I’ve written about how I use homework checkins as a time to build relationships with students as well as to get a sense of content needs from the class as a whole. These checkins also give me an opportunity to reflect back to students my observations that they might be at a place where they could push themselves beyond the core homework.
We offer options every day on homework and some of them are more challenging than others. I think students are often taught to believe that they can’t “go on to the hard work” until they are “done with everything” of the easier work. I think this mindset is a problem. In Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn by Mike Anderson, the author talks about choice in this way:
If choice is used as a filler after students finish their “real” work, invariably, some students rush through work trying to get some choice before the period ends, while other students never get any choice because they have a hard time finishing assigned work as quickly as others.
Choice should instead be used as a vehicle for boosting student learning as part of their regular work. Choices should flow directly out of standards and the daily curricula as well as the interests, strengths, and needs of your students. (pp. 8-9)
I see this disconnect from choice happening on homework, where students choose the “easy” option when I believe that I have evidence that they could be doing more challenging work. Sometimes I hear my colleagues speaking about situations like this in a way that makes it clear they believe students are choosing the easy work on purpose to avoid the struggle of the harder work. Although that may be true at times, I also think we often inadvertently train students to believe that there is a hierarchy and that those cool and interesting things are only available to those who have “earned” them.
This thinking can come out of the best intentions, of course, out of teachers not wanting their students to be frustrated or to waste time on work they cannot do successfully. This can also come out of the daily reality of teaching under a deadline, of facing the constant pressure to move the students forward through the curriculum. I try to push myself to remember that I want to make extensions and more challenging work available to all of my students as much as possible, even when it is hard to imagine all of my students being successful on a homework or extension option I have presented.
Homework is both the best and worst time to have students experiment with challenging work. In Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn, the author says that “students who have a leveled choice as part of a homework assignment should choose something they can do independently, because they will be working on their own with little, if any support and at a time of day when they are already tired” (pg. 68). I agree with this on one hand, but I also think homework can be a time/place for students to try some challenging work away from the eyes of peers, in a place where they can struggle without social stigma.
I think this struggle is only possible if there is a combination of two factors: one, that students are “graded” on homework based on time, effort, and evidence of those two things, not on completion or correctness and, two, that there is time in the day to talk with students about how/where/why a homework assignment went wrong, how it could be more effective, and what learning there was from it, even if the student wasn’t able to do it the way he/she wanted. Anderson talks about making this time-based shift for both homework and in classwork, saying that we need to consider making a shift from the “assumption many have about work: that good work is all about finishing a task. Instead of framing work periods around finishing work, try framing them around amount of time….students can relax into the work and focus on the quality, not quantity, of what they are doing” (pg. 117).
To make homework more successful, it also helps to think about provisioning students. In the physical classroom, that can look like spending your own money as a teacher on pencils and erasers and all of the other things that 7th graders appear to eat in lieu of food, based on the rate of disappearance of these items. Once students are out of my physical room, provisioning looks like making supports and resources available as much as possible online. In our district, this has worked best for me via Google Classroom. I can post videos, whether mine or from reputable online sources (Duane Habecker, EMBARC, Khan Academy), teacher-created templates/graphic organizers, teacher-created notes, copies of answer keys to encourage students to work backwards, worked problems, etc. By doing this, I work to shift the homework situation from one where students “will be working on their own with little, if any support” (Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn, pg. 68) to one where they are continuing to be challenged to use resources effectively, as we do as adults in our personal and professional lives.