District Designates No Homework Weekends

Ryan McLaughlin, Contributing Writer

This school year,  Morris Hills and Morris Knolls High Schools announced a new policy intended to combat stress: homework free weekends. The policy provides for four homework free weekends spread across the course of the school year.

Hills and Knolls are not the only schools looking into altering traditional homework policies. An article published in The Star-Ledger explains that some New Jersey schools have experimented with limiting homework since 2013. Most of these schools are elementary schools and cut homework partially or completely in favor of other assignments, like reading or spending time with family. Other schools opted to have homework-free nights and weekends.

All of this attention on homework comes as student anxiety, depression, and suicide rates continue to rise. Stress and anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, are closely related, as anxiety is often the result of overwhelming or prolonged stress (ADAA). The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found that anxiety was the cause of 50.6% of college counseling center visits in the thirteen year period they studied, beating out both depression and relationship problems. Anxiety is on a clear upward trend, having increased every year since 2009, when it accounted for 37.5% of visits. Reports of depression also increased in that  time period (APA). An October article published in the New York Times Magazine attributes the rise in teenage anxiety and depression to the increasing demand on students to perform well in school. Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, says that, “privileged” youths (those that are not economically disadvantaged) are “among the most emotionally distressed young people in America.” This apparent contradiction, she says, occurs because well-off students are under self-induced pressure to push themselves to succeed in academics and beyond.

Morris Hills students have reacted positively to the new policy and the initiative as a whole. Senior Christine Connelly is a member of the Magnet program and is taking six Advanced Placement courses this year. In addition to being an honors student, Christine is also a multisport athlete. As a member of the student government, Christine heard about the homework free weekends at a meeting over the summer. Her first impression was relief, because “the amount of work that we get…is a lot, especially having to balance so many extra-curriculars.” Christine said that she found homework helpful for some classes, like AP Psychology, for which reinforcement is important, but not so much for classes where the homework is not reviewed. “There is,” she said, “a difference between having the right amount that will help you learn it and having too much [to the point that] you’re not gonna do it, or just [not try].”

Senior Maxwell Toledo was “initially very excited,” about the policy as he “thought this would apply to all weekends.” Despite this disappointment, Max noted that he was still very happy about the change. Max can often be found doing homework during lunch, not because it is due the next block, but because he tries to get a jump on the homework he got that day. Max said that he thinks homework is “a great idea” in general, but that in excessive amounts it is repetitious and that “two or three of the same [type of] problem” is just as helpful as ten, but consumes less time.

Teachers’ responses to the new policy are mixed.  In general, social studies teacher Mr. Ellis found the plan to be “a start to the conversation” in dealing with the “more than obvious” problem of stressed-out students, calling it “the right direction to move into.” As an AP teacher, they both have a lot of material to teach in  limited time; they are more than familiar with students under pressure and also recognize the challenges of the new policy.  

Not all reactions are positive, though. The homework free weekends, Mr. Ellis says, are raising some concerns with both teachers and students, because “they know that [the work is ] still going to have to be done, and probably now in a shorter amount of time.” Another problem that Mr. Bermel sees in the homework free weekends is how students will choose to spend their time. “In an ideal world, I do hope that students will use the homework free days to relax and spend time with family,” he said.  His concern is that “they will likely be absorbed by a screen and not truly give their minds the required rest.”

The general sentiment from teachers and students alike seemed to be that the homework free weekends can be improved an built upon. Mr. Ellis suggested that because every class and student is different, it would be more beneficial for everyone if the administration allowed teachers to choose when to give their homework free weekends, so that they are more evenly dispersed.  Mr. Bermel feels that “we should help train students to make healthy, well-examined choices,” like “NOT [enrolling] in 5 or 6 AP classes.” On the teachers’ side, he said, assignments should be “thoughtful” and “meaningful,” not just busywork.

Mr. Toriello said that he has received lots of positive feedback from parents and students after the announcement went out. In the end, teachers really do care about the health and success of their students. In the words of Mr. Ellis, “What can we do to help those [stressed out] students? I’m hoping what comes out of this is a nice round-table discussion” with “all stakeholders seated at that table.” That being said, the verdict on homework free weekends, in all, seems to be a hopeful one. While not perfect, in the words of Mr. Toriello it is a first step.