Some Issues to Consider: Homework and the Writing Workshop

Homework Mini Series

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.

Pushing the dance studio door open, I watched my two daughters and their two best friends bound playfully out to the parking lot.  Walking next to me was Jamie, their mother.  “Sorry,” she whispered, “we can’t do dinner tonight.  Blake’s got homework.”  Blake, a fourth grader, after attending school all day and now having finished her dance class at 5:45 p.m., now needed to head home to complete additional work for school.  Suddenly I felt myself thinking about this idea of homework; is it what most people believe it is? A way to help our kids be more successful in life?

The following day, I borrowed a friend’s copy of Rethinking Homework, by Cathy Vatterott (ASCD, 2009).  I already had strong feelings about homework and its net value, but I wanted to get smarter about the topic.  And specifically, as writing workshop teachers, what might be some important research and/or some possible ways we might frame this hotly debated subject?

In looking into Vatterott’s book, a few points in regards to research jumped out at me: First and foremost, the lion’s share of the research on homework in school has been conducted by a single researcher, Dr. Harris Cooper from Duke University.  While Cooper’s research is highly respected and he likely ought to be regarded as a reliable expert, Vatterott writes, “This situation leaves us in the dubious position of relying solely on one source of interpretation of the research [on homework]- much like getting one’s daily view of world events solely from one television network…” (p. 64).  Secondly, the research suggests a sliding scale of benefits at best.  Kathleen’s post yesterday reiterated John Hattie’s research, which is concurs with Vatterott’s reporting, that the benefits of homework for elementary students are negligible (i.e., little to none), while in middle school there may be some limited benefit (Vatterott, 2009).

So, perhaps a few ideas to be aware of as writing workshop teachers could be:

  1. Our beliefs about students affect achievement.  This finding, in addition to many others, has been reported widely by John Hattie.  Teacher expectations have been found to have a significant effect on student learning.  But what does this have to do with homework?  Let me explain…Many middle school teachers assign homework.  Some students return to school with the homework completed, while other students do not (for a variety of reasons).  When those students return without having completed a writing assignment, for example, we must be careful of how we allow that deed to influence our beliefs about them.  Instead of labeling a student (e.g., “lazy”, “a poor student”, etc.) we might invite curiosity to be our friend.  What is (or was) in the way of them completing the assignment?  Lack of opportunity?  Lack of understanding? Lack of confidence? Lack of engagement or motivation? Taking on a stance of curiosity can lead to productive discussions with students. And productive discussions with students can help forge a positive path forward.
  2. Not all homework is created equal.  Vatterott describes four different categories of homework:  (1) rote memory practice, (2) practicing of a skill, (3) pre-learning, and (4) checking for understanding (p. 111).  For many or most writing workshop teachers, the spirit of our homework is about practicing a skill.  After all, we get better at what we do.  Writing is a skill learned in use, much like playing the piano or skiing.

But what about differentiating homework?  After all, writing workshop is not a program, but an assessment-based teaching framework, meant to be responsive to the students in front of us.  As Dr. Richard Allington writes in his article entitled, “Ideology is still trumping evidence” (2005), “Good teaching, effective teaching, is not just about using whatever science says ‘usually’ works best.  It is all about finding out what works best for the individual child and the group of children in front of you” (Allington, p. 462).  That said, might we not consider allowing for some student voice and ownership in work required outside of school hours?  For example, what if instead of defining exact parameters, we instead encouraged students to set goals around things like:

  • volume (how many lines or pages to write)
  • content- number of ideas (how many ideas will be explored)
  • next steps (what will forward their writing piece or process?)

And what about allowing for homework to sometimes (or perhaps, oftentimes) be treated as a longer term endeavor (see the conclusion of this post for one idea)?  The reality of the outside-school lives of many of our middle school students is that not every evening is available for homework. Due to family or religious obligations, sports, music, civic group participation, volunteer work, and many other commitments, some students find it difficult to complete hours of homework each night.

Many believe homework teaches responsibility.  This notion, for which there is no supporting research, may indeed hold true for some.  However, Vatterott cites her earlier work in her book (2007) by writing, “True responsibility cannot be coerced.  It must be developed by allowing students power and ownership of tasks” (Vatterott, p. 10).  By allowing students some voice in the volume, content, and shape of their homework, as well as a time frame in which to complete it, we might actually be providing some of the power and ownership described by Vatterott.

3.  Families are diverse. As teachers, it is my belief that homework should never disadvantage any student.  This means not shaming or penalizing students for circumstances  beyond their control, nor holding them back from reaching their true potential as writers.  Those of us who work in schools are well aware that today’s family structures vary widely.  Some students live in two-parent supportive households, while others may be being raised by a single grandparent.  All of us have met students who shuffle back and forth between two households as a result of a custody arrangement, or are dealing with significant issues in their homes, such as illness or a recent family death.  Thus, we realize that students do not all return home to the same level of support.  To believe this to be true is simply naive.

In speaking with my friend Jamie that night, I came to learn that the homework requirements imposed by the school are not perceived as onerous by either her or her daughter, Blake.  Rather, Blake is given writing work over which she has some control and ownership- this relates to what she’ll write about, as well as figuring out what nights she’ll be able to write, and what nights she will be too busy.

As middle school writing workshop teachers, we probably can’t do away with things like deadlines and grades altogether.  Many of us live in a system that demands such requirements.  But living into the possibilities created by the few considerations described above might make a difference, perhaps even when it comes to joy and freedom around writing and homework.