Why Go it Alone?

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.

Students choose between partner and independent homework activities.

Students choose between partner and independent homework activities.

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.

PDF: Homework Notebook 2009-2010

Word: Homework Notebook 2009-2010

4 thoughts on “Why Go it Alone?

  1. Nice new entries. I am trying to figure out how to do choice and partner homework at the baby stages when so much (including making a choice and being on a schedule) is new and we are actually teaching how to do these things. A concern or wondering: if kids start in grade 1 with homework choice, are they just as jaded by grade 3? And, is part of the success and joy in response to your menu for homework in reaction to it being different from what they have been doing? (I am really wrestling with these ideas and really want your spin on them, picturing my grade level. Frankly, I detest homework and would not give it in favor of all independent studies…. or trips to museums, book reading, and playing outside.)

    • I am so glad you are considering doing this with your class, Beth! I can’t wait to find out how it goes.

      First, about the kids getting jaded: I won’t deny that the first week of school, I get quite the popularity boost when I tell kids they get to choose their homework. They are so excited at first, but that novelty definitely fades after the first quarter of the year. Far more sustaining is the pride that kids feel when they accomplish something difficult through their own efforts. That feeling only becomes more potent as the year goes on, as kids better understand that effective effort + time = success.

      So, while I bet that the fleeting excitement might wear off by third grade, kids might also be more ready to reach that deeper level of engagement and sense of themselves as learners. Wouldn’t it be great if, by third grade, kids really understood that success wasn’t dependent on luck or intrinsic talent, but rather on effective effort and time? And they knew, deep down, that they and all of their classmates could be successful?

      I have to say I have drunk the Skillful Teacher Kool-Aid on this one. My goal is to work on this kind of “reattribution training” throughout everything we do…

      I hear your second point loud and clear. If we didn’t assign homework, there are many, many homes where there would be rich learning going on regardless. And there are some homes where, for many reasons, kids wouldn’t do much besides watch tv or play video games. I really value kids playing outside, doing science experiments, and going to the museum. So here’s a question: is there a way to make these options a homework choice?

      Thank you, as always, for making me think more, Beth!

      — a. fox

  2. I love this idea for homework! I, too, hate homework and for the most part have rebelled against it. I only give homework that I feel will benefit the kids in some way, which means they don’t get homework every night (even though the requirement is 45 minutes a night) I am going to see how I can adapt this idea for my kids and let you know what I come up with.

    • Thanks for the comment — I’m so glad you like it! I bet you could come up with some very cool choices for fifth graders. They could do amazing things with independent studies. Please let me know how it goes!

      — a. fox

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