To do or not to do?
2002 by Elizabeth Yeow
Included here with permission of the author
fall excitement fills the air as students arrive at school with
new backpacks and school supplies, eager to meet their new teacher.
Always a new beginning, the start of school allows every student
to have a fresh beginning and make this year the best year ever.
Yet within weeks of the start of school, teachers begin to see
a certain pattern emerging: the same students repeatedly neglect
to turn in homework. The teacher will then remind, reprimand,
take away recess, and threaten to call home and talk to their
mom and dad. Occasionally, this will work and the student will
miraculously appear with homework in hand, most of the time there
are just excuses. More often, the teacher becomes more frustrated
and disheartened, the students grades drop and he or she
will feel like a failure. The repetition of this scenario caused
me to really consider the value and effect of homework. Every
year, and this year is no exception, I have at least one student,
usually two, who never bring their completed homework back on
I was puzzled
by these students attitudes towards homework. I wanted to
understand more about their perceptions of homework and to find
out what kind of support they were receiving at home. Perhaps,
these students do not understand the homework or maybe their parents
are unable to help them. Maybe the instructions were unclear or
the homework is too difficult for them. I wanted to understand
more about their parents views about school and homework.
I also wanted to know more about other issues that may be going
on at home. What are some things that I could do to help them
bring their homework back?
As I began
this study, I had several assumptions. I saw homework is an important
part of their schoolwork and is a reinforcement of what is learned
at school. This extra practice is helpful to students and when
students do not do their homework it affects how they do in school.
Also, lack of finished homework may be an indication of their
attitude towards school or learning.
at Clara Barton Elementary School (pseudonym), a public elementary
school in the suburbs of a metropolitan area, about 15 miles outside
of Washington, DC. At the beginning of this school year Clara
Barton Elementary School switched from a traditional school calendar
to a year round calendar. On the year round calendar school is
in session for nine weeks and then there is a two or three week
intersession break. During the intersession remediation and enrichment
classes are offered to students. The cost of attending intersession
is five dollars.
around Clara Barton Elementary School is comprised of single family
homes, townhouses, and multifamily dwellings. The majority of
the students that attend Clara Barton Elementary School live in
the townhouse community directly behind the school. The townhouse
community accepts Section 8 housing certificates. Many of the
townhouses house more than one family. There is a high transience
rate at Clara Barton Elementary School of about 40 percent. Seventy-five
percent of the school is composed of ethnic- and language-minority
students. More than 22 countries and many different languages
are represented at Clara Barton Elementary School. Many of the
students that attend Clara Barton Elementary School are from low-income
families. Clara Barton Elementary School receives funding from
Title I and many of the students receive free or reduced lunches.
is organized primarily into self-contained classrooms. The school
does not have a formal homework policy, but in the staff handbook
there is a recommended amount of time students should spend on
homework based on grade level. Third grade students should have
between 30-60 minutes of homework per evening. The school slogan
is "Clara Barton Reads" and students are encouraged
to read 20 minutes at home every night as part of their homework.
my fourth year teaching and I have taught third grade at Clara
Barton Elementary for all four years. I am an Asian female. The
students in my class are all in the third grade. The class is
composed of 18 students, 8 boys and 10 girls. Sixteen out of the
18 are ESOL students. Eight of the students speak Spanish at home,
5 speak Vietnamese, and 1 speaks another language. Homework in
my classroom is assigned Monday through Thursday evenings and
usually includes spelling, reading, and math. When students arrive
at school in the morning they take out their homework and stack
it on a table at the back of the room. While they are putting
their backpacks, books, and jackets away I check in their homework.
Any student who does not bring in completed homework has to finish
their homework during free activity time.
a Focus Group
As I looked
over my homework grade sheet I noticed that I had three students,
all boys, who repeatedly did not bring in their homework. Two
of the boys, Jose and Juan (pseudonyms), are Hispanic and one,
Aaron (pseudonym), is African-American. Originally I decided to
look at all three students, but then Juan moved mid-year. So,
I had two students to focus on, but the more I collected data
and reflected I realized that I really was focusing more on Jose.
Due to time constraints and the inability to contact Aarons
mother I decided to focus this study about Jose.
is a third grade, ESOL student. His primary language is Spanish;
however he is very fluent in English. Jose has helped translate
a few words for me before. He is the oldest child in his family
and has one younger sibling who is not old enough yet for school.
He lives with his mother, father, grandmother, and younger sister.
