In ten years of teaching, I am embarrassed to say, I have never managed to do homework right. It has always felt like an extra thing; to plan, to remember, to take in, to mark and to cause friction between myself and my students. Growing up, I also remember some homework tasks at school which made me anxious. My own circumstances meant that I didn’t have the resources, time or capacity to do some of the things my peers could. Homework has been something I have shunned and put to one side, doing enough to meet school policy, but without any real passion or engagement. That has changed this year.
I have been leading teaching and learning since January 2018, and it is about time I put my money where my mouth is and upped my homework game – lead by example and all that…
I formulated a plan of attack and, so far, it’s going well. Here are the seven things I’ve done to change the bad habits of an entire career…
1. Start Small
I started with spelling tests. I gave a spelling test for key Tier 2 vocabulary in my first lessons with each class, then set those words as practice for homework due two days later. This was important because it meant no marking for me (something which, at the start of the year, would have given me real workload anxiety!!!), it was low steaks for the kids (nothing specific to hand in), and it was a quick win for setting standards high straight away.
2. Build Routines
I am doing a vocabulary learning homework followed by two or three spelling/word usage quizzes every week. I also set one ‘big’ homework, or two smaller ones every fortnight. For example, in the last two weeks, Y8 had:
1/10: 10 spellings with word usage quizzes that week
4/10: Reading 2 chapters with summary writing
8/10: 10 spellings with word usage quizzes that week
11/10: Research task
None of these tasks required marking. The reading and summary tasks had some peer assessment to ensure students had covered all key points, but that was a simple 5 minute task.
Students know that they will get a vocabulary homework on a Monday, and a ‘bigger’ task on a Thursday.
3. Keep it low stakes
Students should feel that homework is an opportunity, not something to cause anxiety. If I set something to learn (such as spellings, facts, dates etc.) I talk about wanting to see marginal gains; it’s not about perfection, it’s about consistent improvement. I want every child in my class to know that, if they work hard, they can improve, no matter their starting point. For my Monday lessons (when I always set a vocabulary homework), I have a note on the first slide which says: ‘Week X spelling test – don’t panic if you don’t know these – you will have time to learn them as homework!’ Homework is an opportunity to make progress, not something to cause stress.
4. Embrace Personal Creativity
When I set more involved homework tasks, I give students options about how they might present their work. An example is that I set a research task and asked students to create a timeline with key events from the Civil Rights movement to support their study of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I said that, as long as it was clearly a timeline, I didn’t mind how it was done; bonus points would be given for creativity and innovation. I got an incredible range of submissions from highly beautiful artistic pieces, to thorough, detailed, hand written notes. They were vastly different, but equally great, and all students had found a way to succeed.
This student created a massive overview complete with pull out notes on the literature, great speeches and song lyrics inspired by the movement. She even included a little fold out bus with details from the life of Rosa Parks!
This student produced a homework so detailed that it spanned 9 pages of A4 and had to be filmed to be appreciated…
5. Find a system to keep track
A great idea from our Lead Practitioner in Science; I have glued a very simple homework tracker to the back of every student exercise book. When I set a task, students write the date and the type of homework on the sheet and then when I come to collect them in on the due date, I sign it. This means that when I come to do interventions, data, parents’ evenings and reports, I have a full picture of what’s happening. This system is also great because it is really obvious to students that homework is a visible, important element of their learning, and they know I am tracking it.
6. Keep it varied
While some predictability and routine is really effective, it is important to keep homework tasks varied. On top of my regular vocabulary homework tasks, this half term I have set:
– independent research
– metacognitive writing (write a letter to your future self… see image below)
– unseen poetry analysis sheet
– revision grid (see resource on blog here)
– hexagon analysis (see resource on blog here)
– completion (of work started in the lesson)
– reading (specific chapters of the novel, or an article or extract I’ve given them)
– questions (students come up with five probing questions about the content of the lesson we have just had)
– dual coding (students create images to go alongside key content learned in the lesson)
– shoe box scene (students create an artistic representation of a scene from the novel, inside a shoe box!) – I’m excited to see the results of this after half term!
7. Be unapologetically, unashamedly aspirational and academic (and enable students to excel)
Some of my issues with setting homework have been caused because I’ve been nervous about asking students with challenging home lives to do things outside of school. This is my own issue, but I know other teachers who have expressed the same concerns. If we set homework for our students, we risk further isolating the students from underprivileged backgrounds because we worry that they are less likely to complete the work than their more affluent peers. This could deepen the divide in our classroom between those who have and those who do not.
I have recently come to believe that this is the wrong way of seeing it. The students at my current school, many of whom come from incredibly challenging refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds, are hungry for challenge. After some initial complaints from Y11, they are now genuinely annoyed with me if I forget to give them their homework tasks; they ask me for more difficult ways to approach activities, and they see their independent work as a chance to make faster progress. Many of our students have had a delayed start to education in this country, and they see homework as a gift; something to help them close that gap (I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true!).
Rather than worrying about protecting students from homework (what I’ve been doing in a misguided way for years!), we should be even more rigorous and aspirational in what we set and expect of them. This is particularly important for disadvantaged students – they don’t want to be patronised or given things which are ‘accessible’, they need us to set high standards and then enable them to meet them. When I set homework, I make it clear to students that I will help them with anything they need to complete it. Students can ask me privately if they can borrow art supplies, book some time on a computer, they are free to email me their work so I can print it for them. One of my challenges as a teenager was finding a space to work in at home. I make it widely known that I’m happy for students to book time with me to work on their homework in a classroom while I mark my books, or they can use the school library. If we remove all barriers to students doing their work, they will surprise us with what they can do!
This is very much a work in progress. I have no doubt that, as with most things over the course of the academic year, my enthusiasm and energy will wane, and I will need to give myself a kick around February.
I’d love to hear how you do homework in your classroom – tweet me @funkypedagogy