Homework That Changes Lives

love homework.  But I didn’t always.  I used to hate homework.  I hated it as a student, and I hated it as a teacher.  I hated it for all the reasons it is now questioned by education researchers.  Homework at the elementary level is usually:

  • Busywork (for teachers and students)
  • If un-differentiated: too easy for some students, too hard for others
  • If differentiated: unbearably complicated and time-consuming for teachers
  • Stressful for families
  • Graded too slowly or infrequently to give students valuable feedback
  • A poor form of assessment
  • Something we (and I mean all of us: teachers and students and families) do only because we have to, or because we think we should, or because other people think we should.

I am also really skeptical of the idea that homework at the elementary level teaches study skills in and of itself.  Now, if you put into place a real system for programmatically teaching children to study at home and at school and use homework strategically to reinforce that system, well, ok then.  But usually, people expect that just by giving kids homework, they will learn study skills.  Instead, I think kids learn how to procrastinate, how to put up a good fight with their parents, and how to put as little effort into their work as possible in order to get it done quickly.

I tried all kinds of traditional homework systems: weekly packets, daily assignments, even differentiated homework that involved making different packets for several different groups of students (which, by the way, is insane).  And then I went to the Skillful Teacher, learned about effective effort, and decided there had to be a better way.

I asked myself, what if homework was really valuable?  Better yet, what if homework was life-changing?  What if it could teach students — prove to students — that with effective effort and time, they could achieve anything?

I set out to design a homework system with that goal in mind.  Since I first started four or five years ago, it has changed many times.  My earlier blog posts on the subject are now way out-of-date, so I’m going to describe what I do these days.  This is the best iteration of my homework plan so far, and over my two-year loop with a group of children from second to third grade, I saw amazing results.

The Basics

In this homework system, every student works to achieve a single, measurable goal over a period of weeks.  Their goal, homework assignments, and reflections are all documented in their homework packet (here is the homework packet PDF in case you can’t view it in Google docs).  I decide the goal based on the student’s needs and assessment data, and the student’s progress is measured by comparing a pre-assessment to a post-assessment.  Every night, the student chooses a homework assignment from a pre-determined menu of options, all of which will help them reach their goal.  At the end of the week, I check that the homework log has been completed and signed by a parent to indicate that it’s accurate.  But I don’t correct homework as a general rule (you’ll see why in a moment).

At the end of the homework period, I reassess students, and we decide if they met their goals.  If they did, they get to celebrate with their families.  If not, we strategize.  What needs to change?  Do they need to put in more effort?  Different effort?  More time?  Create a new homework routine?  I involve parents, and we all problem-solve together.

It’s a simple system that teaches a simple idea.  To be successful in life, you have to create goals and put in effective effort and time to reach them.  When you do, you celebrate!  And you feel proud of yourself, because your accomplishment means so much.  Do this long enough, and you realize it’s true for everything in life.  You have the key to success.

Now that’s homework worth doing.

Choosing a Goal

When I first created this system, I asked students to choose their goals, but that required an amount of self-awareness and discipline far beyond the typical third grader, never mind second graders.

So now, I choose kids’ homework goals.  In the spirit of the flipped classroom, I primarily have kids work on skills that lend themselves better to practice at home than at school, or skills that require more practice time than we have available during the school day. These skills include memorizing math facts, learning high frequency spelling words, and improving reading rate.

There are also homework goals for students who have already mastered these basic skills.  These include doing independent studies, solving Mathmagician’s Problems (a notebook of problems that require perseverance and creative thinking), and doing various writing projects.

The goals have to be measurable so students know whether or not they’ve achieved them.  I choose students’ goals based on my assessment data and my priorities for kids’ learning.  I also vary the goals so students aren’t working on the same goal all year.