His father and mother both work full-time. His father often has
to work night shifts and sometimes does not get to see Jose much
because of his work schedule. Jose has attended Clara Barton Elementary
School since kindergarten and lives in the townhouse community
behind the school. Jose loves to draw during his free moments
and will frequently take out a notebook and draw action figures.
Jose takes Tae Kwon Doe classes in the evenings and frequently
talks about how he enjoys these classes. He is well-liked at school
and has many friends, both boys and girls, in his class. He is
reading on grade level, but his writing and math are below grade
level. Frequently Jose needs short extensions on in-class assignments.
As I considered
my puzzlement over students attitudes towards homework I
realized there may be many different things contributing to this
puzzling situation. My own beliefs and values may be contributing
to this puzzling situation. Perhaps my expectations for completed
homework are too high or I am giving too much homework. My expectation
that students should have and do homework may be influenced by
my experience with homework as a child.
last thirty years the controversy over the value of homework has
come up again and again. Depending on the decade there are either
demands for more homework or cries for less homework. Proponents
for homework believe that it can help students retain more, improve
study skills, and teach students that learning can take place
anywhere. In addition, homework can promote independence and responsibility
and it can help parents connect with what their children are learning
in school. Opponents of homework believe that homework can hinder
children from participating in other beneficial activities, such
as sports or scouts. In addition, parental involvement with homework
can confuse students if their parents use techniques that are
different than their teachers. Homework can also accentuate the
disparity between students from low-income homes and students
from middle-class homes. Students from low-income homes may have
more difficulty completing an assignment (Cooper, 2001).
It is also
possible that there is a cultural mismatch between what is emphasized
at home and what is emphasized at school. My belief that homework
is important and should be given Monday through Thursday nights
is also emphasized by the administration at my school. Perhaps
Joses parents do not value schoolwork and homework as much
as it is emphasized in school. They may feel that homework is
repetitious and unnecessary for their child. Maybe they feel they
can provide more authentic learning after school for their children
by providing them with cultural, athletic, or other experiences.
Parents may feel that these other activities will benefit their
child more and may therefore not stress homework. It is also possible
that parents may not value school and this feeling is conveyed
influences may also affect Jose. Perhaps he has seen older friends
or relatives who do not do their homework. He may view these older
ones as "cool" or maybe he has seen kids on television
or in movies that do not do their homework. Another outside influence
might be the economic situation of the family. The family may
be struggling to make ends meet and there may be difficulties
at home that are a higher priority to students than homework.
cultural influences are important for me to look at because they
could change the way I administer homework or the amount of homework
that I give. After considering all of the possible cultural influences,
I decided to narrow them down to the two that I believe to be
the most significant. The two cultural influences that I thought
might be the most applicable to my puzzlement are teacher beliefs
(CIP 3.1) and a cultural mismatch
between home and school (CIP
3.3.2). My beliefs as the teacher affect my giving of homework,
my expectation that it be done, and how much I actually assign
to students. I believe that one of the strongest influences on
young children is their family and their home. Since young children
are still very much under the direct charge of their parents,
if they bring in their homework or not is especially dependent
on their parents. Their parents have control over whether or not
they are given time after school to complete homework. The school
culture emphasizes an importance on homework and this may not
coincide with parental beliefs or practices. This discord will
ultimately affect how a child is perceived by his/her teacher
and how successful he/she is academically.
to determine what cultural influences were contributing to my
puzzlement I needed to gather information about my beliefs. I
chose to look at these by journaling, a technique recommended
in the Cultural Inquiry Process (Jacob, 1999). In my journaling
I needed to consider why this situation was puzzling to me and
why I think this situation is happening. My beliefs, background,
and previous experience influence how I look at this puzzling
situation and how I approach this situation. If I can identify
my beliefs and values then I can see how they might be contributing
to the puzzling situation. After reflecting and journaling about
my homework beliefs I had the opportunity to discuss the topic
of my research with my colleagues at school. Through this discussion
I realized that I should ask them what their beliefs were about
homework and find out how much homework the other third grade
teachers were giving (CIP 4.1).
also needed to be gathered about a mismatch between the students
home culture and the school curriculum (CIP 4.3.2). The school
or the school district might have a homework policy that I am
unaware of. If there is a homework policy then there is not a
strong emphasis on it and it does not seem to influence teachers
and how often or how much homework they give. Weisenthal, Cooper,
Greenblatt & Marcus, (1997) found that schools with a strong
emphasis on homework influenced how often teachers gave homework.
