Authentic Summer Homework: Asking the Right Questions

Rabbi Craig Lubner

I am guilty as charged. Spring is in full swing, and there is still an untouched pile of summer assignments sitting on my desk. Luckily (or perhaps not) my students have never once asked about them, what grade they earned, or whether they would be returned. Evidently, something is wrong with the model; no value, significance or meaning has been dispensed to the summer work. While the assignment was certainly conceived with the best intentions, it clearly did not have enough value post facto for it to be graded in a timely way, to be the source of useful initial feedback to the students or to be used as a starting instructional tool. It also seemed to hold little significance to the students, from whom it never got a subsequent passing thought.

What went wrong? I believe that the missing component was authenticity. A quick gloss through some of the classic meanings of the word yields a humbling reality. “Not false or copied, genuine and real”—mostly culled from others’ work sourced on the Internet. “Representing one’s true nature or beliefs; true to oneself, or to the person identified”—no, I don’t believe in busy work and try to be a practitioner of intentional, thoughtful practice and expect the same of my students. “Executed with all due formalities”—well, yes and no. Yes, I created an assignment, even defined a few goals for it, distributed it and answered questions about it. And yes, there was a due date and submission instructions, and the students did turn it in. It appears all “due formalities” were completed. But no, I missed the most essential formality: I did not question the true authenticity of the assignment.

What makes a summer assignment authentic? In my mind, there are three fundamental questions that help decipher authenticity.

Is there enough intrinsic educational value to this assignment to warrant distracting students from their summer activities, or creating this pressure/burden for them during their break?—Why am I giving this assignment?

Are there clear instructional goals for the assignment—both as an independent unit and as a segue into the new year of learning?—What do I want students to learn?

How is this assignment going to be assessed?—How will I know whether the students learned anything from it?

While these questions are formulated specifically for summer homework assignments, they can be easily adjusted for any homework assignment.

Why am I giving this assignment?

“I want students to get a head start with the material. I have a huge curriculum to cover and never seem to be able to get through it in the time given for my course.” “I want students to review some of the concepts that they learned previously so that we can hit the ground running as soon as school starts.” “I want students to understand that this is a rigorous course that requires a tremendous amount of work. (Let that message sink in during the hours of work I am assigning.)” We can all relate to, or even own up, to some, or all, of these iterations. Each, indeed, has merit—getting started with the work, reviewing and reinforcing acquired skills or concepts and communicating rigor and expectations are all noble endeavors, ones that I am sure administrators and principals would endorse and encourage. I wonder though, whether these stated intentions align with our core educational beliefs. Do they accurately reflect the culture we are trying to create in our classrooms? In short: Do they embody authentic purpose?

What if these were some of our “whys”: “I want to ignite the students’ passion and interest in my subject.” “I want students to broaden their experiences in a way that will make them more thoughtful about my subject.” “I want students to be excited and intrigued as they anticipate the first day in my class.” With these, expressions such as “real,” “genuine” and “true to one’s own beliefs” start to resonate with new, clearer meaning.

What do I want students to learn?

At the core of every summer assignment is a measure of learning. The learning is usually described as one of the following: engaging with new content, acquiring a new skill, reinforcing an emerging skill or reviewing concepts already taught. The goal: We want to ensure that our students don’t have a two-month brain freeze during the summer. We therefore make sure that students leave with packet upon packet of materials, mandatory or optional, attempting to elicit some cerebral activity during the summer months. Is that all we want? Is this what authentic practice looks like?

Of course, I want my students to be using their brains, empowering their minds and thinking critically. The key question is, can I do this authentically (still within the frame of a reworked “why”), without the assignment being a burden or an enthusiasm-drainer? I find myself asking the following questions to assess the level of authenticity: What learning practices do I want to introduce through this assignment? How can I have students use these practices in an engaging and productive way? How can I get students to make their thinking visible, alive and tangible? The assignment must enlist and excite different learning modalities and engender reflection about the learning.

How will I know whether the students learned anything from it?

In a growing climate of plagiarism, information infidelity and students looking for quick fixes, assessment has become increasingly complex. (As one of my colleagues puts it, “Students are consumers who are looking to get the least for their money.”) The quest for ensuring the integrity and authenticity of student work has intensified, and summer homework is no exception. How will I know that the student did the work him- or herself? How do I make sure that the assignment is not one that can be easily copied from a friend? And then, how will it be graded or assessed in a way that is meaningful and that offers maximum useful feedback (hopefully, without creating an unrealistic expectation of the teacher)? Is there a model of authentic assessment?

These questions describe two components, the authenticity of the work and the authenticity of the assessment. In the past, my goal when grading summer homework had always been, grade for completion. Did the student do the work? If yes, full credit. An epic fail on both accounts. I did not get any real idea if the work was authentic, and the grade was essentially arbitrary and meaningless. I never looked at it as an opportunity for meaningful feedback, or as a means of shaping the culture of my classroom. Yes, I wanted to make sure that the students did the work, but realized that there must be more to glean.

This is what I needed to own and the questions I needed to ask:

A summer assignment is the first encounter students are having with me and my course. What are students going to learn about me and the culture of my classroom?

This is my opportunity to learn as much as I can about my new students. How am I going to engage them in sharing information about themselves?

For me, this reframing has turned the tables on assessment. Now it is not so much about what the students have learned, but more about how successful I have been at defining the culture of my class and how much I have learned about the students. This model has the potential to be both reflexive and reflective.

My guess is that the first day of class will the best tool for measuring the success and authenticity of this year’s summer assignment. Do I see students who are eager to find out what the first day of class will bring? Are they excited to get their hands and heads into the first learning module? Are they curious about the interesting things I might reveal? Are they looking at the artifacts of the lesson with broader and brighter eyes? If I succeed, I will be arriving with a richer sense of who the students are, where their passions lie and what excites them about learning. Best of all, come next spring, there won’t be that ominous untouched pile of summer assignments sitting on my desk.

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