Reimagining Homework: Homework and the Writing Workshop

This week, four of the TWT co-authors are taking on homework. As a team, we’ve done a lot of thinking about the idea of homework in both elementary and middle school classrooms. These blog posts represent our latest thinking about homework.

In the Past

When I taught kindergarten, I used to create a packet of worksheets for students to complete each week for homework. If a student came to school without her homework packet completed on Friday, I would make that student sit out of Center Time to finish the missing homework.

Of this, I am not proud.

At the time, I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought I was teaching responsibility and work ethic. I thought it was important to reinforce the concepts learned at home with worksheets. Now I shudder at the idea of punishing a five-year old for not completing homework.

Maya Angelou famously said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” My thinking in many areas of education has shifted through the years, through experience, conversations and reflection. I changed my stance on behavior charts and Class Dojo after being part of professional conversations that pushed me to question my assumptions about “managing” a class. This past summer, I found myself questioning homework why I give it, what it accomplishes and if there might be an alternative.

Questioning Traditional Homework

I began by thinking about the term “homework” and what it conjures. For many, I would bet there are feelings of frustration, drudgery, obligation, and boredom. Not exactly the feelings we want to inspire in our students! I thought about the students in my third grade class and if homework had made anyone a better student. My honest feeling was it hadn’t. Some of the research backed up that teacher instinct. In the article, “Does Homework Contribute to Student Success?” by Jo Earp, the author states, “There is strong evidence and general agreement that homework at the primary level has little impact on academic performance…” John Hattie’s research is often cited about the effects of homework, especially for children in elementary school, basically saying homework at that level has very little effect on academic performance and can sometimes lead to negative attitudes towards school.

I remembered a student of mine who went to Disney World during the school year. She blogged about her trip each day she was away through our class Kidblog account and would send me messages each morning, asking me to share her writing with the class. We were able to read about her trip and write comments to her. This student was certainly not assigned homework to complete while away- she blogged about her trip because it mattered to her and she had an authentic audience to read about her adventures. This self-selected writing was purpose-driven and far more meaningful than any worksheet I might have asked her to complete or journal I required her to keep for a grade.

I thought of my son, now a first grader. After all day at school, he is never happy to come to the table to work on his homework. But on his own, he will choose to write and illustrate books, create inventions, build forts, create a business selling paper airplanes, etc. He will ask me to look up questions he is wondering about on the computer.  I thought of other stories I’ve heard about kids and homework. A friend has said her daughter never gets any time to practice her musical instrument because she has so much homework to do each day. Her reading often gets pushed to the side because there is no time to read after all the written assignments are done. I thought of parents who come home after a long day and first have to start with homework while preparing dinner, or trying to squeeze homework in between bringing kids to after school activities and sports. I thought of some of my students who don’t have a parent at home to help with homework, who might stay with a grandparent or siblings, where language and even lack of school supplies can be a barrier to completing work after school hours.  I thought of all the time spent assigning and preparing homework, having students copy down their homework in the planner, signing the planners to make sure it was copied appropriately, collecting it, checking it, making phone calls for all the children not completing it….so much time. Was the time spent equal to the benefit of homework? Was assigning homework the best way to reinforce concepts and excite students to continue learning when the school day ends? My heart told me something needed to change.

This Year

And so, as this school year began, I decided to rethink homework. As a third grade teacher, I teach my 24 students all subjects. When I met with the parents at Back to School Night, I explained that students would be asked to read for at least 20 minutes per day at home. Research supports the idea that the more you read, the stronger you grow as a reader. I wasn’t going to make them sign a log or count minutes- just set aside time each day to ensure that their children are reading. Aside from that, students would not have any written homework in any subject. (I shared a Padlet of some resources I’ve been collecting about traditional homework and reading volume, which you can access here.)

As I considered this shift, I had one major worry: How would I communicate what we are learning in class to parents if they are not seeing homework each day? Homework has often been that bridge between school and home. With new technology, could I share what we are learning without sending home daily homework? Here are some ways I’ve tried to share information with parents about what our class is learning.

  • SeeSaw: SeeSaw is a way for students to keep digital portfolios and for parents to see what their child is learning. Students can add items to their portfolio and parents receive notifications when they do. The teacher can also send announcements and reminders, similar to the app Remind. I’ve started sharing information with parents via the student journal as well. Here is an example of an entry I added to every student journal so parents could understand our recent lesson in the personal essay unit.

Click the picture to view this on the SeeSaw app and listen to the audio that parents in my class can hear when they open the item. This is an easy way to share information with parents.

  • Twitter: Parents and families can follow my class on Twitter @Learningin215. One of the jobs is Class Tweeter and that person composes the tweet we send out at the end of the day. I also tweet class happenings and activities we are doing so parents can stay in the loop. Instead of asking, “What did you do at school today?”, parents could say, “I saw your class blogged today. What did you write about?”

  • Class Website: My class website is another way parents can see what we are learning. I include the links to our current newsletters and try to update each area of the curriculum with resources.

Home Learning Opportunities

I remember the first time I heard the phrase “pre-owned” on the radio. It was amazing how different that sounded than “used” when car shopping. A pre-owned car painted a very different picture in my mind that a used car. When thinking about continuing the learning after school, I wanted my students to feel excited about the possibilities, not locked into a dull task that felt like “work.” Maybe it was semantics, but I wanted a new name for the options students could have to enrich their learning. I decided on “Home Learning Opportunities” because that closely matched how I see the menu of choices I’m providing each month. I offer this to students and their families as possibilities and opportunities- this is not required work and I do not collect anything. If students want to share with me something they worked on, I am over-the-moon-excited to see what they came up with, but they are not obligated to do any or all of this work.

The menus reflect all subject areas but each menu includes authentic writing opportunities, such as blogging, writing poetry, being inspired to write in the style of a mentor text and creating cards for people. I create a menu each month and tailor it to the season and the curriculum we are studying.

Closing Thoughts

I know homework can be a hot-button issue and educators have different feelings about the benefits of homework. I am 3 months into my first year of this shift in assigning homework. In some ways, it puts more pressure on me to make sure I am communicating our learning to families. I try to create menus of learning each month that include a mix of digital and non-digital possibilities. This has pushed me to use technology in new ways and rethink home/school communication. I love the instructional time I’ve gotten back from not assigning homework and I like how my relationships with students are more positive since I’m not interrogating them on why their homework wasn’t completed. TWT will continue exploring the issue of homework this week, with posts from Stacey, Lanny, and Melanie. We hope you join the conversation and share your ideas around homework.