October 31, 2000 Categories: Engaging Academics / Homework
Ask any teacher, parent, student, or administrator about homework and you’re likely to get a different opinion about the quality and quantity at their school: there should be more, there should be less, it’s too easy, it’s too hard, it should start when children are very young, it should start when children are older.
While many schools have policies that clearly spell out homework expectations and sound simple enough—all students will have one hour of homework every night—every teacher knows that the reality of assigning and monitoring homework every day for a group of 20–30 students is anything but simple.
When the subject of homework arose in a recent workshop for K–8 teachers, the questions and concerns flooded out:
- “What about the children who never do their homework? I’ve tried just about everything and nothing helps.”
- “What about the students who only do part of the assignment?”
- “What about the kids who don’t do it because there’s no one around at home to help them?”
If you’re like most teachers, you’ve probably experienced all of these problems and more. Is it possible to make them all disappear? Unlikely. But it is possible to greatly reduce the number of problems and to increase the chances that all students will experience success. In this article I offer a few key strategies which have proven successful.
Take the time to teach homework
The typical approach to introducing homework is to talk with students about homework expectations. We tell them how they are to do their homework; we may even talk about good homework habits. We then send them off to do it alone, and more often than not, we’re disappointed with the results.
The critical step that’s missing here is practice. If we really want students to understand our expectations for homework and successfully meet these expectations, then we must be willing to “teach” homework. This means introducing homework slowly and incrementally and providing plenty of time for students to practice the routine under our guidance before expecting them to do it at home independently.
At the K.T. Murphy School in Stamford, Connecticut, for example, during the first six weeks of school, primary grade students complete all written homework in class. Older students do the same for the first two to four weeks. During this practice period, teachers and students work to define expectations for high-quality homework and students bring home their completed “homework” to share with parents. In this way, parents gain a better understanding of homework expectations and are better able to hold their children to these expectations.
It’s never too late to begin
A proactive approach to homework early in the school year has helped many teachers keep students on track academically and away from the negative lessons of detention or missed recess. But no matter what time of the year it is, if your students are struggling with homework, you might want to spend a week or two re-introducing it to your class.
As nearly every page of The First Six Weeks of School reminds us, taking the time to slowly introduce classroom procedures, curriculum, and materials is vital to students’ success. The same holds true for homework, and the strategies used during the first six weeks of school can be applied to any time of the school year.
Be flexible and individualize as needed
It’s often the case that all students are given identical homework assignments. This practice guarantees failure for some students. Discouraged by their inability to meet expectations, many students invent ingenious excuses each morning for their failure. Their willingness to invest energy creating excuses, however, is a sign of their continued eagerness to do what is expected of them. Other students, more defeated, simply respond to the question of “Where’s your homework?” with “I don’t know.”
If we are to increase students’ success with homework, we must be willing to be flexible and to individualize assignments. As Melvin Konner, author of Childhood: A Multicultural View, states, “In order to be treated fairly and equally, children have to be treated differently.” Yes, differentiated homework, like differentiated instruction, will be more work for the teacher in the short run, but the long-term payoff of student success and investment will be worth it.
I suggest that teachers apply the same “3 R’s” they use for choosing logical consequences—consequences should be respectful, related, and reasonable—to choosing homework. That is, homework should be:
- respectful of the child’s ability and development level,
- related to the work of the classroom and, where possible, to the interest of the individual student, and
- reasonable in amount and degree of difficulty.
This does not mean that teachers need to create different homework assignments for every student every day, of course. There are obviously some assignments that everyone has to do and can easily accomplish, like writing in a journal or practicing spelling words. This work, like project homework in which students have had some choice in the assignment, is differentiated by default because students will choose how much they do in these situations.
Specific differentiation is needed, however, for those students whose ability or work ethic is in need of support. There may be a student, for example, who struggles with math. For this child, completing the standard homework assignment of 20 math problems could mean two hours of grueling work as opposed to the 20 minutes it takes for most. Anticipating this, the teacher might adjust the length of the assignment accordingly.
Other modifications might include arranging for a child to get help with a homework assignment from a parent or sibling or modifying the way in which an assignment is done (for example, dictating rather than writing, or having a parent read a chapter from a textbook to a child rather than the child reading it him/herself).
The important question to ask is, “How might I modify this assignment to fit this child’s learning style and needs?” By having students complete homework assignments in school during the early weeks of school, teachers can learn a lot about students’ varying abilities to work independently, information that can be used to adjust expectations accordingly.
The most important strategy for involving parents is to inform them of your homework practices. Clearly, the more informed parents are about homework expectations, the better able they’ll be to help their children meet these expectations. Many teachers and schools send a letter to parents at the beginning of the school year explaining the homework policy and expectations and enlisting parent support. At K.T. Murphy School, this letter arrives with a packet of information, in several languages, offering guidelines for setting up a space and time for homework and a checklist for homework expectations.
A great early-in-the-year class project could be to write your own “Homework Manual” as a class, perhaps with a “homework hint” from each student, and send the manual home to parents. As mentioned earlier, having students complete their first homework assignments at school and bringing them home to share with their family will also help parents gain a clear understanding of homework expectations.
. . . and if students still forget or don’t finish their homework?
And, of course, this will happen. One approach is to use logical consequences. A student who has been given reasonable, respectful, and related homework and who still has occasional creative excuses needs to experience equally creative consequences that send the message that completing homework is a requirement of being a member of the class.
