Friday, October 14, 2005

Homework Helpers

At our California junior high school, many parents express frustration over their inability to help their children with school homework. Here's some good common-sense advice for parents:
It doesn’t mean that parents should do their kids’ homework, nor does it mean that children should be forced into an exercise of survival of the fittest. The best homework help is support, says Jeanne Shay Schumm, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami School of Education.

"In education, we talk a lot about ‘scaffolding instruction.’ You initially provide a lot of support and gradually take the support away. The real goal is to work toward independence. You can have that conversation even with young kids, but also emphasize there is support when needed," advises Schumm.

Environment and approach to homework can be as important as the actual answers to the math problems the students are working on.

Start the after-school homework session by laying it all out, advises Schumm, and then devise a plan to deal with it. "Do the toughest stuff early," she adds.

Go over all the details and expectations, which accomplishes two things: You’ll know if your child understands the assignment and you’ll know for sure when they are done.

"Kids who are having problems might say they have no homework because they’re camouflaging the problems," Schumm says.

It’s not a bad idea for teachers and parents also to have a conversation about expectations because they’ll vary from classroom to classroom. Some teachers don’t want homework mistakes corrected before they see them because they want to see where in the process the child is struggling; others count homework for grades and might encourage parents to work with the child until it’s right.

For generations, parents have been involved in helping with homework but today’s parents are much more likely to contact teachers and question grades and grading systems than in years past, Schumm observes.

She adds: "If kids see that there’s not a lot of communications between home and school, they see there is room for games."

Teachers will react differently to parental outreach but most do expect it, especially with many schools encouraging parents and faculty to stay in touch by e-mail. And, says Schumm, most teachers certainly welcome any education enrichment activities that happen after school and on weekends.

It might not be "homework" but, for example, when a family goes to a museum that’s featuring a particular artist or historical period that students are learning about, they are adding to their bank of knowledge. Anything that bridges home and school learning is a plus, Schumm says.

Maintain two-way communication. Parents shouldn’t just lecture, they need to listen and respond to children, too.

Set goals with — not for — your child, and tackle them one at a time. Start with a goal that your child is almost guaranteed to achieve so the others will be more appealing.

Expect progress. If your expectations for your child are low, your child’s achievements are likely to match them. Keep expectations high but not unreasonable.

Reward achievement. Don’t give a treat for every accomplishment but if your child works especially hard on a challenging assignment and then completes it successfully, that’s worth celebrating. Also, praise generously and honestly. "Praise will lose its effectiveness if used indiscriminately," Schumm writes.

Also praise specific tasks. Saying, "You spelled eight out of 10 words right. Much better!" is more effective than "Good for you!"

Try not to show disappointment if your child doesn’t do as well as you’d like. The important thing is that you show appreciation for effort not just performance. A child whose performance is poor doesn’t need reminding.

Be prepared to teach. Sometimes parents need to "fill in the blanks." Skimming the textbook and reading lesson materials will help.

Provide variety. If a child is fidgety after poring over a math book for an hour, switch to spelling and finish up the math later. It’s also OK to take a short walk or a snack break.
Here in California, our district has implemented a "Homework Policy." What that means at the junior high school level is that no more than 20 minutes of homework is recommended in each of the core academic areas of language arts, math, science, and history. The policy specifically states that teachers should not give any type of homework on the weekends.

I intentionally structure my own homework assignments so that all kids can easily do the work. Nevertheless, each day some 15-20% of the students don't even bother to try.

Our school's administration has indicated to us that we can no longer require students to stay after school to "make up" missed assignments.

Even though I'll beg parents to check their child's homework every evening, many simply don't.
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