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Am I holding their hands or holding them accountable?

File:Parent-left child-right yellow-background.svg
By Ezra Katz (File:ParentChildIcon.svg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I have had quite an adventure with my ninth graders this year! I think that I have learned more from them than they have from me...or perhaps just as much.

There is a lot of debate regarding homework: some believe that it should no longer be assigned because students' home lives are such that homework isn't a priority and assigning it is penalizing them. Others (myself included) contend that homework serves useful purposes: reviewing material outside of class, practicing skills, developing independence and responsibility.

I try to make the homework short, worthwhile, focused, attainable. For my 9th graders, a typical homework assignment can be completed in 5-15 minutes. It may be the ONLY time that they actually "study" material outside of my class.

But, homework completion was at an all-time low this year, with only 1 or 2 students completing each assignment. Many students regularly forgot, lost it, or didn't care to try. They were not worried about a grade penalty either--my 9th graders didn't care what grades they got, even if they failed.

So, I began an experimental "accountability activity". Each day when I collected assignments (and I increased the number of assignments, but kept them very short), I would spend 10 minutes checking their work. If a student did not hand in the assignment, turned in a partially completed assignment, or made mistakes on more than half of the questions, I wrote a note to be delivered to them in homeroom the next day.

The note required that they come and see me. If they had a study hall during the day, the note was a pass to come to my room during that period. If they had no study hall, they came during homeroom. They came. I instructed them to complete the assignment. They did. I checked it immediately. When their homework was satisfactory, I signed their pass and let them return to study hall, homeroom, or the next period.

At first they came, angry and resistant. I was firm, but not aggressive or confrontational. "When you complete the assignment fully and correctly, then you can leave". It could take two minutes, or it could take half an hour. One young man was so angry that he couldn't (or wouldn't) speak to me or look at me. But he completed the assignment easily, spending only a few minutes and consulting his notes only once or twice. When he finished and gave me his paper, I looked him in the eye and said, "I believe in you more that you believe in yourself, and I am not going to let you be less than your best!" (or something like that).

The first few weeks were a discouraging battle. It seemed to make no difference, and it seemed that the students were not learning any good habits or responsibilities.

But then...

  • students started to trickle into my room before school, verifying homework assignments, asking questions, handing in their work early (gasp!);
  • students began to come to my room during their study hall period, sometimes staying to complete their homework there;
  • students began to talk with each other about homework, both holding each other accountable and becoming a personal pep squad;
  • students' grades overall improved as they finished their assignments, and their quiz/test/project grades improved as well;
  • students learned how to tutor and coach each other, not sharing answers, but helping to understand concepts;
  • students began to read the daily posted agenda and look for assignments;
  • our classroom became a community, a family as it were, and they sought to help each other and please me!

Never would I have dreamed that the results would prove this exciting!

But some educators will ask, "Aren't you holding their hands?"

...perhaps I am. Or,

  • Perhaps I am leading them in the path of responsibility;
  • Perhaps I am showing them the value of work done well;
  • Perhaps I am modeling for them habits that they can use in all their classes and in the workplace, both now and in the future;
  • Perhaps I have given them a safe way to try again, and provided an option other than excuses for shoddy work;
  • Perhaps I have taught them how to learn for themselves, work as a team, and coach/tutor peers;
  • Perhaps I have given them value, purpose, respect, responsibility, trust;
  • Perhaps I have offered them a chance to be part of a loving, protecting family.

Am I holding their hands, or holding them accountable?


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