Guest Blogger: A High School Sophomore’s Essay on Homework

A sophomore at a Rhode Island public high school sent me this essay he wrote for English class. When he’s not doing homework, the student likes to do yoga and is a member of two clubs, People Respecting Individual Differences and Equality (formally known as the Gay-Straight Alliance) and Students for Social and Environmental Justice.

Homework Should be Optional
by a Rhode Island Sophomore

The time a student spends in school is generally six and a half hours. The bus ride can be anywhere from five minutes to over an hour, each way. The day begins at seven thirty-two in the morning, with a twenty-two minute lunch and a five minute break between classes. And when the student reaches home, more work awaits him or her: some times many hours, if the student does all of his/her homework. Yet, this nightly practice is often unneeded and causes much unnecessary tension and stress. Homework should not be mandatory; rather, it should be optional.

Homework doesn’t benefit students who need instruction the most, and is unfair to students who understand the material. As a math teacher explains in his blog: most students who are receiving As or Bs and need homework the least will do it, while most students who are receiving Ds or Fs and need extra practice of a concept or skill do not do the homework anyway, or do it with almost no effort (Meyer). Many students who need homework the most don’t have the materials, work environment or parental support to do homework assignments, and after a long day of work and school it is difficult for homework to be effective; studies have shown on average that two hours is the maximum amount of time that students can soak in the information per night (Strauss). This aside, mandatory homework is completely causeless for students who understand skills or concepts taught in class. An example of this is found in an article by Sarah Bennett describing a real-life situation in which a student received all As on his tests and quizzes, yet his average was a low C or upper D. This student clearly understood the material, yet because he did not do the homework made to reinforce the idea, his grade was low. Mandatory homework negatively affected his grade and ability to join an honors class, where he belonged.
After students go to school, many have jobs and extra-curricular activities to attend. When they arrive home, some must take care of elder or younger family members, others must clean, do chores and other such activities. With the addition of hours of mandatory homework, the student may find he or she has no free time; because indeed, extra-curricular activities are needed for increasing chances of getting into college, and jobs are often just as necessary as chores. It is often the case that students are given the message through devices such as homework to ‘go, go, go, all day long’ (Bennet). As these messages to work all day are given, so is an even more potent and dangerous one: that work is more important and valuable than anything. This message has many facets: work is more important than taking care of yourself, work is more important than family, work is more important than community service, etcetera. It lends itself to unhealthy choices and the belief that work isn’t fun or enjoyable. A New Jersey mother poses the question, “What are we teaching our kids for the future? That they all have to be type A workaholics, and if you find yourself with downtime during the day, it’s a sin?” (Bennet).
One major counter argument that those in favor of mandatory homework often make has to do with how a student’s free time is utilized after school. As one critic states in his article The Weak Case Against Homework: “when students are not doing homework, their principle pastimes are not play or reading for pleasure or any other meaningful activities … Instead, they are watching a lot of television: … two hours and eight minutes a day for the average 15- to 17-year old” (Matthews). Students do not always do homework anyway; and if the average high school student watches that much television then it is obvious that homework is not stopping television watchers or video gamers. Is stopping students from watching television really the aim of homework? Personally, I do not watch that much television a night- perhaps my lack of television watching is made up for in the amount of time I use a computer, but when I use a computer I am generally reading, socializing and learning. I do not want my time being taken away based on some statistic that doesn’t apply to me and was most likely gained by an unreliable SALT survey. There are other ways a teacher may influence after-school time rather than assigning homework, such as talking directly to students about television and the influence such devices have on their lives.
Another major point made by critics is regarding self-discipline. Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, explains “people fall back on the self-discipline argument and how it helps students learn study skills” (Strauss 2). According to some, homework is a method of cultivating discipline for the mind so that the student will be better prepared and able to cope with things that are difficult to focus on. Branching off of this, the claim follows that students who do not do homework have not learned to discipline themselves, and are sometimes categorized as ‘lazy.’ However, as exhibited in the previous logic, students may already understand the material, may have too much to do (another reason for quantity as opposed to quality in homework), or may not have the skills, as well as a number of other possibilities. Yes, some students do not care, but should the rights of the many more who do care suffer because of the actions of others? The self-discipline argument as it relates to homework is also faulty because it fails to recognize that self-discipline already occurs in school and can be tested in school- through the work that is done there, the quietness during tests, etcetera. There are many other ways to learn self-discipline, the most obvious example being exercise. With exercise, a person learns discipline, to keep themselves challenged and healthy despite mental reluctance- one would argue that this is an even better way to learn self-discipline, seeing as though not all students do homework and others do it with little effort. Study skills are also learned in school as well, but ‘studying’ is generally not considered a ‘homework assignment’ because it cannot be checked except by giving an in-class test or quiz.
There are many ways to organize a class without mandatory homework. One alternative is optional homework. In optional homework, a teacher would assign homework to a class but it would not be completed for a grade; instead, it would be taken by the student who would then balance the class assigning homework with other classes assigning homework. Teachers could give students suggestions about what is more important to practice, and could use extra credit as incentive. Optional homework would not only reduce stress and allow students more control, but would also promote communication between teachers and students as well as teach prioritizing by letting students decide what course they need extra time on. Optional homework deserves at least a trial period. Another strategy for avoiding the problems associated with mandatory homework is to assign less homework and to be more lenient with time allowed. Homework is one of the most basic components of high school; however, it is faulty and problematic. This is why it should be optional as opposed to mandatory.

