Homework, oral traditions, and religions

Many questions can be raised concerning homework, such as why it is given and what its purpose is. I’ve discussed these big issues in an earlier post. Here I just want to mention a smaller but still significant issue — quantity. Then I want to discuss in detail another significant issue — timing.

In general, I observe that many students in honors courses seem to be spending too many hours of their life doing homework, whereas most students in college-prep classes seem to be spending too few. While those are overly broad generalizations, they are largely valid, at least at Weston. A majority of honors students — not all, but still a majority — are busy with lots of honors and AP courses, sports, activities, music and/or drama and/or dance. And they still want to get all their homework done. A majority of college-prep students at Weston — again not all — still have the sports, activities, and athletic endeavors, but are taking a less demanding academic load. More important, their homework load is lower and they aren’t so compulsive about getting it done. The consequence is that we end up with an inequitable quantity of homework. It would be interesting to see what would happen if we tried to reduce the homework obligations for honors classes and increase them for college-prep.

The principal timing issue is the possibility of no-homework nights. Personally, I would have no trouble with a blanket policy of not assigning homework on any weekend — how’s that for a radical proposal? — as long as it was announced a year in advance. But I have problems with the idea of proclaiming special-case no-homework nights, such as at the end of a quarter or on a Jewish holiday. Here are somes problems that can arise from prohibiting homework on any given night:

  1. Many teachers plan (and announce) assignments well in advance. Needing to postpone an assignment can throw a monkey-wrench into plans, especially when we’re bumping up against holidays, ends of terms, etc. No matter what policy a school has, teachers need to be given notice for the following year, not the following week or even month.
  2. In some courses — especially high-level honors and AP classes — the calendar can be very tight, and the course can’t be completed successfully without giving daily homework.
  3. Schools with a complicated cycle, such as Weston’s eight-day one, have de-facto constraints on when tests can be given in certain courses. For example, Day 6 is the only day when the three sections of our Honors Precalculus all meet — and if Day 6 falls on a Wednesday, when periods are shorter, the test can’t be given until the next Day 6. So that means that it might be necessary to give an assignment on an otherwise undesirable night.
  4. Part of the oral culture of Weston High School is that some people think there’s such a thing as a “no-homework weekend” at the end of each quarter and over all vacations and breaks. Maybe this is true at other schools as well. Maybe other schools really do have no-homework weekends. I’ve discussed this belief with various people at Weston, and none of us can find anything in the Student or Faculty Handbooks that recognizes such an event. As far as I can tell, it arose because there really used to be no-homework weekends here — but they went away about twelve years ago. Nevertheless, they seem to linger remarkably long as part of the institutional memory here. Many kids swear that a teacher has told them that I “can’t” assign homework at certain times, though when I hand them the Student and Faculty Handbooks they are unable to find any evidence to support their claim. I think it has just become an urban legend at Weston High School. In this connection the religious holiday issue is especially troubling to me. It’s inappropriate for a public school to recognize one religion over another, and yet that’s what happens when we are told not to give homework over a Jewish holiday but it’s OK to give it over a Muslim holiday. To my mind that just promotes anti-Semitism. I recognize the necessity of the legal fiction that the reason we don’t hold school on Jewish holidays and Good Friday is that they are “days of traditionally low attendance” — for example, faculty absences would be significant on Jewish holidays but not on Muslim ones — but blanket homework prohibitions are offensive because they inevitably favor one religious group over another. Of course we need to be understanding and considerate when students have family obligations, but that should be on a case-by-case basis: a Hindu holiday here, a Jewish holiday there, a funeral in another case. Students have all sorts of family obligations, and religious ones should have neither more nor less status than others, especially when religions are treated unequally.

Categories: Life, Teaching & Learning, Weston