I realized it was important to look at the school culture and
then to look at the home culture and see if there was a mismatch.
to find out more information about Joses home culture I
considered visiting his home but I had difficulty contacting his
parents. I sent many notes home, called home and tried to leave
messages. Eventually I was able to speak to Joses father.
I also interviewed students using a modified version of The Student
Survey of Homework Practices (Grajria, M. & Salend, S. J.,
1995) to try to determine what the home environment and culture
was like as well as to find out what their attitude was toward
homework. I looked at Joses school history and contacted
Joses second grade teacher to see what Jose had been like
as a second grader.
up in an environment where receiving and doing homework was part
of a daily routine. Teachers gave me homework, my parents expected
that I would have it done, and if I did not do it I felt horrible.
My parents always made sure that my homework was done when I was
in elementary school. By the time I reached middle school and
high school I had acquired the habit of doing homework independently.
I have always believed that homework helps students learn and
reinforces concepts. The question I have to ask myself in this
puzzlement is "Do I know for sure that homework benefits
to answer this question I decided to look at some research that
has been done on the benefits or detriments of homework. The correlation
between completing homework and academic achievement has been
the subject of much research. Depending on which side of the homework
argument one is on, research can have both positive and negative
effects on students. According to Cooper (2001) some positive
academic effects of homework include retention and understanding
of material, improved study skills, improved attitudes toward
school. Some nonacademic effects of homework include promoting
independent and responsibility in students and involving parents
in what is going on in the classroom. Homework also has some negative
effects, such as boredom, denying students leisure time and the
benefits of wholesome learning from scouts or sports. Homework
can lead to cheating and can emphasize the disparity between the
homes of low-income and middle class students. Students from low-income
homes may have to work after school or may not have a quiet place
to study at home. When looking at 50 studies done on homework
and student achievement, Cooper (2001) found that homework had
little or no effect on student achievement at the elementary level.
reading some research on the effects of homework on academic achievement
I had to seriously consider how my beliefs fit into this. I realized
that giving homework benefited me as the teacher. These benefits
matched the benefits teachers expressed having in the Homework
Attitude and Behaviour Inventory for Teachers (Weisenthal et al.,
1997). Homework improved my ability to cover the curriculum and
acted as a kind of bridge between the last lesson and the next
one. Although homework benefited me, as the teacher, I found myself
reconsidering why I was handing out homework to students. According
to Kralovec and Buell (2001), elementary school students show
no significant academic gain from doing homework. So, if homework
was not helping students academically then how worthwhile was
out that the other two third grade teachers, both males, at my
school were not giving as much homework as I was. One teacher
usually gave only spelling and reading as homework. Every once
in a while he would give math homework. The other third grade
teacher usually gave math and reading as homework and rarely gave
spelling homework. I, on the other hand, gave math, spelling,
and reading as homework. Why werent the other teachers giving
as much homework as I was? According to Weisenthal et al. (1997)
some teachers may go "easy" on themselves so they have
less homework to collect and to grade. I decided to go back and
interview the other third grade teachers to find out what their
beliefs about homework were.
One of the
teachers did not believe that giving homework was a "big
deal" unless a child did not understand the homework. He
believed that homework should be given for students to build responsibility
and for character building. In his experience the ones that dont
bring their homework back are usually the ones that dont
understand the concepts. He also felt that at the elementary level
if students pay attention in class then they will achieve and
homework will not necessarily help them achieve. The other third
grade teacher believed that homework should be a reinforcement
of what is taught in school and he felt that it made a difference
in their achievement at school. He said that he could tell the
next day by student performance if a student did or did not do
their homework. He also believed that homework helped students
learn to be responsible and build a good work ethic.
homework policies and their beliefs about homework with my colleagues
I went to the principal and asked her if we had a school wide
homework policy. She referred me to the staff handbook. Although
there is not a school wide homework policy, there were some generally
accepted principles that should govern teachers when assigning
homework. Some of the principles include, flexibility and differences
in the assignments to individual students, homework should be
reasonable in view of the pupils situation including health,
housing conditions, outside work or responsibility, leisure-time
activity and conflicting demands of home and school. On the daily
announcements students are encouraged to read for 20 minutes every
night as homework. Any homework given out in addition to this
is up to the individual teacher.
