Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, “we” get homework. Homework was the norm when I was a student but the left and right wingers battle out on the ed reform stage today.
Imagine this debate on Fox News:
“Homework is terrible for kids and families. It sucks away quality time and makes them do math when they should be smiling at their mothers or running outside free in nature,” says one side.
“#$%^^& wimp! You’re the reason for the nation’s decline! Educating a generation of entitled kids that’ll come running to the taxpayer when something’s wrong! No homework? In our day we went duck hunting and did homework at the same time. If we needed ‘family time’ we shot the answers to in the math paper while we were chasing dinner together,” says the other.
I used to think homework was a good idea, giving kids questions and reinforcements. The ones who did it got A’s and the ones who didn’t got F’s. Made sense–your boss in the real world will give you stuff to do and you’ll either do it or get “F” for F-I-R-E-D!
If you’re new to education or doing “standards-based grading,” you probably haven’t seen an “F.” It meant, “Don’t be an F%^%ing idiot, do your work!” Or maybe “Do your F$^%$^ing homework and your grade will be higher!” I’m not sure. If “F” didn’t have significance, why would really smart college professors invent a system that skipped the letter “E?” Because there is no good adjective that starts with E. A: Awesome, B: Be Better. C: Commonplace. D: Duh….. See? No E. “F” makes a statement.
I never got an F. My friends would’ve hit me if I did. My students high-five each other and say, “I’m only failing three classes.” That’s a story for another day…
We don’t have F’s anymore. I think maybe they ruin kids’ self-esteem. It could be that teachers grade using Siri, which autocorrects the “F” thinking it’s a swear. Today, many schools only go down to C and “below C” which is failing. Or they say “Proficient” and “Not Proficient.” Or even “Met Standards,” or “Nearly Met Standards.” Others grade with paragraphs to explain the whole student. Like a 3-D snapshot of a kid who either does or doesn’t do homework. That’s a code word for “YOU’RE FIRED!” in the real world. If we were practicing for the real world, we’d have to practice making kids feel bad, though. That’s the part we’re missing. I don’t like to make kids feel bad. Maybe I’m not a very good teacher.
So, in my day, if I didn’t do homework, I got an F. It’s the way I was raised. No excuses. “Those who make excuses make french fries.” I even argued in favor of homework against a local educational leader who said it was bad at a local event. What principal hates homework? He must be a communist, I thought. He probably hates apple pie.
Then…I had a kid. Every night became an hour of Declan screaming while I tried to get him to hold his pencil and write his words three times each or do a few math problems. “This is stupid,” he said, refusing to do out the work. “I know the answer.” He’d write it, and be done.
Experiences like this changed my view entirely, not only about homework, but about teaching. Is that question I asked reinforcing…anything? Where’s the value? Is that activity wasting anyone’s time? Would I think so if I were a kid? How does that move me toward success? Toward a career?” Traditional homework flew out the window in favor of something better.
What did that F mean, anyway? Nothing. Some of the biggest successes I’ve taught were report card disasters. But they were smart and insightful and hustled when it came to the work that paid them. Work they loved.
Now, I tell them, “Here’s the plan for the week. I’ll need you to know something about…” I’ll ask them to research, even summarize or bring in evidence of something. They usually do ten times more than they would have if I graded them on a set of questions in a book or called it “homework.” Which, in fact, it is.
Lately, my upperclassmen have been swiping my entrepreneurship books. “This is what you should be teaching us!” I agree.
“Well, this class is ‘Science Fiction.'” I tell them. “But since the economy’s fiction, I suppose we can do this.” That is how a couple copies of “Choose Yourself” and “I Will Teach You to Be Rich” and a pile of other entrepreneurship and success books circulated through my seniors and now juniors. An impromptu book club of the best authors teaching them to beat the odds in life.
No grades. Grades will catch up with them in the end. I want to prepare them for life. Unfortunately, the system makes me define them with grades so they’ll be ready to take The Test.
It’s time to leave for school. Horrified, I realized we ran free and played in nature. We didn’t do his homework–forgot completely.
I wrote a note. “Sorry, we forgot to do Declan’s homework. We were having fun. We’ll do it tonight.”
Then, I drove to work. “We forgot to do Declan’s homework?” I wrote “We.” I wrote my first excuse and blamed myself in the same breath. I hope his teacher says, “Your boss will fire you, not your mom.” It’s what I say to my students.
Heck, I just want to be playing and running free in nature after school. So, we’ll–I mean he’ll–have to get caught up after school, so we can. I don’t want him to be a failure in life, after all.