Homework – a sometimes subject of conflict

In NZ, schools at primary level are under a largely forgotten regulation that declares homework is not compulsory for pupils, and schools may not punish pupols for failing or choosing not to complete or even try it.

Sadly, many parents expect homework (and, also sadly, many parents do not care about it). Homework at primary school was, at ages five through c. seven, not given to us by teachers. Children were allowed – expected, even – to spend after school hours playing outdoors on sunny clear days, and inside on rainy or blasting cold days  read, coloured in, did jigsaw puzzles, play board games, or play with toys.

When I was in the class level at which I was first given homework, it was more like study: read a small book and list the difficult words,  practise writing letter shapes, prepare a ‘morning talk’, or find an interesting news clipping for the class to hear read…

At senior primary/intermediate levels, our homework would include a task requiring us to use a dictionary to find the meanings of a vocabulary list ready for a topical lesson the next day, or to practise story, letter or poem writing.

Fast forward to secondary school and, honestly, I cannot recall what homework was set. Oh, we were given homework to do. But my school was not anything like a public school. The lessons were utterly forgettable: I know for French we had to copy from the textbook word lists with their English translation. (Very little oral French in the classroom.) Latin, ditto – but the Catholic girls had a distinct advantage, having grown up hearing Latin in their church and in school prayers.)

I do remember in one class not a single pupil had done the set homework, and we were all ordered to the detention room that same afternoon to do it. Every girl who went to detention said to herself something like, “Well, no one else is here, and I’m not going to be a mug and stay”. So, nobody went to detention at all. The next lesson, that nun was abso-fuming-lutely furious. She strapped every one of the thirty plus girls in the class, on the palm of the hand with a non-regulation leather strap.

(Yes, strapping boys was allowed back then. Regulations defined the length, width and thickness of the strap, and ordered the strap was not permitted to have a handle. It was to be folded in half, and the teacher was to hold the two ends and strap with the looped end.)

By the time I’d built up some years of teaching, I had my own view of homework. No set word puzzles, no colouring-in pictures, no “busy work” sheets or “make work” sheets.

  • A reader known to the young child to read at home without needing help (re-reading easy books helps build fluency).
  • A handwriting exercise of the child’s choice (with an occasional suggestion of what to copy from – usually a well understood piece from a topic book, allowing the child to select the passage which interested them most).
  • Later, a school-day journal, in which to write about the day’s events at school. I allowed bullet-points, quotations, memories, confessions, questions…anything related to the lessons or social interactions.
  • Later again, the school day journal was for recording three things of importance from each of the day’s lessons or classes. Thursday’s added any questions about any problems they had with staff or other pupils.
  • At the eldest primary level, the class notes then included paraphrasing a paragraph each felt was the most important from the textbook.

See, what I was doing?
Gradually introducing responsibility for their own learning, and practicing real study skills.

Did it work?
Well, at my last school – students from ages eleven & twelve (Intermediate level, Years 7 & 8) would line up at the door of their Year Nine classes on the first day of the school year all prepared for learning. Students enrolled new from public schools would wander around, have no note paper, be short on pens and pencils, and took weeks to settle to study.
(I admit it… It felt great when their Year Nine teachers would come to me and say “I can tell who you taught last year. All your girls are good students!”)

As a parent of three, I don’t recall homework being given to my elder two.
The first was an advanced reader, five years ahead of the other five-year olds. We chose to home school him for years two and three, then he chose to return to school just after the year four began.
The second son brought home no homework. Then we learned he had been forging my signature in his homework list notebook (which he’d never shown us) for the year!
Our third, our daughter, brought home a reader every afternoon of her first year.

In her second year, she was in the school at which I was the sole charge teacher, with her young brother in his seventh year. They had the homework following the practices I described above. When they moved up to secondary school, they knew how to learn in class, and how to study at home. (Though there was a distinct gap between the knowing and the doing – and I never hassled them about it. It was their responsibilty, I felt.)

Over the years of teaching, I did have parents who expected worksheets and word lists, and I would supply them to their children – and see the gap widening between their study skills, and those of the ones who worked with my system; so, no regrets. None at all.

Kids glyph

I would love to read your opinion of the place for homework, the type of homework today’s parents expect or see being most useful, so please feel free to “talk” to me in the Comments below. I will respond to any feedback, I promise.

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