I was one of those kids whose attitude towards homework had a great deal to do with the grades I got in school. I was also one of those kids for whom homework had little to do with what I actually learned. Reading a novel – no problem. Answering questions about a novel on a worksheet? Not so much.

At the end of the semester, I might have written an essay that not only showed that I had read the novel, but that I had a pretty sophisticated grasp of the theme, character, plot, linguistic techniques, etc. Then why would I have a D on my report card? Well, because I couldn’t be bothered to fill out the stupid (to me) blanks on the homework worksheet asking me to list the five main characters in Animal Farm. Not only did I know, but the teacher knew I knew. My adolescent brain didn’t have to stretch too far to come up with a good reason to just skip that worksheet.

Such experiences might make you think I’d side with the increasingly influential school of thought that seeks to eliminate homework. And I do agree with the core of that argument: that we need to free our young people up to actually experience, daydream, wonder, and play. If we could ensure that eliminating homework would get ALL kids out of the house – going to dance lessons, doing chores, organizing massive neighborhood games of capture the flag – well, then HCA would ban homework. But I think we can all admit that such an outcome may be wishful, or wistful, thinking.

A conversation with my friend Caitlin, who trained as a Montessori teacher, has helped frame one part of HCA’s approach to homework. Her idea? Home works. Two words instead of one. I asked her to give me a quick synopsis:

“Home works reinforce learning beyond the school day. In place of busywork, “home works” present a set of options for engaging with themes, modes of learning, and communication skills explored in the classroom. One assignment may be for the student to sit quietly by a window for five minutes, sketching what she sees. Another may list a recipe the student could prepare for her family. One may ask the student to compose a short story based on important experience in their life. Or, slightly larger in scope, the student could conduct and transcribe an interview with someone who works in a field of their choosing. Choice and variety are important: the home works are a long list of possible activities, accessible in the classroom or online, which the student may select from at any time, and which may vary based on the current overarching theme of study.”

Elegant, no? As with much of what we do at HCA, the home works will vary with the student and the subject of study, but what all of Caitlin’s examples have in common are relevance and choice. In the past, I’ve worked with the concept of the “field work journal.” Think Aldo Leopold: something that goes everywhere and is a repository for sketches, observations, questions, even short poems when the learning situation warranted. While some home works might be large-ish projects, they need not be: If we want students to connect what they think of outside of school to what we’re learning in school – or vice versa – let’s extend that field work to the “home works journal,” (which of course now might be an iPad).

Such open-ended assignments need not be “fluff.” As with everything else at HCA, clear expectations – standards, templates, models – will guide the student. The frequency, quality and quantity of entries will be one of the many factors that figure into students “Habits of Work and Learning” assessments. When appropriate, home works can be targeted by the teacher – if a student would benefit from listing the five main characters in Animal Farm because they have yet to master the standard, “Can identify the main characters in a work of fiction,” then practice on that standard could be exactly what that student needs. But we won’t be sending that assignment home with all the students who already knows how to do that. Unless a student really NEEDS targeted work on a specific skill, the simple guideline for home works can be: Find what interests you, connect to what we’re learning, and document it.

John D’Anieri
Head of School
Harpswell Coastal Academy