Friday, 7 February 2014

Homework cheat!

Homework, I can’t stand it. It is one of the things in teaching I have always had a problem with. What to set? When to collect it? How should I mark it? Those are the questions I have before I have even set the work. Then, I have a new set of questions afterwards: Whose piece of work is this? Where did I put the work? Did Tom really hand the work it? Homework is never simple, but it often is seen as the measure of quality learning. Homework seems to be the ‘dipstick’ for measuring the quality of teaching. How much homework is set? Loads. Must be an excellent teacher or school.

Recently, my daughters’ school has increased the amount of homework my daughter have to do. They are in Year 1 and they have reading homework all the time. As parents, we do this regularly. A few months ago they started bringing spellings home to do. This all seemed logical: both developed a skill and reinforced the learning. But, last term we were given a termly project to do. I say ‘we’, but I mean my daughters. The project involved some maths, writing and some random tasks.  Reading – I can see the value of that. Spelling – yes, that’s logical. But, however, a whole term’s worth of activities for the girls to do was pushing things too far. As ever the dutiful parents, we complied. Week on week this project has become the bane of our lives. It is the primary albatross around our necks. It isn’t homework for the children; it is homework for the parents.

Surprisingly, I interact with my daughters and I do lots of things with them. Reading and spelling fits in nicely with how we do things. A few spare minutes here and there and we quickly do a small burst, but now the homework project makes me feel like a teacher at home. I am expected, by the teacher, to sit and complete tasks at home. I like teaching, but I don’t want to do it at home as well. I might correct a missing apostrophe on the wife’s calendar, but I do not get out a worksheet and lecture her on the use one. This homework project clearly stems from the headteacher’s desire to raise standards and levels. Clearly, his /her principle is based on the idea that working children twenty four hours in the day will improve results and character. (There is a whiff of Dickensian workhouse owner about the headteacher.) It might be their idea of independent learning. Or, it might be a social experiment to get parents to communicate with their offspring more. Sadly, it eats up the time when I could be reading books with them, making stuff and exploring interesting stuff that is at the bottom of the garden – the usually dad that I love.

So, ultimately, the question has to be asked: Who is the homework for? Ofsted. The teacher. The headteacher. The parents. The child. I have seen endless reams of worksheets for homework. I have seen students copying answers on the back of a bus. I have seen piles of homework that a teacher hasn’t known how to mark or what to do with them.  Homework is like the teaching equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes. We are all doing the same thing, but not too sure of the value. It ticks a box and it is a PR statement for the school, but what is the real value? Does it really support learning outside the classroom? Or, does it just please someone else? Or, is homework more homework for teachers?  

In my attempt to making homework meaningful for me and of value to the students, I have been experimenting with some homework strategies. They have been about making the homework have value.

1: The Mystery Homework

Description: You inform the class that there is homework due next week. The students have to hand in a piece of work. Explain to the class that you are not going to tell them what to bring, so they have to predict or guess what the work is. The work they submit becomes a display.

Value: Great for getting students to explore a topic. I gave this homework to a class of Year 7s studying poetry and these are some of the things they produced:

·         A poem they wrote.

·         An explanation of the history of poetry.

·         A detailed analysis of a poem a student found.

·         An illustrated poem.

·         A poem about mystery – the irony!

·         A poster. 

I did something like this before with another Year 7 class with Skellig and had drama sketches and comic strips.

The good thing about this is that it clearly shows a student’s level of engagement in the topic. And, it can be personalised to the student. I am genuinely surprised when they hand work in. Of course, we share their work with the rest of the class.

2: The Media Homework

Description: Ask student to create a scene or aspect of a text studied in the class. They can use whatever media format they wish to use. 

Value: A lot. I did this with Great Expectations and the results were brilliant. The students surprised me how they presented Pip’s first meeting with Miss Havisham. There were quite a few cameos from parents as Miss Havisham, which I think was a bit harsh on the mothers. Nonetheless, the results were informative and enlightening on how the students interpreted the scene. I even had one student create a minecraft thing – I know, showing my ignorance there. It looked good.  

