Solving the great homework debate - is homework helpful or harmful? Use family homework projects as the perfect compromise.
For years now I have struggled with how to make homework more meaningful and less work for me. I've read the studies that ask the question "Is homework helpful or harmful?" and have found the results inconclusive. I still believe students need to be working on educational content outside of the classroom. We have them for such a limited number of hours. Students need to know that learning continues outside of the classroom. They need to make connections and not see it as an isolated event they have to get through.
However, as a parent I also ask myself regularly "How is homework affecting family time?" Sometimes the family discussions and after school activities ARE more valuable than time spent on homework. Sometimes these family led learning sessions provide all of the learning and connections students need. However, in some families these activities are not happening. So how do I guarantee all of my kiddos work on learning activities at home, but don't get stressed out?
This year, my solution has been family homework projects. There is NO nightly homework turned in in my classroom. My students are still required to read for twenty minutes a night and practice their multiplication facts. They record this on a weekly log and turn it in on Fridays.
However, the bulk of our homework is monthly homework projects. I started out with book report projects for English or ELA and then started alternating these with math projects. For each project, the students are given a suggested timeline and all of the necessary pieces so that their parents don't NEED to buy anything, unless they want to. I check in with the kiddos once or twice during the month and then on the last day of the month the kids present their projects to the class. This system has worked wonderfully and here are just a few of the benefits I've seen:
1.) The projects are meaningful. Homework projects give students a chance to connect deeper to a topic or subject than they can through a worksheet or a list of questions. Through our book reports, I have watched my students dig deeper into a book than they ever would with a list of close read questions. They get involved with the characters and the plot. Through the math projects, the kids have made connections to real world math. During our holiday recipe project, the kids went out to the store with their parents and took pictures of store labels. They got in the kitchen and did real measuring, and figured out the reasoning behind elapsed time.
2.) The projects are easily differentiated. Because the book reports are genre based, they can be done with books on any level. This means that most of the time I can find a book on each child's level making it easier for them to complete the appropriate project. For the math projects, the students are in control of many aspects making them able to work at their own level. For example, during our holiday shopping project one student used a Sears catalog and simply tore pictures out while another shopped the internet using three different stores. The projects can be made simpler or more challenging depending on the needs of the students.
3.) The parents get involved. So often we worry about parents being under or over involved when it comes to homework. For underinvolved parents, I have found that projects draw parents in because they are more fun and because there is generally no "right way" to complete them. However, I have also found that the overinvolved parents aren't doing the projects for the students, but instead pushing them to add detail or find another way to make it better. And all in all parents involved in schoolwork means that parents know what the children are learning and what the children are capable of. Both of these are benefits in my book!
4.) The kids enjoy being an expert and presenting. The kids LOVE presenting their projects. It's their favorite day of the month. At the beginning of the year, a few were very nervous about getting up in front of the class, but now that they've done it four or five times, it's easy peasy. They are building their public speaking skills. They are building their confidence. And they are sharing their work, which is the most important part. The rest of the class is learning from their project, and they are learning about how to give good critiques as we share "glows and grows" after each presentation.
5.) There is very little grading. One day a month I grade homework. I sit with the kids' rubrics while they are presenting and put together 2 grades. One grade uses the project rubrics. I don't actually put this grade in my gradebook, but it gives the students feedback on their work. The second grade is a quick review of their public speaking. This one goes in my gradebook. Both grades are done while the kids are presenting, and I'm done! I love it!
6.) They use time efficiently. Last year we reviewed homework every single day. For at least 20 minutes. This year, I take one morning a month. It's easy and simple. Plus, most of these projects are things I was doing in class last year, so I don't have to spend additional classtime on projects either. Win-win!
7.) They help teach time management. From the first project, the kids learned that they could either wait to the last minute and have a hard time, or they could use Mrs. Raki's timeline and have it easier. For book reports, I have students read the book one week, complete the story map the second week(which gives slow readers this second week to finish the book if needed) and then spend two weeks on the project. The first week I suggest as a plan and gather supplies week and the second week as a creation week. In addition to helping the students, the parents like that if they have sports one night or piano another, they can skip the homework and do it when it works for their family. Many of the parents have had time management discussions with their children too, so it helps to have everyone on board.
8.) They are helping the kids learn about different presentation techniques. No matter how artsy you are, five posters in a row will wear you out. So one of our class agreements is that each project of a certain subject has to be presented differently. So, if you made a poster for your mystery book report, you shouldn't be making one for your information book report or your historical fiction book report. The same for dioramas, etc. Now I have allowed overlap between the book reports and the math projects, but a poster about a mystery book and a poster about a recipe you cooked are quite different beasts. As students watch each others' presentations, they have gotten bolder with their techniques. They have used new techniques because they saw someone else in class try that. For our mystery book report, I had one student try out Google Slides. For our holiday recipe project, half the class used it. Incidentally, the student who had started with Google Slides had moved on to using Powtoon!
