Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Thoughts on How To Improve Homework

Homework seems to be the bane of everyone’s existence. Of course students hate it, but teachers aren't huge fans either. Besides the fact that it can turn into grading, it's really difficult to get right. If you assign too much, you are resented. And students might like it when you don’t give much homework, but then they refer to your class as easy. Additionally, the wide range of skill levels makes it next to impossible to assign a consistent reasonable amount for all students. Now that I’m a parent, I’m seeing a whole other terrible side to HW. It’s sort of like the opposite of TV; it takes up your time and makes your kids miserable.
All that being said, I feel really happy with how homework has gone this year. My son was really struggling at the beginning of 1st grade. It might have mostly been about transitions. I've heard from many parents that going from Kindergarten to 1st grade is a big change. Add to that how my son was switching schools and that he is always extremely slow to transition, and perhaps regardless of what we did at home he was bound to go from having a hard time to doing fine.

Or maybe our homework routine change helped. We started the year by trying to study for spelling tests and doing the random worksheets that were sent home. To keep homework under a 1/2 hour, we were never even getting around to reading. At fall conferences he was not close to meeting for reading or math. Interestingly though,  the teacher said that he didn't care very much about the spelling test and that my son's writing was going fine. So I decided to come up with a HW regime that made more sense for where my son was: reading every day and doing a math worksheet if it came home (and stopping doing most of the worksheets or practicing for the spelling test). Midway through the year the teacher came up to me to say he couldn't believe how much my son had improved. Since then we've switched the routine (after checking with the teacher) to math practice with flash cards and reading.

Again, he might have made this improvement regardless. Still, the following are some aspects that I like about what we did and how applying them more might improve homework in general.

Have parents do the differentiation
Some people I've told about this were surprised that I even could do it: "You don't have to do what he assigned?" Some have also wondered if I might be stepping on the teacher's toes. From my teacher perspective though, my take was he just didn't have the time to differentiate for twenty-eight students. If I want to do most of the legwork, and check with him, he was going to support it. Perhaps though this could become more of a teacher's policy. The teacher works to let parents better know what to focus on, and, in turn, the teachers end up wasting less time trying to craft HW assignments for all skill levels.

Have homework be skills parents can teach
With many of the worksheets, I'm not even sure I'm helping. Like, how much do I correct his spelling? At times with the writing worksheets I wondered if I was actually pushing developmentally inappropriate skills But after reading with him every day, I feel like I have a great idea idea of what he could do and where to push him.

Have parents only focus on one to two skills
I also wonder if there's just something to having the parents consistently focus on fewer skills. He has six and a half hours at school; how can I possibly hope to add much in twenty minutes? Well, maybe if it's the same flashcards every day of the week. And that might be better than jumping around and doing what he's already doing, just for a shorter time and with less knowledge on how to teach it.
How it can applied to middle school 
This will be extremely tricky and I think it would require teaming (where a group of teachers share the same kids). What I notice at middle school, is so much of their homework is just finishing up what they didn't in class. This can result in some quick students rarely having homework and struggling students spending hours finishing various projects. The thing is, for many of the struggling students, I think it would be much more beneficial if they were just reading. Those improved literacy skills might even make those projects go faster in the future.

What if middle school teachers worked to make less assigned homework go home, but instead families worked from a menu of items that fit their kids? These could consist of reading, math practice, grammar, etc for struggling students. And for exceeding students they could work on writing stories, keeping up with current events, logic problems, etc.

Maybe this would cause too much parental involvement for the middle years and I'm sure I'm oversimplifying when applying my ideas to elementary teachers, but I sort of feel like I'm onto something. Too often homework is just repeating what's done at school or finishing what was started at school. How can we tailor it to really fit what parents can be good at helping with and what individual students really need to work on?

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