Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Weird Homework Thing We Do...

I've alluded to this in some previous posts, and finally have time to sit down and share what Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Robin and I do to encourage homework turn in. (Well, actually I need to fold laundry and clean up the kitchen, but this is more fun.)

First the background. Nearly two years ago The Principal took nine of us to the National Middle School Association national convention. This was an awesome experience as it gave us a chance to meet with other middle school teachers from all over the country, attend workshops, and get some great ideas. The District is in the process of looking at, and reforming, middle schools, and those of us that went were part of The Principal's Breaking Ranks team.

One of the workshops that Mrs. Eagle and I attended was on increasing student motivation. As anyone who has ever taught middle school knows, these kids can be slugs. We had a lot of problems with kids turning in work, especially homework, and were looking at some innovative ways to motivate them. (I wish I could remember who the presenter was, but alas, I don't.) The presenter put forth a lot of good ideas, but the one that resonated with us was something we call the Homework Helper. He said that the number one reason kids don't do homework is because they don't understand it.

His solution is to give the kids the answers to the homework.

Okay, I know what you're thinking because you could have heard a pin drop in that room as we all looked at each other and went, "What????" Homework is, after all, practice. If a kid doesn't get it, and does the homework wrong (if he does it at all), then he's repeating the wrong thing. He's learning and remembering something that is wrong. However, if you give the kid a key to check the work, then they're doing it correctly, and learning it correctly.

So Mrs. Eagle and I kicked this idea around for a while. Many of our kids don't do homework for reasons that have a lot to do with the poverty they live in. Every year we do this neat parent letter about giving your child a place to study that's quiet, well lit, and all that, but in reality a lot of our students are sleeping on the sofa in Mom's Boyfriend of the Week's apartment, living in homes without electricity because it got cut off for non payment, or go home to households where the yelling and screaming is paramount. Some just wander the streets until it's dark because it beats being home. And some are responsible for baby sitting hordes of little siblings and cousins and whatnot when they get home so homework is the last thing on their minds.

So....what to do?

We did several things.

The first involves choice. Middle Schoolers often feel that they don't have many choices in their lives so we decided to give them some. On Monday, we assign four homework assignments. We mix them up a bit. We'll have a more math-oriented assignment that appeals to the kids that like math, an assignment that's more reading and answering for kids that do better there, and sometimes a drawing/labeling exercise for the more artistic. The kids get to choose which two they want to do and then have all week to do it. Homework is due on Friday.

The second thing we do is provide the Homework Helper. The Homework Helper is the answer key to that week's homework. We put it out on Tuesday, and only make ten copies which are numbered and put in sheet protectors. I have them in a rack on the supply and materials table. The students are welcome to use them during homeroom, or any time we have a few minutes in class, or they can check them out for one night, to be returned during homeroom.

As we explain to the students, there's three types of students. First you have the kids who are going to do their homework anyway and who won't even bother to look at a Homework Helper. Second, you have the kids who will do most of their homework but struggle with a few questions and will use the Homework Helper to check his or her work. And lastly, you have the kid who has never turned in any homework - ever - and who will simply copy it and turn it in. The way we look at it, at least they're copying the right information, they're writing it down, they're looking at it, they're being exposed to it. And they'll get the points for turning in their homework. (For the record, homework isn't a huge point-earner in our gradebooks...only about 10 points a week.) This is also a big help for my special education kids.

What we've seen is that kids who have never turned in homework are now turning in homework. And when they get their progress reports and see the lack of zeros and see the fact that they are actually, most likely, passing, they begin to realize that doing homework does pay off. We started this program last year, mid-year, and saw our homework turn in increase to about 95%. Previously we were at about 50%.

My favorite part, however, is how this plays in parent conferences. I always take a copy of a homework helper to a parent conference, especially if the kid is still one of the few who won't be bothered (and they are still out there). I will point out the lack of homework on the progress report, and explain as I hand the parent the Homework Helper that there's really no excuse for that as the Homework Helper is available in class, and can also be checked out overnight. It's pretty powerful when the parents realize that there really is no excuse for not having the work done and turned in.

So that's what we do. It seems weird, it's definitely not for everyone, but it's working for us. I can't tell you if it's improved comprehension or retention of the material as we've been doing this all year with this group of students. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that, at the least, it's helping some of them develop some work ethic. A lot of my students at the beginning of the year weren't turning in much work at all, but once they got the hang of the Homework Helper, they started to turn in work. Many of these same kids aren't relying on the Homework Helper any more, but are attempting to do the work on their own. I consider that somewhat of a victory.


Crystal Watford said...

That's an amazing idea! Thanks!

nbosch said...

Sounds like a really good plan. I've always said the kids that need it don't do it and the kids that don't need it do it.

Tom said...

I remember that in trig and calc having answers helped because doing the work was very often more important than the answer so we could see where we were going wrong.

Although, how will you prep them for next year with a teacher that doesn't have the Homework Helper?

loonyhiker said...

This is a great idea! I will be passing this along to others.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

Tom, interestingly enough, as we work through the year the kids use the helper more and more and eventually "self-wean" their way off of it. And, they're used to NOT having something like this as I'm the only teacher on the team that uses it.

Edna Lee said...

I do love this idea! In elementary school, I would guess the number one reason students don't do their homework is because is it too difficult. That is why I have begun giving only basic facts review for math, instead of the usual assignment that reviews what we're currently doing in class. A coworker suggested it when I was lamenting about my students' poor homework grades. All my kids need practice with basic facts and can have success with them.

Innovative ideas that help kids succeed! I love them!

Teacha said...

I like this idea. I might modify it for high school freshman & make it available on the web as well as the classroom. Also,for social studies, I was thinking of giving them the page numbers on which they can find the answers instead of giving them the direct answer. How do you think this will work?

Jose Vilson said...

This is weird as hell, but in a weird way, I completely understand the method to the madness. It also means that we need to instill a good work ethic into the kids. I appreciate the post, and I might even borrow it for next year. Thanks.

Professor Thomson said...

That is a fantastic idea. I wish my son's classes did that.

His 9th grade math teacher is basically his "homework helper" for math. He allows students to come to his classroom after school and sit in the desks and work on their homework. If they get stuck they ask him for help. My son has gone from struggling in math to the highest grade this year.

The best part of this is that my son has gained confidence that helps him in all his courses.

What you do will do the same for your students. The confidence gained will change their lives. Speaking from a parent's point of view, thank you. Teachers like you make a real difference in our children's lives.

Anonymous said...

Hi, i just read your post and i wanted to tell you that seems like a great idea. Many students do come from homes of what you described. So piling homework onto of that can be difficult for them. the idea of the homework helper, i think can be used for other subjects as well. I also think involving choices for students is a great way for students to pick which one best fits the way they learn.
It seems that workshop really helped benefit your students and how to reach them on different levels.

The Vegas Art Guy said...

What an interesting idea. I'm going to give that one some serious consideration.