If you haven't tried a homework project, I would suggest you do. The results are incredible. For a starting point, try out some of my math projects or book reports, the formats are simple and will help guide you and your kiddos through the projects.
Recently I wrote a post about why low level/ low income students need projects as much as higher level students. After I wrote this post, I had quite a few questions about how to implement projects with low level students. So today's post is 10 Tips to Making Projects Work for Low Level Students:
1.) Model clear expectations - Be very clear about what you want your students to do, step by step. I often have these steps written out, like in my Math Projects, AND I discuss them with the students before we begin. Then be ready to explain the expectations again when students get stuck. Be patient, especially the first few times when the expectations of a project are completely new to your students.
If possible, show students examples of possible end projects. I like to take pictures of student projects to show next year's students. You can also create your own versions of the project to help them have a good visual of the expectations.
2.) Share rubrics with students BEFORE they begin working - Just as you want them to know what the end project will look like, you want them to know what their grade will be based on. With worksheets students generally understand what they have to do to get a good grade. With projects there are many ways to work hard but not be focused on the "correct" key elements they'll be graded on. For this reason, before we begin working on our projects, I always go over the grading rubric with my students. I point out the things that will cost them or gain them points so that they know how to get a good grade.
3.) Gather resources - Lower level students will often benefit if they have specific resources to use, rather than just being asked to "Google it". Especially during the first few projects, I gather together books, articles, videos, website links and other resources where I KNOW my students will be able to find the information that they need.
Often, I may even have students complete an Internet Scavenger Hunt on the same topic before we begin a project. This way the students have been led through the research and built up their background knowledge before they're being asked to create a project with this information. For example, I may have the students complete the Amazing Americans Internet Scavenger Hunt first, which covers 9 different American heros. Then we'll do the Amazing Americans Project where they choose one hero, do further research and create an informational power point about the person.
4.) Prepare "background building videos" - Similar to gathering resources, I often spend time building up our background before we begin a project. I often do this with videos. Right now my students are working on the research for the Ancient Civilizations project of their Country Study. Before they began researching their own individual countries' ancient civilizations, we watched multiple videos about ancient civilizations in general. We started with videos about civilizations in general and then moved into videos on the move of people from generally nomadic to generally agricultural. We also watched videos about archeology and how we learn about these ancient civilizations. All of this background helps our low level students to better digest their individual research because they have a frame of reference already built for them.
5.) Be ready to "guide from the side" - Projects are a great way to build independent work skills, but this is an area where most low level students are lacking. Be careful not to take over your students' projects, but be ready to guide your students with a well posed question or a suggestion of how to find their answer. Make sure students are still the ones who are researching or creating, but be available to them when they get stuck.
6.) Start with group work - Group projects provide their own set of challenges, especially the meshing of different personalities. However, group projects also allow higher level students to model good study skills for their peers. This is true even in a "low level class" because you will always have a few students who are higher in level than other students. Often the first few projects of the year will be group projects with the work broken up differently each project. This way students learn what is expected of them and have a chance to have someone other than you help them out.
Group projects can also help out the teacher because instead of having 20 different projects going on you might have 4 or 5 to focus on. This means less resources to gather and less chances of a project needing you to prop it up. Eventually you will want your students to work on individual projects so that they have the chance to find an individual area of interest but as you are starting out, group projects can ease the work load both for the students and for you.
7.) Develop procedures for projects - Just like any other activity you are going to do in your classroom, you will need procedures. In my classroom some of the project procedures include:
- Students who are working on projects have first priority on a computer or tablet.
- Students work on their projects at the same time every day. (Country study gets done first thing in the morning. Math projects get done during math centers. Research projects get done during our literacy block.)
- Students are encouraged to take their projects to the floor in order to spread out, especially with poster making.
- "In progress projects" can only be stored on one table.
- All materials must be cleaned up and stored when we move into another activity.
- Projects must be edited by a peer before I will do a final conference.
- Projects must be checked by the teacher for spelling, grammar and conceptual mistakes before they can be published. (ie. typed in a blog post or hung in the hallway)
Project procedures may differ from project to project, but as with everything else students will respond better to procedures that stay the same. So think carefully about how you want projects to look in your classroom for the school year. Then you can teach procedures once instead of each time you start a project.
