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Hooked on Homework

Ideas for meaningful and engaging assignments.
Published: 06/19/2020

Homework often gets a bad rap. It can be time-consuming for both students and teachers, stressful, and—as some unengaged students love to point out— “boring.”

But savvy educators know that the right assignment can engage students on a more meaningful level and lead to better student involvement in the classroom.

Dr. Cathy Vatterott, a Professor of Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, believes that these types of engaging homework assignments are essential for impactful student learning.

“Rote tasks like worksheets are often easy to assign and easy to grade, but not always the most effective tasks for learning,” Vatterott says. “The Common Core Standards will require students to operate at higher levels of thought. Engaging tasks that allow for choice and ownership result in deeper and more permanent learning.”

It may take a little more time to create those tasks, but engaging tasks are more likely to get done and with less resistance!”

To help you create your own engaging homework, we asked your colleagues to share their tried and true assignments. Read on for their success stories.

Connect Assignments to the Real World

Terri Messing, a National Board Certified Teacher who has taught junior and high school social studies, recommends incorporating media coverage of current events into homework.

“Students watch various news stations and then compare and contrast how the story was delivered—looking for inconsistencies and forms of yellow journalism, for example,” Messing says. “Based on what they are learning in class about techniques used to persuade, students describe the techniques the station used, how they tried to entice people to watch their newscast, and what were the sources they used for their stories.”

Messing’s approach has helped her students connect their classroom learning to the real world while allowing them to grow as analytical thinkers. It’s also gotten them to pay more attention to important issues both in their own community of Port Orchard, Washington, and around the world—something that even caught the attention of their parents.

“One mom told me how she never listened to presidential debates,” says Messing. “But, because her son had to analyze the debates, she became more informed and felt for the first time that she knew who she wanted to vote for.”

Let Students Design Their Own Homework

Angela Downing, an elementary school teacher who teaches second grade in Newton, Massachusetts, asks students to come up with an original homework assignment that will teach them something new. Some popular choices have been presentations on science experiments, favorite animals, cooking, visiting museums, and interviews with community members.

Once students have completed their project of interest, they turn in a form summarizing their activity and what they learned as a result. They then present their assignment to the class.

“Students must speak in front of the class about what they learned about their topic and try to answer questions from the students,” Downing says. “They gain the self confidence needed for public speaking, and the empowerment of choosing a topic and following through to the end with perseverance. The results have been incredible! The kids have been so excited and engaged during these presentations.”

The homework is designed so that students can better visualize the connection between what they’re learning in school and real life with parental support. Downing works with parents to make sure that students have the proper resources to complete the projects. If they don’t, Downing works to provide the students with any in-school support they need to complete their assignment.

Once the projects are completed, Downing displays them “proudly in the hallway so that all of the children and adults that walk through see what our second graders are passionate about,” she says. “They linger in front of the projects and learn! I hear kids outside my door saying, ‘Cool! Wow. Look at this one!’ It has been a wonderfully motivating assignment for my students over the years.”

Give Students the Resources to do Their Work at Home

Jessica Meacham, a 17-year elementary school veteran who has taught every grade level between K-6, found a fun way to keep her students engaged at home—homework bags.

“The homework bags are literacy and math-based,” Meacham says. “Each bag contains all the necessary components to complete the activity. The bags typically take between 5-10 minutes to complete, but because they are open-ended activities, students can definitely spend longer with the bag.”

Typical bags contain math problems, journals, puzzles, books, blocks, and other hands-on resources to keep students engaged. Some include a camera as a fun way for students to document their activities.

And, because they combined independent work with some activities where they might need a little help, Meacham says that the bags are a great way for students and parents to spend time learning together at home.

“We have very active parents that love to be involved in their child's education. The idea for the bags spurred from a desire to create a parent-child activity that centered around literacy and math. The homework bags are another great way to strengthen the home and school connection.”

Incorporate Social Media into Homework

Some teachers assign homework that blends social media with classroom learning, allowing students to interact with their teachers and each other in a familiar setting.

High school government and history teacher Ken Halla, has found success merging homework assignments with Twitter.

Using the 2012 election as a timely lesson for his class, Halla and other government teachers teamed up to create a Twitter discussion for their students to live tweet the presidential debates and on election night.

Those who didn’t have Twitter accounts made their comments on Google Docs that were shared by the teacher so that they could also participate. Each time, there were over 500 tweets by the students.

“Every single comment was appropriate for the classroom,” Halla says. “It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time, sitting there waiting for the returns and having those kids—and even some of their parents—basically right there in the living room with me.”

While the students were only required to make about a dozen or so tweets, Halla says that most of them far surpassed that amount. On election night, Halla told his students that they only had to participate from 9-11 p.m. He wasn’t expecting the kind of response that he got.

“There were kids who got on at 7 p.m., and the last one got off around 2 p.m.,” Halla says. “Even former students from the school who heard about what we were doing started participating.”

Use Homework to Build Trust With Your Students

Sharon Connolly, a former middle school teacher in Walnut Grove, Arkansas, found great success in assigning a weekly free-response journal assignment to her students.

Each week, students would write about their interests, hobbies, favorite TV shows, and difficult situations in their own lives. Connolly corrected their responses for grammar and punctuation and graded them on completion, but not on content. The main goal of the journals was to get the students comfortable with expressing themselves, while allowing Connolly to build a trusting relationship in return.

“They could write about anything and everything they wanted,” Connolly says. “It was never shared with anyone else, and only I would respond to the entry. Each time I sympathized and reminded them that I could not tell without their permission, and how they could take positive steps to get through the difficult time.”

At the start of the school year, some students only wrote a sentence or two in response. By the time school ended, all of her students were comfortable writing longer entries. The journals helped Connolly grow closer with her students and gain a better understanding of what was going on in their lives.

“A lot of students have a problem with trusting their teachers, and when that happens it slows down learning,” Connolly says. “When you invest in your students, they’ll invest in you.”

‘Learning, not Working’

It can be challenging to get students to buy into the idea of homework, and some of them may never fully come around to the idea no matter what you do. But with the right approach and a little bit of creativity, you can turn homework into a truly powerful learning experience—and maybe even help a student discover a hidden passion in the process.

“Look at homework as a conversation between student and teacher that reveals their level of understanding,” Vatterott says. “Involve students in designing their own assignments based on the goal you want them to reach. Then let them share their strategies with other students. Make the focus of homework about learning, not working.”

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