Learning curve

Making homework more productive

When I was a 3rd-grade teacher, I assigned homework every night. I expected my students to read independently, complete a word work activity and finish a few pages in their math workbooks.

What did my students’ homework tell me about their abilities and possibilities as learners? Here’s an embarrassing confession: not much. I knew that some of my students — typically those who excelled in the classroom — were using their homework as an opportunity to extend their learning, while others — typically those who struggled in the classroom — were just as overwhelmed at home. But too often my own grasp on what to do about homework was vague and elusive, and assigning it became just another chore I added to my burgeoning list.

What should homework look like? How long should it take? Should it even exist at all? This summer, a Texas teacher announced her new no-homework policy in a letter that went viral on social media.

“Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance,” she wrote to her students’ parents. “Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside and put your child to bed early.”

Could it really be that simple? For Andrea Castellano, a 2nd-grade teacher at the Brooklyn Landmark Elementary School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the answer is no.

“It would be such a luxury for me to be able to say that to my parents,” she says. “I serve a population of students that is typically viewed as low-performing. They’re in school with me for six hours, but there’s another seven hours of the day before they go to bed, and they need to do something to propel their learning forward.”

Castellano works hard to tailor her students’ homework to their individual learning needs. Each week, she designs three weekly homework packets: one each to accommodate high achievers and struggling learners in addition to a standard version. She may use the website Reading A–Z to produce the same story at three different reading levels, for example, or attach more challenging math problems for advanced learners. For English language learners, she includes vocabulary words with accompanying pictures.

She designs her 2nd-graders’ homework around the philosophy that students should be able to complete it independently in less than 30 minutes in order to review material they’ve recently learned.

“It should be meaningful and engaging and supplement the curriculum to strengthen skills learned during the day,” she says.

Melissa Audain, who teaches 6- and 7-year-olds with autism at PS 176@178 in Co-op City, the Bronx, agrees.

“Because of the needs of my students, I feel homework is important to help students make the connection between school and home,” she says. To bolster that connection, she writes instructions for parents that mirror the questions she asks in class. Like Castellano, she assigns the same basic content at different levels to accommodate all learners.

What’s the best way for teachers to check and grade homework? Laura Schaefer, a 6th-grade math teacher at PS 140 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, feels strongly about giving feedback on homework assignments, though she acknowledges how time-consuming that can be.

“Nobody needs busywork,” she says. “If you give a homework assignment, you need to look at it and give targeted feedback.”

Schaefer strives to assign homework that takes 10–15 minutes at the most to complete and tries to mix in a variety of types of assignments. Last year, for instance, Schaefer asked her students to go home and teach a math strategy to a family member, or try out ratios and fractions in a recipe to demonstrate how the can use math in the real world.

When designing a homework assignment, Schaefer asks herself what the point of it is. “Is it to drive instruction, to push their thinking, to include family members, to practice something they did that day?” she says. “Whatever your goal, it should be thoughtful.”

That’s a lesson I wish I had learned as a teacher, when every night I seemed to exchange scores of emails with parents about the day’s homework — had there been any? what page? — without ever discussing its content.

“Homework should be something that children can do independently,” Schaefer says. “It should give them a sense of responsibility, that they can feel good about saying, ‘I can do this.’”

Learning Curve is a new bimonthly column by Rachel Nobel that will focus on educational issues and practice.

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