Perhaps homework is the students’ ticket into homeroom. No hanging out with friends or participating in Morning Meeting until homework is completed. If a child does not have his/her homework, s/he goes directly to a buddy teacher’s classroom to complete it. Or, perhaps a child has a choice of where to complete the homework, in the classroom within earshot of the activities of the class, or in the library or guidance counselor’s office.
These consequences are liable to work for the usually conscientious student. For the more frequent offender, a more careful proactive approach is warranted. I call this approach “incremental success” and favor it over daily failure. Here’s how it works:
Marie has not successfully completed a homework assignment for several weeks. I have a conference with her to ascertain what the problem is and to let her know I’m willing to work jointly on this. Then I ask her what a reasonable number of, say, math problems is for tonight’s assignment. If she says “none,” I say, “That’s not an option.” If she says “three,” I say, “Great! Bring in three beautifully done problems tomorrow.”
When Marie brings in the completed homework, I present her with a “learning log” or record sheet which I have prepared for her to keep track of her own progress. In it she records her successes and failures, her ups and downs, as we proceed through math homework for a month or two. I check in frequently with her during this time, and periodically we review her progress and adjust assignments accordingly.
At the end of a two-month period, with more success than failure now a daily occurrence, we decide together when to eliminate the log. I have used this approach successfully with first graders and sixth graders and am always delighted in the increased responsibility and sense of pride shown by the students. Of course, there are ups and downs to this process for the teacher, too, but in the end, this proactive effort often yields dramatic results.
We ask a lot from children when we ask them to do homework—we ask them to follow directions, to organize their materials, to manage their time, and to work independently. It’s a tall order and its value lies in students experiencing success. Only then will homework be effective in improving students’ sense of responsibility and accomplishment, their academic skills, and their independent study habits.
Tags: Child Development, Homework, Working with Families
Meeting the needs of all students can be demanding. However, even with their different learning styles and diverse backgrounds, many teachers still give their students the same exact homework. Maybe it’s because that is the “Traditional” way to do it, or maybe it’s because the idea of having different homework for all students seems utterly impossible and time-consuming. Luckily, today’s technology in the classroom makes it fairly easy to be able to meet the needs of all students. Technology in the classroom enables teachers to be more creative about what their homework will be. When students get an opportunity to choose their homework method, or even have some kind of control over it, it can extend their learning. Imagine a world where students actually did their homework. How much more meaningful would it be for them if they had a voice and a choice? Here are 5 technology in the classroom tools that can actually help you conceptualize homework.
Online Learning Systems for Technology in the Classroom
Online learning systems like Edmodo, Moodle, and Google Classroom are what many teachers are using today. If you are not using any of these, then you will want to be after you hear how easy it will make your life. All of these sites allow teachers the ability to post homework digitally, so if a student is absent they can access it and digitally return it from anywhere. If you are a teacher who has students with disabilities in your classroom, then these sites have options for you as well. If you are looking for an easy way to assign different homework to different students, then you have that option too. These online learning systems allow you to focus on teaching not the paperwork.
Google Read and Write
Google Read and Write is an amazing extension for Google Chrome that offers a range of tools to help students with their homework. Students will gain confidence with reading, writing, and studying by easily following along to a document as it is read to them. They even have the option to turn their words into text. This site also enables students who are having difficulties with their homework the ability to create and listen to voice notes, and see the meanings of words explained with text or pictures. The ability for students to be able to read along by listening can be a great benefit for students struggling with their homework.
Educreations is essentially a whiteboard that has been shrunken down in size. Now imagine if you can record your voice and give an amazing tutorial filled with documents, pictures, maps, and videos that your students can access from anywhere. This app can do that and more. Educreations allows you to narrate your lessons, which frankly, can make a lesson so much better than if your students were to just watch a boring video that you assigned for homework. If you are looking for an app that can replicate your whiteboard, then this app is the one to try.
Voki is a free, fun, powerful learning tool that allows students and teachers to transform themselves into talking cartoon characters. All you have to do to get started is choose an avator and give it a voice. Then students can make it say whatever they choose (what’s 1 +3?). Teachers can use Voki to create animated presentations and with the classroom tool can manage students’ Voki homework assignments. Teachers also have the ability to download already-made Voki lessons and assignments which are all fully customizable. In addition to that, students can work on their assignments from home or wherever they access the Internet. It’s a fun new tech tool to bring students into the 21st century.
Many students struggle to understand critical information, so teachers often have them create a mind map to help them physically see the information that they need to learn. Popplet is a tool that helps students organize their thinking. It helps them capture facts, thoughts, and images and learn the relationships between them. Students can access this free app on an iPad or the web. So if you are looking for a tech tool that can help our students organize their thoughts to help them study, then Popplet is a must-have.
Digital technology has the ability to offer students a slew of homework choices. If you are looking for a way to differentiate your homework assignments or just make them more enjoyable and doable, then any of the apps and sites listed above can do that.
What are your favorite technology in the classroom tools for homework assignments? Please share your favorites in the comment section below, we would love to hear about them.
Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds master's of science in education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com, TeachHUB Magazine, and Skyword. She was also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com for five years. You can follow her on Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators, or contact her at Janellecox78@yahoo.com.