Rethinking Homework

Rethinking Homework by Cathy Vatterott discusses the place homework has in school life. She explores the beliefs behind homework and then looks at strategies for assisting students with completing homework. I especially found the first portion of the book very helpful. The discussion about the beliefs about homework (p10-24) provided some good information that I have used when discussing the reason that our school has moved away from assigning homework.

No Homework

At the last school where I was an administrator, we did not give homework. Having worked through Ken O’Connors book A Repair Kit for Grading Assessment and divisional directives around assessment and reporting, the staff focused on making sure that all assignments – formative and summative – were essential and directly linked to a Learning Outcome from the Provincial Curriculum. This focus meant that work done in the classroom was not to be “busy work”. Because teachers used UbD for their planning and DI and RtI were part of the planning process, teachers didn’t need to create “busy work”. Anchor Assignment – an assignment that is related to the unit of study but is complex in design – was used by some teachers so that any student that completed their work could then move to work on this if there was time. This focus on quality assignments – not quantity of assignments – eliminated the “Late Homework” problem. Instead, students were working in class and, if needed, at home on assignments.

This elimination of “homework” does not mean that students might not be asked to complete an assignment at home or might not be given a formative assessment to complete for the next day. However, these assignments are directly related to the specific outcome and any formative assessment is not included in the student’s overall grade. Since I teach a senior Social Studies class, students work on projects that are fairly in-depth in nature. This means that, after working through a particular part of a unit, students will be asked to complete an assessment. Some students finish in the class while others work on the assessment out of class. This type of assessment is different than something where I might ask students to do a quick reflection for tomorrow’s class on the video clip we watched. The reflection might be posted, shared in groups or randomly picked to share with the class – I would take them in to look at but it is an assessment given to inform my instruction – a formative assessment. I do give summative reflective pieces to complete – usually to compare two points of view or a variety of different ideas. These would be summative, directly linked to an outcome and would have a particular format which we had agreed upon as a class – there would be specific criteria for students.

Homework – Family and Research

The next two sections in the book are informative and provide practical tips and information in relation to communicating with families about homework. The information and checklists for beginning a discussion with families about homework are useful tools to help a teacher or school begin a dialogue with parents around homework. It also provides some solid information related to research on homework which will benefit anyone in a position where they are discussing with other the need to change the current homework structure.

Effective Homework Practices

This section discusses a number of different ways that homework can be redistributed through the school day. As an administrator, one of the key areas that I have focused upon is ensuring that assessment is linked to outcomes and the work students are doing is meaningful work. This doesn’t mean that all students get the assignments finished in class by the assigned due date. To assist these students, we have an Assignment Assistance at noon where students are assigned to complete their work. Since these assignments are directly linked to outcomes and are required for reporting, there is no option but to finish them. We provide supervision during these times. Teachers, using a Google Doc, assign students to the Assignment Assistance, indicate the work needing to be completed and that they have contacted the parent to let them know of the work needing to be done. This has been a critical part of reducing the number of assignments not be completed on time. In situations when we begin to notice a pattern of uncompleted work, the student is then referred to the school RtI team for support. We also have options for students to stay after school to work in the library or computer lab if arrangements are made with a teacher.

Changing Mindsets

As an administrator, it’s been crucial to the work we do to have conversations with parents. Parents send their best children to school each day! They want their children to be successful and want us to help them. Sometimes there are different circumstances that are out of our control and we need to acknowledge these. These circumstances do not influence the whole situation and there is much that we, as educators, can do to provide the conditions for a student to become successful. Not all students can be successful in the traditional classroom setting or who need assistance. This is where, as administrators, we work with parents, teachers and other support personnel to create support for the student to meet their learning goals. It’s essential to discuss with parents, especially those in the school parent-group – the changes that are taking place. An Open House that focuses on changes in grading, homework and assessment was a great way to introduce these ideas to our parents. This has been followed up with information in our school newsletter and information provided to parents at Student Led Conferences. Regular conversations with our School Community Council members has provided them with background information that has helped them in their discussions with other parents. We need to remember that parents are our best allies when it comes to helping transition during times of change.

Working with teachers as they shift from a traditional homework-based mindset requires that administrators are able to discuss with teachers, as a staff and as individuals, the current practices of the school and then outline a plan for transition. This book – Rethinking Homework – and the one I mentioned earlier by Ken O’Connor – are good resources that administrators can use to begin the discussions. It’s important that, as an educational leader, you are able to not only articulate the change but also that you have a practical understanding of how this will impact classroom assessment, classroom management dynamics, teacher planning, Student Led Conferences, student expectations and other such areas within the school culture. Reviewing the student handbook and visualizing the impact changes will have on various aspects is a good place to start. Also, looking at what you did as a teacher and how your own teaching would/will need to change to facilitate these changes is imperative. As you work through your own planning and how these changes impact the different aspects of the classroom/student interactions/assessment will provide you with ideas and links so that when you discuss this with teachers, you can connect with what the teachers are doing and some of the frustrations/anxiety they may be feeling. Being able to say “I had a similar frustration when I was looking at this area of planning/assessment” opens up the opportunity for dialogue.

As an educational leader, my focus was always on “Doing what is best for students”. Sometimes, this meant that adults were uncomfortable or a bit “put out”. It also meant that I had to reflect regularly on what I was doing and reference what I was doing from a student perspective. As educational leaders, we need to be constantly learning and reflecting on our current practices, what is taking place in the school and what is taking place in education in a larger context. By being connected, through various social media like google+, Pinterest, Twitter, RSS feeds and taking part in conversations at the local, district, provincial/state and federal levels, we can anticipate and plan instead of receive and react. This allows us to help teachers, students and parents through the various changes instead of being in a reactionary state which isn’t always the best during times of change.

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