I know I wasn’t the greatest classroom teacher, but I think I was pretty good, and I always strived to be better than the day before. Students enjoyed my class; we laughed a lot and talked about issues (world, community, family) that were close to their hearts and mine. They learned the importance of working with a team and being kind. We cried through The Outsiders and Bridge to Terabithia. We wrote every day. Our classroom was a safe place to admit struggles, frustrations, or failure.
I don’t remember homework being a big issue (I was not a high school teacher). I was always of the belief that if it can’t get done in the time we are together, then there’s always tomorrow. I wanted to direct their learning. If they were doing it all at home, how can I be there next to them, to guide them? I didn’t want their tutor, parents, or nobody, to teach them- that was my job! Right?
Let’s look at vocabulary, for instance. If a teacher gives a list at the beginning of the week and expects students to learn the words and meanings by the end of the week, with no real direction throughout the week, then shame on that teacher. Way to teach students how to cram for a test, regurgitate meaningless knowledge, and then quickly forget it- only to follow the same exact process the next week. Hmmm, this also sounds much like the dreaded weekly spelling lists.
How can we stop this madness? It’s actually really easy… Here is a breakdown of what it could look like:
- Day 1- Introduce words – no more than 12, share ideas of meaning (through prior knowledge), decide on a few simple synonyms for each word. Have students color-code the words by highlighting known words in green, familiar words in blue, and new words in orange. Allow each student to choose 5-8 total words of varying colors that will serve as their personal words of the week (WOW).
- Day 2- During journal time (or independent writing), ask students to use their WOWs in their writing. Share with a partner. Check for understanding.
- Day 3- Find a partner or 2 and have a conversation, using the WOWs, of course. Review and revise yesterday’s writing.
- Day 4- Play Caught-Ya with the vocabulary words. Shout out “caught ya” when a WOW is used by the teacher, students, others in school, in the readings, etc. Better yet, get other teachers and administrators to visit the class and sneak in a word.
- Day 5- Assess students only on their WOW words, but include all of the words. You will be amazed at how many they will recollect. By the way, assess them in a meaningful way; use the words in a story, fill in the correct word using context clues, illustrate their meaning, etc. Please don’t make them match the word to the definition – we are better than that.
- Finally, at the end of a whole unit or novel study, have the students look back at their blue and orange words and create their own WOWs for that culminating week.
If you are worried about time- there’s never enough, I know- well… STOP! One year, my last with 8th graders, after learning a year of vocabulary very similar to the steps above, I made a list with every word we studied throughout the year. I challenged the students to see how many definitions (synonyms) they remembered. It was just for fun (grades had already been turned in), and there was no pressure. I think the kids were more impressed with themselves that day than when they graduated from middle school the very next morning. Did we complete every aspect of every curriculum guide? No. Did we read every chapter of the textbooks? No. Did we spend our free time completing meaningless homework? Nope. And I wouldn’t change a thing.
What is “meaningless homework?” In my opinion, it can be one of two things:
- A teacher gives a homework assignment. The next day, in class, either the assignment is checked for completion (not for understanding) or it’s not checked at all. Both of these scenarios are shameful. If time at home is spent completing an assignment, time in class should be spent going over the assignment. Homework should provide feedback to teachers about understanding, so that they can adjust their teaching. Why is this so difficult?!
- A teacher gives a homework assignment. It can be easily completed while watching TV, surfing YouTube, or on the way to school in the morning. Not much thought, critical thinking, or understanding necessary. Where is the purpose in that? Is it practice? Because, it seems very inefficient, boring, and a poor use of time.
So, let’s change it up and offer students meaningful home-learning when needed… like, doing research on a subject that interests them, asking their family questions about their ancestors, creating videos on how they are contributing to their community, writing blogs about home science experiments, collecting data on a personal goal they hope to attain… the list is endless.
Better yet, let them play, help make dinner, read a book of their choosing, relax.
They’ve been at work for 8 hours. Let them be kids!