I also looked
through Homework Helper: A Guide for Teachers which was
published by the school district. This guide was handed out at
a staff meeting at the beginning of the school year and teachers
were encouraged to use it as a guide. Since that time homework
has not been discussed with the staff. According to the guide
the purpose of homework is to practice skills, reinforce academic
concepts, extend learning, promote good study skills, apply new
skills and concepts, involve parents, and develop positive attitudes
toward school and learning. The guide does not discuss the amount
of homework to be given. Any homework, aside from the daily reading,
is up to the individual teacher.
to gather more information about Joses home culture I tried
to contact Joses parents through notes and phone calls home.
After repeated attempts to contact Joses parents, his father
appeared one afternoon at my classroom door. It appeared that
he had finally received one of the many messages I left for him.
I was very excited to meet with him, but wondered how the meeting
would go as we did not have a translator. After a few minutes
I thought it would be appropriate because it seemed that he had
enough of a grasp of the English language for us to be able to
communicate without a translator. Our meeting was short (we really
did need a translator). I asked him a few questions about his
job and Joses behavior and work habits at home. He seemed
very responsive and concerned. Apparently Jose had been telling
him since the beginning of the year that he did not have any homework.
He had believed Jose and did not try to contact me to confirm
it. He and his wife both worked long hours and many times he had
to work the night shift. Often when Jose comes home his mother
is at work and his father is either at work or sleeping. His grandmother,
who speaks only Spanish, is there to watch him. Joses father
said that he or his wife always asked Jose if he had finished
his homework. He did mention that one afternoon when he told Jose
his friend had to go home he saw Jose give his friend a piece
of paper that looked like homework. His father didnt ask
about it and forgot about it until his meeting with me. The weekly
notes that I had been sending home did not reach Joses parents
either. Joses father suggested that he could sign Joses
homework every evening and maybe this would help Jose do his homework
and bring it to school. The day after meeting with Joses
father, Jose did not have his homework. He did bring his homework
the next day signed by his father, but since then he hasnt
had anything signed by either parent.
through this brief interaction with Joses father that he
and his wife both cared about their son and his success in school.
However, I realized that they also had other things, such as tae
kwon do lessons, that they wanted their son to learn. González
(1995) points out how important it is for teachers to know their
students culture and to not have a "prepackaged"
awareness of cultural diversity. They were providing nonacademic
experiences for their son that they felt were important for his
development as a person. In addition, I realized that Joses
father wanted his son to do his homework, but was very limited
due to his work schedule to encourage and help Jose. Im
not sure why Joses mother did not return phone calls or
come to school with Jose. I have only seen Joses father
with him when attending school events. Although Joses father
indicated that they asked Jose about his homework they did not
seem to do anything to encourage or require that Jose do his homework.
Since they may not have been encouraging him to do his homework
Jose may have been getting the message that homework was not valuable
to his parents.
Joses second grade teacher to discuss his homework habits
in second grade. I found out that he rarely brought in finished
homework and Joses second grade teacher frequently tried
to contact his parents to discuss work habits. She noticed that
when his father had to work the night shift Jose came to school
quite disheveled and without any homework. When Joses father
switched to working during the day Jose seemed more attentive
in school and sometimes was able to bring in finished homework.
Joses achievement in school, including homework completion,
seemed to be directly affected by his fathers work schedule.
Tapia (1998) indicated that the most important factor influencing
poor students academic performance is family stability.
Joses feeling of family stability seemed to be affected
by seeing his father regularly during the afternoon and evening.
out my class attitude and homework habits I passed out the
Homework Survey to my whole class and read it to them as they
circled responses. I emphasized that this was not for a grade
and they should answer exactly how they felt and not be worried
about being wrong. Some sample questions from the survey are as
- I get
easily distracted when I am doing my homework
- I feel
unsure about which homework assignment to do first
- I feel
teachers are unfair and give too much homework
such as sports and music are more important to me than doing
checks my homework for me when I am done.
at home asks me if I have finished my homework.
out the surveys and then read through each item and explained
any of the questions that students did not understand. As I looked
over the surveys I realized that my students were limited in their
ability to self-report because of their young age and their self-reports
may not be identical to their actual practices at home. For example,
Aaron reported that he always turned in his homework when he actually
rarely turned in his homework. Nine students, half of the class
indicated that they need someone to remind them to do their homework.
