October 31, 2000 Categories: Engaging Academics / Homework
Ask any teacher, parent, student, or administrator about homework and you’re likely to get a different opinion about the quality and quantity at their school: there should be more, there should be less, it’s too easy, it’s too hard, it should start when children are very young, it should start when children are older.
While many schools have policies that clearly spell out homework expectations and sound simple enough—all students will have one hour of homework every night—every teacher knows that the reality of assigning and monitoring homework every day for a group of 20–30 students is anything but simple.
When the subject of homework arose in a recent workshop for K–8 teachers, the questions and concerns flooded out:
- “What about the children who never do their homework? I’ve tried just about everything and nothing helps.”
- “What about the students who only do part of the assignment?”
- “What about the kids who don’t do it because there’s no one around at home to help them?”
If you’re like most teachers, you’ve probably experienced all of these problems and more. Is it possible to make them all disappear? Unlikely. But it is possible to greatly reduce the number of problems and to increase the chances that all students will experience success. In this article I offer a few key strategies which have proven successful.
Take the time to teach homework
The typical approach to introducing homework is to talk with students about homework expectations. We tell them how they are to do their homework; we may even talk about good homework habits. We then send them off to do it alone, and more often than not, we’re disappointed with the results.
The critical step that’s missing here is practice. If we really want students to understand our expectations for homework and successfully meet these expectations, then we must be willing to “teach” homework. This means introducing homework slowly and incrementally and providing plenty of time for students to practice the routine under our guidance before expecting them to do it at home independently.
At the K.T. Murphy School in Stamford, Connecticut, for example, during the first six weeks of school, primary grade students complete all written homework in class. Older students do the same for the first two to four weeks. During this practice period, teachers and students work to define expectations for high-quality homework and students bring home their completed “homework” to share with parents. In this way, parents gain a better understanding of homework expectations and are better able to hold their children to these expectations.
It’s never too late to begin
A proactive approach to homework early in the school year has helped many teachers keep students on track academically and away from the negative lessons of detention or missed recess. But no matter what time of the year it is, if your students are struggling with homework, you might want to spend a week or two re-introducing it to your class.
As nearly every page of The First Six Weeks of School reminds us, taking the time to slowly introduce classroom procedures, curriculum, and materials is vital to students’ success. The same holds true for homework, and the strategies used during the first six weeks of school can be applied to any time of the school year.
Be flexible and individualize as needed
It’s often the case that all students are given identical homework assignments. This practice guarantees failure for some students. Discouraged by their inability to meet expectations, many students invent ingenious excuses each morning for their failure. Their willingness to invest energy creating excuses, however, is a sign of their continued eagerness to do what is expected of them. Other students, more defeated, simply respond to the question of “Where’s your homework?” with “I don’t know.”
If we are to increase students’ success with homework, we must be willing to be flexible and to individualize assignments. As Melvin Konner, author of Childhood: A Multicultural View, states, “In order to be treated fairly and equally, children have to be treated differently.” Yes, differentiated homework, like differentiated instruction, will be more work for the teacher in the short run, but the long-term payoff of student success and investment will be worth it.
I suggest that teachers apply the same “3 R’s” they use for choosing logical consequences—consequences should be respectful, related, and reasonable—to choosing homework. That is, homework should be:
- respectful of the child’s ability and development level,
- related to the work of the classroom and, where possible, to the interest of the individual student, and
- reasonable in amount and degree of difficulty.
This does not mean that teachers need to create different homework assignments for every student every day, of course. There are obviously some assignments that everyone has to do and can easily accomplish, like writing in a journal or practicing spelling words. This work, like project homework in which students have had some choice in the assignment, is differentiated by default because students will choose how much they do in these situations.
Specific differentiation is needed, however, for those students whose ability or work ethic is in need of support. There may be a student, for example, who struggles with math. For this child, completing the standard homework assignment of 20 math problems could mean two hours of grueling work as opposed to the 20 minutes it takes for most. Anticipating this, the teacher might adjust the length of the assignment accordingly.
Other modifications might include arranging for a child to get help with a homework assignment from a parent or sibling or modifying the way in which an assignment is done (for example, dictating rather than writing, or having a parent read a chapter from a textbook to a child rather than the child reading it him/herself).
The important question to ask is, “How might I modify this assignment to fit this child’s learning style and needs?” By having students complete homework assignments in school during the early weeks of school, teachers can learn a lot about students’ varying abilities to work independently, information that can be used to adjust expectations accordingly.
The most important strategy for involving parents is to inform them of your homework practices. Clearly, the more informed parents are about homework expectations, the better able they’ll be to help their children meet these expectations. Many teachers and schools send a letter to parents at the beginning of the school year explaining the homework policy and expectations and enlisting parent support. At K.T. Murphy School, this letter arrives with a packet of information, in several languages, offering guidelines for setting up a space and time for homework and a checklist for homework expectations.
A great early-in-the-year class project could be to write your own “Homework Manual” as a class, perhaps with a “homework hint” from each student, and send the manual home to parents. As mentioned earlier, having students complete their first homework assignments at school and bringing them home to share with their family will also help parents gain a clear understanding of homework expectations.
. . . and if students still forget or don’t finish their homework?
And, of course, this will happen. One approach is to use logical consequences. A student who has been given reasonable, respectful, and related homework and who still has occasional creative excuses needs to experience equally creative consequences that send the message that completing homework is a requirement of being a member of the class.
Perhaps homework is the students’ ticket into homeroom. No hanging out with friends or participating in Morning Meeting until homework is completed. If a child does not have his/her homework, s/he goes directly to a buddy teacher’s classroom to complete it. Or, perhaps a child has a choice of where to complete the homework, in the classroom within earshot of the activities of the class, or in the library or guidance counselor’s office.
