By Erin Gohl and Kristen Thorson

This is part two of a two-part series. See part one here.

Homework Could Be: A Way for Schools to Communicate with Families

Homework is a window into the student’s day in the classroom. It reveals what teachers feel is most important for students to understand. Sending home worksheets (or assigning digital versions) night after night that ask students to solve problems using rote skills without an opportunity to extend and apply that learning reveals a focus on product over process. In contrast, asking students to work with a family partner to write a television commercial about a machine that solves that same type of math problem, with a requirement that the problem is solved and explained within the commercial, reveals a focus on the learning process and family engagement.

Family engaged homework is also a way for the school to share its vision and expectations with families. Schools that send home activities inviting families into the learning process convey that they see value in collaborating with each student’s entire team of support, both at school and at home. Parents and caregivers oftentimes bring a different expertise in motivating and engaging their own children. Welcoming this expertise into the learning process on a regular basis provides additional information and observations on what issues might be creating challenges, and what supports might help the student succeed. This invitation results in the development of positive, trusting relationships between schools and families.

As families complete their family engaged homework, students bring stories and examples from home into the classroom allowing this type of homework to begin a cycle of positive and purposeful communication. This cycle strengthens the foundation for meaningful school-home relationships.

Homework Could Be: A Way to Connect Parents and Students

Encouraging parents and caregivers to actively engage with their children in the learning process–rather than simply overseeing completion–puts parents in the driver’s seat of their child’s educational development. Instead of providing ancillary support for completion, parents play an active and primary role in these kinds of activities.

This kind of homework allows lessons from school to be adapted to a student’s home life and background. It values the culture and experiences that each family can contribute to a child’s education. When students are learning about the point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature, teachers can invite families to share stories from their childhood. This type of learning allows children to see value in their families’ particular backgrounds, experiences, and skill sets.

Family engaged homework can also provide a model for parents on how to work with students at different ages. When teachers send home conversation starters connected to one book, parents can borrow that same language and adapt it for books they have at home. This is especially helpful for older students as parents can sometimes feel unsure about how to approach learning at home. Teacher guidance on how to engage in talking about and sharing an assigned text with independent readers can give parents tools for how to do so beyond a particular homework lesson.

What Does Family-Engaged Homework Look Like?

There are a number of different shapes that family-engaged homework can take, and they often vary across grade leves.

Primary teachers, when students are working on comparing and contrasting texts on the same topic, can send a quick email to their students’ parents, and ask them to embark on a treasure hunt with their child in search of things that are similar, but not the same, and give them some sentence starters so they know where to begin the learning conversation. The next day, students can share about the items they found. Use the language from their conversations as a foundation for comparing and contrasting texts.

Intermediate teachers, when students are working with decimals, can have them work with a family partner to write about something that happened that week. (My mom had $20.00. She went to the store to purchase milk and bread. Her total bill was $3.62. How much money is left?) Then, students can solve each other’s math problems the next day.

For middle school teachers, when students are analyzing interactions between people and ideas in an informational text is an opportunity to encourage them to interview a family partner about a memorable life event and the various factors that influenced that event. They might brainstorm questions with peers in class before heading home. Then, students can use their families’ stories to better understand their reading.

High school teachers, when students are writing argumentative essays and working on developing claims and counterclaims, can have students choose a topic on which they disagree with someone in their family (e.g., their curfew, rules about cell phone use), then have them debate the issue with the person at home. Then, when they come to school, have them write an essay explaining their claims and the counterclaims for their argument.

Moving Forward

As parents, we all want to help our children to be successful. We want to encourage a love of learning. We want our time with them to be worthwhile, constructive, and enjoyable. Unfortunately, though well-intended, traditional homework all too often has the opposite effect.

Family engaged homework, on the other hand, has the potential to create meaningful experiences, conversations, and memories for the entire family. Students benefit from active learning experiences, and engaging families is a powerful way to communicate the importance of ongoing, lifelong learning. This collaborative approach to homework values families and the powerful part they play in their child’s education. It empowers families to play a leading role in student learning. The family engaged homework approach is beneficial for all students, and it serves a special purpose for those whom traditional homework does not reach.

Each learning experience that engages families works to positively impact student success. Family engaged homework has the rigor and relevance of learning made continuous between home and school, while allowing each environment to support the student in a manner that best fits them. By reimagining homework, teachers have the potential to design purposeful experiences that transcend the walls of a classroom and build a solid foundation for learning. Hopefully, with these shifts, homework can feel like an opportunity for students and families rather than a nightly sentence of tension and struggle. This alternative response to the homework dilemma might just end up changing the question.

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