Saturday, September 14, 2013

What Is Homework For?

What is homework for?

Growing grunt muscles? Weeding out the uncommitted? Impressing students with the seriousness of a class? Filling hours students cannot be trusted to fill wisely themselves? Seeing who has good time management skills?

An associated question: What is home for? 

The discussion rages on, fueled by recent research against homework contradicting decades of research before that in support of homework. In these cases, the answer often lies in common sense--as long as it is purposeful, doable, and an appropriate amount. 

Providing significant time to work on reading and writing in class is one thing I've recommitted myself to doing as a result of several divisional meetings focusing on a discussion of homework policy. This gives me the chance to monitor students’ as they use skills, to answer questions students have when getting started, and to train in time-management.

This week, as we have started reading the novel Cry, the Beloved Country, I consciously worked to provide 10-20 minutes at the end of each class to start on the next day’s reading assignment--approximately 20 pages and a journal for holding thoughts. 

I have to admit that preserving this time lost urgency for me a couple of years ago when students made poor use of the time. Tired of fighting with them, I asked, “So you would really rather use your time at school to talk and do all the reading at home?” They said, “Yes.” So I said, “Then I’ll structure the conversation for learning and not worry about preserving reading time.” They were fine with that. Now I’m not so sure I should have let them make that decision. After all, who’s the responsible adult here?

Here are some of the benefits I’ve seen this week from giving students class time to start the reading assignment:
  1. Training for students in moving quickly into reading mode from discussion mode.  (I think some are surprised at how much they can get done in 10 or 20 minutes.)
  2. Questions students are able to ask as I circulate around the room while they read. (Why are the chapters grouped into Book 1, Book 2, and Book 3? What is Kumalo afraid of here?)
  3. Observations on which students exhibit behaviors of strong readers (like frowning over text--got this tip from Kelly Gallagher and now I can tell my husband to stop laughing at my furrowed brow when I read) and which ones never turn a page and might need more support.
  4. Coping strategies offered to students who fall asleep when reading: “Do you need to get a drink? Wash your face? Stand up?”

Students still bring reading home--with as significant a correlation as there is between reading and writing facility, vocabulary growth, general knowledge, college success, and even income level after that, this is a worthwhile use of homework time. But when students take it home, they are well-started and know what concentration feels like. And I have information about how I can help them even more the next day.  

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