Last week, I was visiting our Semester / Semester Science classroom. Our "Semester / Semester" classroom currently pairs a special education teacher with a highly qualified, credentialed Science teacher. Here, 15-20 students receive a semester of the 8th grade Science curriculum; during 2nd semester, they'll take a semester of the 8th grade Social Studies curriculum. Many of these students have double-block intensive programs throughout the day and would not have room for both Science and Social Studies in their schedules. With the Semester / Semester program, these students are able to cover a breadth (and not necessarily the depth) of state standards and core curriculum. While there are hiccups with every program, the benefits of the Semester / Semester program are substantial, as many of these students could progress through middle school without ever having the opportunity to take a Science or Social Studies class.
During my visit to the classroom, I noticed one student not participating in the "Crash Test Dummies" lab. Every other student was paired up and enjoying seeing their vehicle race down the ramp and crash into the wall. This lone student sat at his desk with his head down and refusing to participate. I asked the teacher what was wrong. This student, it turns out, had not completed the pre-lab assignment and thus could not participate. This student is arguably one of the more intelligent students in the classroom, and I know this student wanted to participated in the lab. Something wasn't making sense.
Today, I met with the special education teacher from the Semester / Semester class and asked the question: Why hadn't this student completed his homework? Here are our five best guesses:
1) Homework happens in the afternoon.
Some students are exhausted after a full day of school. Having to sit down and complete additional handouts and assignments when they'd rather be reading, sleeping, or just being a kid is a challenge. Additionally, in the afternoons, our students are incredibly over-scheduled. They have basketball practice from 3-5, dinner from 5:30-6:30, cheer practice from 7-8:30, and then it's time to start their homework. More and more, I see students who lack free time in their schedule to truly be a teenager, much less the time to complete their homework in a timely fashion. How can we address the issue of our over-scheduled and exhausted teenagers?
2) Homework is boring
One of the first things any student will remark about their homework is how much they have. The second thing they'll say is how boring their homework is. It is becoming increasingly difficult to entertain our students during the class lessons, much less when they're on the own and asked to reinforce concepts from the school day. Many of our students comply and complete the homework that they may have little interest in actually doing. However, there are those disengaged students who see their assigned homework as pointless. Why spend time on these assignments when there is Minecraft just a few clicks away? How can we make homework a valued, entertaining part of our students' lives?
3) Homework can be hard.
When homework is challenging for a student, they'll often give up rather than keep trying. Resiliency is something we work to build in students but many teenagers lack the ability to accept temporary failure and still continue to strive for success. I've seen students who don't completely understand the assignment prefer to avoid doing the work instead. Much homework these days require a student to think, ask questions, and then respond. Often, if there is a parent or other adult nearby for support, the student is more likely to complete their work. However, not every household has an adult available in the early evenings. Sometimes, without this additional support, a student will do their best to avoid the homework challenge. What can we offer our students to provide time and adequate support after school to address the difficulty they may find in their homework?
4) The student has special needs and/or a special set of circumstances.
There is a student at our school who has missed the most of the past month for valid medical reasons. It's been a struggle for them to complete their work. I've also found that after a long three day weekend, students with a struggling home life will return with little work completed and not be in place where they can even focus on school. Additionally, there are students with documented attention issues which make it glaringly difficult for them to focus on the lengthy homework assignment. This is just the top of the iceberg. Our students don't arrive at school unscathed from their at-home life events. They are deeply affected by what happens outside of the school, and some days we spend most of our time together helping put them back together again. Add in learning disabilities and turning in one's homework, perhaps logically, becomes one of the last things we need to address. As educators, what else can we do to support the mental health and special needs of all of our students?
5) The student doesn't have a great relationship with the teacher.
One of the most important factors in whether or not a student will do their best is based upon their relationship with the classroom teacher. The teacher-student relationship doesn't have to mimic how best friends interact with one another. I would not recommend being facebook friends with your 8th grade students. Instead, the teacher needs to show true concern and care about the student. In turn, the student has to feel and also believe that the teacher is in support of their learning. If a student feels that the teacher doesn't care about them, they're more likely to not perform well in the teacher's classroom. If a student knows that the teacher will be there to support them if they fall short of the goal, you'll see teenagers outpacing what's expected of them. Simply put, the teacher-student relationship is everything. How can we, as administrators, help foster positive teacher-student relationships in the classroom and at our school site?
After compiling this list of reasons why students don't complete their homework, I'm actually surprised our students have the high homework turn-in rates that they do. It is infinitely more challenging these days to be a middle school students than it was twenty to thirty years ago during our teenage tenure. I find my role as a middle school principal to be one of support with our students and encouraging them to try, try again.
What do you find to be the reasons your students aren't turning in their homework?