Why I Didn’t Do Homework

scale model guillotine
Image by Smudgie’s Ghost via Flickr

The other day on Twitter someone sent me this message: “your profile [on Twitter.com] says you are a teacher – I’m confused. You are against compulsory education?”

All I had done to earn this wonder was to scoff at the notion that assigning homework and giving students academic demerits for not turning it in somehow teaches responsibility.

I should not have been so dismissive. Some students need homework to help them learn, but many do not. Requiring it teaches responsibility the same way requiring a road test teaches good driving.

I stopped doing homework toward the end of ninth grade and did not resume until I was in graduate school 36 years later.

In between I dropped out of high school, returned to a different high school, dropped out again, started college, and dropped out of college.

All that was before I turned 17.

Somewhere in there I became responsible.

When I was 17 I started supporting myself.

I’ve never been much of a wild man. Quite the opposite, I think not doing homework may be one of the most irresponsible things I’ve done.

I stopped doing homework because one morning a magnificent, masterful and meticulous teacher told me to never do anything just because someone who claims to have more authority tells me to.

That teacher, Mrs. Edith Novad, the homeroom and English teacher in my accelerated middle school program of 7th, 8th and 9th years in four semesters gave us homework that night.

The next morning everyone handed in their homework, except me. When Mrs. Novad asked where mine was I told her I didn’t do it. When she asked why not, I told her because she had not given me sufficient reason to do it.

Mrs. Novad, a substantially proportioned brick of a woman in her last year of teaching before a well-earned retirement, stared at me for what seemed like an eternity. The whole class was watching to see how she would react, what she would do.

She burst out laughing.

She laughed for a full minute. We all started laughing with her even though none of us knew what was so funny.

Eventually Mrs. Novad regained her control, brought us under control, and told the class I was getting extra credit for taking her at her word.

My high school teachers did not appreciate my explanation for not doing homework. They demanded homework even though my straight ‘A’ average demonstrated that I really didn’t need to do it.

They said rules were rules and I had to follow them.

I dropped out instead. And I got a better education for doing so.

Great teachers don’t teach blind compliance.

Great teachers don’t force students to jump through hoops just to prove that they have that power.

Great teachers lead students to discover their strengths and help them learn how to maximize them.

Great teachers understand that their role is not to preserve existing conditions but to assist students to develop the talents and courage to change them.

Mrs. Novad was a great teacher. She woke up my intellect and helped me learn how to use it.

I could go on in exhaustive detail about what else she did that made her a great teacher, but I’ll just tell you the absolute highlight of my two years as her student: we made a movie.

We read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Then we rewrote it as a musical, and filmed it. I played Sidney Carton. It was a far better thing I did then than ever I did before. Or after.

This was 1965. Students wrote and played all the music for the soundtrack. Students did all the filming; we had to actually cut and splice the film to edit it. We figured out how to stage and film the usage of a guillotine to cut off my head and, despite the wishes of some people, actual decapitation was not involved.

In the Generation Yes blog Sylvia Martinez lists what students say they want from teachers according to an article from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development magazine Education Leadership:

  • Take me seriously
  • Challenge me to think
  • Nurture my self-respect
  • Show me I can make a difference
  • Let me do it my way
  • Point me toward my goals
  • Make me feel important
  • Build on my interests
  • Tap my creativity
  • Bring out my best self

Mrs. Novad did all that and more.

Everyone deserves at least one teacher like her.

I wish we could all be that good.

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Professional Development Meme 2009


Usually the end of the school year is a signal for me to change.

I change my alarm clock so that it does not go off at 4:25AM, and I try to train my body not to wake up then (or earlier) anyway.

I change my wardrobe to shorts, sandals and polo shirts I could never wear at school because they have logos for Bacardi, Bass or Bishop’s Finger.

I try to forget, at least for a week, that I’m a teacher; hard to do this year because an alleged friend has issued a challenge to me in what seems to be a teacher professional development game of Can You Top This?

I can’t.

The friend, Karen Chichester, a very dedicated high school special education teacher in the lowest depths of Michigan, has set a summer personal development agenda for herself that would take me several years to complete. I would tell you what her goals are, but I don’t type fast enough to list it all before I have to return to school in September.

Bully for her.

She would not let it go at that. She had to challenge me to do the same and sent me the rules of the game. Just for the record, it is not her game. The well-know sadomasochist Clif Mims (@clifmims on Twitter) developed the following meme and posted it to his blog (MY first goal will be to find out what a meme is).


Summer can be a great time for professional development. It is an opportunity to learn more about a topic, read a particular work or the works of a particular author, beef up an existing unit of instruction, advance one’s technical skills, work on that advanced degree or certification, pick up a new hobby, and finish many of the other items on our ever-growing To Do Lists. Let’s make Summer 2009 a time when we actually get to accomplish a few of those things and enjoy the thrill of marking them off our lists.

The Rules

NOTE: You do NOT have to wait to be tagged to participate in this meme. (But I’m tagging Sandra McCarron, Carol Johnson, Kate Olson, and Luciano D’Orazio)

1. Pick 1-3 professional development goals and commit to achieving them this summer.
2. For the purposes of this activity the end of summer will be Labor Day (09/07/09).
3. Post the above directions along with your 1-3 goals on your blog.
4. Title your post and link back/trackback to http://clifmims.com/blog/archives/2447.
5. Use the following tag/ keyword/ category on your post: pdmeme09.
6. Tag 5-8 others to participate in the meme.
7. Achieve your goals and “develop professionally.”
8. Commit to sharing your results on your blog during early or mid-September.

So here goes.

My goals:

1. My first goal will be to find out what a meme is while learning all I can about integrating technology into my teaching. I am starting work on this goal within hours of the time classes end on June 26th when I’ll board a train for Washington, DC to attend the National Educational Computing Conference for the first time. This goal is so important to me that I am paying for the convention registration, transportation, hotel and everything else myself. I expect to come away with enough new information, ideas, hands-on experience and resources to start on my second goal.

2. Come September, I’ll be spending part of my time teaching American history to 7th and 8th grade students. The New York City Department of Education, largely in the large personage of a smart and garrulous fellow named Phil Panaritis, has been training me for this role for the five years I’ve been a teacher. My goal is to learn the scope and sequence of those two curricula, to design a sequence of multi-sensory lessons that integrate technology into the teaching and student demonstrations of learning, and gather artifacts\, maps, and other items to pique student interest.

3. Thanks to my membership in ASCD, NCSS, and a few other organizations I have a pile of books sent to me that is threatening to topple off the two chairs on which I’ve piled them and bury at least one of our animals. I am not likely to read any of them because I will be reading books that I have purchased and not yet read starting with Teaching for Intellectual and Emotional Learning (TIEL) by Christy Folsom, Polk: the man who transformed the presidency and America, by Walter Borneman, and Ship Ablaze: the tragedy of the steamboat General Slocum by Edward O’Donnell. Fortunately, the train ride to DC takes about four hours, so I’ll finish one of these on the ride down and back.

4. I will read a novel. I used to read a lot of novels, but now I seem only to be able to read one a year. I don’t yet know what this year’s will be, but I hope I enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants last year.

5. I plan to lie down on a bed of grass and watch the sky drift by. This is something I did when I was nine or ten because it made precious summer days seem to last forever. I know that does not sound like a professional development goal, but I’m giving myself the freedom to have freedom from needing to fill every moment productively. Filling every moment productively does not allow time for reflection, imagination, and whatever else drifts in to fill the void I hope to have in my mind cause by concentrating on the smell of the grass, the color of the sky and the laziness of the clouds.

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