In years past, I struggled to find the perfect combination of assignments to meet my students’ homework needs. They needed to review and build on skills taught in class while also enriching their learning experience. They needed to be engaging, so students did not dread the assignments each night. They also had to address a wide range of learners with various supports at home. The short of it was, that it was impossible for me to find an activity that would check all the boxes with one assignment.
At a loss, I turned to my colleagues to see how they handled the homework dilemma. In truth, I opened this can of worms in the staff room during lunch and could not believe the debate that occurred. The first few teachers argued that homework was about responsibility. Learning how to transport assignments to and from school, would help prepare them for the subsequent years. Or phrased another way by a fifth grade teacher, they need to know how to budget their time and complete quality work independently in order to do well in middle school and homework is one way of teaching that. Yet another teacher argued that the purpose of homework was to extend the learning from the classroom to the home. This would allow families to see what their child can or cannot complete after the day’s lessons.
All in all, I left the staffroom even more confused that when I went in. While I felt that responsibility was indeed important, I wondered if homework was the best way to teach it. Second grade felt far too young to expect students to create systems independently at home for completing assignments correctly and transporting them back to school without parent support. And if they did have support, who were we really assigning the responsibility grade to – the student or the parents?
The Slippery Slope of Solutions
Therefore, my initial solution to my homework dilemma was to head in the direction of extending learning and communicating to parents what their child should be able to do. At the end of my lessons I consistently found three groups of students: the ones where the homework assignment would be too easy, the ones where it would be just right, and the ones where it would be just too hard. I differentiated the homework in order to provide meaningful assignments for each of these three groups. This increased the number of activities I needed to compile each week but I was willing to do this if it meant providing a meaningful homework experience for my kids. But was it meaningful?
Still Searching for a Solution
In search of more answers, I stumbled upon John Hattie’s book Visible Learning. He had compiled data from hundreds of studies on common teaching practices in order to assess the impact on student achievement. One of the practices addressed was homework his interpretation that it has no lasting effect on student achievement. How could this be? After reading this section of the book, I turned the page, hoping the next section would be on what to do instead. There was no chapter entitled “Alternatives to Homework,” however he did indicate some more effective practices.
One of the practices Hattie champions is the use of clear and targeted feedback to students. What if I could somehow combine for students a system for collecting feedback, not just from me, but also from their families? Could a system such as this replace the traditional system of taking home assignments to complete? What if I could use completed assignments as a vehicle for communicating with parents what their child knows and needs to practice more at home?
Keep it Simple, Silly
While I knew I had over complicated things with my extensive system for assigning homework, I did not know how liberating it would be to toss it all aside. Instead of crates and labeling systems and baskets for completed assignments, each student received two items for homework: a gallon sized plastic bag and a reflection sheet. In the bag would go all of the student’s assessments from the week. Then came the reflection sheet. It asked the families to sit down with their child and look over the assessments. They needed to write down celebrations they noticed (a new concept understood or a tricky problem solved) and then set an action plan for a skill they want to improve. Essentially, I was having my families set SMART goals for homework, just like we did as professionals in our PLC’s. Then the bag came back with the “school plan,” while the “home plan” stayed in a purposeful spot at home to remind them each day.
The first week I gave this homework, I composed an email explaining the new system to families.. I clicked “send” and held my breath, waiting for the complaints to start rolling in. However, the responses shocked me. Parents asked me informed questions about what extra pieces they could do because they noticed their child did not score well in a particular area. Some parents even shared patterns in some of the mistakes their child was making on the weekly quizzes. To help them reach their goal, these same parents were giving their child extra problems and guidance at home. I also had families celebrate with me because they had set a goal with their child and saw improvement the next week. They were invested in their child’s progress in a way they had never been before.
Checking Off the List
Thinking of all those boxes I initially needed to check to consider a homework system “successful,” I am still amazed by how many I marked off with this new process. It allows me to teach my students responsibility as they transport their bags back and forth from week to week. Not only that, they have learned to look critically at their assignments for areas they have grown in and areas they need to continue to focus their attention on. It taught them to make a plan and follow through in order to achieve their goals. Every bag is differentiated in the sense that each student creates their own goals and recognizes their own achievement. In addition, parents are informed on their students’ abilities far beyond what any worksheet could show them. Strategically choosing the assessments that go into the bags allows me to build awareness at home and form a partnership of support for the student. Finally, every child can be successful with this homework. Students who do not have a person to sit with them and look over their bag, sit with me to form goals.
At last, I can put to rest the homework dilemma in my classroom!