Being a student myself for most of the 70s and 80s and a mother of a recent high-school graduate, I empathize with the argument that homework assignments are often random and can take unrealistic amounts of time to complete. With that in mind, I frequently consider the homework I assign to my own first graders. As each new school year approaches I weigh the purpose of the assignments and consider if they are making a positive impact not only in my students learning, but also in my students home school connection with their parents.
To be a successful teacher, I endeavor to empower my students with the confidence and knowledge to succeed in their academic and personal lives. I teach at a Title I school, where 93 percent of our students are profiled as economically disadvantaged and 66 percent of our students labeled at-risk. Many of the students I have worked with throughout my 10 years at Metz live in single parent homes with multiple siblings. Some students had one or both parents incarcerated, live in shelters because of homelessness or were removed from their home situation.
Even with these deficits, our school still manages to attain recognized and commended performance levels on Texas state tests. Our staff and students work very hard for their successes. To further contribute to these successes, I continually seek innovative ways to bring quality learning to my students in and outside of the classroom. Luckily, I have always had the autonomy to choose what homework I assign to my students and I strive to create interesting and meaningful projects throughout the year that will help extend the home school connection.
The Home School Connection
One of the main goals of my homework assignments is to create opportunities for my students to interact with their parents and take time to learn about what makes themselves and their families special. At the beginning of the year, in lieu of traditional homework assignments, I focus on the student and their family. Two of the first special at home activities I assign include the Family Page Project to display during Back-to-School Night and the Baby Name Project.
The Family Page Project is a wonderful way to learn about your student's families. Parents are sent the Family Page Project letter, with instructions about how to work with their child to decorate a large piece of paper with interesting facts about their family. I find that sending an oversized piece of white construction paper works better than a large poster board, which can be overwhelming to fill. The instruction letter is filled with ideas that families can use to decorate their page, but they are encouraged to complete it any way they like. It is amazing how creative my families have been with these projects. In my third year of teaching, one of my students, Julissa, glued magazine pictures of people, but added her own families heads. It was hilarious looking, and showed that her family had a great sense of humor. This year, my student Alex and his family worked together to create an amazing family book. Another one of my students, Nathan, drew houses for all of his extended family members and glued in the faces of their dozen of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.
I always give the students time to present their family page in class. The things they share can be quite insightful, touching and funny. One student talked about his uncle who had died in a gang dispute. He had a lot to share about the things he used to do with his uncle and it was obvious that he missed him very much. A former student, Lily, attached pictures from a trip to Bolivia to visit her father's family and this led to an impromptu lesson on South America. This year when Kerina showed the picture of her mother that she drew she shared that her mother was going to have a baby "but she isn't ready to take it out yet!"
I always display these projects in the school hallway so everyone who attends Back-to-School Night can enjoy them. Over the years it has grown in success and families who are not even in my class come by to see the display. Two of my colleagues have begun to do this project as well, with the same enjoyment and success.
One of my other favorite family assignments is the Baby Name Project. I send home the Baby Name Project letter describing how family members can help. This project gives parents the opportunity to share with their child the origin of their name and information about the day they were born. I have to credit my own mom with inspiring this project. On every birthday when I was younger, she would tell me the story of my birth and I loved hearing every little detail. I kept the tradition up with my own son, Ian and I love setting up the opportunity for my student's parents to do the same.
You would be surprised at how many children have no idea how their name was chosen or what happened on the day they were born. I love hearing students tell their stories and I use their parents written account to help them share more details with the class. The accompanying baby photos are always a huge hit! Of course, I always bring a photo of myself as a baby and as a first grader so my students can hear my story and see what I looked like when I was their age.
What About Traditional Daily Assignments?
Research has consistently shown that parental involvement in a child's learning is a key factor in that child's achievement in school. With the reality of the test driven world of education, many parents expect what they were given in school for homework, familiar daily or weekly assignments. I do agree with the rationale behind these daily assignments:
- Homework reinforces skills, concepts and information learned in class.
- Homework prepares students for upcoming class topics.
- Homework teaches students to work independently and develop self-discipline.
- Homework encourages students to take initiative and responsibility for completing a task.
- Homework allows parents to have an active role in their child's education and helps them to evaluate their child's progress.
- Homework activities relate what is learned in school to children's lives outside of school and helps to connect school learning to the real world.
But I believe these daily homework assignments should be varied and meaningful, not always rote practice work.
To encourage authentic writing for homework assignments; I use a class mascot, his sleepover bag and a journal for students to write about the mascot's visit to their home. I send home the classroom digital camera so students can photograph their home, family, special events and vacations. We print their photos on the class computer and use them to support their writing. Students interview family members for information to share with the class. We also write poetry, lists, headlines, photo captions, book reviews and more.
