The foreign word in the headline is German for “homework,” and I regularly terrorized my students with the entire phrase. Truthfully, however, homework and I had a love-hate relationship for many years.
I impatiently anticipated fourth grade, when I could take my textbooks home to do assignments. I idolized the high school girls who lugged around armloads of books and on the bus practiced shorthand in their stenographer notebooks.
The allure of homework dimmed as it became an unrelenting reality in my life. I learned to procrastinate; the Bonanza theme music on Sunday night was too often my cue to finally plow frantically into my weekend assignments.
I read assigned chapters, copied answers to study questions directly from the text, copied vocabulary definitions from glossaries, worked arithmetic problems, and completed worksheets. In high school I did all that – and balanced chemical equations, too.
As an education major, I recall no lectures about homework. I entered my own classroom prepared with little more than my personal experiences. I had to teach myself how to give homework and how to grade it.
Recently a second-grade teacher in Texas made headlines with her new policy of assigning no formal homework. Contending that research indicates little resulting improvement in student performance, she urged families instead to eat supper together, to play outside together, to read together.
That news item made me contemplate the concept of lengthy assignments for second-graders and ponder established homework policies. Some schools require a number of daily homework minutes – even for the little ones – while others leave those decisions to individual teachers.
I eventually arrived at a semblance of a homework policy. I always kept my classroom rules straightforward: “Be polite! Be punctual! Be prepared!” Expectations about homework for me and the kids were equally simple.
Through trial-and-error, I came to realize that homework must have clear purposes besides producing points for the gradebook. High school students became unhappy campers when assignments smacked of busy work.
One important purpose for German homework was daily practice. Grammar and vocabulary basics required ongoing repetition and application. In my English classes students seem to accomplish more by reading short selections and considering specific ideas for the next day’s discussion.
I also gave major assignments to wrap up units. Debate preparation, essays, oral presentations, and culture projects were means by which students applied and combined concepts learned over a period of time.
I began also to understand the importance of homework consistency. As a high school freshman, I could almost always count on a short story or a couple of workbook pages in English, a reading about Caesar or several grammar exercises from my Latin textbook, a chapter or a set of study questions in science – and at least an hour of algebra problems for John Wilson’s class.
Fortunately, a long-ago comment by a student with no homework one day provided important insight: “Sometimes we have homework, sometimes not. I would remember to do it if we always had it.” From that point, I made sure to assign homework Monday through Thursday with weekends and holidays off, explaining that hard work all week earned a break on Saturday and Sunday.
The crazy schedules kids these days have – athletic or music practice after school every day, away games on school nights, part-time jobs, driver’s ed – also prompted my concern about consistency. It seemed unfair and ultimately unsuccessful to make an unexpectedly-long assignment for the next day when some kids might be playing baseball at Versailles or spending the whole evening at dress rehearsal.
I also learned that my students expected me to grade the work I assigned. The math in that equation was daunting: 150 students x 4 assignments weekly equaled more grading than I had time to accomplish. Consequently, I gave short homework quizzes and collected work often enough to keep the kids on their toes – without killing me.
More importantly, I learned to use assignments in class – for review, for more practice, for games and races. Occasionally I collected homework at the end of class after an entire period of reteaching and practice or allowed a “redo” for the next day. More students experienced more success when I mixed things up, provided immediate feedback, and allowed extra chances.
And I noticed positive student response to choice. Occasionally I assigned any 15 of 25 exercise items, offering a bonus grade to students who did the entire set. Choice can be powerfully appealing.
Finally, I became convinced that we must encourage students to become responsible for their own educations. Elementary kids are dependent on their teachers and parents, but seniors should be making their own educational decisions based on guidance from the adults around them. Homework is a one of those contributing choices.
To that end, I paced my homework practices according to student grade level. Freshmen received mostly day-to-day assignments, while I apprised my seniors at least a week ahead of most work.
Parents will continue to debate the necessity of homework. Kids will continue to complain about it, and dogs will continue to eat it. Schools and teachers will continue to design policies that may or may not improve the educational process.
And I will continue to believe that homework is necessary but effective when it is purposeful, consistent, used and/or evaluated, offers choice, and increases educational independence. Maybe homework really is my favorite word!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.