February 23, 2016

4 Reasons Why I Re-Thought Homework

I have been thinking about the dreaded homework debate! Does homework really need to have such a bad reputation? This question has swirled around in my mind for years. I have heard parents complain (and rightfully so) about the type and amount of homework, the lack of connection they felt between home and school and, the lack of on-going ways to support their child's learning. Since I truly believe that families require regular time together and, that homework should not be a battle, I wondered ... was the type of homework I was assigning, contributing to the bad reputation homework has received?

After careful reflection, I decided that the answer was 'yes'. I was contributing to homework's bad reputation. I reflected and decided that I had three main reasons why I needed to re-think homework.

1. I wanted homework to act as CONNECTION  between families and school - not contribute to a disconnect.

When I first started to re-think homework, I began by analyzing the homework that I was already assigning. I discovered worksheets, weekly spelling dictations, pre-made graphic organizers, nightly reading logs and writing solely based on writing prompts. Oh my! It suddenly hit me that the homework that I was giving out really did not involve families, provide a meaningful link between school and home or encourage children to explore and make connections with the world around them. 

When I was assigning this type of homework, my main purpose was for a child to be able to sit in a corner in their home and complete a task independently, without parental support. I was worried that I was 'bothering' parents by asking them to support their child's learning. I was also concerned that some children would receive parental support while others would not. Although my intentions were good, I began to realize that I was actually helping to WIDEN the divide between home and school. I was catering to the 'lowest common denominator'. By assigning  'busy work' through worksheets and dictations, I encouraged my learners NOT to have meaningful interactions with their parents. When I began to re-think homework, I really wanted to include parents in their child's homework in more meaningful ways, without contributing to a separation between school and home. 

I did this by designing writing homework tasks that were founded on:
  • the development of creative ideas and critical thinking
  • oral communication
  • the creation of a supportive home physical environment
  • opportunities for children to self-reflect and self-assess
  • opportunities for parents to provide meaningful feedback 
The writing homework I began assigning suddenly turned from worksheets to task oriented instructions. Some tasks were short, i.e. finding an example of a 'How To' informational text in their home. Other tasks required a few days to complete, i.e. write several different drafts of a 'How To' text. The key to making task oriented homework meaningful was to allow for choice, draw in aspects of the world that the child might not experience at school and, still be directly connected to the classroom. Once I began assigning tasks, rather than worksheets, I observed a much higher rate of learner engagement and pure excitement to share the conversations they had had with their parents at home.

I took the success of this type of homework and developed my 'I'm a Writer!' series of homework resources. Each piece of writing homework is a task, rather than a worksheet. The writing tasks incorporate the main writing genres, connect writing to the real-world, have a foundation in oral language, provide choice and explore the writing process.

2. I wanted to help parents to appropriately and effectively support their child's learning.

Most parents that I have worked with were very interested in helping their child improve their school work. Some well-intentioned parents were a little overzealous and practically completed the homework for their child, while others didn't SPECIFICALLY know how to help their child. While I was able to provide parents with tips during 'Meet the Parents' night, report card meetings and  through classroom newsletters, my suggestions tended to be a bit broad and not as specific and ongoing as they should have been. One of my goals in re-thing homework was to provide parents with specific, ongoing tips that mirrored the language and tasks that were being assigned in the classroom and, demonstrated appropriate and effective support for their child.

To provide parents with specific, ongoing writing tips, I designed my 'I'm a Writer!' homework series with writing tips for parents. Under each writing task is a list of writing genre or writing process specific tips for parents. Some of writing tips provide actual prompts in the form of questions and sentence starters that parents can use to help support their child. Other tips help parents to understand the difference between the writing genres and the types of writing behaviours they might observe their child doing while writing. Some writing tips are repeated for each writing genre to emphasize their importance within the writing process.

3. I wanted children to see a clear link between school and the real world.

Making a clear link between school and the real world is often easier said than done. Schools tend to be organized an artificial fashion which makes it challenging for children to automatically connect how their school work is related to the real world. Teachers are always looking for ways to make school work relevant for their learners. As a result, this was a component that I wanted to incorporate explicit tasks into my writing homework tasks that connect the real-world with different writing genres.

In my 'I'm a Writer!' homework series, there are explicit tasks which ask children to explore their home and community by looking for examples of each of the writing genres. The tasks encourage children to collect and bring to school real world writing examples so that they might  be explored at greater depth in the classroom.  The tasks also invite children to go outside and talk to people they know to gather and develop their writing ideas. By making an explicit connection between school and the real world, children begin to see why it is important for them to learn how to write using different genres.

4.  Homework should be open-ended with the ability to differentiate for individual learners.

One of the challenges I encountered with homework was trying to differentiate the work for individual learners. When I tried to differentiate, nightly homework took on an entire life of its own! Sometimes I just wanted to alter some of the wording on the worksheets, while other times I needed an easy way to include the extra support that I knew some of my learners required. To do this, I had to search and search for the supports I needed. I also had to spend countless hours using white-out to change certain aspects of worksheets in order to differentiate.

What I needed were open-ended tasks that would allow for different entry points of learning, a variety of supports that I could include for individual learners and, tasks that were easily editable so that they could be personalized to mirror my own teaching.

In the end,  I have not given up on the idea of homework....yet. As I reflect on the types of homework being generally being given,  I don't think that homework has changed much since I was a kid. So, rather than giving up on homework, I was willing to first try and re-think the types of homework I was assigning. 

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