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September 24, 2015

Why I Don't Hate Homework Anymore

By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    Homework: bleh. For years I grumbled that I only assigned homework because administration forced me to. I put about as little care into assigning homework as my students did in completing it, which furthered the waste-of-time cycle. When I realized that homework wasn’t going away, I slowly developed easy-for-me, better-use-of-time homework practices. By now, I feel pretty good about the homework my students complete, and they seem pretty happy about it too. Below are some of my thoughts about homework, my strategies to make homework manageable and relevant, and some resources to get your students debating about the pros and cons of homework. 

     

    My Internal Struggle About Homework + Solutions

    Homework Problem: When students don’t complete their homework, it means that we’re starting the day with a negative interaction.

    Homework Solution: This is a case of picking my battles. If a student rarely misses assignments, I simply shrug and say, “Everyone makes a mistake from time to time, myself included. I’m sure you’re planning on handing the assignment in tomorrow, right?” When the student rushes to say yes, I simply smile and say “Great!” This keeps homework from becoming an argument and gives the child a chance to learn about fixing mistakes.

    I also allow for excuses. There are many valid reasons why a student might not complete their homework! For example, when Emilia explained that her infant brother was sick and she spent most of the evening in the health clinic waiting room, I simply gave her a hug and told her not to worry about it. It’s so much more important to care about our students as individuals than to care about a one-size-fits-all homework policy.


     

    Homework Problem: Some students are repeat offenders and seem to always be missing their homework. These students come to resent homework more and more as they end up in hot water time and again.

    Homework Solution: I lay the groundwork from the start of the year so students know what to expect if they repeatedly miss assignments. I let my students know that we’ll schedule a meeting with the child’s parents so we can all problem solve together how to make homework more doable. I really try not to make it adversarial! As with most teaching issues, it’s all about how we sell our goods. Rather than threatening to have the parents in for a disciplinary meeting, when I present a concerned, caring demeanor the child (and parents) are far more likely to want to cooperate and find a solution. Often there are valid reasons why the student isn’t completing the assignments, and it’s important to get to the bottom of these issues.


     

    Homework Problem: It is nearly impossible to check and grade all of my students’ assignments in a timely fashion. It’s too much paperwork to stay on top of!

    Homework Solution: I know a few incredible teachers (Alison E.!) who manage to grade every homework assignment and return them to their students with written feedback. But I cannot find enough time to EVER accomplish that! Yet homework feels kind of pointless if I don't look over it, so I've settled on a compromise. For worksheets, I choose one barometer question to check quickly. If I notice a student struggling with that question, I skim the rest of the page or touch base with the student. For written assignments, I only check one-third of the students' writing at a time, and have the remaining students swap with a peer for feedback. Is it a perfect system? No. But I can't keep up with the volume of work any other way.

     

    My students are responsible for recording their own missing assignments in my tongue-in-cheek "Black Book." This saves me some clerical work by putting the onus on the students. Students can cross out missing assignments if they make them up.


     

    Homework Problem: Homework can be frustrating when a student realizes that she is not ready to tackle an assignment without the support of her teacher or peers.

    Homework Solution: "Pick One Side" worksheets are my low-stress solution for practical differentiation. Homework feels like a waste of time when it's too easy, and it becomes an anxiety-ridden parent tutoring session when it's too difficult. I used to try to distribute leveled homework to individual students but I didn't always gauge the difficulty well, and it was a ton of prep work. Now I simply photocopy a simple review assignment and a challenging extension option back-to-back and write "Pick One Side" on top. Students know they should choose the option that feels right for them, or complete both if things are super boring at home! (It's really important that parents don't pressure their children to choose the more challenging side. I make a huge deal of reminding students that there is no prize for completing one side over the other; it's all about figuring out what's right for you on any given day.)


     

    Homework Problem: Homework uses up valuable family time, creative playtime, and very important sleep time.

