Homework that Matters: The Art of Authentic Homework

by C.M. Havens

Follow the author’s plan to make the most of your students’ homework assignments.

Every day teachers’ desks are littered with homework done by students who gave it little thought.

Unfortunately, many teachers have accepted this as the norm. As a result, homework has become a lifeless piece of busy work that must be endured, instead of a dynamic example of a student’s progress: an authentic homework assignment.

Regardless of teacher or subject, there are three characteristics shared by all examples of authentic homework. The first, and most important, is its open-ended nature. Students will only care about work if they feel a sense of ownership. This can be achieved by letting them create the homework. Instead of giving students 20 math problems, have them create three (one easy, one of average difficulty, and one challenging) along with detailed solutions. Having your students explain how a certain novel, or the chapter they just finished on the Cold War, is similar to their own life experiences will be far more beneficial than answering a series of reading comprehension questions. Authentic homework never asks students to just repeat what they consider meaningless facts, but rather encourages them to play with the ideas they have learned. Students will then create a connection that is meaningful to them, and then explain that connection to others. Once they become comfortable with this, you may take it a step further and allow them to create their own homework assignments. While such assignments demand more time and attention when grading, they also forge students who understand the concepts in a more intimate fashion.

This is a lot easier than it sounds and it doesn’t require much additional planning on your part. When planning your lessons, determine which is the single most important concept for the students to master (the core concept) and then give a sample version of the homework. Students may then complete your sample version or create one of their own design. As long as it demonstrates an understanding of the core concept, it is suitable. When grading the assignment, you no longer need to think in terms of right or wrong, but the degree to which the student’s understanding of the core was demonstrated.

Some students will immediately embrace this newfound freedom. These are the students you should encourage to share their ideas with the class. Other students will require a little guidance to develop the confidence to craft their own homework assignments. Above all, keep offering encouragement, support, and suggestions to those who are reluctant. With a little patience, these student-generated assignments will become another aspect of your class culture. Even better, your students may start examining your lessons in terms of their potential to become interesting homework assignments.

The Teacher’s Homework

As a teacher you must accept the fact that your homework is to evaluate and return student work promptly. This is the second element of the authentic homework plan. The longer it takes for work to be returned, the less it will be valued by your students. You are the leader of your classroom, and you model what is acceptable and what isn’t. You cannot demand that homework be done properly and handed in on time if you aren’t modeling that same behavior. Commitment to authentic homework means students should receive a grade within 24 hours. I made this an absolute rule in my teaching. Did it mean more than a few working lunches or late-night pots of coffee? Absolutely, but it sent the signal that the homework mattered to me. As a result, I have had well over 90 percent of all my homework handed in on time for the length of my career. Once you begin receiving original, authentic work that clearly demonstrates the students’ levels of understanding, you must honor their efforts by giving them equally authentic feedback.

All authentic comments have two components. The first is the improvement comment. This provides the goals for the next assignment. It is followed by the compliment portion. This second component tells students how well they completed their previous goals. What makes this comment system stand apart is that students are accountable for reaching the goals generated from the previous work. It is important to hold students responsible for the goals of their last homework assignment; to do otherwise would undo everything you have already accomplished. The adoption of authentic comments will also force you to reevaluate your record-keeping system. A simple series of columns with number grades will no longer be sufficient. Rather, you will have to keep a record of all comments given so it will be possible to accurately judge the degree to which students have progressed. Additionally, it will be helpful to record how well the students met each goal. As you become more comfortable with authentic comments, you will find certain comments (and their related issues) reappearing year after year. It will become easy to develop your own abbreviations for these. This alone will take much of the monotony out of your new record keeping.


Making It Happen

Authentic homework and comments are wonderful tools but useless if the homework is not handed in. The third characteristic of authentic homework is its non-negotiable nature. Success demands that children realize, regardless of how they try to avoid it, their homework must be done. While there are a number of ways to accomplish this, the most common and easiest is the phone call home. If the sum of your strategies to deal with missing homework can be reduced to just calling home and complaining, the parents will eventually burn out. While it is always advisable to keep parents informed of their child’s progress (or lack thereof), there are a number of other methods to reinforce your authority and teach children to care about their homework.

In the case of a child who is not turning in homework, instead of calling to complain you can create a social contract with the student’s parents. This will only work if the parents are willing to participate. In its simplest version, a certain privilege (such as computer time, watching TV, etc.) is given only after the teacher confirms that homework has been done. This can be done a number of ways: a signature in a homework book, a dated homework receipt, a phone call, an email, or a text message. The idea is simple enough: if the parents don’t hear from you, the homework wasn’t done and the privilege isn’t given. While this initially seems like extra work, it reinforces your authority and simultaneously confirms your dedication to homework. As students accept the inevitability of your homework, both you and their parents can agree to suspend this daily report until such time as it becomes necessary.

Alternately, you can adopt the idea of a working lunch. Students grab their lunch, come up to your room, and make up any missing assignments. Depending on your specific situation, you might also pull these students from art, gym, etc. The point is to inconvenience them, get the work done, and reinforce the idea that it is just easier to do the work at home. When pulling a child from another class, be careful to choose those classes which the student enjoys and not those he or she would do nearly anything to avoid. Nothing is more frustrating than realizing you have accidentally encouraged your students to skip their homework.

A less confrontational way is to plan a fun activity on Fridays in which those who have handed in all their homework participate, while those who owe any assignments must complete all the work before they can join in the fun. One social studies teacher I counseled started having current-event Fridays, during which those students who were up to date with their homework were allowed to read the newspaper, eat chocolate chip cookies, and briefly explain how the articles they were reading were connected to the concepts they were currently learning. It was an educationally sound, fun, relaxing reward that all of his students looked forward to. His homework issues disappeared in a matter of weeks.

The method you choose should be a natural extension of the classroom culture you have already established. What matters is that your students learn to do their homework, gain some ownership over it, and that you constantly reinforce that you value their efforts.

Our goal is to teach our students life skills as well as the subject matter. There is no better way to prepare students for life outside of our classroom than by giving them authentic homework with authentic feedback. In the average classroom, complacency breeds contempt. However, in the authentic homework classroom, authenticity breeds knowledge and success.

C.M. Havens is a veteran middle-school teacher based in Brooklyn, NY.  He frequently writes about education and child development.  

Source: Today’s Catholic Teacher, March 2014
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