I 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 My earlier blog posts on the subject are now way out-of-date, so I’m going to describe what I do these days.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.
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.