Saturday, March 19, 2016

Why Aren't My Kids Doing Homework?

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What should we do when students aren't turning in their homework? Should we just enter a zero in
the grade book and move on?

Mark Barnes (@markbarnes19) recently published "5 Reasons Homework Destroys Learning". Reading his post caused me to ponder on the many conversations I have with my kids at school and my kids at home about homework.  I will tell you upfront that I do not believe we should abolish the practice, but I do feel very strongly as both an educator and as a parent that we need to be more intentional and purposeful about homework assignments and we must personalize and differentiate as we do with classroom work.

My kids at school are middle and high school ELLs.  Many of them find homework to be overwhelming, primarily due to their limited English proficiency coupled with a lack of available help at home. And rather than asking for help from teachers or peers, they simply throw in the towel. Long term ELLs are notorious for this, more so than newcomers. Recent immigrants naturally become utterly frustrated with their language barriers, but their language needs are more obvious and their work is significantly modified. Conversely, long-term ELLs' language deficiencies are much more disguised  - not only to their teachers but also to themselves. They have mastered social English, but still have academic language gaps which cause them to stumble in their classes.  And so it generally goes like this.  They are challenged and confused, feeling incompetent and not comfortable soliciting help because they think they should be performing as well as their classmates. After all, they speak as fluently as their native English-speaking peers. And so, their grade book begins to accumulate zeros for unsubmitted work. Most my students are eligible for extra time but if teachers are unaware of their struggles, their actions are interpreted as apathy or laziness.

I have two kids at home; my son is 10 and my daughter is 12. Both are assigned reasonable amounts of homework on a regular basis. In the last few months, I've been getting weekly emails from my son's teacher about math homework not being turned in. Math homework assignments are not lengthy and the word problems are relevant real-world scenarios, but they are generally a stretch.  Some are completed on the computer, but most of them are worksheets. Although they have usually been within his reach, he always finds them grueling and procrastinates tremendously on getting started. Unlike my kids at school, my son is not an ELL. He happens to be identified as academically and intellectually gifted (AIG) and math is his strongest subject. However, he has also been diagnosed with ADHD and by late afternoon, the effects of his medicine have worn off.  To say that homework time is challenging is a profound understatement. Fortunately for him, he has college-educated parents who are proficient in English and has lots of help at home. But sometimes, just like my kids at school, he throws in the towel instead of asking for help.  By contrast, my middle schooler is not AIG but is quite the overachiever. She's is much more compliant about doing her work and meeting deadlines, but she's also very quick to ask for help. When facing a difficult task, she has no qualms about seeking help from me as well as her teachers and, therefore, homework is uneventful.

Webster's simple definitions of homework include (1) "work that a student is given to do at home" or (2) "research or reading done in order to prepare for something."  If students are assigned homework that is unable to be completed without (or with minimal) help, one could argue it is not good homework, has no academic benefit. But let's not throw in the towel ourselves.  Homework can be beneficial so long as we find a way for it to be.

Here are some points to consider when assigning homework:

1.  Know Your Students
With increasing class sizes, personalizing homework may be a daunting task. However, we don't teach curriculum we teach students and it's crucial to know our target in order to reach it. From special education to English language learners to attention issues, it's important to know about any special needs or situations, which may be camouflaged. Apathy and defiance are often a cover for underlying issues.

2.  Offer Choice
One size does not fit all. Letting students choose their homework produces ownership. From tools to materials to formats, give students control over how they will practice their skills. Bottom line, if kids are not buying in, they're not doing the work and therefore, nothing is really getting accomplished.

3. Flip Lessons
If homework, as Webster's definition suggests, is preparation for something then, by all means, ask them to read ahead or watch a videotaped lecture. However, be sure to provide a scaffold for their notetaking. All students could benefit from this, but especially diverse learners and special education students.

4. Be Flexible
Some kids will need chunks of daily work while others can be given a list of tasks due at the end of the week. Others may need a little flexibility and grace. Bottom line, grades should reflect learning. A zero for missed work or a low score because of a late submission tells nothing about what they have acquired. Quite the contrary and the message to the student is that it's all about a grade, not about learning.

5.  Ask Questions
Homework should be about extra practice or preparation and if they aren't doing the work, neither is happening. We all have those students that can ace the class without ever doing a bit of homework, but that's not the norm. If a student is not submitting assignments, pull him or her aside and investigate what's keeping them from submitting work and let them know you are available to help. Encourage students to be open and honest when they can't assimilate the material.  If they are not comfortable expressing themselves in class, perhaps they can stay after school, email questions or meet virtually via a video conference tool or a shared Google document if such technology is available.

Let's not let homework become one more obstacle in our relationship with our students. Homework or any other assignment for that matter should be about their growth and improvement, not our pride and accomplishment. It must be perceived by students as purposeful and doable, but we must also keep communication lines open so that learners can feel comfortable approaching others when they don't understand a task, not fearing they will be ridiculed or penalized.

Most importantly, homework must never make a student feel defeated. If homework is knocking learners down without a way to help them back up, it's time to rethink the practice.