3: The Sentence Booklet

Description: Make a booklet of a number of different sentence types and students craft three examples for possibly using in a future assessment. Every day or week they craft a different sentence.

Value: Massive. This I did for a controlled assessment and it work brilliantly. Often, the crafting of writing is neglected, but this allowed students to think and craft outside the classroom. They had to write three examples of each type of sentence for inclusion in their short story. They did this over several weeks. Each few days they had to do a different sentence. This homework lasted a whole term. Simple for a copy and paste activity.

4: The Analysis Booklet

Description: Print out pages from lots of different sources. Each week students are given a question to answer by analysing the text. Students only know the questions one week at a time.

Value: Good. I am currently studying ‘The Woman in Black’ ( I do teach other texts, I promise) and while we are reading that in class they are reading extracts from ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. The discussions have been very fruitful.  Today we looked at how Dickens uses setting and compared it to Susan Hill’s use of setting. This allows me to develop their confidence at analysis, but also introduce some wider reading. Again, this booklet lasted the whole term. A extract a week.   

5: The Picture Homework

Description: Students have to find a picture that symbolises an aspect in a text. The picture is not to be a direct representation of the events in the text.

Value: Great. I must admit that I have borrowed this from a colleague, but it is a great idea. One student used a picture of a homeless person in London to make a link to Daisy Renton in ‘An Inspector Calls’.

6: The Shakespeare Homework

Description:  Create a booklet of tasks designed to make students think around a text. The tasks are to last no more than 5 minutes long.

Value: Good. I have always struggled with Shakespeare teaching as there is so much more I want to do with a play. I have loads of activities and not enough time to do them. Therefore, I collected all the activities and made a booklet out of them. This is a flavour of some of the activities:

·         Compare two covers of film versions of the play.

·         Translate an extract into modern English.

·         Compare two versions of Act 1 Scene 3 on Youtube.

·         Write a dream cast for the play.

·         Pick one scene and describe how a woman might view that scene differently to a man.

I could go on. But, the purpose of the booklet was so that students continued thinking about the play and ideas in the play long after we had finished the lesson. Yes, I could have asked them to complete a worksheet, but I felt that this was much more meaningful as students were thinking all the time.  

Oh, did I mention that none of these involved any marking. In fact, one student said the Shakespeare booklet helped her so much that she wish she had more booklets.  A booklet a term has meant that my planning has been reduced and I am never scrabbling for ideas for homework. The students are thinking outside the classroom and not leaving things at the door.  Of course, you could have marked the work, but why when a lot of the stuff I did was assessed in different ways. Verbally by me. Collectively by the class.  My students are not going to be convinced by a sticker or a stamp. I engaged with what they did, because they engaged in the topic in the first instance.

My book ‘Homework and all that other crap’ will be available in photocopied form in hardly any decent shops in the distant future. That’s if the dog hasn’t eaten it before then.

Thanks for reading,



  1. Fabulous ideas as usual. I really like your mystery homework idea especially.

  2. Enjoyed reading this, Chris! It's interesting to think about the parent's perspective and the teacher's perspective, and where they converge/diverge.

    I wrote this as advice for fraught parents for the GSA's 'MyDaughter' website a while ago. I'd be interested to know what you think sometime?

  3. I think that is some great advice and I agree with most things on there. I also find the issue that homework is often too teacher-led. Teacher tells students what to do. What happened to reading over notes from the lessons that day? The emphasis tends to be on the teacher rather than the pupil. Simple things like reading, researching and revising is taken out of the students' hands as they are given one worksheet to do. Homework often seems to be about 'doing something'. There is not much room for thought or independent study. Skills that students lack.

    It is a big issue. I could easily write a sequel to this blog.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.