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It’s Not Busy Work


At the beginning of the 20th century, teachers didn’t assign much homework because parents didn’t want it to interfere with children’s chores. Today, students do twice as much homework as their counterparts did in the 1950s. Homework is virtually synonymous with school—even for kindergarteners. But what role does homework serve in today’s classroom?

Family Times asked five veteran teachers about the role of homework in their classrooms, and what parents can expect in light of today’s educational demands. The condensed and edited
interviews follow.

Kindergarten

Michael Davis photo

Holly Giannuzzi has been a kindergarten teacher at Ed Smith Elementary School in Syracuse for 17 years, and has seen many changes in the kindergarten curriculum. With the adoption of the New York State Common Core, teachers of kindergarten through third grade have an increased responsibility to prepare young students for the rigors in the years ahead. Giannuzzi lives in Camillus with her husband and two children.

How much time do you expect your students to spend on homework?

I assign homework Monday through Thursday. We begin homework in October and a weekly homework packet is sent home. Daily assignments should take no longer than 15 to 20 minutes. In addition to the daily assignments, parents are encouraged to read to their child every day.

Why homework in kindergarten?

Homework is designed to support the learning we do in the classroom. It allows students to review and practice the skills and concepts learned. Homework helps to establish the home-school connection and it involves parents as partners in their child’s daily learning experiences.

Are students too busy in the evenings to make time for homework?

Families are extremely busy, however they understand the importance of making time for homework. If parents can sit for 15 minutes and go over it with their children, it makes a difference.

What do you say when parents express concern about the workload in kindergarten?

Developmentally, all the kids are at different levels. It’s my job to figure out what they need and what approach works best.

 

Elementary

Michael Davis photo

Scott Brann has taught fourth and fifth graders at Delaware Academy—where Spanish is the primary language for nearly half the students—in Syracuse for the past five years. Brann lives in Jamesville with his wife and two children.

Do you assign nightly work?

I expect students to work on homework for 30 minutes each night, Monday through Thursday. I assign a weekly packet for Reading and ELA (English Language Arts), which allows them to complete it at their own pace. I also assign Math homework nightly.

What is the purpose of a homework assignment?

The homework supports the topics we are studying at the time. The Reading/ELA homework packet practices skills that are learned during each week’s story. Math homework also supports the current topic, but may also be facts or problem solving practice.

Are you setting the tone for increasing independence?

The hope in fifth grade is that the students take more responsibility for their assignments, but I also communicate with parents or guardians to reinforce this focus. We talk throughout the year about preparing for middle school and beyond.

Are elementary students becoming too busy to give enough time to homework?

I think the homework that I assign can be completed, even if the student is busy after school. They can write me a note if the homework is too much. The Reading/ELA packet I assign also offers families a chance to limit homework on a busy night and complete it earlier or later depending on their schedule.

 

Middle School

Central Square Middle School’s Chris Walsleben, after 16 years teaching at this level, says she’s still learning how to navigate the spans of maturity and ability that her students have. Walsleben, a Brewerton resident, teaches seventh grade Life Sciences.

How much time should students spend on homework at this age?

For my class, I think they spend no more than 20 to 35 minutes—depending on reading ability.

Do you assign nightly work?

Yes, typically students read four to five pages and answer two to four questions. In an effort to support ELA expectations, I require them to use complete sentences to answer their homework questions.

How does homework figure into your grading?

Anything that’s late is 50 percent off. If that happens three or more times, students must come in for a working lunch. For many students, that’s the only time I can provide them with one-on-one help. Most students do not resist doing back work with me. Early on in the course I explain if they are neglecting homework and fail their tests, they are likely to fail my class. Ultimately, homework is 25 percent of the grade.

Are you encouraging students to become more independent?

We try. We always wrestle with those questions: Are we holding their hand too much? I tend to push my students to do their best and praise them when I see even a minor improvement in their work. Generally, I don’t let them fail. I want them to see a path to success and take it. To me, middle school is about learning how to succeed.

Generally, what do middle school students think about homework?

They accept it at this point. There’s definitely a correlation between their ability to read and write and completion of homework. As with most anything, if they’re not good at something they’re not going to want to do it. However, like learning anything, it takes practice.

How involved should middle school parents be with homework?

The home-school relationship is critical. The sooner you can build relationships with parents, the better. Ultimately a student’s success is not just about the teachers’ efforts. It’s the combined efforts of parents, guidance counselors, principals, coaches and teachers that help guide students to the path of success.

 

High School

William Preston has been an English teacher at Manlius Pebble Hill School in DeWitt for 14 years. He teaches American Literature (11th grade), AP Literature, creative writing, and a course on print-to-film adaptations. Preston, father of three adult daughters, lives in Syracuse with his wife.

How much time do you expect students to spend on homework?

If we’re reading a book, there’s an expectation of nightly reading. This can range from 20 to 30 pages each night. How much time that takes depends on the reader. Weekends enable students who read more slowly to catch up. Shorter writing assignments have at minimum a two-day turnaround; longer writing assignments are given more time. Research projects typically get two or more weeks.

What is the purpose of an assignment?

These are discussion-driven English classes, so there has to be a common knowledge of a text; nightly reading is inevitable. The writing may prompt students to further interrogate a text or express ideas in an organized manner. The writing may also involve something learned in class about written expression, such as sentence variety or a style of organization.

How do high school students view homework? As a welcome challenge? A necessary evil?

If students see the work as relevant to the course, they’re more likely to do it. I don’t give busy work, and some nights, students have no work at all for my class.

How involved should parents of high school students be?

Parents should step away from overseeing high school homework. Students may need guidance getting started, and parents may need to help a student structure the stages of a long-term assignment. Reading the books your child is reading benefits everyone; it’s another check on a child’s progress, plus it gives the child another connection to the work, someone to talk to who isn’t tied to the school.

 

Senior Year

Jessica Cuello has been teaching for 18 years, most of them at the secondary level. She currently teaches French and English at Marcellus Senior High School. Many of her students are seniors taking advanced level course work. Cuello lives in DeWitt with herhusband and two children.

Why is it important to keep seniors engaged, and how can homework do that?

Seniors have a take-home essay, projects, and some cultural assignments. The homework is challenging, and the responsibility is on them. Once they get to college, they’re not going to have a bunch of small, “Mickey Mouse” assignments to turn over. They will have more long-term projects and they will have to manage their time accordingly.

Generally, how do students respond to these expectations?

If the assignment is meaningful, these kids will invest themselves in that assignment.

With seniors, time management is something they are still learning. We’re teaching them not about getting nightly homework assignments done, but how to have three major long-term assignments going at once. My goal as a teacher is to make the work theirs. They own it.

What is the parent’s role in the homework routine of a senior?

For each of my classes, the parent’s role varies. My best students are the ones whose parents are supportive but don’t try to manage them.

Are students spending enough time on homework these days?

Time management is always something I emphasize. Some students might actually need to get a lower grade on something in order to readjust their priorities; they grow from that and learn to manage their time better.

Do you have any general advice for parents of this year’s seniors?

I would tell them to be engaged with their kids. Be interested in their lives. But let them make mistakes. Even if it is painful, we have to impart the message that there is value in that.

 

Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.





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