8.) Allow for plenty of time - However long you think a project SHOULD take, double it. Especially with low level students, projects will take longer than expected, so allow for that time. This might mean starting a project before you start a unit. Or you might continue working on a project from one unit while you move into another unit. This is okay. Call it preview or review. Either way, I'd rather allow plenty of time for a project and have my students (and myself) feel we succesfully completed the project, than to rush through it just to be done "in time". In fact most teachers that I know who get frustrated doing projects are frustrated because the students don't finish in the time they allotted. The teacher often then throws the project out, leaving both teacher and students feeling like they didn't accomplish something. Prevent this feeling by allowing plenty of time. If students finish early, awesome! That gives you more time for revising, editing, publishing and sharing. I'd always rather my students feel like they finished too early than to have them rushing because I didn't allow enough time.
9.) Start out slowly - I've been doing student projects for 10+ years. Right now in my classroom I have three different projects going on simultaneously. We are almost done with our Be an Architect Math Project where we are designing our dream school. We are right in the middle of our Ancient Civilizations project (which is a small part of our larger, year long Country Study Project). And we have just begun the research for a City Comparison Project. My students started doing projects during week 2 of the school year.
However, my first year in teaching we did 4 projects during the entire school year. For a long time I never had more than one project going at the same time. You don't have to try and do what I do or what any other teacher does. If you've never done projects before, choose one small project and try it out. When you're done, take some time to hash out what worked and what didn't. Then choose another project that's slightly bigger and try it, maybe even after you've taken a significant break. Use your reflection to build better procedures or guide your students differently.
Don't overwhelm yourself, just give projects a good solid try. Eventually you (and your students - no matter their level) will find your groove with projects. Projects can and should be fun for you and your students. They should also make your job easier, not harder. Projects that are working well will allow your students to begin to "teach themselves". Projects should also decrease the amount of grading you need to do. I'd always rather grade one solid project, which integrates several skills than ten seperate worksheets.
10.) Celebrate the results - No matter how the projects turn out, take time to celebrate. End projects will often look different than what you dreamed about when you were planning. However, that final project is the result of your students' learning and persistence. Take time to celebrate that learning with your students.
Allow students to share their projects with someone else as well. This could be their own classmates, another class, their parents or even administrators. Students DO NOT have to stand in front of the class to share out their projects. No matter who your students share with, watching them get excited about the work they did is one of the best parts of doing projects with students, especially low level students.
If you're ready to start projects in your room, but you're not sure where to start, consider one of these projects from my Teachers Pay Teachers store:
In my experience, I have found that low level / low income students often don't get access to the same projects and higher level thinking activities that their higher level / higher income peers do. Mainly this is because teachers feel like there isn't time for those things when students are behind in basic skills. So instead, we spend a lot of time drilling and skilling low level students in hopes that they will remember those basic facts because of the repetition.
Now I'm a big fan of repetition. I use it in certain ways in my classroom. It's great for building math fact fluency or memorizing site words. It can also be helpful for building classroom routines. But, it's not the end all and be all of education. In fact, it often leads us to the quote "Doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results is the definition of insanity." Understanding content and using critical thinking skills to solve a problem do not come from drill and skill repetition. Those types of understanding come from making connections between what we already know and what we are learning.
Brain based learning research shows us that students need to be able to connect what they are learning with background knowledge in order to understand and remember what they are reading. One thing that many of our low level students are lacking is background knowledge. So realistically the best thing we can do to help our low level students is to build their background knowledge. Student will more background knowledge learn faster. As teachers we know this to be true because we see it in our classroom all the time. I can personally think of multiple students in my classroom right now who do better not because they have better processing skills but because they have more background knowledge to connect to.
Projects are a wonderful way for students to build their background knowledge. They are also a wonderful way for students to make connections between different background knowledge that they already have because projects ask them do work with multiple different skills and concepts simultaneously.
Another thing that brain based learning research shows us is that students (and people in general) remember things better if they are invested in them. The choices that projects allow students make it more likely that they will be invested in these learning experiences. For example, my students who are working on country study projects have chosen their countries for their own personal reason. This gives them buy in and personal investment in their learning, ownership if you will. How many students take ownership for drill and skill worksheet learning?
Maria Montessori is famous for developing a hands-on curriculum that gets students engaged in learning through real life projects like cooking meals. Few people remember that her first famous schools was in a poor, inner city area of Rome. She saw unprecented growth in students of low income, low background knowledge and low academic levels. Why then are our American Montessori schools private and geared towards middle to high income students? Why are we not using the Montessori methods, or at least project based learning, in our low income/ low level schools with the kids who need these methods most?
I teach in a school like this and I try to incorporate as many projects as I can. Here are a few of the projects I have used this year with my 3rd graders:
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