To Homework, or Not to Homework?

My fifth grade self stepped into my neighbor’s house eagerly, ideas for all the fun we were about to have popping into my brain like a steady stream of iMessages. We could play with the dog, we could ride bikes, we could make something, use her swing set, or lose ourselves in a computer game. I shared some ideas with my friend, who nodded, but quickly said, “okay, but I have to do my homework first, those are the rules.” Though my only real knowledge of this homework concept came from Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens, I was never a rule breaker, so I shrugged and sat down next to her while she pulled out her assignment. After a few minutes of watching her and surmising that she really was simply coloring, I asked her what she was working on. “Oh,” she said, “we just have to color this plate of food.” I did a slight double-take and asked her why. She had no idea, but it was the assignment, so she was doing it (very well, in fact). As many of you may be able to relate, this introduction to homework was fairly representative of the next seven years of my schooling.

This story came rushing back to me over lunch with a student about to work for a summer program for highly-motivated, underserved middle and high school students. For the last few days, stories like these have been surfacing often, whether over lunch, while working on my About page, or in a one-on-one meeting with a colleague. Homework is not my only struggle with my public school experience, but I appreciate having an alternative experience to provide a corollary.

So what’s the alternative in this situation?

No homework.

Go ahead:  gasp, grumble, roll your eyes. Though it’s hard to believe, this is a thing. For the entirety of my elementary school years, the most homework I had was to read or memorize lines for the upcoming school production. A book I read recently (and subsequently started recommending to everyone I know) sums up my experience perfectly with a quote from a former Montessori student. The child had recently transferred to a public school and someone asked him about his transition; he responded: “It’s good, the only real difference is that at Montessori we did work at school, and now we do work at home.” Don’t get me wrong, I have come to appreciate that homework can have great value when used well (much like our friend PowerPoint, but that’s another post), and have even been known to assign some. But I also strongly believe that by continuously dumping (usually worthless and highly time consuming) homework on our kids at a younger and younger age, we are inhibiting their ability to find joy in learning, contributing to childhood obesity, and more (check out this page for a variety of opinions).

As I looked for opinions that challenged my no (or reasonable) homework ideal, the one that stuck out as most viable is the connection that homework provides between school and home, particularly for parents. And while I agree that this is a powerful benefit, it also strikes me that this is likely a large contributing factor to the continued inequity we see in so many schools. Consider: if the main purpose of homework is to engage the parent and encourage them to work with their child, what happens to the children whose parents are at work when they get home? To the children whose parents don’t know how to help them with their assignments due to a language barrier?

The great homework debate gives us much to consider, especially given the number of approaches that can be taken. Not all Montessori schools ascribe to the no homework model, especially as students get older, and not all traditional schools give pointless assignments, in fact, I’m certain the opposite happens in some situations. But I find we often fail to question things that are familiar to us and homework may be on of those that needs a bit more questioning.

Joaquin’s Shadow

Meet Joaquin.

Joaquin is in the 1st grade and lives with his mom, a baby sister, and a pet lizard. One morning on the way to school, Joaquin notices the shadow he makes as he walks toward the building.

https://wineandcheesedoodles.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/children-shadows.jpg?resize=172%2C254

He sees that his shadow is much taller than he is as he walks down the sidewalk and he wonders how that could be, especially because he knows for sure that sometimes his shadow is much shorter than he is. Joaquin walks into his school with curiosity brewing in his brain.

What happens next?

Honestly, this depends on where Joaquin goes to school and who his teacher is. If he attends a traditional public school, his story may go something like this:

https://i0.wp.com/nhlabornews.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/public-school-sign-brick-building-5310531.jpg?resize=476%2C245Joaquin enters his classroom with a question on the tip of his tongue: why is it that sometimes shadows are short and fat and sometimes long and skinny? He looks around for his teacher, spots her at the back of the room, eagerly tugs on her sleeve and shares his query. Maybe his teacher acknowledges that it’s a good question; perhaps she also tells him when they might learn about shadows or gives him a quick black and white answer before going about her original plan for the day. Or maybe she immediately redirects him to the bell work or to putting his things away to get ready to do the scheduled learning for the day.  No matter what, Joaquin is not likely to get much more than a quick answer to his question about shadows. He might ask a neighbor, but chances are good that his chatter will be shushed or redirected, leaving his curiosity to fade away just like his own morning shadow.

This story may sound familiar. You may be asking yourself what other option is there for this teacher. Of course she had to make a lesson plan and follow it, she’s probably got 20+ kids, and achievement goals for the day, week, and month for her class. And if Joaquin has a good teacher, that is probably true, and with luck, he will learn about shadows eventually. This scenario makes sense in our traditional view of education.

