Paul Janeczko’s poems are some of my favorites to share with students when I am introducing a poetry unit. I am sad that he passed away recently. Publishers Weekly published Janeczko’s obituary, sharing a quote about homework from an autobiographical essay. “I didn’t like school. I did as little homework as possible,” Janeczko wrote. He explained that his mother inspired him to read more than baseball cards and sports pages, enforcing a daily reading habit.
Janeczko’s obituary has inspired me to think about homework practices, a topic that continues to be controversial. The first question is, How do we define homework? Some researchers differentiate between traditional and innovative homework. For the sake of argument, traditional homework often takes the form of worksheets. Usually, traditional homework can be handed in or corrected. If students are copying an assignment from the board into their planners, then it’s probably traditional homework.
Another question is vitally important: How do we create homework that is equitable? Not all students have access to computers or home-based Wi-Fi. If our assignments involve technology, how do we guarantee access to all? And what do we do if we can’t? Let’s say we have the situation where everyone plans to do their homework (sort of a utopian thought), and our homework is purposeful and leads to learning and greater achievement. Let’s say that not all of our students have access to computers and the internet—then our practice has the potential to cause or expand achievement gaps.
Another issue involves home resources. When my daughters were in elementary school, they did their homework independently, but sat near me. If they had a question, I answered it. If they were confused, I worked with them. Later in high school, they moved to their bedrooms when they did homework, but they frequently shared their ideas or asked me questions—especially if the work had to do with writing.
I was almost always impressed with the quality of work their teachers assigned and the high levels of thinking it involved, and we had some great conversations in our house because of something they were working on. This leads me to another question about homework and equitable practices: What if caregivers are not present or don’t speak English?
The more I study and analyze the research on homework, the more questions I have about what constitutes best (and doable) practices. The research is clear from Richard Allington, Kylene Beers, Patricia Cunningham, and others that the more time children spend reading books, the higher the gains in reading achievement as measured by several indicators.
Although there is not as much research about writing homework, the work of Lucy Calkins, Nancie Atwell, Ralph Fletcher, and Donald Graves emphasizes the importance of volume and stamina in writing classrooms. If we are interested in rethinking homework policies, these concepts are important as we explain shifts to caregivers. Many parents expect and support traditional homework assignments and policies, even as we are shifting away from traditional homework and toward more reading and writing that students choose and control at home.
With these understandings, I have begun to craft questions we can ask ourselves if we are willing to rethink our homework policies. These questions might serve as a starting point for discussions with teachers about changing homework practices.
|Question||If so . . .
|Is there a way that the assignment can be differentiated so that it takes students at different levels different amounts of time?||. . . then it’s more likely to be at an appropriate challenge level, as opposed to too easy or too difficult, depending on the student.||
|Is the homework part of an overall project or long-term assignment?||. . . then it seems more likely to have value, assuming that the overall project has value to student learning.||
|Does the homework assignment support students’ mastery of a clear learning target or standard?||. . . and students understand that connection, then it could have value.||
Many caregivers are happy to play a role in their child’s home learning, and those partnerships are another avenue for increasing the value and meaningfulness of homework. Some ideas to lean on include the incorporation of fun. There are many games that playfully support the development of literacy. For example, Boggle is a fabulous way to support encoding, and it takes less than 10 minutes to play a round. Scrabble takes more time, but is great for developing word awareness and vocabulary. Farkle and Yahtzee build math skills, and Clue supports deductive reasoning and critical thinking. What if there was a homework assignment of bringing home a classroom game and playing with a family member?
Over the years, I have developed ways that caregivers can support students’ writing lives. I am sharing a few that require very little in terms of material supplies—only an interactive caregiver.
- Ask your child to tell you stories, and help them structure the stories into a beginning, middle, and end format. Your interest will inspire them to want to add the details that make it a story, and telling stories is an important precursor to writing stories.
- Tell your child stories—ones from your childhood, ones from your days. They will love hearing about your life, and listening to stories will help develop the understanding of how to tell stories.
- Give your child opportunities to tell you about what they know as an expert. If your child is an expert at Legos, encourage them to tell you about it. The more organized the explanation, the better, because this practice will help them develop informational writing pieces.
- Encourage your child to persuade or argue with reasons and evidence. Want an extra scoop of ice cream? Talk me into it. Need a new pair of shoes? Convince me! Why do you need a new pair of shoes, and how can you tell? What will happen if you don’t get a pair of new shoes? How will your life improve? This sounds silly, but this type of thinking and speaking will dramatically help your child when they’re learning to write opinion pieces.
- Make time to read with your child, and share your reactions—especially when those reactions are the result of really beautiful writing. Stop and groan. Stop and gasp. Stop and laugh. Your reactions to writing will inspire your child to write.
I don’t see the homework debate ending anytime soon. There are definitely better ways than others of incorporating homework into the lives of our students. I hope these suggestions can open up conversations among teachers, parents, and students.