These consequences are liable to work for the usually conscientious student. For the more frequent offender, a more careful proactive approach is warranted. I call this approach “incremental success” and favor it over daily failure. Here’s how it works:
Marie has not successfully completed a homework assignment for several weeks. I have a conference with her to ascertain what the problem is and to let her know I’m willing to work jointly on this. Then I ask her what a reasonable number of, say, math problems is for tonight’s assignment. If she says “none,” I say, “That’s not an option.” If she says “three,” I say, “Great! Bring in three beautifully done problems tomorrow.”
When Marie brings in the completed homework, I present her with a “learning log” or record sheet which I have prepared for her to keep track of her own progress. In it she records her successes and failures, her ups and downs, as we proceed through math homework for a month or two. I check in frequently with her during this time, and periodically we review her progress and adjust assignments accordingly.
At the end of a two-month period, with more success than failure now a daily occurrence, we decide together when to eliminate the log. I have used this approach successfully with first graders and sixth graders and am always delighted in the increased responsibility and sense of pride shown by the students. Of course, there are ups and downs to this process for the teacher, too, but in the end, this proactive effort often yields dramatic results.
We ask a lot from children when we ask them to do homework—we ask them to follow directions, to organize their materials, to manage their time, and to work independently. It’s a tall order and its value lies in students experiencing success. Only then will homework be effective in improving students’ sense of responsibility and accomplishment, their academic skills, and their independent study habits.
Tags: Child Development, Homework, Working with Families
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This page dedicated to helping Veterans and their loved ones learn more about writing a good buddy letter.
What Makes a Good "Buddy Letter"
Buddy Letters (also known in the VA as a "Statement in Support of Claim") are one way to
help you build your Veterans Administration Disability Claim. They're especially helpful
when you're filing a claim for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or TBI (Traumatic
Brain Injury). Buddy Letters from military co-workers will be a little different from those
written by personal friends or family. Both types, however, have their own strengths.
Basic Buddy Letter "Etiquette"
It is a good idea to keep Buddy Letters to one page (one side). The person processing the
claim has a lot of information to get through. You want to give them the details without
making them read a book.
Buddy Letters should always include contact information for the person writing it (address
& phone number), the full name of the Veteran it's being written for, the printed name and
signature of the person writing it, and the date the letter was written.
It's also good (but not absolutely necessary) if the bottom of the letter ends with the and
belief." This statement should appear right above the signature and printed name of the
Buddy Letters can also be written (by hand or typed) on a VA Form 21-4138 (CLICK HERE
to download). However, it's just fine to submit them on normal, letter-sized paper. Just do
whatever is easiest!
Buddy Letters from Military Co-Workers
Buddy Letters from Military Co-Workers should ideally be written by people who were with
you when a key event happened. It helps if it's someone from your squad or platoon...
someone who was with you during most of your deployment. For example, if you have
PTSD and were part of a lengthy fire fight in which you or others in your unit were wounded
or killed, you'd want to get a letter from someone who was also in the firefight. The letter
should include any details the person can remembers about the incident as well as how it
affected you (Did you start having nightmares afterwards? Did your rage level obviously
get worse? Did you talk to them about the incident afterwards? If so, what did you say?),
If your time in combat included a lot of bad situations (which is pretty common), then the
letter can kind of be an overview that talks about several events with details about the
I read a Buddy Letter recently that was written for an Infantry soldier who has served in
Iraq. The letter, written by his Platoon Sergeant, was (in my opinion) a really good Buddy
Letter example. I won't include the text of the entire letter, but the format stood out! It was
well-organized and got the point across. In the top section (about two-thirds of the letter),
the PLT Sergeant went over the soldier's time in theater, noting how many fire fights, IED's,
RPG's, etc., he had been involved with and adding details about the most difficult incidents
(when a friend had been killed, cleaning up remains after an explosion, etc). Then, in the
bottom section of the letter, he detailed the changes in the soldier (At the beginning of the
deployment SPC John Doe was generally happy, well adjusted, etc. Throughout our time
in theater I noticed this soldier becoming increasingly angry and withdrawn. By the end of
the deployment SPC Doe was greatly changed and obviously struggling with what he had
experienced in combat.)
Buddy Letters from Family and Friends
Buddy Letters from loved ones are different. Most obviously this is because they weren't
with you during your deployment! But, also because their letters shouldn't focus on what
caused your condition, but how it is affecting you and the people who love you.
Ideally, these letters should be heartfelt and tell about how you were before your
deployment(s) and how you are now. Were you kind and patient before but are now
short-tempered and hostile? Have they seen you wake up often because of nightmares?
Do you avoid going to public places but used to love going anywhere new? The letter
should also focus on how the changes affect your family members. Does you spouse now
"tip toe" around you to avoid setting you off? Are your children afraid when you have
nightmares? Does your family have to go to events without you because you can't handle
These letters should give the person processing your claim an inside view of your daily life
and how PTSD, TBI, or other injuries are affecting you and your family. This isn't the time
for them to "soften" how difficult things are. A Buddy Letter from a loved one should reveal
the true deal.
It's helpful if these letters come from people that either live with you (your wife, older
children, etc.) or have contact with you on a regular basis (your parents, co-workers,
In our household, I wasn't comfortable with the idea of writing the letter and being totally,
brutally honest if my hubby was going to read it. So, we made a deal that I would write
everything in my heart and we would send the only copy in with the claim (basically, that he
wouldn't read what I wrote). You may have to do something similar in order to make it
"okay" for your loved ones to really give the people at the VA the "nitty gritty".
Also, we received (and followed) a recommendation from our Service Officer to have letters
from family notarized. It's not necessary, but her experience had been that sometimes a
notarized letter carries more weight in the eyes of the person processing the claim. This
may be something for you to consider also.
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