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I have a student who doesn't do the homework but aces the tests. He's defiant with me and other students. He's been suspended, assigned detention, and has been required to attend Saturday school. Any suggestions?

Uh, yeah. Stop having him do homework.

Now before I lose anyone, let's look at the thinking that went into what may appear to be a rather cavalier suggestion.

Thought One: The Relationship With the Student

For the most part, this student--let's call him Calvin--seems somewhat disconnected from school. Not so much in the A's he's earning on the tests he's taking in this teacher's classroom but in the confrontational manner in which he interacts with the teacher and his peers. That kind of disconnect--the scratch-your-head cognitive dissonance of a student who earns A's on tests and F's in social intercourse--screams, "Help me." Not that he would admit that; but, deep down inside, that little voice is crying out.

So what do you do in this situation? You work at building a better relationship with Calvin.

The tricky part, though, is figuring out how go about that because relationship-building does not slip easily into a one-size-fits-all shoe. That's not to say that care, concern, and respect don't work with just about everyone. It's just that for the Calvins out there, it sometimes takes a new approach.

Let's face it. He's already experienced the usual bag of tricks. The pretend relationships. The sham agreements to cooperate and get along. The insincere pat-on-the-back. The smarmy attempts at boosting his self-esteem. He's seen it all and, as a result, has developed a bit of cynicism. Unfortunately, this attitude can make subsequent attempts to reach him--and especially the traditional methods of reaching out--almost predisposed to fail. Time to break the cycle.

So I say again, stop having him do homework.

Sit down with Calvin and explain your concern. How troubling it is to see him so defiant. How angry he so often seems. How you can't imagine he enjoys it.

But especially, how you'd like to stop fighting with him in class. And why don't we start with homework.

Speaking privately:
You and I seem to battle about you not doing homework.
Pause for him to offer his rationalization.
Well, I've been thinking about the whole thing and I've decided that you don't need to do the homework any longer.
Pause while he tries to see the trap in what you're saying.
As long as you continue to earn an A on the tests, I'm not going to require homework assignments from you. After all, homework is designed to help students become more proficient and you're proving your proficiency on the tests. I'm thinking that, for you, the homework is not really necessary.

Note: You can't make a big deal about this. You want to come across as low-key and casual. Remember we're talking about a middle school student here. And whenever I think about teachers who work with secondary students, I think about Michael Grinder's book, Charisma, and his analogy of students being like dogs and cats.

At the elementary level they behave more like dogs. And, boy, do dogs love your attention. You call 'em, they come running. You come home from work and they are giddy with joy.

But then students move on to middle school and high school and in the process become cats. And you can't came right at a cat. He'll run away. (Our own cat treats me like kitchen help. But if I sit quietly on the sofa, he'll eventually hop up and sit in my lap. All on his own time, mind you, but he will make an appearance because he knows if he sits on my lap I'll scratch him.)

So, try for an understated, matter-of-fact kind of conversation.

I'm thinking, though, that this kind of agreement could really make an impression on him. The fact that he has a teacher who is concerned enough about his success in class that she's going to treat him like an individual by making a special arrangement with him. Yeah, that just might do it.

Note: That's assuming, of course, that the completion of homework is not part of the overall grade. If, for example, homework represents 30% of the semester grade, then getting A's on the tests is not going to result in Calvin getting an A in the class. And if that is the standard, not doing the homework might not be an effective solution to this problem. Or maybe it means we need to examine why homework is a part of the final grade.

Which leads, conveniently, to the next thing that helped to form my original suggestion.

Thought Two: The Research About the Effectiveness of Homework

According to the research conducted for the Effective Schools Program, test scores improved dramatically when students were exposed to a home learning program.

The researchers studied students who were typically scoring at the 50th percentile on norm-referenced tests of basic skills. They found out that target students who were required to learn and study at home ended up scoring at the 60th percentile.

They also discovered that if the teacher not only required homework but consistently collected and evaluated assignments, those same target students rose to the 70th percentile. A twenty-point gain merely because students practiced school at home? Wow.

Other Side of the Coin
Although there are supporters out who would agree with the Effective Schools' findings, others in the educational world are making a strong case against homework and its supposed impact upon achievement.

In the interests of fair play, let's listen in on what both camps are saying. Just bear in mind that someone's arbitrary decision to either include or exclude certain research is bound to have a major influence on the conclusion that is drawn.

Lee Canter, of Assertive Discipline fame and author of Homework Without Tears, claims research clearly shows that homework affects a child's achievement. He also says that homework is one of the best ways for parents to maintain a day-by-day connection to the school.

