The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

The Homework Menu

For the past four years, I have struggled with homework in my classroom. (And if Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes is any indicator, I’m not the only one! Click the image for many more related comics.)

Not assigning it; that has always been easy: give 25 students a copy of a math assignment and tell them it is due the next day. And not grading it; homework is practice, so it doesn’t need an actual grade. I just check it for completion, give it a star, and return it to the students.

No, the struggle has been more of an existential one: why? Why give homework? The students who need the extra practice tend to be the ones least likely to do it. The students who don’t need the practice tend to be the ones who do it, anyway. So why am I doing it? To communicate with parents? Surely there is a better way for me to do that!

There is only one kind of homework that has been an exception to this: reading. I tell my students on the very first day of school that they will have reading homework every single night. That assignment is to read for at least 25 minutes independently. Sure, I still have students who struggle with reading and will try to avoid doing it because it is a difficult task, but most of them are willing to read at home and most of their parents are willing to support this.

But for the other traditional math homework assignments? I wasn’t buying into it and my students and their families weren’t buying into it either. Then I started paying attention to what other teachers were saying and what other families were saying. And then I decided to look into the research. (Did you know that there are people who have dedicated their lives to researching the value and effect of homework?) Here are some things I learned in my research:

  • While there is generally a correlation between homework completion and student achievement, that correlation is much greater in grades 7-12 than it is in grades K-6
  • Homework is often a source of tension between schools and homes
  • The most effective homework provides students with differentiated choices

(Most of these points have been drawn from Cooper, Robinson, and Patall’s 2006 meta-analysis of homework research from 1987-2003 published in Review of Educational Research, Spring 2006, Vol. 76, No. 1, pp. 1–62.)

So over the summer I began to reimagine homework in my classroom. I began to ask myself what I would like to see if I had children who were in school. I talked to friends whose children have struggled with homework and those whose children have not. I read what other teachers were doing. I thought about what would work well for me. And then I began to draft some ideas. I shared these with others, got more input, and revised and edited. What I came up with what a concept I am calling the Homework Menu.

When I go to a restaurant, I sit down at the table and find my utensils already there. If there isn’t a menu on the table, the server hands it me. Usually, though, there is already a menu there and the first thing I am brought is a glass of water. If the server doesn’t bring a glass of water, he or she asks me what I would like to drink before anything else. Then I am given time to peruse the menu before ordering. I don’t take one of everything, nor do I always get the same thing. (As much as I love bacon cheeseburgers, sometimes I am really in a mood for a chicken wrap or a pasta dish!)

How does this apply to homework?

Well, the first thing my students need are the tools to complete the tasks. This may be access to an online learning site or a book to bring home or a project assignment sheet to work on. It may be a math reference sheet or a set of manipulatives they can use at home. I want to make sure that they have the right utensils.

Then my students need a drink. What is the one thing that they are expected to do every day? What is the thing that should just be a natural reflex? What should be habitual? Reading! A minimum of 25 minutes each day. What can they read? Oh, the list is endless, but it includes trade paperbacks, informational texts, websites, newspapers, graphic novels, comic books, magazines, subtitles on television shows or movies… I could go on and on. There are so many different things they can read! The most important thing is to read every single day.

Once they have read (or planned their reading), they need to pick something that they want to work on that they know will help them. Maybe it is something they love doing, such as math on Front Row, Prodigy, or XtraMath. Maybe they want to check out Khan Academy. Maybe they love doing worksheets and have asked for one. Or maybe they have a story they are writing or an ongoing research project they’d like to work on at home. Then again, maybe my student has a 60-minute soccer practice after school and that is a worthy activity that encourages team work, cooperation, problem solving, and physical activity. Another student may have piano lessons. The fine arts are an important part of a student’s learning. Instead of me telling every student that they must do the same thing as everyone else, I am giving them choices. (And yes, if I notice that a particular student needs to spend some extra time on a very particular skill or concept, then I will strongly suggest to that student and his/her parents that that be the homework focus.)

The overall goal here is for my students to be empowered to make decisions that will help them improve their own learning. I want their time working away from school to be worthwhile and valuable. I want parents to know what we are doing and know how they can support their student’s learning. I want to keep the lines of communication open and the tension between the school and the home nonexistent.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 5.57.52 PM

I am excited about this Homework Menu idea. I hope my students are excited about it, too. (And yes, just as a server at a restaurant writes down your order, I am going to expect my students to record what they have done and have a parent sign off on it. That is the oh-so-necessary accountability piece.)

If anyone is interested, linked below is a PDF of the Homework Menu. Feel free to contact me if you would like an editable word document! (I worked with my wife, a brilliantly talented graphic designer who helped create the layout and theme for this blog, to pattern the Homework Menu after a a restaurant menu.)


[NOTE: This is in no way intended to be a condemnation of any teacher who chooses to use more traditional means of assigning homework. Every teacher has to do what works best for him or her to help his or her students achieve their own personal greatness. The Homework Menu is my experiment to see what I can do to do my job better, not to tell other teachers what they ought to be doing.]


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