Nightly Writing: 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.

I’ve been around long enough to remember when NYC public school teachers received writing units of as a stapled packet every month. I was ecstatic when the TCRWP Units of Study in Writing were initially published in 2006. One of the things I loved most (about the units) was the CD-ROM companion, which contained typed versions of each unit’s charts and homework for every night of each unit of study. The nightly homework assignments correlated to each workshop session, which allowed me to extend my teaching to students’ homes.

Sometime during the 2008-09 school year, my grade-level colleagues thought it would be in students’ best interests not to have nightly homework assignments from the UoS. I don’t remember the exact reason, but I believe this proposed shift had to do with some students spending too much time on the nightly writing homework while others weren’t completing it and therefore they were falling behind their peers who were completing the homework. In lieu of nightly homework, my colleagues proposed optional writer’s notebook homework.

Initially, I was not onboard with this idea. How would my students practice what they learned in school if they weren’t completing work at home? Would our units drag on for weeks at a time if kids weren’t expected to move forward with the classwork every night? And would anyone write in their writer’s notebook if it became optional? I thought about digging in my heels, but realized I couldn’t be the only fourth-grade teacher who assigned writing homework if my students’ peers weren’t receiving nightly writing homework.

Ultimately, I worked out a deal with my instructional coach, which led to me eradicating the nightly UoS homework. However, I kept the expectation that my students would write an entry in their writer’s notebook at least five nights a week since I felt it was important for them to live like writers outside of the classroom.

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Now that I’m a parent and have read lots of articles on impact and effects of homework during the elementary school years, I’ve come to believe the most important we can mandate (Since research proves that it works!) is nightly reading. As the parent of a child who has a 7.5 hour school day, I think kids need unstructured time when they return home from school. After all, they’ve spent the day working, it’s important for children to have downtime and to play!

Four Ways to Encourage Students to Write at Home #TWTBlogI think it is important for kids to live a wide-awake life that will help them improve as writers. Here are four ways you can encourage students to write after the school day is over:

  • PROVIDE STUDENTS WITH IDEA OR SKETCH NOTEBOOKS. Encourage kids to live a wide-awake life, jotting or sketching things that interest them that they may wish to write later. These notebooks can travel back and forth to school and can be utilized during writing workshop if there’s an entry a student wishes to expand upon.
  • KEEP A WRITER’S NOTEBOOK. If kids use their writer’s notebook primarily as a workbench at school, they can use it as a playground at home. As a result, this encourages greenbelt writing, which means writing at-home may become something kids choose to do for fun. [Check out Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing (Heinemann, 2017) which will help you infuse low-stakes writing, which kids are often comfortable doing, into your students’ lives.]
  • START A BLOG. While a writer’s notebook has an audience limited to the student and whoever s/he shows it to, a public blog’s audience is limitless. Plus, blogging provides students with another low-stakes, high-impact opportunity for creating a writing life since they can pick the genre, topic, structure, etc.
    • If you will serve as the administrator of your students’ blogs, it’s important to get the support and consent of your building’s administrator and each student’s parent or guardian. In addition, talk about internet safety (e.g., using a pseudonym, not sharing identifying location details) with your students before they begin blogging.
    • Every March, students from around the world join their teachers for the Classroom Slice of Life Story Challenge. For some kids, it’s their first foray into the world of online writing. For others, it’s part of their daily writing lives since they blog regularly. Click here to learn more about the Classroom SOLSC.
  • ENCOURAGE STUDENTS TO PURSUE INDEPENDENT WRITING PROJECTS. Any time students want to do more of a kind of writing – but don’t have the time to do it during writing workshop – they can engage in an independent writing project. Independent writing projects may happen during a period of time you set aside during the school year or they may be ongoing in students’ homes. [For more information on independent writing projects, read M. Colleen Cruz’s Independent Writing – One Teacher – Thirty-two Needs, Topics, and Plans (Heinemann, 2004).]

I have changed my stance on nightly homework since I started teaching. (In 2004, I assigned about an hour’s worth of homework + reading to my fifth graders every night.) My thinking has shifted about nightly homework because, as a parent, I’ve discovered how few waking hours I have to spend with my child after school. In addition, much of the research shows homework in elementary school doesn’t have a positive impact on students’ long-term success. (Click here for a list of research and popular articles about homework for elementary school students.) Rather than assigning homework – in writing or in any subject area – that doesn’t benefit students, it’s up to us to find ways to engage students’ minds after schools in ways that hold meaning and value to them.

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Please join the conversation! I’d love to hear about the ways you’re encouraging students to write outside of school. Share what’s happening in your corner of the world by leaving a comment below.

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Tomorrow, Melanie Meehan will close-out TWT’s mini-series on homework with a post about ideas for families to engage in writing together at home.