Some Chicago-Area Elementary School Teachers Turn to ‘Un-Homework’

By Marva Hinton — November 21, 2016 3 min read
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Over the past few years, more and more parents have been griping about the amount of homework their children are assigned, particularly in elementary school.

Frequent complaints are that it takes away from family time, causes children stress, and offers little in terms of improving academic achievement.

This, coupled with some research that shows homework provides little to no benefit to students in the early grades, has caused some teachers to stop assigning it or schools to place limits on the amount of it for the youngest learners.

At one elementary school in the Chicago suburbs, the 2nd grade teachers decided this year to change the way they assign homework in an effort to promote family time.

In fact, they don’t even call it homework. It’s “un-homework.”

“Un-homework gives kids a choice,” said Jaqueline Darge, a 2nd grade teacher at Covington Elementary School in Oak Lawn, Ill., who read about un-homework on a teacher’s blog and urged her colleagues to try it.

Through this system, students are allowed to choose among five different activities each week.

“They have the option to do one, none, or all of the choices that we give them for the week,” said Darge. “A lot of them are family oriented. They’re practicing things that we’re doing in the classroom but involving their families in conversation and working with them.”

For example, students may be assigned to teach their families a math game they learned in class and play it with them. Or, they may be asked to go on a nature walk with their families and point out things they learned about in science. Another un-homework assignment asks students to trace the letters of their vocabulary words on an adult’s back, and the adult has to guess the word.

Sounds fun and stress free, right?

That’s the point.

And, students who do the work are eligible for prizes like a special privilege or a small treat through the Learning Lotto. For every task completed, a raffle ticket is placed in a box. A drawing is held at the end of the week, and five winners are selected.

So kids who complete more of the tasks have a greater chance of winning, but no one is penalized.

Student and Parent Reaction

In Andrea Saucedo’s class, some students are English-language learners, and she said un-homework is popular with them as well as with her native English-speakers.

“Even my lower students that would normally not turn in an assignment from the traditional homework, I feel like now they’re doing it because they have more choice of what it is that they’re doing,” said Saucedo. “It’s not something that they feel like is a tedious task that they have to go home and do.”

Un-homework also aligns very well with the school district’s theme this year, which is empower. The teachers wanted to give students a say in their own work, and so far it appears to be working for the students as well as for their parents.

The teachers say the flexibility of un-homework accommodates parents who tend to want their kids to have more and those who argue for less.

“This is a good balance that allows families to do what works on their schedule,” said Lisa Beatty, another 2nd grade teacher at Covington.

She said un-homework also improves communication with parents because they’re more aware of what’s happening in the classroom.

Through un-homework there isn’t any required reading, but parents are encouraged to see to it that their kids read 15-20 minutes each night.

“We did point out that reading isn’t part of homework,” said Darge. “Reading is part of a daily life skill that we should all be doing. We stress for parents a book before bedtime is a good way to unwind from the day.”

The teachers also stress that they are not anti-homework.

“We do, of course, still feel that there is a time and a place for traditional homework, especially as students move up into the older grades as they become more independent, adult learners,” said Beatty. “But as far as for primary, we feel like this is a good fit for helping students work and learn together with their parents.”

Photo: Teachers pose for a picture with a Covington Elementary 2nd grade class. On the back row from left to right, Andrea Saucedo, Lisa Beatty and Jaqueline Darge. (Photo Courtesy Covington Elementary)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.