To reinforce practice with their word wall words, students learn how to rainbow write, triangle write, happy face write, staircase write, box it write and sort their word wall words by number of letters, syllables, and vowels. I have included a Spelling Ideas printable with examples of all of these ideas and more so you can use it with your students.
To practice math skills and problem solving I send home math games with my students to play with parents or siblings. I assign homework that can easily be modified depending on the students' level of understanding. I also have Family Game Night. Students are allowed to borrow a board game from my classroom collection to take home for the weekend. These games include a memory game from the National Museum of Art, Boggle, Clue for Kids, Scrabble for Kids and more. Students never realize that they are learning about art, counting, problem solving, reading and following directions while they're having fun.
Most importantly I want my first grade students to be reading every single night to improve their word recognition, comprehension, fluency and word attack skills. I am thankful that our school has a fantastic guided reading book library that almost all teachers at Metz use on a daily basis. This allows my students to take home the same books we read in class during guided reading, and reread them dozens of times over several weeks, improving their language arts skills. Students read the same books during independent reading time in class, so they receive further literacy support with these same books just in case an adult is unable to support their reading at home.
Even if your school doesn't have a literacy library of leveled books, you can use reading textbooks the same way, search the Internet for web sites that carry professionally developed leveled readers that you can download and print for student use such as Learning A-Z, or purchase one of the exceptional guided reading programs from Scholastic. If you are short on funding to purchase a program check out local teacher grants in your area or sign up on Donors Choose or Adopt a Classroom.
Homework is an important time to make connections and reflect; on self, family, friends, new or familiar information, and the world beyond. What you present to your students will determine the heights they will climb to continue to maintain their academic success. "What is more important, quantity or quality?" is a question you could ask yourself when revaluating the homework you assign to your students. Homework should be fun and full of discovery, not only your students, but for you as well!
Like all teachers, I’ve spent many hours correcting homework. Yet there’s a debate over whether we should be setting it at all.
I teach both primary and secondary, and regularly find myself drawn into the argument on the reasoning behind it – parents, and sometimes colleagues, question its validity. Parent-teacher interviews can become consumed by how much trouble students have completing assignments. All of which has led me to question the neuroscience behind setting homework. Is it worth it?
'My son works until midnight': parents around the world on homework
Increasingly, there’s a divide between those who support the need for homework and those who suggest the time would be better spent with family and developing relationships. The anxiety related to homework is frequently reviewed.
A survey of high-performing high schools by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, for example, found that 56% of students considered homework a primary source of stress. These same students reported that the demands of homework caused sleep deprivation and other health problems, as well as less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits.
When students learn in the classroom, they are using their short-term or working memory. This information is continually updated during the class. On leaving the classroom, the information in the working memory is replaced by the topic in the next class.
Adults experience a similar reaction when they walk into a new room and forget why they are there. The new set of sensory information – lighting, odours, temperature – enters their working memory and any pre-existing information is displaced. It’s only when the person returns to the same environment that they remember the key information.
But education is about more than memorising facts. Students need to access the information in ways that are relevant to their world, and to transfer knowledge to new situations.
Many of us will have struggled to remember someone’s name when we meet them in an unexpected environment (a workmate at the gym, maybe), and we are more likely to remember them again once we’ve seen them multiple times in different places. Similarly, students must practise their skills in different environments.
Revising the key skills learned in the classroom during homework increases the likelihood of a student remembering and being able to use those skills in a variety of situations in the future, contributing to their overall education.
The link between homework and educational achievement is supported by research: a meta-analysis of studies between 1987 and 2003 found that: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.”
The right type of work
The homework debate is often split along the lines of primary school compared with secondary school. Education researcher Professor John Hattie, who has ranked various influences on student learning and achievement, found that homework in primary schools has a negligible effect (most homework set has little to no impact on a student’s overall learning). However, it makes a bigger difference in secondary schools.
His explanation is that students in secondary schools are often given tasks that reinforce key skills learned in the classroom that day, whereas primary students may be asked to complete separate assignments. “The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is reinforce something you’ve already learned,” he told the BBC in 2014.
The science of homework: tips to engage students' brains
So homework can be effective when it’s the right type of homework. In my own practice, the primary students I teach will often be asked to find real-life examples of the concept taught instead of traditional homework tasks, while homework for secondary students consolidates the key concepts covered in the classroom. For secondary in particular, I find a general set of rules useful:
- Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.
- Make sure students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain.
- Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.
- Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory.
While there is no data on the effectiveness of homework in different subjects, these general rules could be applied equally to languages, mathematics or humanities. And by setting the right type of homework, you’ll help to reinforce key concepts in a new environment, allowing the information you teach to be used in a variety of contexts in the future.
Helen Silvester is a writer for npj Science of Learning Community
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