I have often asked my students how they feel about my approach to elementary homework. Without fail, they express that they much prefer my approach to the way they’ve done homework in prior grades.
And what was their prior homework program? The dreaded “homework packet.”
As a former parent of elementary-aged children and as a teacher of those same children, I’ve never been in favor of homework packets. I know I'm taking a position that will be the opposite of many of my readers, but that’s the way I’ve operated for many years.
The problem with packets
Ah, the convenient, efficient homework packet, the solution to every busy teacher’s need to “give the kids something to do at home” and placate parents who insist on homework.
Just staple together a bunch of worksheets (that may or may not relate directly to the current lessons), send them out on Monday, retrieve them on Friday, and then throw them in the garbage.
Oopsie! My anti-packet bias is showing, isn’t it?
Okay, to be fair, most packets don’t end up in the garbage, but they may as well. Consider that each packet will have at least five pages in it, often more. Consider also that the mathematical probability of a teacher correcting 25 students x 5 pages of homework over the weekend has been scientifically proven to be zero.
Which is why most packets end up with a check mark for “complete” and not much else.
It’s harder to do, but if homework is given out at all, it should reinforce what was learned in class the day it was handed out, so that it acts like a final check on whether the lesson “stuck.” And if it didn’t stick, then that issue needs to be addressed immediately, not a week later.
My homework plan?
- Fifteen minutes of math which is always a review and never new material
- Five minutes of reviewing the spelling words of the week
- An encouragement to read without the requirement of a book log or a parent sign off
So every night, my fourth-graders have 20 to 30 minutes of work depending upon how hard they apply themselves. At the same time, the parents are receiving a great communication piece about what is being covered in school.
How do I manage all of this and what's in it for me?
Overall, I have found that this approach does not take much time and is far preferable to reviewing stacks and stacks of homework packets at the end of the week.
Plus, I tailor the homework on nearly a daily basis depending upon how the class is doing during instruction. I want to be certain that the homework is closely tied to what I'm teaching every day so that it acts as reinforcement and is not simply generalized busywork.
Since I review their homework every day during a prep, I have my finger on the pulse of the academic achievement of every single student. I know when a problem is developing so they don't undertake the pointless exercise of practicing a math problem wrong for an entire week while working on a packet.
I write encouraging comments or circle work that needs additional attention and put the papers in the students' boxes. I often write a note that says, “Come see me,” so I can give a student a minute or two of individual attention on a particular problem that I noticed.
Elementary homework completion expectations
I expect it to be done every day, and I make this clear to my parents in my initial newsletters and during the school open house.
I traditionally taught fourth grade, and that's a grade where the kids really have to make academic progress toward higher-level subjects. Developing good homework completion habits will place them in a much better position to be successful when they reach middle and high school – where, by the way, they don't hand out homework packets.
If a student does not complete homework, they sit in my classroom and get it done during lunch recess. I’m in my room anyway, eating and taking care of various activities during my lunch prep, and it's not really punishment for the kids.
They get to sit in my room and get a little individual attention if they need it, plus they have access to other kids who are working on the same problems. Still, it’s enough of an incentive (missing out on recess) that over time the problem moderates itself.
If not completing homework becomes a chronic problem, I let them know that I'll be calling their mom and dad in order to talk through how they can be more successful in getting it done at home.
Tips for collecting student homework
In the upper grades, particularly in middle school, getting homework back can be a challenge – especially if you have multiple classrooms of children rotating all day long. Sometimes the kids actually have the homework with them – they just don’t do that final step of turning it in!
Here are ideas from my Facebook followers on the homework tactics they use.
A homework log
If a student doesn’t turn work in, they have to sign and put the reason why. After a certain number of excuses, a parent conference is scheduled. With a log, the child cannot deny the facts of their missing homework.
The desktop sticker
Try taping a star or other shape on the upper corner of every desk. Practice having students come in and put their homework on the star. Then you can pass around a bin marked “homework” for students to put it in.
When you train students to place their homework in a particular spot, you can see at a glance who has it and who doesn’t. The bin is also a visual reminder that something needs to go into it.
Each student has two folders, one for finished work and one for unfinished work. This helps children develop the habit of organizing what they’ve been working on and gives them a particular place where they can find work that needs to be turned in – rather than digging through their desk or backpack.
This one is pretty simple: when the homework or project is due, kids are reminded to put it in the box – but as a group, not individually. When you grab the stack to mark what has been turned in, do a “last call” and after that, anything that is missing is late.
When it’s very obvious that you are holding a sheaf of homework papers and marking them down, forgetful students will often remember what’s in their backpacks.
These darn kids can be frustrating at times! But… they are still kids and anything we can do to help get themselves organized will pay dividends for their future success, both as students and as adults.