Students write their goals in their homework packet, using a series of sentence starters.  For example:

  • For a student developing reading fluency: “Right now, I can read 65 words per minute.  In three weeks, I want to be able to read 71 words per minute.  I will know I achieved my goal when Mrs. Fox times my reading.
  • For a student learning math facts: “Right now, I can solve 20/35 addition problems in 3 minutes.  In three weeks, I want to be able to solve 29/35 addition problems in 3 minutes.  I will know I achieved my goal when Mrs. Fox tests me.
  • For a student memorizing spellings: “Right now, I can spell 30/50 high frequency words correctly.  In three weeks, I want to be able to solve 39/50 high frequency words correctly.  I will know I achieved my goal when Mrs. Fox tests me.
  • For a student doing a math extension: “Right now, I have solved 10 problems in my Mathmagician’s Notebook.  In three weeks, I want to have solved 19 problems in my Mathmagician’s Notebook.  I will know I achieved my goal when Mrs. Fox corrects my notebook.
  • For a student doing writing or an independent study, it becomes more difficult to write a measurable goal, and the goals vary widely depending on the student.  Sometimes, the goal is to include a certain number of facts in a project or details in a piece of writing.  Other times, it’s about the presentation itself, perhaps to speak loudly and clearly (as measured by peer and teacher feedback sheets).

After writing their goals, students reflect on why reaching their goal is important to them, and then they share their goal with their family.  Together, they and their parents decide on how they’ll celebrate when they achieve their goal.  I advise parents to make the celebrations small, simple, and inexpensive: have pancakes for dinner, hold a family game night, or have a friend sleep over.

Contrary to recent research, I have found that even second graders are really motivated by having these celebrations to look forward to.  But more than anything, they’re motivated when they see themselves improving.  And over time, as students achieve their goals, the best motivator is wanting to continue their success and achieve at ever-higher levels.

Putting in Effective Effort and Time

Over the course of 2-4 weeks (depending on the age of the students and how much experience they’ve had with this homework system), kids choose from a menu of homework activities that will help them reach their goal.  I assign homework 4 nights per week, and 3 of those nights are devoted to effective effort.  The last night is kids’ choice, which gives them an opportunity to work on other skills and do other activities that they enjoy.

I tell kids how much time I expect them to work every night (again, the amount of time depends on the grade level), and I expect that parents are monitoring homework to make sure that this really happens.  Often, parents report that students spend much more time on their homework than required (especially on independent studies and the Mathmagician’s Notebook) because kids have fun and lose track of the time.

So why don’t I correct homework?  Mostly because the activities on the homework menu don’t require correcting.  I think it benefits students to learn by playing games and doing multi-sensory activities.  These don’t usually result in an end-product that I need to correct.  The exceptions are when students do Mathmagician’s problems (which I correct weekly), present independent studies (which are peer reviewed and graded with a rubric in class), and writing project (which I read and comment on).  Otherwise, I only look at students’ work on an as-needed basis.

Reflecting and Celebrating

At the end of each week, kids reflect on their work.  They answer the question, “How much progress did you make towards your goal this week?” and tell what helped them, or what they plan to do differently.  Everyone signs the notebook, and I do a quick check at the bottom to confirm that everything was completed.  If something is missing, I communicate with parents and we problem-solve together.

I also conduct little formative assessments along the way.  The kids developing reading fluency, for instance, are routinely sitting down and reading to me.  So typically, I know ahead of time if a child is struggling with their homework goal, and I can work with the child and their parents to intervene.

Finally, at the end of the 2-4 week homework period, I set aside a little bit of time here and there throughout the week to do my post-assessments.  I fit them in where I can and make sure that by the end of the week, every student knows whether or not they succeeded at their goal.  Students do a final reflection and, if they were successful, celebrate with their families.

Is This Really Life-Changing?

From what I’ve seen in my students and heard from their parents, yes.  Students learn in a deep and, I hope, lasting, way that effective effort plus time equals success.  They make amazing progress according to our most important metrics, and they own their success.  Are students always successful by the end of a 2-4 week period?  No, but then they learn something else: how to persevere.  All of which sets them up well for the challenges of life outside of school.

