Whenever I think of my homework in elementary school, I remember studying multiplication facts, alone, in my room. I’m sure I was exhausted after a long day of school and frustrated by those stupid nines (no one taught me the nifty nines trick!), and I started crying. But despite my tears, my mom told me I had to keep studying, probably feeling as many parents do that she needed to be hands-off when it came to homework. So the argument goes: how else will children learn to work independently and develop study skills if not by doing homework?
Kids have all of middle school and high school to learn to work alone and develop study skills! By insisting that children work alone on their homework after a long, full (exciting and stimulating) day of school, we’re setting them up for the kind of frustration I felt. As teachers, we know how tired elementary students are at the end of the day, and not every home can provide the kind of structured, quiet atmosphere for study that we create in school.
Most important, by asking parents to be hands-off, we’re missing out on a fabulous opportunity for the kind of partner-based learning that we know helps kids become engaged in their work and make cognitive leaps.
That’s why the Homework Menu in my system is divided into two sections: partner activities and independent activities. Children who have an adult or an older student at home (or daycare, or their after school program) can choose a partner activity for their homework. Most of these activities are games including Spelling Checkers, word games, Pictionary and Charades (for vocabulary), and games from our Investigations math curriculum. (You’ll see there is a space on page 2 of the notebook to list the Investigations games and the skills they practice. I send home an Investigations games envelope with parents on Curriculum Night in the fall, which we add to throughout the year. Here are the labels I use for the envelopes: Investigations Games Envelope Labels)
Others are traditional flash card activities (for vocabulary and math), but my favorites are the activities where partners co-create a work together: Partner Write and Reader Letters. Partner Write is pretty straight forward (my version offers three ways for partners to work together, described on page 8), but the Reader Letters are special.
When I was a little girl, my mom and I used to write letters about books back and forth to each other in a green spiral notebook. Each night, after I read a chapter of my book, I would open the notebook and write a letter to my mom, telling her about my favorite part of the book, my favorite characters, what questions I had, or what I thought would happen next. After I went to sleep, my mom would read the chapter and my letter, and then she’d write back to me. She’d put the notebook back on my nightstand, and it was always the first thing I reached for in the morning. I loved those letters, which only we shared, and I still love to reread them today.
Many parents would love to be involved in a positive way with their child’s homework. So often when it comes to homework, parents are put in the role of enforcers, prison guards making sure their little detainees don’t escape. This system offers them a chance to be partners in learning, to the great benefit of household tranquility, parents, and students.
— a. fox
P.S. Much love to Edythe, who is helping me think about adapting the system for kids with executive functioning and language challenges. I added a two-page “Homework Goals Bank” to the notebook where students can brainstorm their learning goals. (I will do this as a whole class at the start of the year, and periodically thereafter.) Kids can use these pages as a reference when they need to write their weekly goals.