Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Thoughts on Homework in the History Classroom

I "attended" a twitter #iledchat last night on homework. It was a bit difficult to concentrate as my daughter was practicing trumpet in the background (a four day weekend and she waits until 9 pm to complete her band "homework"?), but the chat did give me a few ideas, insights and questions which I will share below:

1. The parent perspective: Being a parent (of a 9th grader and 7th grader) gives me a new perspective from the one I had as a young teacher starting out. It is much easier to understand homework as a genuine obstacle to many aspects of family life. A plea from the me that is a parent: don't assign homework unless it really is necessary and meaningful. Check out this essay from last October's The Atlantic Monthly: My Daughter's Homework is Killing Me. Rather sobering. Of course, determining what is "necessary and meaningful" is subject to interpretation. (Not unlike as what is a "necessary and proper" law for Congress. Sorry, forgive the pun. Still have the Constitution on my brain....)

2. Balancing homework load: Last spring, while teaching 8th grade US history, I was quite aware of #1 above, and was very careful about homework.  I knew my students had language arts and math homework nearly every day, so I decided to keep my homework minimal. Do other middle school teachers minimize social studies homework in light of the emphasis on math and LA homework? Of course that didn't prevent some of my students from staying up past midnight to complete a DBQ essay I had assigned. I know, because we used turnitin.com which displays the time that students submitted their assignments. Even when I gave them time in class and plenty of days' notice, some students still finish at the last minute.

3. Reading assignments: Even if your class is not textbook-based, there are times when assigning reading in a textbook is helpful. Or an article. Or a chapter from a non-textbook.  But how can you assure students will actually do the reading while avoiding the pitfalls of "pop" quizzes, or having students answer a bunch of questions (see #6 below) or fill out a chart (e.g. list all the laws passed by the British which led to the American Revolution, the Civil War battles, New Deal legislation). How many students actually complete the chart as opposed to copying information without thinking about it, either directly from the textbook, Wikipedia or their best friend? If you want to have a meaningful class discussion about the reading how to we ensure students have done the reading? I've been experimenting with socratic seminars and literature circles (with both fiction and non-fiction). Check out these links:

Socratic Seminars: 

Lit Circles
middle school lit circles
literature circles resource center
Students Becoming Real Readers - this one is about using lit circles in a high school English classroom, but still useful.
Literature Circles for Social Studies and Science
Of course, socratic seminars and lit circles don't really work with textbook reading, so I'll have to give more thought to that. I think the secret is to create classroom activities that require students to use the information in a reading. But how to do that....?

4. Flipping - does it really help? I also participated in a #sschat last night about the use of video in the social studies classroom. A few folks pointed out that flipping the class and having students watch movies (or clips) at home can optimize class time. But again, how do teachers ensure that students have actually watched the assigned video? (Assuming students have the access, which is another issue.) And is having students watch a 2 hour movie--even a good one--too much a demand on their time?

5. More on flipping - I have also been considering "flipping" the classroom in order to have more class time for writing. Writing a good history paper is HARD and while my initial thought is that students have to do this outside of class, the more I think about it, what if you were able to "flip" some of what you do in class to homework, and give students opportunity to write during class time so you could help them? Still a challenge, but this could give teachers the opportunity to really address problems students have with historical writing.  The Common Core Standards have an entire section devoted to writing (see links below) so, assuming your state has adopted the Common Core, it really is incumbent upon us to do this. (Even if your state hasn't adopted it, I still think history teachers need to teach writing!)
6th-8th grade writing standards 
9th-10th grade writing standards 
11th-12th grade writing standards

6. The Time-consuming Problem of Grading and Creating Meaninful Homework:
I once used a worksheet with a long(ish) reading about Social Darwinism in the late 19th century with my 11th grade U.S. history students. There were 10 separate questions that required answers of 3-5 sentences each. It was undoubtedly dull for students to complete and time consuming to grade. As my dear friend and former colleague once pointed out, I had created an assignment that required 10 decisions from me in order to grade. Why not instead have students write ONE summary of the assigned reading that answered ONE overall question? It would be far less laborious to grade, create a better opportunity for students to synthesize information, as opposed to spitting back (or copying from a friend) information directly from the text. Perhaps this is a corollary to my point #3 above: what if you assign the reading for homework, perhaps giving them a few questions to consider (but not write out answers to) as they read, and let them know in advance that the next day in class they will be writing a summary of the reading? Does this motivate them to do the reading? Or is this just a fancy way to describe a quiz?

I am eager to hear the ideas of other teachers about homework, and hope to revisit the issue more specifically as related to specific content in future blog posts.
Update: I have revisited this issue in this post.

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