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Pioneer teachers welcome students’ homework critique

  • Jay DeFuria, 9th grade biology teacher at Pioneer.
  • Ken Mullen, 8th grade social studies teacher at Pioneer.
  • Paula Brault, high school math teacher at Pioneer.

NORTHFIELD — A recent petition asking teachers to re-examine the way they assign homework has started quite the conversation at Pioneer Valley Regional School.

“These students are not the usual complaining crew,” said Ken Mullen, eighth-grade social studies teacher. Mullen has petition co-authors Ameilia Pelletier and Elizabeth Sweeney in his class, along with others who took the initiative to seek signatures on the document. More than 400 students, parents, and other supporters have signed it.

Critics of the petition view it as the work of kids just trying to weasel their way out of homework. The teachers say that’s far from the case.

“They’re amazing students, who put in a real 100 percent effort,” said Mullen. “I can’t remember any time they turned in something that wasn’t exemplary.”

The petition isn’t asking that teachers stop giving homework altogether. Rather, it asks that teachers evaluate the assignments they give, to make sure homework is useful, meaningful, and not over-burdening.

“I think we teachers really need to coordinate our assignments,” said eighth-grade science teacher Denise LaPlante. She said students often have pinch-points throughout the year, when several big projects in different classes are due all at once.

That might work for the middle school grades, where all students follow the same curriculum, but it can be problematic once they reach 9th grade and begin picking their own classes.

“I agree it would help to coordinate assignments,” said Ariel LaReau, 11th-grade English teacher. “But it does prepare kids for college,” when several important assignments may be due at the end of the semester.

As students progress through the high school grades, they become better at time management, said high school math teacher Paula Brault.

“I give students in my functions class their assignments on Monday, and tell them they’re due Friday,” she said. Brault said that technique doesn’t work for pre-calculus, where each day’s lessons build on the last.

Ninth grade science teacher Jay DeFuria said his students are in charge of scheduling their own homework for a project that will culminate in a debate.

“They can spread it out over the week, or scramble on Sunday to prepare,” he said. “It’s our experiment in self-paced homework.”

Teachers agreed self-pacing can work for high school students, who have more experience juggling busy lives, but may not be suited for younger students.

“Weekly assignments wouldn’t work as well with 7th grade kids,” said Mullen. He said, at that age, the support and discipline a student receives from parents or guardians is key to keeping them on track.

Brault runs an eighth-grade study hall, and said she takes charge by making sure students have something to work on. She said she can tell who’s organized and who’s not.

“Some students have assignment books with things crossed off and initialled by their parents,” she said. “Others don’t write a single assignment down, and I have to track down what they should be working on.”

Just as students have different levels of organization, they work at different speeds as well, and some comprehend subject matter better than others.

“I tell my students to stop after they’ve spent 45 minutes on their homework, and have their parents write a note,” said Brault. “If they haven’t got it by then, they need a little extra help.”

LaReau said it’s hard to put time limits on her homework. Often, her classes read novels, and the assigned chapters need to be completed if the students are to gain anything from it.

Though their opinions vary, the teachers agree that it’s a good idea to take a step back and re-examine the way things are done from time to time.

“Kids are significantly different in the digital age,” said Mullen. “The same assignments that worked 10 years ago are not necessarily as effective today.”

The teachers said the petition has spurred a dialogue with their students, and among teachers as well.

They also agreed that Pelletier and Sweeney put a good deal of work into their petition; the two eighth-grade A-students used several sources to back up their arguments. The teachers were also glad to see the students take the initiative to bring change where they felt is was needed.

“Thomas Jefferson said every generation should have a revolution,” said Mullen. “We want kids to become engaged citizens in our democratic society.”

The petition may be viewed online at homeworkpetition.wordpress.com, where its authors encourage readers to offer their comments or criticisms.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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