14 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: A High School Sophomore’s Essay on Homework

  1. Excellent essay! And how is it better for you to spend your time, on unnecessary homework, or on those causes you believe in? You know the answer, we know the answer. Time for a change.

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  2. This is a great article and I most certainly agree! I am also a high school student and get easily stressed out with unnecessary homework. Optional homework, or extra credit is a great idea. It gives students a chance to get caught up without penalizing the others that already understand the material.

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  3. Well crafted essay!

    The student writes:

    As one critic states in his article The Weak Case Against Homework: “when students are not doing homework, their principle pastimes are not play or reading for pleasure or any other meaningful activities … Instead, they are watching a lot of television: … two hours and eight minutes a day for the average 15- to 17-year old” (Matthews).

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    I live in the Washington, D.C. area so I read Jay Mathews’s regularly. I read just about everything he writes, I disagree with just about everything he writes. I remember reading the above and you could just see the foam coming out of my mouth!

    I’ve heard this argument before. Alfie Kohn makes it eloquently too. Kohn writes how we automatically assume that children (and teens) will always behave in selfish, irresponsible and immature ways unless we either bribe them for doing something or punish them for not doing it (grades are the first line of defense).

    I’ve written this before but it bears repeating. My daughter, in 6th grade, would alight from the school bus and race across the street to our house, heavy backpack in tow, spiral notebook and pencil in hand. She’d drop the backpack on the ground and scamper up the tree, notebook and pencil gripped tightly to keep from plummeting to the ground below. There she sat, writing her novel. Had I let her, she would have remained up there for hours, still, and writing.

    Eventually I was forced to coax her down from that tree to begin homework.I tried to put the best positive spin on it but there’s was no denying it. No homework could equal the pleasure and commitment of that novel, not to mention the educational value of a child who is writing for hours on end.

    The novel was amazing. This is how my daughter chose to spend her afternoon and would have done it for hours if she had the time. She didn’t have the time. Homework then took up ALL afternoon into the late evening, sometimes well past midnight until I put my foot down and said ENOUGH, no more late nights. Six and a half hours in school, six hours of homework, a twelve and a half hour day for an eleven year old! Boy, child labor has nothing on us.

    In 5th grade, my daughter was reading Wuthering Heights that she found on my shelf. My daughter’s passions then were reading and writing. Without homework, I also would have zipped her into Washington many afternoons to visit the science museum, air and space and the Holocaust museum. I dare anyone to challenge me that our “homeschooling on the side” was not better, more riveting, or more compelling that sitting at a table forcing herself to slog through mind-numbing assignments, often with zero educational value. Guess what? I worked so hard to get my child NOT to write her novel, she isn’t writing one anymore. Hooray! Because after all, that is our goal here, isn’t it? There wasn’t time for both. That is what homework has done to her, burned her out.

    My daughter is also highly visual spatial. Brilliant and visual spatial. These kids learn by doing. They are also very sensorial? Quick, tell me. I’ll give you two scenarios and inform me which of these two my child will remember with great accuracy five years hence?

    In 7th grade, the Smithsonian Indian musuem opened on the Mall. I wanted to take my daughter but she was in school (I homeschooled her for one year, next, and my only regret is I didn’t do it sooner). Well, I figured, maybe after school? To celebrate the opening, the museum was staying open all night. When I picked her up, she said she couldn’t go, too much homework. Well, there went that. How often does a new museum open on the mall? The last one was twelve years prior. I consoled myself that we would be able to visit the Indian Festival on Sunday.

    Well, Sunday arrived and again, a flood of weekend homework that kept us chained to the house for two days on clear crystal fall afternoons with an azure sky. I wondered if we might not just sneak over to the festival for a few hours but my daughter shook her head dejectedly.

    I’m a freelance writer so I was able to maneuver my schedule to attend the opening ceremony and two mornings at the festival. But I was sad that my child was being completely denied this experience. I’m not talking about playing hookey, but not only were afternoons not allowed for this but no weekends either.

    So here’s my question. My husband tried to shoo me away from my daughter’s study Sundy afternoon. Suspicious, I peered in. And here’s what I saw. She was doing worksheets on….The American Indian! Long responses to questions, the answers of which were in a dry too-easy textbook.

