08 January 2012

3 Meaningful Homework Practices

3 nights ago I noticed 3 friends from 3 different states posted status updates on facebook within 30 minutes of one another.   All three updates were about children completing meaningless homework activities (e.g. grammar worksheets, skill and drill test prep, word searches).

I shudder to think of times when I asked students to read a novel at home without providing a purpose for reading.  “Tonight read chapters 4-5 of Moby Dick and be prepared for a quiz.”   While I usually provided context and asked students to access prior knowledge during class, my homework practices left much to be desired early in my teaching career.  I sometimes asked students to complete a study guide with their reading; I tried to ask both comprehension and higher level thinking questions.  I even worked with students on practicing the characteristics of a good reader according to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature.  I placed emphasis on the teaching and learning that happened within the classroom more than on what students did for homework.

Notice that word.  Did. I was focused on the activities students completed for homework.  If my students did all the reading at home, we could get through a novel at a faster pace.  We could have discussions and engage in literature circles when they came to class.  If they did a research project, we could accomplish more text analysis of informational reading in class.  If they read everything I assigned, we could get through more of the curriculum.  Homework, I thought, was essential to maintaining my reputation as a teacher who had high expectations for all students.

Fast forward a few years.  My sons started elementary school, and I began to question the homework being sent home.  Being a reflective person, I realized I couldn’t question what my own children were being asked to do for homework if I didn’t question my own practices as a teacher.   My homework practices needed revamping.  Here are 3 meaningful homework practices I implemented during the last three years I was in the classroom.
1.  Let students read books that interest them.  (Moby Dick, really?  What was I thinking?  Justbecause I loved it, didn't mean my students enjoyed it)

2.  Differentiate homework according to student needs and interests.  (Why not a literacy letter or reading journal focused on the specific literacy skills and strategies practiced in class and aligned with individual student goals instead of a study guide? Why not reading Wired articles for a student like my son who loves computers and technology or an article about Abraham Lincoln for a child like my younger son who loves history?) I administered student interest surveys, read narratives and journal entries to learn more about what each student might enjoy, and I tried to offer choice so students didn't all have to do the same thing.

3.  Provide feedback on homework rather than a grade.  (How better to improve student learning?)

I’ll end tonight’s post with a line from a poem by one of my oldest son’s favorite poets, Jack Prelutsky.
Homework!  Oh,  homework!