Alfie Kohn, author of several books critical of traditional education including The Homework Myth, claims there's no evidence that shows homework provides any benefits in elementary school. He also feels it doesn't teach good work habits or develop positive character traits.

Sara Bennett, attorney, activist parent, and author of The Case Against Homework, claims that, according to the research, the average amount of homework students are being asked to complete has "skyrocketed" in the past twenty years.

Jay Matthews, writing in the Washington Post, claims Kohn and Bennett used incomplete data in their somewhat over-the-top assault on homework and its benefits. Of the inner-city secondary schools showing high achievement that he spoke with, all of them had a homework policy.

Harris Cooper, of Duke University and author of The Battle Over Homework, looked at more than 100 studies and claims that academic benefits from doing homework show up on standardized tests but only at the secondary level.

Rick Morris, educator and author of several books on effective teaching, claims that if you torture the numbers long enough, you can get them to confess to just about anything.

So, basically, the jury's still out on this one. I've got a couple of comments I'd like to make, though, regarding some of these claims.

Sara Bennett
The research she referred to shows that the homework load for six- to eight-year-old children increased from 8 minutes a day in 1981 to 17 minutes a day in 1997. It has since gone up to 22 minutes a day according to a 2003 study. I believe the "skyrocket" she mentioned may have burned out after the first stage.

For high school students, their workload went from 33 minutes in 1981 to 50 minutes in 2003. Apparently they've been talked off the ledge by being allowed to watch TV or use the computer for non-educational activities an average of two-and-a-half hours a day.

Alfie Kohn
In his book, he wonders aloud, "What if, after spending 6 to 7 hours a day at school, we let them have their afternoons and evenings just to be kids?" Here's what I wonder: What does he think those kids are going to do with their extra allotment of 50 minutes? I rather doubt they're going to gather up the family for a game of Parcheesi. It will just be more TV, more video games, and more MySpace.

Harris Cooper
He asks, in light of the inconclusive research on academic benefit, that teachers limit homework to 10 minutes per night per grade level. To me, that sounds reasonable.

Brian Gill (I didn't mention him earlier.)
Writing for Theory Into Practice, he said that it's mainly the extreme views that are currently being heard in the homework debate. Opponents overstate the harmful effects while proponents exaggerate the benefits. He'd prefer that we drop the hyperbole and approach the homework issue with a little moderation. Can I get an amen to that, brothers and sisters?

Since we're not sure that homework provides an increase in student achievement but we are sure that having a safe relationship with a student does (Peart & Campbell, 1995), Calvin should stop doing the homework. The research is just too inconclusive and the relationship is just too important.

So, one last time, no more homework.

No more homework, that is, as long as he continues to make A's on the tests. If he gets a B or lower he would be required to do homework until the next test.

Reality: Not that he's going to do it. (That is what started this whole thing in the first place.) But since we're in it for the long-run, I'm hoping Calvin will eventually figure out that life is better when he does well on the tests. No more nagging from the teacher. No more guilt and dread about going to class without the previous night's assignment. Just get an A on the test and it all goes away. Give him time, and he'll figure it out.

I'd be willing to bet, though, that this one act on the teacher's part will have a higher likelihood of establishing the beginnings of a real relationship than if she were to continue to duke it out with him regarding the missing homework assignments. Seems like a win-win to me.

And what about the students who hear about Calvin not having to do homework? What do you do when they come to complain?

Talk to 'em.

How come he doesn't have to do homework. That's not fair!

In this classroom, fair does not always mean equal. "Fair" has to do with what's right. And for Calvin, not having to do homework is the right thing. After all, he's getting A's on his tests. Now if you start getting A's on your tests, you won't have to do the homework either.

Who could argue with that?

Now that you know how I feel about this situation, let me know what you think.

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I like to play a lot of older soul and funk music. It's a good way to introduce my fifth graders to the origins of some of the music they listen to now. My last class really enjoyed the music. I'm wondering, though, if that was because I had such a good relationship with them. I haven't established that kind of relationship with my new students and am a bit worried that they aren't going to appreciate the music I want to play. Any thoughts?

Although it's good to be sensitive to the musical tastes of your students, most of the younger ones don't really have many preferences and are willing to listen to just about anything. This is especially true of the music the teacher loves. Since elementary students, for the most part, want to be liked by their teacher, they are more than happy to listen to the teacher's choice of music.

So, my recommendation is to introduce the music you enjoy and use your natural love of music to help build a relationship with your new class. I'm guessing that before too long, your students are going to learn to appreciate the music on their own and will even be willing to be exposed to even more genres.



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