    Homework Solution: At the first meet-the-teacher meeting, I explain to parents my beliefs and policies about homework, including a hard and fast time limit. In addition to at least a half hour of pleasure reading (which isn’t work at all, of course!) I only want my students to spend a half hour or less on other work. Once a student reaches 30 minutes of homework time, I want them to stop even if their homework is not completed. Parents always seem confused by this. What if their child is dawdling or slower than their peers? I repeatedly assure them that it’s okay; there are more important things a child can be doing at home than my homework, and it’s valuable information for me to see what the child can accomplish in a set amount of time. I instruct parents to set a timer and walk away, and that I will discuss unfinished work with an individual student if I feel that there’s a problem.

    One ongoing assignment is to discuss and try to use the juicy new words we encounter in class. There isn't a test or assignment with these words; students are simply expected to try their best to use these words as much as possible.


     

    Homework Problem: Worksheets are often rote and don’t match the dynamic, exciting work we’re doing in the classroom.

    Homework Solution: I assign as much non-worksheet homework as possible, often providing choices for my students about which assignments to complete. Some of the homework doesn’t have a product to hand in. For example, I frequently assign students discussion homework: e.g. “Go home and talk about the moral of the story we read today.” It’s totally up to students to complete these assignments. I obviously don’t check. I think it’s powerful to tell students, “I trust that you’ll do your discussion homework.” It lays the groundwork for an honor code culture.

    I’ve also adapted ideas from the "flipped classroom" by providing the option of watching online videos and tutorials instead of completing worksheets. I include links to carefully curated content on my class website and in emails to parents. I choose videos that review what we learned in class, that introduce upcoming content, or that extend beyond what we had time to explore in class. At times my students have the choice to watch a video or complete a worksheet. Other times, I'll simply assign some video viewing as "highly encouraged" homework instead of written assignments. 

    Non-Worksheet Homework Options:

    • Watch a video or online tutorial that reinforces or introduces class content.

    • Play a math game or content game with a family member or friend.

    • Have a discussion about what we’re doing in class. (Sometimes I provide a specific typed-up discussion prompt.)

    • Find an interesting article about what we’re learning in social studies/science and read it.

    • Play a computer game to practice a new skill.

    • Watch or read the news and discuss it with your family.

    A homework menu lets students choose non-worksheet alternatives to practice the same content. I send home a menu at least once a week and my students love it. Many choose to complete several options.

     

    Should There Be Homework? Let Them Debate!

    We teachers aren't the only ones with mixed feelings about homework. Kids obviously have strong opinions about homework too! I find that by inviting my students to debate whether they should have homework, they usually become surprisingly strong homework advocates. I often have to introduce the arguments on the anti-homework side. 

    Homework is a compelling topic to introduce persuasive writing — students have plenty of firsthand experience with it. And there are many resources to support student debates about homework. Finally, I ask my students to design "better homework." Their suggestions are enlightening and sometimes actionable.

     

    Resources for Students to Debate or Write About Homework

    The Scholastic News "Debate of the Week" about homework not only presents arguments and anecdotes about homework, it also has an ongoing real-time poll on the topic in which your students can vote. The poll results can be filtered by grade level and gender and are provided in a pie chart: a real world math extension.

    Debate.org provides lots of fodder for students brainstorming arguments for both sides of the homework debate.

    Persuasive Writing is a handy guidebook for teaching a persuasive writing unit to upper elementary students. It includes a lesson to teach students to consider counter arguments when writing persuasively or debating about homework.

     

     

    Other Opinions About Homework

    To read about other teachers’ struggles with homework, check out this great collection of Scholastic articles, “The Homework Dilemma.” I’ve also read a lot of educational thinker Alfie Kohn’s writing about homework such as this article, “Rethinking Homework,” which sums up a lot of his work. How do you feel about homework? Do you have any homework “solutions”? Please share in the comments section below.

