heard of the Flat Stanley Project. It was probably the first project I ever tried online. In case you haven't heard of it....Flat Stanley is actually a book written by Jeff Brown. In the story, Stanley is flattened by a bulletin board and his family tries to make the best of it by pointing out the advantages to being flat - such as traveling wherever he would like to go in an envelope! The project begins by reading the book aloud to your class, then allowing each student to make their own flat "Stanley" to virtually travel.

When I last participated in this project (around 2001), my second graders eagerly mailed off their Stanleys around the world and waited with anticipation for a return package. We enjoyed receiving the letters and goodies that came back to us and the whole class benefitted from what each "Stanley" learned on his trip.

Recently, my twitter friend Chris Harbeck, asked me to participate in a Flat Stanley project with his children. You see, Chris has twin 7 year old boys and he knew I had twin 5 year olds (boy and a girl). I readily agreed, and soon his envelope of traveling visitors arrived from their long trip from Winnepeg, Canada to my home in Jacksonville, FL.

While the Stanley twins were here with us, we took them around the area and captured as much as we could in photos. In the past, I would have carefully written down all we did in a letter to mail off with copies of the photos. Instead, I uploaded the photos into a voicethread where I could record my twins telling about all they did with their flat visitors. The exciting part about using a voicethread was that the Harbeck twins could then comment back to us about what we said and ask further questions. I think it brought the virtual trip to life. Listen and see what you think:

We still put together a care package to snail mail back to Canada. We wanted the class in Winnepeg to be able to see brochures from sights in the area, have a few shells from our beach and be able to taste the salt water taffy they make so plentifully here. And...the Stanleys needed a way to travel back to their owners!

We had fun bringing the Flat Stanley experience into 2009! Consider participating in this project yourself and make the most of it for your students.