7 thoughts on “Homework That Changes Lives

  1. INNOVATION! Retooling homework into a self-managment bonanza. A cool thing is that my undergrad EDU class just covered portfolio assessment including time for self-reflection and parent feedback and as an exercise in organization we applied the CCS of Listening and Speaking skills at the kindergarten level using graphic organizers. DANG, today was our exam and final day of class or I could have shared this amazing application of the standard in a second grade classroom. “Other times, it’s about the presentation itself, perhaps to speak loudly and clearly (as measured by peer and teacher feedback sheets)”. And they thought I was crazy. I love it when this happens. Thanks for a great blog that I will keep in my resource toolkit!

    • Thanks for the comment, Gale! We’re definitely not crazy. I love the way doing presentations changes how students see themselves. Three of my former third graders did projects over summer vacation (yes, over vacation!) because they are so excited to learn. Two of them just presented their projects to my second graders, and I was amazed by their grace and poise. What a transformation from the shy little kids they were two years ago! The best part was hearing them give advice to my young students about how to do research, use Google docs, and speak confidently to an audience. My second graders had stars in their eyes!

  2. Great post. I teach at a community college and think I may be able to use this idea. Believe it or not, the students I teach need to learn this lesson as well. But I’m not able to spend as much time on each student as you may since I have 200+ students. Any suggestions how I can modify the strategy?

    • Thanks for the comment and interesting question, Dan! I definitely think these strategies can be used at the college level and with large groups of students. For instance, you could give a pre-assessment at the beginning of your course that measures everything you expect students to know and be able to do by the end of your course. This has two benefits: first, it gives you and your students valuable information about what they need to learn. Second, it makes your goals transparent so students know exactly what they need to do to be successful. When you grade the assessment, rather than giving a single score, assign sub-scores that would focus students on key areas for improvement. Then, students could choose from a menu of homework assignments to help them improve according to their specific needs. Just as with young students, this plan doesn’t require you to grade any of their homework. Rather, students’ success is measured by formative and summative assessments. Does that make sense? Would that work with a course like yours?

  3. Hi Abbie,
    I am also looping with my second graders to 3rd and agree with your opinion of homework. I have been trying to put together a more meaningful homework system and love your ideas. I am still not clear on a few things. Do you have a letter you send to parents to explain how the program works? Is Mathmagician notebook something special or just what you name their math notebook? Is it only used for homework?In the packet the focus areas are not defined by days other than facts nightly and I assume reading good fit book nightly,but you noted that you ” I assign homework 4 nights per week, and 3 of those nights are devoted to effective effort. The last night is kids’ choice, which gives them an opportunity to work on other skills and do other activities that they enjoy.” Could you clarify the effective effort tasks and the kids choice? I am not sure if that means they do the highlighted activities 3 days and anything on the chart the 4h day. Also do you highlight more than one area? Sorry for all the questions, I appreciate you sharing this idea.

    • Hi Debbie,

      Sorry for the late response! I moved Switzerland this year, and haven’t been keeping up with the blog (that’s why there have been no new posts since January). I hope these answers to your questions are still useful:

      (1) Instead of sending a letter to parents, I explained the homework system during our “Curriculum Night”/open house at the start of the year. As I implemented the system, I also kept them informed through my weekly emails.

      (2) The Mathmagician’s Notebook is a special notebook I made of cool, challenging math problems that kids really love to do. I compiled it from a lot of sources — here’s one — but all of the problems required creative thinking and, most of all, perseverance. I included a lot of algebra, logic puzzles, riddles, all different kinds of problems, and let kids work on them in any order. In addition to homework, the notebook was also an option when kids finished their classwork early — an “Academic Choice.” I am making a note for myself — this will be a future blog post!

      (3) You’re correct — 3 days a week, the kids chose from the highlighted column on the chart, and the 4th day, they chose ANY activity from the chart, even if it wasn’t focused on their goal.

      (4) No, I had the kids highlight only one area that corresponded to one individualized learning goal. I experimented early on with having two goals, but our results were better when kids focused on one goal at a time.

      I hope that helps! Enjoy your school year, and please let me know if you have more questions!

      Best wishes,

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