     

    For updates on my upcoming blog posts, please follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

    One year ago: "Three Ideas for Student Self-Portraits

    Two years ago: "Building Teamwork and Bridges: A STEM Icebreaker

    Three years ago: "A Positive Approach to Teaching Negative Numbers”

    Four years ago: "Extra, Extra, Read All About It! Current Events in the Classroom

     

    Homework: bleh. For years I grumbled that I only assigned homework because administration forced me to. I put about as little care into assigning homework as my students did in completing it, which furthered the waste-of-time cycle. When I realized that homework wasn’t going away, I slowly developed easy-for-me, better-use-of-time homework practices. By now, I feel pretty good about the homework my students complete, and they seem pretty happy about it too. Below are some of my thoughts about homework, my strategies to make homework manageable and relevant, and some resources to get your students debating about the pros and cons of homework. 

     

    My Internal Struggle About Homework + Solutions

    Homework Problem: When students don’t complete their homework, it means that we’re starting the day with a negative interaction.

    Homework Solution: This is a case of picking my battles. If a student rarely misses assignments, I simply shrug and say, “Everyone makes a mistake from time to time, myself included. I’m sure you’re planning on handing the assignment in tomorrow, right?” When the student rushes to say yes, I simply smile and say “Great!” This keeps homework from becoming an argument and gives the child a chance to learn about fixing mistakes.

    I also allow for excuses. There are many valid reasons why a student might not complete their homework! For example, when Emilia explained that her infant brother was sick and she spent most of the evening in the health clinic waiting room, I simply gave her a hug and told her not to worry about it. It’s so much more important to care about our students as individuals than to care about a one-size-fits-all homework policy.


     

    Homework Problem: Some students are repeat offenders and seem to always be missing their homework. These students come to resent homework more and more as they end up in hot water time and again.

    Homework Solution: I lay the groundwork from the start of the year so students know what to expect if they repeatedly miss assignments. I let my students know that we’ll schedule a meeting with the child’s parents so we can all problem solve together how to make homework more doable. I really try not to make it adversarial! As with most teaching issues, it’s all about how we sell our goods. Rather than threatening to have the parents in for a disciplinary meeting, when I present a concerned, caring demeanor the child (and parents) are far more likely to want to cooperate and find a solution. Often there are valid reasons why the student isn’t completing the assignments, and it’s important to get to the bottom of these issues.


     

    Homework Problem: It is nearly impossible to check and grade all of my students’ assignments in a timely fashion. It’s too much paperwork to stay on top of!

    Homework Solution: I know a few incredible teachers (Alison E.!) who manage to grade every homework assignment and return them to their students with written feedback. But I cannot find enough time to EVER accomplish that! Yet homework feels kind of pointless if I don't look over it, so I've settled on a compromise. For worksheets, I choose one barometer question to check quickly. If I notice a student struggling with that question, I skim the rest of the page or touch base with the student. For written assignments, I only check one-third of the students' writing at a time, and have the remaining students swap with a peer for feedback. Is it a perfect system? No. But I can't keep up with the volume of work any other way.

     

    My students are responsible for recording their own missing assignments in my tongue-in-cheek "Black Book." This saves me some clerical work by putting the onus on the students. Students can cross out missing assignments if they make them up.


     

    Homework Problem: Homework can be frustrating when a student realizes that she is not ready to tackle an assignment without the support of her teacher or peers.

    Homework Solution: "Pick One Side" worksheets are my low-stress solution for practical differentiation. Homework feels like a waste of time when it's too easy, and it becomes an anxiety-ridden parent tutoring session when it's too difficult. I used to try to distribute leveled homework to individual students but I didn't always gauge the difficulty well, and it was a ton of prep work. Now I simply photocopy a simple review assignment and a challenging extension option back-to-back and write "Pick One Side" on top. Students know they should choose the option that feels right for them, or complete both if things are super boring at home! (It's really important that parents don't pressure their children to choose the more challenging side. I make a huge deal of reminding students that there is no prize for completing one side over the other; it's all about figuring out what's right for you on any given day.)


     

    Homework Problem: Homework uses up valuable family time, creative playtime, and very important sleep time.

