As an elementary school teacher, I have never been a fan of homework. During my first year teaching, my Grade-Level Lead Teacher handed me the spelling worksheets and multiple-choice reading activities to send home with the kids each day. I hardly looked at them, and definitely hated grading them. The students with high test scores, high class participation, and good attitudes would also get an extra few points from completing homework, while the students who struggled in class would bring homework back, crumpled and messy, if at all, further bringing down their grades.
Or worse, their homework would be done so well that it was clear an adult had done it for them, not that any would ever admit to it. When my school declared a No-Homework-Except-To-Read-For-Twenty-Minutes-Per-Night policy, I said good riddance, and didn’t think about it again.
Can Homework Help?
Until last week, when one of my students’ parents asked me to send her with some work each day, and then I began to think about homework again. (That’s actually how some of my best practices get kicked into gear; at the suggestion of a parent.) This article by the Duke Today summarizes the big reasons why homework can actually be a positive force in a kid’s education. Especially at such a young age, I don’t want homework to be a source of stress and sleeplessness for the kids. But going to the other extreme and getting rid of homework completely is not the answer, either.
Regular homework can help build good study habits, which, in elementary school, means remembering to bring papers home, take care of pencils, pace one’s self (not finish the whole packet in one sitting), and remember which day of the week it is. I give each child a manila folder with a table on the front that lists the date of each Friday for the rest of the school year. Each time they return the folder on Friday, they get a check mark, and can earn a prize after so many check marks. Already, I have overheard a student, who frequently mixes up days and seasons, ask if it was Thursday yet so she can remember to bring her homework back tomorrow. (It was Wednesday, but I appreciated the effort.)
Some of my students, bless their hearts, can be real space cadets. They zone out, go to the bathroom every ten minutes (or at least try to), spill things, trip over untied shoelaces, or start talking about completely random topics in the middle of a lesson. Before you counter with, “they’re just kids!” be aware that the third-grade standardized tests require them to critically think and problem solve. One and a half years from now, they are expected to be less silly and more serious. I am not trying to squeeze the joy out of them, but I am trying to teach them skills. Also, these kids need maturity and prolonged attention spans as well as intelligence to succeed in life.
Differentiated homework (assigning different homework to different kids based on their progress) can also build student confidence. I give basic spelling practice to students who are struggling to form all their letters properly, but more challenging vocabulary activities to students who are stronger readers, for example. The goal is for my students to quickly reinforce the things they learn in school, not to struggle through something they need their parents to help them with.
I can’t help but notice that schools are taking more and more of the responsibility of learning off of students themselves. We excuse poor test scores with, “some kids just don’t test well.” We excuse poor quality classwork with all the reasons why it’s hard for kids to pay attention, and we “give them grace.” But who’s going to give them grace when they’re eighteen and can’t graduate high school?
Homework Creates Buy-In
Giving my students 20 minutes of homework a night is one way for me to put some of the burden on them. It helps them take a baby step towards being responsible young people. Sure, they will earn physical prizes from the prize box (at first) for doing it, but that’s just a hook. I want my kids to be intrinsically motivated to get things done. I want them to think of themselves as hard workers; responsible people. And I want them to remember that the letters A-L-L sound like “all,” as in “ball,” after the lesson in class ends, and to carry that from their short-memory into their long-term memory, to help them pronounce words like “enthrall” one day.
That’ll be the day. For now, space-cadet Stacey is asking if she has to do this homework packet today at home. Like, at her house. Like, after school. After she leaves. Yes, Stacey, that’s why it’s called HOME-work. She let out a comical “oooohhhh,” thanked me for my explanation, and hastily crammed it into her backpack between an empty Capri-sun juice pack and a stuffed unicorn toy. We’ll just have to see how this goes.