Can homework "helpers" elevate homework assignments?

Homework is our stock in trade.

School assigned homework is the cornerstone of our Homework & School Project Assistance (HASPA) program and it also comes up a lot in one-on-one tutoring. So, we see a lot of homework assignments: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The homework wars rage in the press and the blogoshere. My position is that good homework can be an amazing learning tool. Good homework allows students to practice what they learned, outside of school, so that they can reinforce what they learned during the school day and see if they can do it on their own. Homework also takes some practice time out of the classroom, freeing teachers for more instruction and hands-on activities. I believe that homework, done well, is a win-win for everyone. However, you can't work with homework every day and not see bad homework assignments.

Some assignments are busy work. I hate watching my students waste their time on word searches and assignments that involve way more coloring than math.

Other assignments are so vague or unclear, that even an adult helper can't figure out how to execute the work well.

Some homework assignments require skills that students haven't learned (often mixed in with skills that they have), which can be very frustrating (especially if the student is struggling with the core concept).

Some assignments are just tedious.

But, barring some sea change in educational philosophy, parents, tutors, and other homework "helpers" will continue to see this kind of work forever. So, the most productive question becomes, "Can we elevate this work? Can we make it useful and helpful to the students?" Often, I think that we can. And, I think often, in the name of expediency, we don't.  We go along with the students' desire to just "get it done."

Let's start with the easy ones:

What about those math assignments that drag on forever? The first thing is to make sure that students are doing the work correctly. There's a place for repetition and it's probably math. But there's nothing worse than repeating something wrong over and over again. So, keep a close eye on that work. And, always remind kids that when they get good at something, they're faster at it. So, to the extent that it's taking them a really long time, they probably need the practice. Not a fun lesson to learn, but an important one. Isn't there a point where these math assignments are pure busy work?  I don't know.  I care a lot about homework when I can see the benefit. And, I think when it comes to these long math assignments, there usually is a point.  They should do all of the problems if for no other reason then so they can see how much faster math is when you're good at it and how awful it is when you're slow at it. 

But what about the word searches? Do you let a student search for a word for hours? I don't. I make sure they they know what the words are. If it's part of a spelling lesson, I make sure that they know how to spell the words. I try to make sure that they have some strategies for solving a word search (looking row by row for the first letter of a word, for instance), and then I give hints. After finding 20 words, I'm not sure what the added benefit is of finding the next twenty. So, I make a game of it and we compete, or I give little "hot and cold" hints. I won't do the work for a child, but I will have mercy. 

What about the assignments for which there is simply not enough information?  Yesterday at our learning center, a student had a worksheet on the presidential conventions. The worksheet had a table with two columns "The Republican National Convention" and the "The Democratic National Convention." Each column listed the party's candidate (with picture), the keynote speaker at the convention, and the theme of the convention. One of the questions on the worksheet was, "What are two qualities that a keynote speaker should have, and why?" My student, had written "They should be fairly and to be brave." So, we had a couple of issues (not the least of which was sentence structure), but the most obvious one was that he had no idea what a National Convention is National Conventions are, by definition, partisan.  Moreover, the worksheet didn't provide any helpful information on that score. Our student simply thought that we want our leaders to be fair and brave -- and that makes sense. He didn't have a concept of a convention or what a keynote speaker should be. So, the worksheet was a poor one. The question becomes, can a homework "helper" (be it a parent, tutor, babysitter, whoever) make this worksheet a learning experience. Yes, they can! (Sorry -- too tempting to resist.)

Let's start with, "What is this presidential election? Who is in it? Why does it matter?" Those were questions he knew the answers to. Then, "What's a convention?" Shrug. A helper could go several routes here. You Tube videos of the convention would help. Even Googling images of the convention with some explanation would help. I started by explaining that the conventions were huge parties designed to nominate or name each party's candidate for president (the student is a fourth grader so old enough to get the political process but young enough that I needed to simplify at least a little). I asked him to imagine Dodger Stadium, full of people, who want to vote for President Obama (I started by asking who he would vote for and went from there). Let's say he (the student) is the keynote speaker (explaining here, that he would be one of the most important speakers at the event), and he has to introduce President Obama. How does he want the crowd to react? Does he want them calm or excited? And what does he want to say? Does he want to say, "Here are some good things about the President and here are some bad things?  Or does he want to focus on the good things?" Does he want the crowd to be happy or sad? And we talked through several scenarios.

In the end, he wrote, "A keynote speaker should be loud and excited to get the crowd pumped up." I'm not sure that I would have chosen the word "loud" but it was his word -- and I knew that he could defend it. More importantly, I knew that he had learned something about our political system -- which I think was the point of the assignment (even if it did not make its point well).

So, as a first answer: yes, homework helpers can elevate homework. They can use it as a springboard. Even homework that doesn't teach anything or doesn't teach anything well usually WANTS to teach something. As intelligent adults, we have a unique opportunity to use the homework's intention to create a teaching moment.

There's much more to thist story-- but, it probably needs to wait for the next post.