    So here’s my puzzle for the day. Let’s take two scenarios as we study the American Indian. Option #1: I take my then-twelve year old to the opening of the American musuem (on a Sunday, which should be a rest day, a day off). We spend hours there while my child reads every plaque, absorbs the history, the traditions, the clothing, the art. We eat in the cafe, a not to be missed venue in DC, it’s not your usual musuem fare. We then go out to the festival and spend all day. Daughter, as a sensorial child, who learns best by experiencing and doing, drinks in the colors, the headress, talks to native Americans, asks questions, makes Indian crafts, takes in all the colors and sights and images. We eat some more, this time outdoors, filled with the sights and smells and colors of the festival.

    Quick. It’s five years later. Don’t prompt. Just ask. Five years ago, you stayed home to finish up several worksheets on native Americans. Quick. Tell me what you wrote, what were your responses, what do you remember?

    Option #2: Five years ago, your parents took you to the opening of the indian museum on the mall. Quick, tell me. Describe what you saw, what you ate, what you observed.

    Which of these two experiences have better retention? Which of these snapshots in time will my daughter remember the most?

    Now you can see why I see red whenever Jay Mathews or other critics posit that my child would sit around and watch tv all day if she had no homework. As parents, we have worked hard to instill a passion for learning, damage control so that school doesn’t kill creativity and curiosity, and raise our daughter in an intellectual household filled with books and discussions. And we aren’t rich, far from it! The libray is free, the Smithsonian is free. We can’t afford fancy tickets to the Kennedy Center so instead we hear the National Symphony Orchestra outdoors for free on the lawn of the US Capitol.

    And what if a child wants to watch tv for a few hours in the afternoon? Isn’t that her right? But again, it’s not what we choose to do and I’m infuriated that Mathews’ thinks I’m such an idiot that it would never occur to me to enrich my child at home with books and discussions unless the government made me do it.

    Mathews would argue that not all families do what we do and therefore homework is necessary. Huh? Why should I suffer over what someone else does or doesn’t do? Furthermore, the argument is made that many parents actually want all this homework. Lovely. Then give it to them!

    LBJ

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  4. This student expressed what high school students everywhere are thinking. It is excellently written, and makes valid arguments.

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  5. i’m certainly agreed with your ideas!We should be given ample time to work with our hobbies, as nowadays we are not given any time to work out with anything we hope to do so,just have to cope with the homeworks!In this way,students will be able to apply the theory into the real life,and what i realised is all the philosophers and those inventors are that famous because they found the ”Secret’ of their passion!Time is the best avenue to know our calibre.It’s a sad things that till now i’m unable to realise my expert in anything,it’s seems that i always hope to do something i desire for but time is not allowing!It’s better that the authorities should recommmen some ideas that can let the students have the freedoms to study more about our world,our nature!don’t study those past events like history!

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  6. I wish I could show this essay to my parents or teachers but my parents wouldn’t reason with me at all and my teachers might show sympathy but even if they wanted to make a change, they would be powerless. It’s not fair though. That part about the kid that received all A’s on tests and quizzes but averaged out at a low C or upper D has exactly the same story as me. School doesn’t work for people like us. School doesn’t work for people that are TOO smart and pick up on subjects too easily. I take the notes and I take good notes. When I’m done taking notes, I remember them. Just this year, my English teacher gave us a quiz on notes we took that I didn’t get down because I was absent. Lucky for me, I had learned the same thing from notes I took a year ago in Reading class in 7th grade. I got 100% on the quiz from remembering notes I took a year ago. It’s strange how people that took the notes just last week couldn’t remember them exactly…

    Anyway…after reading this I’m quite tempted to write my own essay about homework being unnecessary. Maybe I’ll do it when I get the chance for an assignment or something.

    Good read!

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  7. To Zach…school doesn’t work for a lot of kids..you’re right! I hope you are able to find a way to make this situation work for you Zack…If it’s any consolation, there are many different options for you once you get out of high school and if you are a smart kid you’ll do alright no matter what you do.
    Do you have a “dream” career in mind…or a hobby or special talent that you just gravitate towards?

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  8. I wasn’t around when it happened, but I imagine homework began with the idea that students should not only understand classroom content but would also show mastery of a subject. This was a point in time in which it was considered good for one to know well their national history, their values as a people, and to appreciate art above the pop culture level. Today, though, our study of our history is cursory, and even then we are told to be ashamed of it rather than understand its implications; our common value as a people is our blind, pluralistic endorsement of each other; and, finally, the arts are relegated to the museums and universities.
    In light of this shifting of society, since we’ve abandoned the classical model of education and no longer believe we should master anything but would pursue passions and politics instead, by golly, let’s get rid of the homework. It is time.

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