Using Homework More Effectively

I’ve been trying to get my head round the concept of homework recently. Is there such a thing as good homework and, if so, how can I use it more constructively than I’ve been doing? If I’m to believe some then  homework is the devil’s work and should be avoided at all costs. It’s cruel to our children; it cause parents unnecessary grief when they could be spending more quality time with their families. I should never give it again. Others say that it needs to be the bedrock of a good education and is vital to underpin the work I do in class. So, that’s that solved then.

From a workload point of view it would suit me very nicely to give up issuing homework. It, perhaps, is the reason for most of the conflict I encounter with pupils. However, my school’s policy means that I must issue homework on a weekly basis and if there is one piece of advice that I’d give any teacher it would be to stick to school policy: your beliefs and principles are important but inconsistency helps no child. So, for the last few months I have been looking to develop homework which is helpful to my senior pupils, something from which they will genuinely benefit.

Part of the New Higher English Course includes outcomes for Reading, Writing, Talking and Listening. It can be an onerous task to tick a lot of boxes and one which seems unnecessarily burdensome. So I’ve done this: I issue a newspaper article or essay on a Monday; the homework task is to read and analyse the language in the writing and answer four exam-style questions attached. I specifically model the questions on questions which they will face in May. For example: ‘How does the writer’s use of punctuation effectively emphasis her point in Paragraph 4?’ The homework needs to be handed in on Thursday.

My marking of that homework is minimal. I spend five minutes looking for one perfect, or near to perfect, answer to each question. I write an ‘E’ for Expert in red and that’s that. We now have four ‘experts’ in the class. On Fridays I announce the experts and send them to corner one, two etc. The rest of the class now has a perfect answer scheme. Their job is to go to each corner and ‘mark’ their own answers. Of course, many of them will have perfect answers too but my plan is to allow everyone to have a chance to be a n expert at some point.

The payback for the experts is that they must discuss and not show. No pointing to answers, no copying from others. Experts must give answers in full sentences, practicing the way  answers should be set out in the exam. I’m assessing Talking as well as Listening outcomes – along with Reading – throughout the process which takes about ten to fifteen minutes each week. More importantly, by explaining their answers to others, the pupils are embedding their understanding of the language and of how they might use it in the exam. Other pupils then go back to their desks and have another go. Over the weeks, these answers build in to a collection of revision resources. As a result, I think I’m beginning to use Homework as a more effective learning tool. So. How might I adapt that to other year groups?

Falling in Love With Reading – All Over Again.

So I had been reading Richard Flanagan’s Booker winner, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’, on the train, on the way home from school, in the middle of December, when I rediscovered my love of reading. Opening the book as I sat down, I was at my destination before I’d even realised it; it dawned on me that that hadn’t happened in a long time. I still bought books, loads of them; I still talked about reading, blogging about it regularly; however, my bookshelves were becoming surprisingly filled with unread books. My kindle filled. What had happened to me?

Sitting by my desk right now, I look around and see my books all over the place. Shelves aplenty, forming the wallpaper of my past; each one with a tale to tell about my life in more ways than one. But how often do books become merely part of our furniture; books as aesthetic pleasures; books as merely things? Perhaps while promoting a love of reading for all these years I, personally,  had forgotten exactly what it felt like. Perhaps being in love with books is not the same as being in love with reading. Perhaps  my pursuit of books as ‘things’ got in the way of my reading them properly.

So, if I’m being honest, I had stopped reading half as much as I used to. Too submerged in work; too busy; too many distractions. My book piles continued to grow not merely because I was buying a lot; I simply wasn’t getting through as many. Richard Flanagan’s book is superb. But the most important thing it gave to me was that reminder of the value of reading and the deep concentration required to do it properly. That is what the children I teach need to discover, not learn. I’m not sure you can learn it. However, we can talk about it and model a reader’s life.

Reflecting on my zeal for pupils to read regularly, I recall the times when I over-enthusiastically ran through the A-Z in the library, pulling out books I had read, throwing them in the direction of pupils who should read them; my childish glee, hopefully, enthusing them to do so. My book speed-dating lessons are always a colourful and fun way to spread the word on great books. However, looking back, they may just have made me look clever; ego-based tactics to get books into their hands. Perhaps what I should be sharing is the experience of reading; the reality of sitting silently, getting so lost in a book that time flies past and the world around you disappears. Perhaps that is what they need more.

Since Christmas, I haven’t bought a book which is unheard of for me. I’ve piled up all of the unread books on my shelves and have vowed to get through them all. I’m doing okay so far. So now when I talk about reading to my pupils I’m beginning to talk more about where I am when I’m reading: on the bus, in the dentist’s waiting room, everywhere. I talk about the pleasures I get from a particular character or plot twist. It seems I’m falling in love with reading again. Books will always be around us; reading them is far more important though.