One solution to homework in English classes

I hate homework.  I hate grading it.  And I hate situations where the next day’s lesson depends on students reading or writing something.  If they don’t read or write it, I’m the one who suffers.  Plus, assigning homework requires a complex organizational system and lots of copies so students know what they have to do—without copying from each other.  I also don’t want parents (I speak as a parent and uncle) to get pissed off because the assignment is unclear and there’s nowhere to go for help at 9:00 p.m. on Monday.  Someone ends up crying--and it's not always the student.

Some research says, “Homework contributes to a corporate-style, competitive U.S. culture that overvalues work to the detriment of personal and familial well-being.”

I recently spoke to a teen from a top Chicago high school who says she gets three to five hours of homework a night.  Honestly--what learning experience do this teen’s teachers think is so essential, so necessary  that it has to keep her up until 1 a.m. regularly doing homework?

I don’t want to contribute to situations like that.  Still, I want my students to use writing to explore ideas outside of our classroom.  I also want the experiences students have with writing to be pleasant and challenging.

So this year, I’m expanding an idea I tried a few years ago (but then I didn’t have it together enough to keep it going.  Hopefully, I keep it together this year).

Each week, my students have one article or editorial to read from online publications such as the New York Times or the Atlantic.  I give them a week so they can accommodate the other aspects of their lives: work, athletics, family, being young and rebellious.

I refuse to be that arrogant teacher who believes my students’ lives revolve around my English class.  (Sorry, kids, my life doesn't always revolve around you either).

So here's an example of how this week-long homework assignment works.  I usually give them 7 days to complete it.

I find a good article or editorial to read.  The first text this year is an editorial from the New York Times: “Rich People Just Care Less.”  The steps remain the same for each text I'll select. And if I stay organized.  I can re-use the texts next year.  If.

Step 1 is the focus question which they answer before reading the week’s text. This should be a higher level, thought-provoking question inspired by the text.  This week’s question is “Besides your family and close friends, how do you determine who you care about?”

Step 2 focuses on vocabulary development with a few words I select from the text.  We know that we must engage with words in multiple ways before they stay in our memory.  So here’s what students do:

  1. Look up the definition of each word listed below these steps.  Write down one definition.
  2. Next, divide the words into syllables.  Then, go the list of Greek and Latin roots and see if there is a root in the word.  If there is, write it down.  So if I looked up "spectacular," the root would be "spec" which means this word has something to do with sight. Look in the first column on the left.  If there isn't a root, skip this.  But look carefully.
  3. Find ONE synonym and ONE antonym for the word.
  4. Finally, create a visual representation of this word's definition WITHOUT using letters, numbers, or words.  Good luck with that.
  5. Memorize these definitions.  You're going to have an ol' school vocabulary quiz the day this is due.  Uh, huh.  Yes you are.

These are the words you should look up for this week's text:

  1. dismissive
  2. exacerbate
  3. scant
  4. implications
  5. prevails
  6. prerequisite
  7. assets
  8. narcissism
  9. inequities
  10. empathy (make sure you can explain how this is different from sympathy)

Step 3 is where they read the text and answer comprehension questions I develop specifically for that week’s reading.  Here are this week’s:

  1. What is dismissive behavior?
  2. What does research show about most people is social power?
  3. How and when do we begin to empathize?
  4. How do the wealthy determine who they care about?
  5. How do low-income people determine who they care about?
  6. What is Goleman’s major concern that he wants the audience to consider as well?

Step 4 focuses on possible misconceptions.  This could focus on what misunderstandings arise if we only read half of the text, for example.  This week’s misconception addresses possible faulty generalizations readers might make: Some people might say that this editorial will lead people to believe that all rich people are selfish and that all low-income people care more about each other.  Why is this not an acceptable way of thinking?  Use any experiences or knowledge you have to respond to this possible misconception.

Step 5 focuses on developing questions that will contribute to deeper thinking and some conversation.

Use question stems to generate some thoughtful questions about the text.

  •  Can you explain why . . . ?
  • What is . . . ?
  • What do you think might happen if . . . ?
  • What differences exist between . . . ?
  • Can you provide an example of  . . . ?
  • What are some challenges or successes with . . . ?
  • Or use another question stem.

Step 6 pushes them to develop social skills.  They use the questions from step 5 to have conversations with TWO different people or small groups online (with family or close friends, not strangers) or in person (I recommend this).  The people they converse with do NOT have the read the editorial.  The student should tell them what it's about or perhaps just use the question in step 1 as a starting point.

The student might start by saying, "So I read this editorial that says . . . What do you think . . . ?"  Each conversation should last at least 15 minutes.  I tell students to relax.  Exchange ideas.  Listen.  Develop good social skills.  Take notes if you need to.  Or just remember what you discuss.

Their job is NOT to convince others.  Their job is to converse.

Step 7 synthesizes all of the info they collected in the previous steps.

After these conversations, write a reflection paragraph that includes a few of the insights you gained about the topic. You can break these up into paragraphs appropriately.

--Write your initial response to the question in step 1.

--Most important insight from your conversations
Why is this significant to you?
How does this insight deepen your initial thoughts from step 1?

--Less important insight from your conversations
Why is this significant to you?
How does this insight deepen your initial thoughts from step 1?

--Was your initial response to the question supported or challenged or qualified because of this week’s text and conversations?  Explain how or why.

That’s a lot of stuff to collect, Ray!

Yup. But if I don’t collect it, students get pissed at me for having them do it (I learned the hard way).  So I give them a paper clip (to avoid a long line at one stapler) and collect it all.

The day it’s due, we have a 10-minute debrief in small groups and then as a whole class where they share what they wrote about in the last step.  And they take a simple vocabulary quiz, which they then trade and grade.

When I grade their packet—and I have a whole week—I skim steps 1-5 (they don't have to write anything for 6).  I read step 7 closely.

I still hate grading homework.

If students don't do the homework, class still continues each day.  I'm not depending on the students to teach (again, I learned the hard way).

Every day before the homework is due, I ask a few students to share their progress or challenge with the homework.  This keeps the assignment on their minds.

And if they don't do it?  Well, I set up my gradebook so homework assignments will not make drastic changes to the grades students earn in class.  Students should not fail a class because they don't do the homework.  My students go to school--not home school.

Ideally, I’d want each week’s text to compliment that week’s lessons or the unit’s essential questions and enduring understandings.  Maybe one day I’ll get my stuff together enough to do that.  For now, I'll just find articles and editorials that are a good read and that will promote deep thinking and conversation over tacos or at the Laundromat. Or maybe even on Facebook. (Even though some teens say only old people use Facebook.  Whatever.  Do your homework.)

Did you find a good article or editorial for high-school students?  Post it below using your Facebook account.

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