For so many teachers the summer is all about reflection, and I am no different. As I plan for my first year in middle school, one question keeps nagging at me: What should I do about homework? It plagues me because so many of my middle school colleagues tell stories related to the large number of students who fail to complete homework which translates into poor academic performance. However, as Alfie Kohn points out in his book The Homework Myth, no study has found a correlation between homework and academic achievement in elementary school. In contrast to Kohn’s claim, a number of sources argue that the true purpose of homework is to teach self-discipline, time management and other non-academic life skills. My classroom experiences with 4th and 5th grade students represent aspects of both of the previous claims. For students who struggle academically in a particular subject, a regular amount of homework practice (typically 15 to 20 minutes) gives them an opportunity to “work through” difficult concepts without the time constraints of a typical school day. However, students who are more advanced typically get this work done in several minutes – which calls into question the true value of the assignment. In terms of non-academic life skills, students and parents alike seem to have an expectation of homework. A failure to address this expectation can create a strained parent-teacher relationship. Assuming that some type of homework is valuable, and as we move deeply into the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the question that may need to be addressed is: What does quality homework look like?
Quality does not mean quantity. With the CCSS focus on critical thinking homework may involve students answering “big questions”. For example, in language arts this may involve deep thinking in terms of a critical comprehension question. Assigning a single focus question for homework that can be used within an upcoming instructional unit gives students time to “think” and re-read text for increased understanding. This emulates a typical expectation in college courses, and assigning this type of homework may instill a regular discipline of reflection. For some students, the chance to re-read and process text is a necessity especially if they tend to get distracted easily during the hustle-and-bustle of the classroom.
Choice. One of the things that I hope to include in my homework plans is to provide choice or options for students. My goal is to connect homework to home life. Giving students assignments that require interaction (i.e. interviews or discussions) with adults builds home-school connections that parents relish. Also, allowing students to use technology to take pictures or record video in response to focused questions offers an alternative to traditional pencil-paper work. The trick may be to keep things fresh.
Collaboration. I think it is a safe assumption that most students really want to succeed at homework – just like they want to succeed at many things in life. The issue then shifts to understanding the barriers that keep students from completing homework. I often times hear teachers refer to home lives or structure as a definitive answer to homework completion issues. This certainly can be true, however, if this is the case then building peer, collaborative networks may be important. Helping students find a “homework buddy” may provide a potential answer. Certainly teachers can be used in this role; however, students tend to be more open about their struggles with peers. Also, discussions with peers often times lead to different perspectives and insights (a second way) that may be more beneficial for a struggling student.
Communication. Setting expectations with students and parents offers a key first step in developing homework quality. I typically use a homework “bill of rights” that frames homework as a positive part of my school practice. I also include a right for parents to “excuse” their child from homework on nights where homework completion simply was not possible. Developing a relationship where parents are seen as partners in homework completion along with regular feedback goes a long way to reducing the stress for all involved.
Teachers must value homework. Probably the most important lesson that I have learned from students is to value their homework. If I didn’t actively value homework, using it in the classroom in some meaningful way, homework completion rates drop significantly. Valuing homework means more than simply giving it a grade. Students need to see that their homework is useful in order for them to give it the necessary attention. Using homework as mentor texts or artifacts to be shared as part of future instruction sends a clear message to students that there is value in their work, and a certain level of quality is expected. Also, I regularly celebrate homework – focusing attention on the unique ways students answer questions or solve problems.
If the CCSS are expected to bring about quality instruction then homework needs to be considered as a means rather than an end to that goal. As teachers we need to ensure that our homework practice is not an afterthought. Instead, it must be a central practice to help differentiate and engage students in the task of learning. Providing unique and student-centered homework that values choice and builds on a student’s passion or home life experiences may provide the greatest possibility for success.