August 16, 2007
Can we can the homework, please?
Local schools translate theory into practice . . . with mixed success
(Page 3 - Previous Page)At Milken Community High School, upper school principal Roger Fuller grapples with many of the same issues for his students. Fuller and his staff see homework as "part of the overall picture of expectations and academic goals." As a result, Fuller has worked to manage, and thus alleviate, the stress of homework.
Echoing a sentiment expressed by educators from kindergarten up, Fuller said he consistently reminds teachers at Milken that "all homework should be relevant; it should be a stepping stone in the process of learning and a rehearsal for presentation and demonstration" of knowledge.
In 10th-grade science class at Milken this past year, David Kolodny and his classmates learned about "a mock town called 'Riverwood,' analyzed how things occurred in the environment there and had to propose different laws for the [mock] city council," he said. In earlier years (including some at Milken), David said more of his homework was "busywork that didn't require much thinking but was still very time-consuming.... But now more of the assignments are unique and meaningful -- for every ounce of energy you put into it, you get a lot back."
A task force of Milken students and teachers reworked how tests are scheduled, limiting the days tests can be given in any particular subject, thereby limiting the total number of assessments possible in a single week. Tests are also forbidden on Mondays, in deference to Shabbat.
Fuller said the school also instituted a 45-minute period at the end of the day, during which all faculty are available to students. Fuller said this "lishmah" period (learning for learning's sake) "takes the lid off the pressure [on students] for either trying to figure work out on their own or trying to see their teachers during the day."
Gaby Davis, who will be a senior at Milken in the fall, said she "tends to do a little homework" during lisihmah, but mainly "it's definitely good for talking to a teacher." She also takes advantage of the school's honor society tutoring system, whereby students can receive help from more advanced students in a subject during free periods.
Yet given the "academic realities" of his students' lives, Fuller said that any solution is imperfect. "But what we've discovered is that there are mechanistic and systemic responses that work for the majority of the situations that used to arise," and that these solutions mean that Milken is "not in the crisis we were in before."
Like Fuller, Bruce Powell, founding head of school at New Community Jewish High School (New Jew) in West Hills, eschews the discussion of time allotments for homework -- a focus he believes dominates media coverage of the issue. For Powell, there is no question that certain types of homework, in certain subjects, have value both academically and as a way of instilling responsibility and independent work habits.
An educator with more than 37 years of experience guiding Jewish education in Los Angeles, Powell believes "there is no such thing as one size fits all" when it comes to homework or to education as a whole. "Everyone needs an individual education plan, and everyone needs something creative, a way to connect information."
Marcia Goldstein-Rappoport, whose son, Harrison Rappoport, is entering 10th grade at New Jew in the fall, said that although "there is a lot of homework given and the course load is intense, it is not busywork.... I'd say that 90 percent of it is relevant to the world around Harrison."
One example, she said, is the way students in his English class this past year were required to write a "persuasive letter" to senators and representatives about Darfur.
"They were learning about genocide in history, but [Harrison] had to research the rest on his own. They read and annotated essays in English class, for facts to use. And the teacher passed out tools for writing -- only allowed them to use a certain number of 'to be' verbs, a certain number of quotes, etc.," Goldstein-Rappoport said. Not only did she see "his writing technique improve immensely ... it was meaningful to him as a Jewish boy, seeing how you help in the world."
Ben Shear, who will be a senior at New Jew in the fall, said that while some teachers occasionally give assignments that "aren't the most exciting," most homework assignments are "worth the time, even if [it's] hard ... afterwards, you realize you got a lot out of them."
Ben's dad, Mark, agrees, noting that Ben still has time to play sports -- basketball, baseball and flag football -- and to relax. In contrast, Ben's twin sister attends an honors program at Calabasas High School, where she "just does homework all the time," Mark said.
Not surprisingly, Powell of New Jew finds support for his educational approach not only in current research but also in ancient Jewish sources.
"It says in the Talmud: If a child doesn't understand something the first time, you keep repeating it to them. Five hundred times. And if the child still doesn't understand, you try another five hundred times," Powell said.
An endorsement of the drill-and-kill method of education? Not quite, Powell said.
"It means we customize, try as many different ways as needed, until [children] understand. What this means is, we're not going to let a child fail."
And when all is said and done, this ideal is likely to be the one thing educators -- and parents -- will always agree on.
Two naughty British schoolgirls made this "Doggy Ate My Homework" video