    Homework Solution: At the first meet-the-teacher meeting, I explain to parents my beliefs and policies about homework, including a hard and fast time limit. In addition to at least a half hour of pleasure reading (which isn’t work at all, of course!) I only want my students to spend a half hour or less on other work. Once a student reaches 30 minutes of homework time, I want them to stop even if their homework is not completed. Parents always seem confused by this. What if their child is dawdling or slower than their peers? I repeatedly assure them that it’s okay; there are more important things a child can be doing at home than my homework, and it’s valuable information for me to see what the child can accomplish in a set amount of time. I instruct parents to set a timer and walk away, and that I will discuss unfinished work with an individual student if I feel that there’s a problem.

    One ongoing assignment is to discuss and try to use the juicy new words we encounter in class. There isn't a test or assignment with these words; students are simply expected to try their best to use these words as much as possible.


     

    Homework Problem: Worksheets are often rote and don’t match the dynamic, exciting work we’re doing in the classroom.

    Homework Solution: I assign as much non-worksheet homework as possible, often providing choices for my students about which assignments to complete. Some of the homework doesn’t have a product to hand in. For example, I frequently assign students discussion homework: e.g. “Go home and talk about the moral of the story we read today.” It’s totally up to students to complete these assignments. I obviously don’t check. I think it’s powerful to tell students, “I trust that you’ll do your discussion homework.” It lays the groundwork for an honor code culture.

    I’ve also adapted ideas from the "flipped classroom" by providing the option of watching online videos and tutorials instead of completing worksheets. I include links to carefully curated content on my class website and in emails to parents. I choose videos that review what we learned in class, that introduce upcoming content, or that extend beyond what we had time to explore in class. At times my students have the choice to watch a video or complete a worksheet. Other times, I'll simply assign some video viewing as "highly encouraged" homework instead of written assignments. 

    Non-Worksheet Homework Options:

    • Watch a video or online tutorial that reinforces or introduces class content.

    • Play a math game or content game with a family member or friend.

    • Have a discussion about what we’re doing in class. (Sometimes I provide a specific typed-up discussion prompt.)

    • Find an interesting article about what we’re learning in social studies/science and read it.

    • Play a computer game to practice a new skill.

    • Watch or read the news and discuss it with your family.

    A homework menu lets students choose non-worksheet alternatives to practice the same content. I send home a menu at least once a week and my students love it. Many choose to complete several options.

     

    Should There Be Homework? Let Them Debate!

    We teachers aren't the only ones with mixed feelings about homework. Kids obviously have strong opinions about homework too! I find that by inviting my students to debate whether they should have homework, they usually become surprisingly strong homework advocates. I often have to introduce the arguments on the anti-homework side. 

    Homework is a compelling topic to introduce persuasive writing — students have plenty of firsthand experience with it. And there are many resources to support student debates about homework. Finally, I ask my students to design "better homework." Their suggestions are enlightening and sometimes actionable.

     

    Resources for Students to Debate or Write About Homework

    The Scholastic News "Debate of the Week" about homework not only presents arguments and anecdotes about homework, it also has an ongoing real-time poll on the topic in which your students can vote. The poll results can be filtered by grade level and gender and are provided in a pie chart: a real world math extension.

    Debate.org provides lots of fodder for students brainstorming arguments for both sides of the homework debate.

    Persuasive Writing is a handy guidebook for teaching a persuasive writing unit to upper elementary students. It includes a lesson to teach students to consider counter arguments when writing persuasively or debating about homework.

     

     

    Other Opinions About Homework

    To read about other teachers’ struggles with homework, check out this great collection of Scholastic articles, “The Homework Dilemma.” I’ve also read a lot of educational thinker Alfie Kohn’s writing about homework such as this article, “Rethinking Homework,” which sums up a lot of his work. How do you feel about homework? Do you have any homework “solutions”? Please share in the comments section below.

     

    For updates on my upcoming blog posts, please follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

    One year ago: "Three Ideas for Student Self-Portraits

    Two years ago: "Building Teamwork and Bridges: A STEM Icebreaker

    Three years ago: "A Positive Approach to Teaching Negative Numbers”

    Four years ago: "Extra, Extra, Read All About It! Current Events in the Classroom

     

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