Making Homework Choice Work: First Steps

Lots of people tell me they think homework choice is a great idea, but they’re wondering how to make it work in their classrooms.

In my classroom, we’re almost finished with our first week of homework choice. From where I stand (make that sit, totally exhausted) there are three keys to implementing the system successfully:

  1. Teach “Effective Effort + Time = Success”
  2. Gradually release responsibility
  3. Plan much more time for homework routines than you think you’ll need.  And then, for good measure, plan a little more.  (This one is mostly a note to self.)

“Effective Effort + Time = Success”

I am a huge fan of The Skillful Teacher (Saphier, Haley-Speca, and Gower) published by Research for Better Teaching (RBT, which offers professional development courses as well).  One of the core principles in the book is that students need to know that they can accomplish their goals by putting in effective effort — the right kind of work — and enough time.

RBT found through research that many people don’t really believe that you can be successful just through hard work (take a look at chapter 12, “Expectations”).  People often attribute success to external factors, as in, “She’s successful because she’s born with it/she’s lucky/the task wasn’t that hard in the first place.”  Our students often come to us with these beliefs, and it’s essential that we re-train their mindset.  Students will only put in the effort required if they believe that effort will make them successful. Otherwise, why bother?

For homework choice to work well, a mentality that effective effort + time = success must be ever-present in the classroom.

I began on Monday with that equation on the board.  In simple terms, I explained what it meant to me.  Then we talked about a project we’re doing, our “Hopes and Dreams” for third grade (from The First Six Weeks of School by Denton and Kriete).  Students shared examples of their hopes and dreams: learning cursive, getting better at math, becoming a better reader.  Touching the equation, I told the class that we wrote down our Hopes and Dreams so we could make them come true.  “We will all be successful this year because [tapping the equation] we will put in effective effort [tap] and time [tap] towards reaching our goals [tap].”

Then I asked, “if we have different goals, should we have the same homework?”  My third graders were a little stumped.  Or stunned.  Or maybe just confused.  So I went on.  “Let’s say Keesha (these are made-up names) wants to learn to subtract two-digit numbers, but she’s really good at spelling.  Do you think she needs to practice spelling for homework?”  Lots of shaking heads.  “How
come?”  “Because she should practice subtracting!” everyone agreed.  One precocious student proclaimed, “Practicing spelling wouldn’t be effective effort!”  “Well, Josh wants to become a better speller.  What should he do for homework?”  “Practice spelling!”  The answer was clear.

The kids became very excited when I shared examples of the homework they could do this year.  Maybe a little over-excited.  I’m not starting independent studies for a while, but I’ve got kids visiting the library this weekend to learn about the solar system and samurai…

Gradually Release Responsibility

In that first lesson on Monday, we didn’t set individual learning goals (even though the kids really, really wanted to).  We set a simple, achievable, class goal: “Set up a good homework routine and have fun.”  There is so much to teach in the first week of homework choice, I think it’s vital, at least at the third grade level, to make the goal simple.  Plus, I liked that we emphasized homework should be fun.  Because it should be!

Then, I gave the class two choices: make a word search with classmates’ names or read Scholastic News.  The criteria for choosing was simple: which activity will help you to have a good homework routine and have fun?

This introductory lesson, plus writing down the assignment, took about 50 minutes.  Tuesday through Thursday, we followed a similar routine.  I added a simple, fun homework choice each day, and kids chose which one would most help them reach the class goal.

Tomorrow (Friday), we will reflect on our week of homework together.  I did NOT assign the Thursday Night Reflection on our first Thursday night.  Instead, I will lead them step-by-step through it tomorrow morning.  I will have the kids work in pairs, making sure that everything in their notebooks is completed correctly.  We will ensure that everyone in the room is successful, then partners (instead of parents) will sign at the bottom.  Tomorrow night, I will review the notebooks, use the checklist at the bottom, and award stickers to everyone.

Next week, I’m going to give the class a little more responsibility.  Instead of making a class goal, we will brainstorm goals in our Goals Bank, then each student will set an individual goal.  I’ll steer students towards making their goals simple and achievable.  We will highlight the activities we have already learned on our Homework Menu.  Then, I’ll add a few more activities throughout the week.

When students write down their homework, they will work in pairs to make sure that the recording is done correctly (something I probably should have done this past week).  Once again, students will do their Thursday Night Reflection in class, with lots of help, on Friday.

Curriculum Night is planned for the week after that, which will give me an opportunity to present all of this to parents.  Depending on how everything goes, I may have kids start doing their Thursday Night Reflections at home during week 3.  More likely, we will repeat our procedure from week 2.  I’ll provide less help when kids write their reflections, and we’ll talk about how to do this at home the following week.

Take Your Time

My student teacher, Emily, can attest that when you (meaning “I”) don’t plan enough time for this process, it’s a mess.  I was rushed Wednesday afternoon and planned only 10 minutes to record our homework choices.  Trained, middle-of-the-year third graders take only 5 minutes!  Surely, we could do it in 10.

No… no, we really couldn’t.

I continually remind myself that seeds planted now will grow into a bountiful harvest later in the year.  When I communicate with parents, I explain that right now, the assignments themselves are not as important as the process the class is learning.

Take your time.  It will all pay off when your students take charge of their learning and achieve their goals.

And have fun!

— a. fox

2 thoughts on “Making Homework Choice Work: First Steps

  1. I had a wonderful time at today’s Friday reflection session and it is fun to now read your thinking.
    As your collaborating special education teacher, I could not have wished for a lesson more appropriate for our students. One very effective move was having a student choose from among the reflection sentence starters and then having everyone use that same stem to add their own thought. It was also a very economical way for me to learn a lot about each of the students. Now I’m thinking about next week. During Learning Center time, as we complete some initial assessments, I can talk with students about how their time in Learning Center will help them to set and achieve goals.
    I feel very lucky to be working with you!

    • Edythe, the feeling is mutual! I’m so glad that session was helpful and that the way we set goals wasn’t overwhelming for our students with writing or executive functioning challenges. When you have those goal-setting conversations with our students next week, would that be a good time for them to have their Homework Notebooks with them? Perhaps you could add goals to the “Goal Bank” together and star or underline homework choices that might help them reach those goals? Explode the code is not on the list, but there’s no reason why it — or any other special tool you’d like them to use — couldn’t be added.

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