Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Homework Conundrum Revisted

A little over a year ago, I waded into the homework debate with a blog I dubbed "The Homework Conundrum". In it, I weighed the pros and cons behind a teacher’s decision to give homework and tried to demonstrate, through numerous links, that there is much debate. I tried to explore both sides with an open mind and agreed that compelling and convincing arguments abound. Ultimately, I presented my case for providing students with relevant, meaningful and flexible homework options. I chose to make homework mandatory on weeknights (Monday to Thursday) so parents would never be uncertain if it was assigned.




I look back on the evidence I provided to support this decision and still believe that it holds water. However, as I embark on another year teaching in the Junior Grades, I have reconsidered my approach again. This year, I have decided to leave the option of homework with the students and their parents. To that end, I am providing multiple opportunities for students to enrich their learning with meaningful tasks that will build important skills but, none of it is mandatory. In other words, I am trying to satisfy everyone. I’ll try to illuminate with three examples.

Scenario 1
Nina’s family is very busy every night of the week. She is a competitive swimmer and is also taking piano lessons. Her two brothers play hockey for different teams and both take violin lessons. Her mother’s job takes her out of town frequently; consequently, her father spends most nights shuttling his kids to different venues while scrambling to make sure all three get a healthy dinner. Academic success is a priority for the family but, additional homework is sometimes a burden.

Scenario 2
Sam’s family believes that homework is an essential part of education and one hour is put aside each evening for this purpose. Sam’s parents have often asked his teacher for more homework when he comes home with only a book to read. They want him to develop the "habit of homework" in preparation for high school and post-secondary success. They also set the bar high for him and want him to develop excellent numeracy and literacy skills. They sincerely believe that extra practice every evening will increase his competence and the likelihood of his academic success in the future.

Scenario 3
Home life for Tyler is challenging. He is being raised by a single parent who is struggling with mental health and addiction issues. There are financial issues in the home because his parent can not work and, he does not always have access to the internet or a working computer. Additionally, he is often forced into the role of caregiver for his younger siblings. Sometimes, there is nothing to eat and he needs to walk to the local church to gather a bag of non-perishable items from their food bank. Regular completion of homework is an unreasonable expectation for him.

I gave more thought to these three scenarios and applied the “perfect” homework solution outlined in my previous post. I realized quickly that it only worked effectively in one of these situations and I was forced to admit that, increasingly, these "ideal" scenarios are a less common. I reflected on each fictional student's arrival in class the next day.

  • Sam would be beaming - his homework tucked neatly in the front of his planner. He has satisfied both his teacher and his parents. 
  • Nina would have her work completed too - slightly wrinkled (like her weary eyes) from its completion in the stands at a chilly arena in a different town. 
  • Tyler, equally exhausted, would shuffle in quietly armed with only the knowledge that he had failed  meet classroom expectations again.
Now, I realize I am painting some extreme scenarios and any teacher worth his salt would have developed an alternate, supportive plan for Tyler. Regardless, I now believe that mandatory homework does not work in enough situations to justify itself. Additionally, it is, too frequently, an unnecessary source of frustration for parents, teachers and students.

My Current Solution

Accepting that my teaching and systems are in a constant state of reflection and enhancement - I am currently approaching this by making relevant, meaningful and engaging homework a voluntary proposition. Nina and her parents can relieve themselves of this commitment on any night of the year while still having the option available to them on others. Sam’s parents are also sated by the many options available to their son on every night of the week - options that exceed “daily reading”.  Most importantly, Tyler’s arrival at school each morning is recognized as a success in itself.

What options are available?


Within the first month, I set students up an accounts on Edmodo - a safe, Facebook style, social media platform that allows us to share ideas and create discussions. This also provides me with a launching point for a raft of other free, online educational websites.


XTRAmath - a place for students to practice their basic computational skills. This site effectively removes "drill and kill" from instructional time.

Learn to Type - a website to teach keyboarding essentials through practice, tests and games.

Tween Tribune - thousands of news articles (updated daily to reflect current events) that can be leveled to readers from K - 12. Deeper thinking discussion questions are provided and answers can be posted in the classroom Edmodo page to encourage collaborative discovery.

Prodigy Math - a Pokemon style battle game that requires users to answer questions that are aligned with with the Ontario or Common Core curriculum. Teacher administrators can differentiate questions based on each user's ability and can align the questions to match the current classroom unit.

No Red Ink - Grammar basics (differentiated and aligned with instruction by the teacher) to make learning the fundamentals of language a little more fun.

Study Jams - 200+ video lessons on topics in Science and Math. A great resource for reteaching concepts covered in class and also a place to explore new ideas in a fun and engaging way.

Using Edmodo, I can quickly provide links to these websites and others to help students build their skills in multiple curriculum areas.  Additionally, I can pose questions relevant to current events or curriculum studies that students can explore. They are then provided with the opportunity to share their thinking with both me and their peers through Edmodo discussion posts. Later, in class, we can examine their ideas and allow others to participate orally in our discussion. Student voice is enhanced because each child is encouraged to post pictures, riddles, stories or links that will encourage collaborative online communication. In the past, my students have used Code.org and Scratch to create content that peers can play or even remix.

So far, things have been successful. Parents who are looking for additional homework are encouraged to investigate our Edmodo page with their student. Alternately, I can provide them with links through Class Dojo (which I use with them as a communication and sharing tool). My students have responded well and are many enjoy the opportunity to demonstrate their initiative and independent work habits by exploring these resources on their own. To foster this, I have created an Initiative Bingo Card for them to complete during the fall months.

I'll see you next year when I revisit this topic again.




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