I assigned homework to just eight students last night.

Only eight of my students in modern American History did their homework last night, and I’m OK with that.

They were the only eight students with homework assigned.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that my classes have been doing a lot of Socratic Seminars these past two months. If you haven’t, check out the concept of Socratic Seminar here, and see how we’ve been doing here and here.

Take your time… I’ll wait.

So, in order to do a Socratic Seminar, the students need to have a text from which to base their discussion and they need to have a couple of higher-order questions to kick off the conversation.

The first two Seminars we ran this year were whole class discussions. To prepare for those, everyone had homework to do. For the first Seminar, they had to review their notes about the article we read as an anticipatory activity. Then, for our second, they prepared questions from “The Problem” section of our chapter on the 2010 Texas revamp of their K-12 social studies standards.

Since then, the class has finished up our Texas project, and we are now jig-sawing several different topics from our book. Each team has read through their background material and are now working on reading the primary sources in their evidence and taking notes. The big cost of taking so much time to go so deep on one topic is that none of my students gets to cover the entire pacing guide. The benefit of jig-sawing sections of the book is that together as a class, we can cover all of the mandated content. But if one team is researching just one of the six topics, how are they going to learn about the other five? That’s where these Socratic Seminars come in.

This past week, we’ve run three fish-bowl seminars. Each seminar focused on just one of the teams and their topic. Each of the team members wrote down a couple of questions to talk about, and ran their seminar just like all of the other ones we’ve done this year. However, there is one difference. In addition to talking about their questions, the team also talked about this question: “What does everyone need to know about this topic for the End of Course (EOC) exam?”

Last night, only two teams, one from each class period, had homework to prepare for today.

I got no complaints about fairness from anyone in my classes. Not a single one.

You see, in our room, we value authentic work over hoop jumping.

Now I’m not saying that all homework is hoop jumping. Far from it. Sometimes, students need to practice the skills they learned in class that day. Other times, everyone in the class needs to prepare for the activity or discussion, like my kids needed to do for our first two Socratic Seminars.

What I am saying is that students and teachers should always know the reason why they are doing homework. I don’t think any teacher should assign homework solely because they assign homework every night.

I feel the same way about quizzes. I don’t think any teacher should have a quiz just because it’s Friday. Quizzes have to have a purpose.

I gave just one student a quiz last week. I saw him with his laptop closed and documents put away. “We still have fifteen minutes left, Jeff [not his real name]. What are you doing?”

“I’m done with my document,” came the reply.

“Which document did you read and take notes on?” I asked.

He told me it was document 5, a letter from a young woman in Wachapreague to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt from June of 1934. His team is working on a paper about the Depression and the New Deal. 

“Ok… Pop Quiz! Come back here and bring your notes,” I called in a cheery voice. When he arrived at my desk, I asked him, “What kind of help does this young woman think Mrs. Roosevelt can give her? Feel free to use your notes.”

“Uh… I don’t know. I don’t have that in my notes,” he replied.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means I’m not really done.”

“That’s correct! You get 100% on your quiz!”

“And I get to get back to work,” he added with a sheepish smile.

“Correct!”

I didn’t need to enter a grade in my grade book for his quiz. We both knew that the quiz wasn’t real in the traditional sense. We also both knew that the quiz was real in an authentic sense. He walked away knowing that there was still important information in that letter that he had not read or had not recognized as important.

He also knows that we value a job done well more than we value a job done quickly. We value learning over getting by.

How about you? Are you still giving quizzes because it’s Friday? Do your students know why they are doing their homework? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

Related categories:
  • Debra Meyer

    Teacher Education

    Thank you for an excellent blog on quality assessment.  As a former classroom teacher and now a professor of education I see my students struggle to explain how homework is being effectively used in classrooms where they observe.  They also struggle with the idea that "tests" (or "quizzes") are not the same as "assessment."  You gave two excellent examples that really make us reflect on "why" homework is important (and may be not be needed) as well as having clear instructional purposes for quizzes/tests/exams.

    • DaveOrphal

      Thank you!

      Thank you for your comment, Ms. Meyer. I think you are echoing the central take-away from this piece, “Why are we doing this?”

      It’s easy for most teachers to remember this question when we are planning an unusual activity:

      • Why are we going outside the classroom?
      • Why are we on this fieldtrip?
      • Even, why are we watching this TV show or movie?

      It’s more difficult to apply this same question to the unquestioned steps in the classroom dance. 

      • The homework
      • The test and quiz
      • The textbook
      • The worksheet

      I’m grateful that I’m having the time and space to reflect on these areas of my practice as I write this blog. 

  • JocelynMolaro

    Authentic assessment

    Hi Dave,

    You have provided two great examples of authentic assessment here. The fact that you did not give homework to everyone speaks of equity in the sense that “fair is not always equal”. Those 8 students needed to do the homework so they were prepared for the next class. The rest of the class did not need to be given busy work just for the sake of equality. Did those 8 students complete their homework? I’d be willing to bet they did. This is authentic assessment because students are not just doing work for the sake of doing work; there is a purpose and all students were well aware of the purpose.

    Secondly, your “pop quiz” was an authentic formative assessment in that the student, right in the moment, was able to assess his own understanding of the material. There was no arguement because it was obvious to him that he was not complete. You don’t need an app or a grade book to record that – it was just a formative check in supported by your relationship with the student.

    Kudos!

    Jocelyn

     

    • DaveOrphal

      Thank You!

      Thank you for your comment, Ms. Molaro.

      I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head. In one word, “Trust.”

      Year after year, I win the trust of the vast majority of my students. While they trust me, they are willing to do the work. After a few papers, they come to believe on their own that the work we do in here is meaningful. That is when the serious learning can begin!

      It’s nice that they trust me. It’s even better when they can see their writing and historical analysis improve for themselves.