Homework: A Mile in a Student’s Shoes

By Jason Yaffe, Director of Academics

It all started when a Greenhill parent suggested that I should read Karl Greenfeld’s “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me” (Atlantic Monthly, October 2013). I was intrigued by the idea behind the article and wondered what insight Greenfeld might gain from following his 13 year old’s homework, completing all of her assigned work alongside her for an entire week. Ever since encountering that piece I have been revisiting the purpose of homework and the value it can have to a learner. As a teacher I have forever viewed homework as an opportunity to solidify a skill or concept, extend the learning beyond the classroom, spark interest in the material, and optimally challenge my students. However, I never fully know what unfolds when my students take on their assigned work outside of the classroom. Since I can’t accompany my high school students home, I took a page out of Greenfeld’s playbook and recently put on my parent hat so I could shadow my own two Greenhill students at home. While Greenfeld plows through countless pages of Angela’s Ashes each night and stumbles his way through polynomial worksheets, my own experience was full of pleasant surprises, and brought about a greater level of empathy for my children’s learning experiences, and solidified my belief that when structured appropriately, homework is an extension of the classroom.

Homework for my youngest son in Greenhill’s Primer program constitutes daily study of a poem, weekly journal entries, nightly readings, and a handful of math problems each week. On the days when I sat with him, he was engaged in responding to his teacher’s prompts in his journal. The prompts were filled with wonder and relatedness, creating an opportunity for my son to map his own direction with his responses. He worked through phonetically spelling out his words and turned to me often to fill in the letters. With dinner quickly approaching, it took all my might to not provide him with the answers! When he pleaded with me for the correct letter, I tried to be patient and accept the fact that what he was writing (“I we wnt tu the Giants Stadm. I wnt tu the beech.”) made sense to him, even if it had spelling and grammatical shortcomings. Memorizing and understanding his poem each day has become a family bonding experience. He is an emerging reader who first sees and hears the poem in the afternoon at home with a parent, and then revisits it on the way to school in the morning as he, his older brother, and I take turns with the lines, sound out words, or fill in missing words. It’s been fascinating to watch the two siblings actually take a genuine interest in each other’s homework as evidenced by my oldest son’s love of the Primer poems. Yesterday it was “My Dog Lives on the Sofa.” Just recently he has shown interest in trying to read the poem. Poetry exploration empowers the students and provides a sense of pride when they are finally able to recite the poem. It also teaches valuable word play, especially when the poems rhyme, and it inspires an early love of poetry, often through silly, approachable works. Homework is not a painstaking task for my youngest son, even though it sometimes is less of an immediate priority for him when he can play baseball in the yard or explore playing the piano as a young musician.

My oldest son is in his first year in Greenhill’s Middle School and with that transition, there was some anxiety before the school year began that was partially fueled by hype around homework. “I’m going to have soooo much work,” he whined as ten year can, adding drama to even the smallest challenge. He quickly realized this Fall that his afternoon study hall at school gives him time to meet with teachers for help with homework and also a large window to complete some assignments. As a result, his homework load is far more manageable than he imagined it would be. My informal experiment started last week when we began reading from his History Alive textbook and taking notes on the Sumerians. We both learned about the advancements that ancient civilization made in making wheels and developing arches. The lesson was extended the following day he came home and observed him assemble supplies to make a primitive wheel out of cardboard and an arch from Legos. When it came to math, I fretted about working through word problems adding fractions with unlike denominators because of my own struggles as a math student. However, I was pleasantly surprised by my understanding of fifth grade math. Just out of curiosity, I asked my son to explain the mathematical concept and with that helpful reminder, I moved forward with my work. Another assignment last week came in the form of creating sentences using nouns, adjectives, and verbs from a given list for Latin class. Lucius, my son’s Latin name, jumped at all of the choices he had and reminded both of us that his teacher encouraged wacky sentences (“Tosta crustula caeruleus est.” The toasted cookie is blue. ) so long as the grammatical concepts of subject/verb and noun/adjective agreement were present.

If you have not taken part in a student’s homework experience, I highly recommend it. Even if you only participate in a few of the assignments as I did, the gains are plentiful, ranging from developing a better understanding of the curriculum to hands on learning and practice being resilient. If approached with wonder and curiosity, more times than not, being present alongside a student doing homework can be anything but the drudgery we might remember from our own school experiences.

While I know that each teacher’s approach to homework is slightly different, I was thrilled to see that my sons’ assignments – across subjects – were designed to solidify classroom concepts and extend learning. Trying, and sometimes struggling with, concepts is a critical and necessary part of learning. You can imagine the confidence that comes when students are able to accomplish hard tasks on their own. It’s easy to assume from articles like Greenfeld’s that homework is overly arduous, burdensome and of little value. But when set up intentionally, homework can further learning and have tremendous value.