Why I Assign Homework
Benjamin Banneker (Photo credit: crazysanman.history)
Today was rough.
I give my students a packet that not only contains every due date for the unit but also some supplemental reading that is included so that students can mark up a text, circle and define unfamiliar words (vocabulary component) and generally read some things not included in their textbook to give them added perspective on the texts we read in American Literature.
Students were analyzing Benjamin Banneker‘s letter to Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson’s response. Benjamin Banneker was a freed slave who wrote Jefferson an amazingly well planned and executed argument about the equality of all men (including slaves) after reading The Declaration of Independence.
All students had to do was read Banneker’s and Jefferson’s letters. They then had to write a check mark beside paragraphs they understood and question marks beside paragraphs that were troublesome as they read. They then had to circle any unfamiliar words, define them, and then bring this to class in preparation for discussion. In class, they were to discuss the troublesome paragraphs with their group and then write two paragraphs judging whether or not Thomas Jefferson’s response to Banneker was adequate or fair and also develop a method by which Jefferson could have done a better job.
Half of the students turned in the vocabulary. Less than half read the assigned reading. Half of one particular class sat and complained the entire time and said that they did not want to do it, taking valuable class time to criticize my teaching methods aloud (as if they had any pedagogy classes under their belt or any teaching experience).
When asked, my students have several opinions for why I assign homework:
1. It is busy work.
2. It is because I am mean.
3. It is because I want to make their lives difficult.
The excuses I hear from them include:
1. I don’t have time because I work until 11:00pm
2. I have “family issues”.
3. The student looks at me as if their brains have flatlined.
I will submit to you that the above reasons are utter myths.
To dispel the first three, the reason I assign homework is the same reason my athletes attend practice every day. It is practice. It is to be prepared for discussion the next day. It is also a gauge for the instructor. If a student fails to turn in an assignment that is to be done at home, that assignment is a measurement which determines how much that student understands about a particular concept. I use homework assignments for two purposes only: to measure student progress and to help the student practice important concepts on their own.
I will now dispel student excuses. I have many students who are athletes who often have evening games until late and manage to be prepared for class, homework in hand. I have many other students who work until 11:00pm and still manage to turn in their homework and who, if something happens to where they have an emergency, are good enough to speak to me about it and get an extension, but do not abuse the privilege.
What would Benjamin Banneker say? Banneker had little formal education and was largely self-taught, was born to a free African American father and a mother who had been a slave. He was a scientist, surveyor, almanac writer and a farmer. His argument advocating the equality of all peoples regardless of the color of their skin is a testament to a man who valued the importance of education regardless of his circumstances. I suppose he would be ashamed of some modern students who do not value education at all because, as Thomas Paine said: “What one obtains too cheaply, one esteems to lightly.”
I hope my students read this. To my students who work hard, who give it their all, who don’t quit, I salute you. You keep at it, because your reward is great in the future. You are learning skills in my class, skills to help you think for yourself and find your own answers that will be essential in today’s workplace. To my students who do not feel that education is important, I want you to think about Benjamin Banneker. I also want you to know that I will never give up on you. I will pester you. I will fret and worry about you. Maybe you will find the truth, but I hope that you do not find it too late.
Writing, analysis, and the study of rhetoric is hard work. I promise to be a the ready, prepared to hand my students the metaphorical pick and shovel.