Thinking about Improving Homework

Thanks Terry Heick and TeachThought for publishing this recent post on June 20, 2016.

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The end of the school year can be challenging with so many changes occurring: the weather, spring sports, weeks of standardized testing, field trips and other activities lead to oftentimes, chaotic schedules.  These changes can decrease motivation in students and in some cases, teachers as well, and result in a feeling that the school year is over before it really is.

I notice this gradual transformation each year, and do my best to mix things up, to keep learning going, and to stay strong until the end.  This year seemed to be a more challenging year, although I cannot pinpoint why, but as I mentioned in my prior post, I decided to do something about it. I made the decision to try some new methods, reevaluate how I have been doing things in my classroom, and what could I be doing better.

The last grading period has been a time to test out some new tools, give students new opportunities, more choices and be a little less structured, allowing for some spontaneity in our learning.  So as part of my “staying strong till the finish”, after mixing up the seating arrangements and receiving positive responses, I shifted my focus to a new area:  Homework

What Is Homework, Anyway?

Recently I have been giving a lot of thought to homework.  My focus has been on really looking at the types and the frequency of assignments I give.  Over the past few years, I have changed my thinking and tried to move away from a “one size fits all” assignment and move toward a more personalized, authentic assignment.  There have been several reasons for this change in thought.

Hearing from other educators at conferences, input from my students, and as a language teacher, also having to find ways to avoid student use of translators for assignments. These experiences, in addition to a little frustration from homework not being completed, have led me to really try some new methods in this area.

Some of the areas I considered when thinking about homework were: the types of assessments I use in my classroom, my students, the frequency of homework completion, the type of homework, and even more closely, a look at the individuals within each group of students that I am teaching.  My goal is to continue to reflect on whether or not the type of instruction and the strategies I am using, are beneficial to them and if the homework I assign truly has value and builds their skills, or is it just busy work. A lot of the discussion out there now is about getting rid of homework assignments and traditional grading.

Why I Decided To Do Something Different

I have been teaching foreign languages for almost 20 years, and I notice how quickly time has passed, when I find myself teaching a concept and I feel like I just taught the same thing the day before. This “déjà vu” experience leads me to think about the progress I am making with the curriculum in the current school year, and how I have paced my instruction throughout the year. But what I have come to realize more this year than any other, is that it should not be the goal to be at the same point at the same time each year. In my mind, that simply should not be how it goes.

I think a lot of people consider teaching as a profession in which the same plans are used, lessons are taught at the same pace, the same assignments and tests are given each year. If we truly did that, then the profession of teaching would seem to be a rather easy and predictable one. However, that is not the way it is.

I had a conversation with someone that thought teachers simply used the same exact materials each year, with each class, and that teaching was a really easy profession.  This conversation bothered me, and the last part about it being “easy” really hit me. So this inspired me to think about my teaching practice.  What materials I was I using in class? How was I providing instruction for my students and was I using the same resources each year with each class?  Had I been doing the same thing in my classroom every year?  Did I simply pull out a folder to make copies or open up a computer to reprint what I had used each of the 19 years prior to this one?

Honestly, sometimes yes. I had. I had used the same worksheet, or a document for a part of a test over the years.  I hadn’t done this because I was lazy.  In some cases it was for providing a quick activity or assessment, and others it was because I thought the materials were valuable and would help the students to learn.

Thinking About Homework In Your Classroom

Ask yourself these same questions.  What do you come up with?  If you have been doing the same thing, then maybe it is time to make a few changes.  Think about what would work best for and help your students.  This means more than just looking at each individual class, it means really looking at the needs of each individual student.  To do this requires that we get to know our students, and to know our students means we have to build relationships and understand where they’re coming from and what they’re interested in doing in class.

What helps them to learn the best?  What do they want and need from us?  So I decided to use this as an opportunity to take a bit of a risk and try some new methods during this final grading period. It made sense because then I could really think about it over the summer and start fresh in the fall.

The first homework experiment

Students have a lot of homework and I do believe in the value of homework.  It is the way we help students to practice and figure out what they know and what they don’t know and how they can become better. It is one of many ways teachers can assess students and learn about their needs, provide instruction and valuable feedback.  But I’ve changed my thinking about homework.  I used to think that I had to give students homework every day.  And I also thought that homework had to be the same for each student and each class. In part, my methods were a result of the experience I had as a high school student.  I decided to change the daily homework assignments and make things more personal,  let the students determine for themselves what they could do for homework, and have choices.

Just as a start, I assigned each student to be the teacher for the next class period.   With a partner for example, we are working on the past tense in Spanish and in pairs, I let the students decide which verb tense they would like to teach their partner.  The homework was to simply come to class the next day with a way to teach their partner the verbs.  I said it could be something tangible in the form of a worksheet or any activity that they found, a website, a video, a game, or another resource. It really did not matter to me as long as whatever they had they could use in class and they could teach.

I believed that in the process the students would learn more and also develop collaborative learning skills.

What Did The Students Think?

While they taught, I moved around to interact with each group to see what it was they had prepared. There were worksheets found online, worksheets that students created, handwritten pages of notes, flashcards, some had found websites with games and others had found videos or had created a Kahoot or Quizizz game for their partner to play. But what was most important was that they sought out resources, they had an opportunity to teach someone else and their homework was personalized not only for them, but also for other students. It went well and they were enjoying it and learning.

I will admit that I was nervous about doing this.  Not requiring a specific form or product for each student to show in class, and being open to any format the students brought in, was very different. It was a risk. But I was amazed at how creative they were, how engaged each group was, and the variety of “homework” that had been done.

Student feedback is very important for me and I value their input and regularly engage them in informal conversations or will have them complete a survey.  I want to know their thoughts. What did they like?  What did they not like?  Did they learn? Was this an effective way to practice the material we were covering in class?  We spent two days doing this first assignment, so each person could teach.  And then I had them switch groups, and teach again.  The end result was that students were teachers, the learning was personal, they were engaged, felt valued, and the experience was meaningful and beneficial to their learning.

It is a risk and when you don’t necessarily have the whole plan set out, and you just kind of go with it, you might be surprised at the results.  Giving the students control, seeing their interactions, and knowing that this homework was the type that was beneficial to each of them, encouraged me to continue to find new ways to give more classroom control to the students.  Giving up some control is not always easy, but in doing this, it opens up more opportunities for facilitating learning, providing individualized instruction and building those relationships which are the foundation of education.

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