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Why We Should Give Students a Homework Break Over the Holidays

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I have so many fond memories from holiday seasons growing up: the smell of delicious food being made by my Mexican and Filipino families, warm light on the faces of my relatives, and lots of laughter. As I got older, though, things changed—mostly because I had so much homework to do.

Instead of joking with our relatives at the holidays, my brother and I would often sequester ourselves at the edge of the room, thick textbooks open and pens in our hands. Sometimes, we’d miss events altogether. When we did attend, the ramifications could be intense. During one spring break, I chose to go to an Easter party with my family. But by midnight, I was stress-weeping because I had so much work to do by the next day.

As a teacher, I now understand the temptation to give work over school breaks. There never seems to be enough time to do the projects or read the texts I’d like to with my kids, and asking students to work or read during breaks eases that crunch. I also worry that my students will lose some of their learning in the weeks they are gone.

Recently, though, my school created a new homework policy that, among other things, encourages us to avoid giving students work over extended school breaks. Our administration cited studies that raise questions about the benefits of hefty doses of homework.

I worried about how this new plan would affect my curriculum pacing, and about what my students might “lose.” But I realized that my concerns were really about my desires, not what was best for my students.

The new policy led me to re-evaluate my assignments and timing, and I ended up being able to make adjustments so my kids could complete necessary projects without working when they should be recharging. I’d worried about my students’ learning, but recent research challenges our long-held belief that students’ learning “slides” significantly over long breaks.

Taking the stress of homework out of my students’ holiday breaks is important. They deserve an opportunity to relax and rejuvenate as much as I do—particularly if they are overscheduled to begin with. Young or old, we all need rejuvenation time. In addition, more studies are demonstrating the benefits of down time for students. Having unstructured time recharges them, but also allows their brains to build connections that strengthen and improve their executive functioning.

We need to be mindful of other factors that complicate homework assignments over holiday breaks. We don’t always know what our students’ lives are like outside our classrooms. Do they struggle with access to the resources necessary to complete assignments? Do they have stressful home situations?

Here are a few ways we can send our students off on a positive note when they leave us for holiday breaks. I’m trying them myself this winter!

• Provide activities that support students reconnecting with themselves, their loved ones, or their community.

While we want to avoid giving mandatory work to students, we can offer opportunities and ideas for learning-friendly activities they can do during their break. Maybe that's an optional/extra credit project that asks students to interview a family or community member (though we should also provide time after break for those who couldn’t work over break). Or maybe we can offer students some ideas about how they could use their time to take care of themselves or their communities. We could provide reflection questions once they’re back from break, to help them find meaning in the experience. Encouraging students to use their time to volunteer or take care of themselves allows us to help our kids grow not just as students, but as people.

• Offer opportunities to find a new passion, set goals, or reflect.

While some students may travel or connect with family, some of our kids may have a lot of free time over their break. We can encourage them to use the time to set goals for the year, dream big and draw or write their five-year plan (remind them this is for fun and plans will change!), or reflect on their year or life so far. We can also encourage students to discover something they’re passionate about, or use the time to pursue something they love.

• Deepen your relationships with students and allow them to open up to you.

Sometimes, our kids are simply not given the space to dive deeply into something that lets them tell us who they are. Give students a project that allows them to explore their identity or have them write a story about their lives. This will not only provide some critical thinking, reading, or writing enrichment, but more importantly will provide valuable insight into our students’ lives and help us build deeper connections with our students. We can return the favor by completing the project ourselves or writing a story and sharing it with them.

• After the break, see what stuck with students.

Instead of returning from break with the mindset of what was “lost,” give students a chance to share everything they remember from the last unit. Instead of assuming they all had a great time they want to share, welcome kids back with an opportunity to celebrate the experiences that stuck with them from their breaks. Help students generate a class-created study guide so they can review what they learned before the break. This gives them space to support one another and remind each other what they learned, as well as gives us an opportunity to praise students for what they’ve retained. It also provides important feedback for us on what stuck over the break and what we need to reteach.

Ultimately, our students look to us not just for academic growth, but to support their growth as human beings as well. Taking away homework stress over break may cause us to change our short-term plans, but providing them with opportunities and resources instead can have some long-term benefits that can change their self-perception and their lives more than a packet of homework ever could.

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Clarification: A previous version of the author's bio misstated the name of the Center for Teaching Quality.

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