But what if Joaquin goes to a school that uses Montessori as a foundation? Maybe his morning looks more like this:

https://i1.wp.com/northsidemontessori.com/images/1.jpg?resize=419%2C317Joaquin enters his classroom with a drive to solve the shadow mystery. He finds his teacher, tugs on her sleeve and shares his question. She listens patiently and responds enthusiastically to his query. She says, “Joaquin, what a great question! Why don’t we do a science lesson this morning and learn the answer?” Joaquin, bouncing up and down with the rhythm of his vigorous head nodding, agrees. His teacher explains that she already agreed to help another student first thing this morning, but that she would find him right after that. Within half an hour of his question, Joaquin is gathering a flashlight and an assortment of objects to bring to a table where he and his teacher have a short, experiential lesson about shadows. Once she has explained the basic principles, Joaquin’s teacher asks him to do his next research project on the subject.  Joaquin spends the rest of the a day using the flashlight, experimenting with various objects, and recording his results, which he shares with his classmates later in the week. When his mom picks him up from school, he is still playing with the different shadows he can make with his body and eagerly begins telling her about what he learned today.


While Joaquin is fictional, I have watched a student just like him live this exact situation. The curiosity, the excitement, and the joy of finding an answer that I saw from ‘Joaquin’ was awe inspiring. His desire to learn was satiated almost immediately, giving him content that was relevant to his life and a project that made him excited to dig even deeper. And for this student and all of his classmates, this was not an isolated experience.

The Montessori approach allows learning moments like this to happen. Moreover, it provides students the tools they need to be engaged and productive on their own, so that the teacher can facilitate those one-on-one lessons with ease throughout the day. These realities, along with so many others make me believe that the ideals, theories, and practices of Montessori education can and should translate into better education for all.

Moments of Obligation

Pulse racing, voice quaking, and heat rising into my cheeks. Legs shaking underneath me, my vulnerabilities laid clear for everyone in the room to see. I shared my story, pacing anxiously, consciously attempting to infuse confidence into the words that tumbled out of my mouth, but recognizing that I was fumbling more than usual. What was causing me this level of anxiety, you ask?

I found myself in this heart racing situation a couple of months ago, when I had the opportunity to give a workshop called “Moments of Obligation” to a group of student leaders from a program I advise. The workshop comes from Echoing Green’s Work on Purpose curriculum, and, like all the workshops in their series, is designed to help college students identify changes they’d like to see in the world and hone the skills they need to make those changes a reality. The Moments of Obligation workshop focuses on helping participants identify their moments:  the instances that get your blood pumping, ignite a flame within you, and stick with you for weeks, months, or years. By identifying these Moments, you can identify where you should focus your social change attention.

The workshop was a huge hit with the students, and proved to be just as powerful for me as a facilitator. I shared my own Moments of Obligation with the students, which is the piece of the workshop that induced the physiological response of a teenager about to ask someone to the prom. Each of my Moments relates to education and creating better educational opportunities for children across the country. They go back far into my childhood, from my dad telling me I should be a teacher at the age of 6 (and really for as long as I can remember), and my experience as a Montessori student, right up to present day, when I walk into a local school and feel suffocated by the oppressive rules, yelling, memorizing, and general negativity that seems to take priority over learning, curiosity, and human development.

While simply talking about my passion for changing the problems I see in the system was enough to turn my body into a tightly coiled spring, it took even more vulnerability to acknowledge to my students, that as of yet, I haven’t figured out how to directly take action on these Moments.

But it was giving this workshop, owning up to my inaction, and the reflection since that has pushed me to take the next steps in my journey. When I do the same workshop for next year’s group of student leaders, I want to be able to show them exactly what I’ve done and will be doing to impact the problem. Part of that is this blog; the other is seeking out the best opportunities for me to begin creating that change and committing to them.

The BHAG

Recently, my partner shared with me a concept they talked about at his office – the Big Hairy Audacious Goal, or a BHAG. The concept originated in business, and simply suggests that companies should pursue a vision that may not necessarily seem possible, especially to the rest of the world. As we talked about this, I realized that I have a BHAG of my own:

To change what education looks like for future generations of students.

I have known for years that I am here for this primary purpose, and though I’ve taken some sideways steps, I am finally very close to a point in my life where I can delve into work that will help me achieve this BHAG directly. Which is why I’m here with you, to document my journey, share and explore ideas, connect with new people and perspectives, and to publicly commit to this Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.
-Lee Iacocca

Fortunately, I’m starting from a path that is not too terribly far from the one I want to be on. I currently work in student affairs, with a focus on leadership development and service. As part of my current position, I am fortunate to have a responsibility that keeps my BHAG front and center in my daily life – getting to coordinate a mentoring program for local K-12 students and the students at my University. Finding connections to the problem that is the education system within that program isn’t difficult, but I consistently see links in the other areas of my work, and I plan to explore some of those here as well.