Do We Really NEED to Assign Homework Over Breaks?


Do we need to assign homework?

It comes up a couple times a year. After being assigned summer reading and papers and a non-stop flow of reading and writing assignments since the first day of school, as we approach any set of extended days off my students will ask:

Mrs. S, do we have any homework over break?”

It is a legitimate question. I know fellow teachers occasionally assign homework that is due right after scheduled breaks and it is a question that I see all over social media with educsators, especially in the AP/Dual Credit world: to assign or not to assign.

It’s taken a lot of experience and personal reflection, but after seventeen years of teaching high school students, I am firmly in the “not to assign” camp.

There was a time when I felt differently. During those times, when I couldn’t neatly wrap up a unit before a major break (Thanksgiving, Spring Break, or Easter) or when I felt like I wasn’t challenging them enough, I was more than happy to assign short papers and reading over the breaks. This was especially true when I personally wasn’t doing anything special over the break except staying at home. I guess I selfishly reasoned that if I was going to be spending part of my time off grading the work that I had already assigned, then they could be spending part of that time off doing homework for me.

Except chances are, they weren’t just doing homework for me. I wasn’t the only teacher on staff that felt my classes were important and who felt pressed to fit everything into the limited time we are given during the semester. Since my third or fourth year teaching, I have struggled with the balance of finding more things that I want my students to do and deciding if I was assigning too much. I was trying to do “all the things”, and assigning work over short breaks allowed me to fit more learning into each semester. Instead of focusing on increasing the quality of what I was assigning, I became more concerned about the quantity, convincing myself that the more I assigned, the better a teacher I became.

I’m not sure what started to change my mind about assigning homework over breaks. I think I started to change my mind about break homework when I temporarily left teaching high school to start working on my Master’s degree in English. After eight years of teaching high school, for two years, I worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant, teaching freshman composition classes to incoming college freshman. Suddenly, I was sitting on the other side of the desk and began to realize what was really expected of college students.

All of my years of telling my students “in college you will need to be able to do this” felt like a lie. Yes, there were skills that I expected from my students that they did need to master to be successful in college. However, skills were more important than me imparting all of the knowledge that I could and having them read everything that was humanly possible, in a single school year. In the end, cutting out a novel or short story was not going to break them, something I slowly realized as I made my return to the high school classroom.

At the same time that I was starting graduate school, I was the mother of a toddler and pregnant with my second child. While my experience as a college instructor changed the way I looked at college preparation, parenthood changed the way I viewed my students. I no longer saw them as just students. They were sons and daughters with parents who were watching their babies grow into adulthood. This reality hit home when my daughter was in kindergarten and started bringing home homework assignments that seemed more like guided busy work than meaningful learning. When she could have been playing or we could have been reading together for fun, she had to do homework for which I saw no academic value.

Our quality family time was stolen by meaningless schoolwork. If I felt that way as an educator, how did parents who weren’t educators feel about it? If I wanted that precious time with my own children, perhaps the parents of my high school students also wanted the opportunity for valuable family time before those family dynamics drastically changed when their children headed off to college.

More than before, I started to critically consider the homework that I assigned and reconsider the value and importance of each assignment. These are the questions I have started to ask myself through every unit: Is this worth my students’ time? Is grading that assignment worth my time as well? What is the ultimate benefit of a given assignment and does the benefit outweigh the cost to both teacher and student?

My dear teaching colleagues, we are allowed to take breaks and we are allowed to give our students those same, well-deserved breaks. While I still assign summer reading to my Pre-AP and AP students, I make it perfectly clear that if they give me their all during the times that we are meeting together as a class during the school year, I will respect their time during planned breaks. In return, I ask that they also respect my time during breaks so that I can spend that time with my own family (when I’m not grading or lesson planning, that is).

We have to ask ourselves how much of a difference that extra work is going to make in the end. I know that some of my fellow educators, especially those teaching high stakes courses in a single semester, will struggle to cut back, and that is understandable. But maybe the rest of us can take a moment to invite our students to enjoy the quiet, teaching them to practice the self-care that so many of us struggle with so that they can return to us after a break renewed and refreshed with hearts and minds open for learning.


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sarahstyf

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Sarah is a high school English teacher and yearbook adviser in the Houston area. When she's not lesson planning, grading, or revising yearbook pages, she enjoys biking, running, reading, writing, and camping with her family. She spends her "free" time writing about camping, faith, family, and occasionally politics on her personal blog Accepting the Unexpected Journey.

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