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Better, Saner Homework, Pt 1: 6 Tips to Make It More Doable for Us

By Dave Stuart Jr.

I know that some great teachers in the world don't give an ounce homework, and I've heard good reasons for that. Here are the reasons why I do give my ninth-grade students homework on a regular basis:

  • First, homework is an opportunity. I want the Stuart children to have opportunities to learn beyond the school day, and so I want to give that same opportunity to my students. I explain this to my students, that one sign of my love for them is that I give them homework. (That's not sarcasm!)
  • Second, homework increases volume. As I've described before, my students and I are all about becoming better thinkers, readers, writers, speakers, and people. This is true whether I'm teaching English or World History, AP or at-risk. The thing is, 60 minutes per day with my students means that there's not enough time to do the volume of reading, writing, speaking, listening, knowledge-building, and argument work that I want them to do. I need students to do some of this outside of class. Our homework is always aimed at this.

With that said, there are a ton of ways to do homework wrong, and I've discovered most of them through personal experience. In today's post and a few to follow, I want to explore how to do homework as best we can. In the process, I think we'll learn about more than just homework — we'll remind ourselves of basic truths about teaching and learning.

Here's the first big idea: homework has got to be doable for all parties: students, parents/guardians, and teachers. My students have to understand what I expect, why I've assigned the work, why it's worth their time. My students' parents/guardians are busy and they need to know how they can support their child without driving themselves nuts. And I, the teacher, have to be able to manage the homework from a grading/feedback/assigning perspective.

If kids don't get how to do what we've asked them, they'll be less likely to do it. If parents can't keep straight what their kids are expected to do and why they're expected to do it, they'll be less able to create conditions at home that are amenable to homework. And if I can't keep up with the demands, I'll find reasons to assign less and less homework as the year progresses.

(I've written a little-known but related post on the responsibilities of students, parents/guardians, and teachers — it's called Triple Responsibility.)

For the rest of today's article, I want to focus on one of the above parties: us.

How to make homework more doable for teachers

1. Pick a few go-to homework assignment types that you can use again and again. In my English classes, this is choice reading, assigned novel reading, or reviewing key concept vocabulary. In my World History classes, it's Gallagher's article of the week, self-quizzing on key concepts/vocabulary/geography, or, in the case of my ninth grade AP World classes, reading 3-5 pages out of a review textbook.

2. Explicitly teach students how to do everything they're expected to do for each homework type. This is why it's so helpful to limit the types of homework you assign: each type needs lots of clear, in-class instruction and practice. Some examples:

  • For articles of the week, I teach students how to read for understanding, purposefully annotate, and write a 250-word response (sometimes using the Graff/Birkenstein They Say / I Say two-paragraph template). I don't grade AoWs that closely (neither does Gallagher; more on that here and here), but I'll occasionally share exemplar AoWs to help kids understand what high-quality work looks like.
  • For review work, I teach students how to self-quiz using flashcards, Quizlet, blank maps, and other basic memorization techniques.
  • For choice reading, I use book talks and conferring to help ensure that my students have the appropriate books selected.
  • For novel-reading, I use class time to get students started on a given section of the novel, drawing from nine instructional moves to make success as likely as possible.
  • For textbook-reading, I teach students who to read strategically, take notes, and quiz themselves on what they've learned.

You'll notice, of course, that this all takes time. That is, again, why it's so important to me that I limit the types of homework assignments I give and make sure they line up with the ultimate aims of my class: better thinkers, readers, writers, speakers/listeners, and people.

3. Remember that it's the beliefs that motivate kids to do homework, not the grades, not guilt trips, not prizes. Notice how the five questions students are always asking (AKA the questions undergirding the five key beliefs) affect homework:

  • Credibility: Is my teacher a good teacher? Does he care? If my students find me credible, they're more likely to do what I assign.
  • Belonging: Do people like me do homework like this? All year, I'm trying to help kids identify as the kinds of people who learn all the time, including after school.
  • Effort: Is my effort going to make me better at things like this? Can I get smarter or more skillful at this if I try? To help develop the Effort belief, we want start-of-the-year challenges to be as meaningful and manageable as possible. Small success early on are critical.
  • Efficacy: Can I succeed at this homework? Here's where we have to pay attention to how long a homework assignment might take students.
  • Value: Does this homework matter? The Value belief gets severely challenged when students take work home because typically, home is a place with more entertaining things to do than reading and writing about a weekly article.

To help my students cultivate the motivation to do work at home, then, I target the key beliefs. And this is not just because the beliefs drive behavior more enduringly than external motivators (e.g., grades, prizes) — it's because I'm trying to make my job doable. If I have to micromanage homework completion, I'm going to go crazy, I'm going to bring work home, and I'm going to build an unbalanced life.

4. Make it sensible to students and parents. Another reason to use just a few types of homework is that we need to have good reason for assigning what we do. Students today seem to be busier than ever, and they certainly have access to more time-consuming entertainments than prior generations of kids. Parents are busy, too. So it's helpful for a teacher to be able to say, “I give an article of the week every Monday, and it's due Friday. My students build a Quizlet study pack during each unit, and they should quiz themselves with that three nights per week.” I've actually stopped giving lengthy syllabi out at parent-teacher conferences and, instead, I give a one-page, single-sided document explaining what kids are expected to do and why they're expected to do it.

5. The grading has to make sense, too. Whether you teach elementary or secondary students, the grading/checking of homework has to be doable. I don't have all the answers here (grading isn't something I spend a ton of time thinking about), but let me give you a couple of examples:

  • When I'm grading articles of the week, I spend about as much time per piece as Kelly Gallagher does: 4-5 seconds. It sounds like malpractice, but it's all based on the purpose of that homework assignment. Read more about that here, or listen to my conversation with Mr. Gallagher here.
  • I don't grade homework that's textbook-reading or content review — I give frequent small, low-stakes quizzes. These quizzes give me frequent opportunities to help my students see that failure is normal along the road to getting better at something.

6. And finally, remember: there aren't any silver bullets, and 100% homework completion rates are rare. Teaching isn't about achieving perfection — it's striving, constantly, toward the long-term flourishing of kids (and, if you're like me, doing that in a way that's sustainable, that makes it feasible to keep teaching for decades, getting 5-10% better at the work each year).

Thank you to Janice for asking this question in our Ask Me Anything live stream yesterday. Hers was the most popular question of the nearly fifty that were put forward. The Ask Me Anything was an early bird incentive for folks who registered for the Student Motivation Course within the first 72 hours of registration. If you'd like to be on the “first-to-know” list for the next session of the SMC, sign up here. (The next session will open in mid- to late-May.

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