I can remember doing homework for the first time in second grade. I’m sure we had multiple homework assignments throughout the year, but the one I remember most is designing a leprechaun trap for St. Patrick’s Day.
I hated this assignment.
First, I don’t think we were even learning about leprechauns, or myths/legends/fairy tales, or anything related to the culture of St. Patrick’s Day. I also don’t think we were learning about different kinds of traps, or the math/science behind creating them, or the reasons to use particular building materials for certain purposes. I can get on board with any type of project or task as long as I understand its relevance to me personally or to the greater good of society. My second grade self remained unconvinced that this experience would help me (or leprechauns) in any way.
Also, the trap had to be created at home. When all the traps were displayed next to each other in the classroom, you could totally tell who had some “help” from their parents. There’s no way my peers sawed wooden two-by-fours or sliced rubber garden hose on their own. My little cardboard shoebox, complete with a pretty obvious trapdoor and Little Tikes dollhouse furniture placed invitingly inside, paled in comparison to some of the professional-grade traps clearly engineered by adults. I was outraged by the injustice of this inherent unfairness, especially because there was a contest for whose traps were the best.
But most frustratingly of all, I was pretty sure leprechauns weren’t real, so what was the point in creating a whole elaborate trap for them? I figured my teachers would rig the traps while all the students were conveniently out of the room, making it look like a crew of leprechauns had just visited. Sure enough, the “very best” leprechaun traps had a few gold spray-painted pebbles inside them when we returned from PE that morning. My little trap did not receive any gold pebbles. I resented this. Furthermore, I wondered about the criteria for “best trap” because it’s not like these traps were piloted or road-tested by actual leprechauns. And although I deeply respected my teachers, I somewhat doubted their ability to judge the effectiveness of a trap for a mythical creature.
In hindsight, I wonder what my teachers were going for with this homework assignment. For most kids, it was probably pretty engaging and it likely sparked some creative thinking/problem solving. But for the kids whose parents did the work, what did they learn? For kids like me who complied by making the trap on their own but failed to connect the experience to other relevant understanding, what was the point? For both the students who earned golden nuggets and for those who did not, what did we learn about our work, given the one-directional feedback pathway of an artificial pot o’ gold?
Currently I’m reading Hacking Homework, written by Starr Sackstein and Connie Hamilton. I’d like to think that educators have learned a lot since the time of my example from 1992. This book might point out otherwise. We may still have a long way to go in thinking about the intentions and effectiveness of our homework practices. I look forward to sharing here as I read the research and recommendations put forth in the book.