Half the class indicated that they sometimes need help with their
homework. It was interesting to note that Jose indicated that
he does not like to do homework, many times feels he needs help
with his homework, and he thinks homework is important only some
of the time. Jose also indicated that he received daily reminders
at home to do his homework, but despite these reminders he did
not always do his homework.
intervention I tried was to change homework assignments so there
wasnt as much of a mismatch between Joses culture
and the school curriculum (CIP 5.3.2). Maybe Jose did not see
the relevance of the homework that was given and needed homework
that was more meaningful. Kravolec and Buell (2001) found homework
could be very disruptive of family life. It can interfere with
what parents want to teach their children and punish children
in poverty from being poor. Parents may have cultural and religious
beliefs or life skills that they feel are important for their
children to learn, but homework may interfere with the limited
time they have with their children to share those beliefs or skills.
Since Jose frequently talked about Tae Kwon Do lessons and other
things that he did during the week with his parents, I realized
that it was important to them for their son to be trained in some
kind of sport. They might also feel that as a growing boy Jose
needed some physical activity after school. Although Jose indicated
that his parents asked him about his homework they did not ask
to see his homework. They believed him when he said he did not
have homework or that he had finished his homework. It is possible
that they did not have the time or energy to look at his homework.
They both worked long hours and it is possible that they had many
daily survival demands that are more important than Joses
elementary school homework.
influences can not always be controlled or changed, I realized
that interventions had to be made at the school or classroom level
to help students (CIP 5.4.1). It seemed that Jose was not getting
the support that he needed from home because his parents
time is occupied with work and other basic survival issues, so
one intervention was to give less challenging homework. Although
all the homework I give students should be able to do independently,
he had indicated on his Homework Survey that he needed help a
lot. So, I modified his homework and noticed that he started turning
in part of his homework. His parents limited English may
affect Jose, so I tried to give more homework that was self-explanatory
and made sure that he understood all the directions before he
intervention I tried was to allow Jose to begin his homework at
school. I let him start his homework at school. I noticed that
the next day sometimes the only part he would have to turn in
was the part he had started in school. Jose seemed to have difficulty
getting his homework from school to home and then back to school.
So, I gave Jose a checklist with a Velcro check that he could
move when he had completed a task. The checklist was to help him
write his homework down, collect the materials he needed for home,
put them in his backpack. His father was given a matching one
to keep at home. Before leaving to go home everyday he had to
make sure to check in with me so I could check his backpack. After
receiving the checklist I watched Jose everyday and noticed that
he wasnt following it. I reminded him and encouraged him
to use it, but he still didnt use it.
On a daily
basis I continue to check Joses backpack and give verbal
reminders to use his homework checklist. He lost the Velcro check
for his end-of-the-day checklist on his desk, so I gave him a
new one, but he still hasnt used it. He has gotten used
to checking with me before leaving. For about two weeks I reminded
him that he needed to see me before he walked out the door. Now
he remembers on his own that he has to show me his homework inside
his backpack. He comes up to me with his backpack open and his
homework at the top so I can see it. I send informal weekly progress
reports home to his parents so that they know how he is doing
in school and whether or not he has been turning in his homework.
the interventions and monitoring I can say that Jose turns in
his homework about half the time. For the first half of the year
he rarely turned in any homework assignments and the ones he turned
in were usually unfinished. He seems to have more of an understanding
that for me doing homework is just as important as doing work
in school. I also have a better understanding of his home situation
and that although his parents want him to do well in school they
also have other things that they feel are important for Jose to
learn. The communication between home and school is definitely
better. In addition I feel that I am more aware that the situation
at home greatly affects students ability to work on homework
and bring it back to school.
and research on the benefits and negative effects of homework
on students like Jose has really caused me to rethink why I give
homework and the amount of homework I give. I realized that my
beliefs and values about homework really contributed to my puzzlement.
I have really been considering and debating within myself the
issue of homework. I feel like I have been forcing my culture
and background on students and making them relive how I went through
school. Do I give homework for character building or do I really
believe that it will help students academic achievement?
Checking homework usually takes fifteen minutes in the morning.
Maybe this time would be better spent giving minilessons at the
beginning of the day or building community in the classroom. Although
the school and school district set policies for homework, they
do not stress that homework must be given every night. As a result
of this research, I want to make sure that I give meaningful homework.
I have also decided to give more differentiated homework. Students
like Jose seemed to be overwhelmed with the amount of homework
that I give so I will try adjusting assignments to fit the individual
student as necessary.
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