Why I Didn’t Do Homework

scale model guillotine
Image by Smudgie’s Ghost via Flickr

The other day on Twitter someone sent me this message: “your profile [on Twitter.com] says you are a teacher – I’m confused. You are against compulsory education?”

All I had done to earn this wonder was to scoff at the notion that assigning homework and giving students academic demerits for not turning it in somehow teaches responsibility.

I should not have been so dismissive. Some students need homework to help them learn, but many do not. Requiring it teaches responsibility the same way requiring a road test teaches good driving.

I stopped doing homework toward the end of ninth grade and did not resume until I was in graduate school 36 years later.

In between I dropped out of high school, returned to a different high school, dropped out again, started college, and dropped out of college.

All that was before I turned 17.

Somewhere in there I became responsible.

When I was 17 I started supporting myself.

I’ve never been much of a wild man. Quite the opposite, I think not doing homework may be one of the most irresponsible things I’ve done.

I stopped doing homework because one morning a magnificent, masterful and meticulous teacher told me to never do anything just because someone who claims to have more authority tells me to.

That teacher, Mrs. Edith Novad, the homeroom and English teacher in my accelerated middle school program of 7th, 8th and 9th years in four semesters gave us homework that night.

The next morning everyone handed in their homework, except me. When Mrs. Novad asked where mine was I told her I didn’t do it. When she asked why not, I told her because she had not given me sufficient reason to do it.

Mrs. Novad, a substantially proportioned brick of a woman in her last year of teaching before a well-earned retirement, stared at me for what seemed like an eternity. The whole class was watching to see how she would react, what she would do.

She burst out laughing.

She laughed for a full minute. We all started laughing with her even though none of us knew what was so funny.

Eventually Mrs. Novad regained her control, brought us under control, and told the class I was getting extra credit for taking her at her word.

My high school teachers did not appreciate my explanation for not doing homework. They demanded homework even though my straight ‘A’ average demonstrated that I really didn’t need to do it.

They said rules were rules and I had to follow them.

I dropped out instead. And I got a better education for doing so.

Great teachers don’t teach blind compliance.

Great teachers don’t force students to jump through hoops just to prove that they have that power.

Great teachers lead students to discover their strengths and help them learn how to maximize them.

Great teachers understand that their role is not to preserve existing conditions but to assist students to develop the talents and courage to change them.

Mrs. Novad was a great teacher. She woke up my intellect and helped me learn how to use it.

I could go on in exhaustive detail about what else she did that made her a great teacher, but I’ll just tell you the absolute highlight of my two years as her student: we made a movie.

We read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Then we rewrote it as a musical, and filmed it. I played Sidney Carton. It was a far better thing I did then than ever I did before. Or after.

This was 1965. Students wrote and played all the music for the soundtrack. Students did all the filming; we had to actually cut and splice the film to edit it. We figured out how to stage and film the usage of a guillotine to cut off my head and, despite the wishes of some people, actual decapitation was not involved.

In the Generation Yes blog Sylvia Martinez lists what students say they want from teachers according to an article from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development magazine Education Leadership:

  • Take me seriously
  • Challenge me to think
  • Nurture my self-respect
  • Show me I can make a difference
  • Let me do it my way
  • Point me toward my goals
  • Make me feel important
  • Build on my interests
  • Tap my creativity
  • Bring out my best self

Mrs. Novad did all that and more.

Everyone deserves at least one teacher like her.

I wish we could all be that good.

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20 Responses to Why I Didn’t Do Homework

  1. What an inspiring story! That is so neat that you guys got to splice film! I agree that when homework is assigned to students who don’t necessarily ‘need’ it, that it can do more harm than hurt. The other option would be to assign these kinds of students to do self-directed projects to challenge them while tapping into their creativity and letting them do it their way.

    Thanks for the recap of the ASCD’s findings. Those are important things to remember as we start the new school year.

  2. Hadass Eviatar says:

    Yep. My son didn’t do much homework this past year in grade 4. Thank G-d his teacher knew when to back off. I worry what will happen to him in high school – his older brother does lose marks for not doing homework, so he does just enough to keep his AP status ;-). Not sure what that is teaching him …

    If either of my sons ends up like you, Deven, I will not complain ;-).

  3. Vera Rulon says:

    Thanks so much Devon. I do wonder if homework is as effective for all students. Thanks for your great insights.

  4. John Slattery says:

    Dear Deven,
    Aha, teaching insurrection, insubordination and mutiny – I LOVE it. All too often too many teachers forget to give REASONS for what they ask students to do. They forget how miffed THEY get when (as often happens) the administration tells THEM to do something without providing any reason. What I’d love to see is much more student participation in “classroom management.” Students should be able to provide more input into what they’re taught.
    Oh, I know – there will be some far-out suggestions, but even many of those can be adapted to any curriculum with a little imagination. In one sixth grade class I taught, we did a project on comic books. What a fertile field for all sorts of reading, writing and discussion topics. And because it was something ALL the students were interested in, they loved it. I even had one student tell me that he wasn’t sure he was supposed to be having so much fun in school.

  5. readingteach says:

    I needed to read this today!! No, really, I’m serious. I came home after a staff meeting thinking that maybe I needed to go in with my resignation letter on Monday. I think you changed my mind:)

    And as a mom of 4, AMEN! to Mrs. Novad’s explanation of what makes homework valid! I am writing that down and putting it in my lesson book. If I can’t tell kids WHY, then I’m not assigning the homework.

    Keep on doing great things! Thanks for sharing!

    • Deven Black says:

      If you get the point I’m trying to make please don’t resign. Students need teachers like you who think about what they’re doing instead of just following the footsteps the put down on the floor so many years ago and haven’t deviated from since,

  6. Lynne T says:

    I love it. It struck me as I read this that you could put “Great PARENTS” in there instead of great teachers and it still works. It’s not about proving you are an authority or teaching blind compliance, for teachers or parents:-)…

  7. Samantha Geller says:

    Yes i subscribe to your views, i think what might help is not homework but students need research related assignments that really be helpful to them to grasp concepts.
    Samantha
    http://www.Aafter.com

  8. A totally awsome post! Very inspiring. I, too, was lucky enough to have a teacher who told me to believe in myself & not to automatically accept authority.

  9. Michael J says:

    I love that you read Dickens and made a movie back in 1965. It’s another data point that demonstrates it needs a great teacher, not a bunch of very expensive distracting to learn technology.

    I think the problem from the top is that great teachers are very hard to find and nurture. Allocating a budget line and calling it “I’m improving the educational environment” is a lot easier to do.

    Very nice.

  10. Monica says:

    Another great post. I am so glad that I’ve found your blog full of thought-provoking posts. Amazing project for you all to do with “old school” technology as well.

    • Deven Black says:

      It was top of the line technology in 1965, and it was all student supplied, even the editing equipment (one classmate’s father was a television editor and we borrowed a “portable” unit (it took two of us to carry it).

  11. Mary Rodger says:

    Excellent post and an amazing story (your life). How lucky you were to have such an inspiring teacher. It’s sad to think that 30 years later, teachers still give mundane homework assignments without giving much thought to why. I intend to share your post with all of our teachers this year-just some food for thought. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  12. [...] Why I Didn?t Do Homework « Education On The Plate – [...]

  13. [...] Why I Didn’t Do Homework « Education On The Plate [...]

  14. [...] I should not have been so dismissive. Some students need homework to help them learn, but many do not. Requiring it teaches responsibility the same way requiring a road test teaches good driving. Read the entire article here. [...]

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