Daily Homework Poster

Being a student myself for most of the 70s and 80s and a mother of a recent high-school graduate, I empathize with the argument that homework assignments are often random and can take unrealistic amounts of time to complete. With that in mind, I frequently consider the homework I assign to my own first graders. As each new school year approaches I weigh the purpose of the assignments and consider if they are making a positive impact not only in my students learning, but also in my students home school connection with their parents.

To be a successful teacher, I endeavor to empower my students with the confidence and knowledge to succeed in their academic and personal lives. I teach at a Title I school, where 93 percent of our students are profiled as economically disadvantaged and 66 percent of our students labeled at-risk. Many of the students I have worked with throughout my 10 years at Metz live in single parent homes with multiple siblings. Some students had one or both parents incarcerated, live in shelters because of homelessness or were removed from their home situation.

Even with these deficits, our school still manages to attain recognized and commended performance levels on Texas state tests. Our staff and students work very hard for their successes. To further contribute to these successes, I continually seek innovative ways to bring quality learning to my students in and outside of the classroom.  Luckily, I have always had the autonomy to choose what homework I assign to my students and I strive to create interesting and meaningful projects throughout the year that will help extend the home school connection.

The Home School Connection

One of the main goals of my homework assignments is to create opportunities for my students to interact with their parents and take time to learn about what makes themselves and their families special. At the beginning of the year, in lieu of traditional homework assignments, I focus on the student and their family. Two of the first special at home activities I assign include the Family Page Project to display during Back-to-School Night and the Baby Name Project.

The Family Page Project is a wonderful way to learn about your student's families. Parents are sent the Family Page Project letter, with instructions about how to work with their child to decorate a large piece of paper with interesting facts about their family. I find that sending an oversized piece of white construction paper works better than a large poster board, which can be overwhelming to fill. The instruction letter is filled with ideas that families can use to decorate their page, but they are encouraged to complete it any way they like. It is amazing how creative my families have been with these projects. In my third year of teaching, one of my students, Julissa, glued magazine pictures of people, but added her own families heads. It was hilarious looking, and showed that her family had a great sense of humor. This year, my student Alex and his family worked together to create an amazing family book. Another one of my students, Nathan, drew houses for all of his extended family members and glued in the faces of their dozen of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.

I always give the students time to present their family page in class. The things they share can be quite insightful, touching and funny. One student talked about his uncle who had died in a gang dispute. He had a lot to share about the things he used to do with his uncle and it was obvious that he missed him very much. A former student, Lily, attached pictures from a trip to Bolivia to visit her father's family and this led to an impromptu lesson on South America. This year when Kerina showed the picture of her mother that she drew she shared that her mother was going to have a baby "but she isn't ready to take it out yet!"

I always display these projects in the school hallway so everyone who attends Back-to-School Night can enjoy them. Over the years it has grown in success and families who are not even in my class come by to see the display. Two of my colleagues have begun to do this project as well, with the same enjoyment and success.

One of my other favorite family assignments is the Baby Name Project. I send home the Baby Name Project letter describing how family members can help. This project gives parents the opportunity to share with their child the origin of their name and information about the day they were born. I have to credit my own mom with inspiring this project. On every birthday when I was younger, she would tell me the story of my birth and I loved hearing every little detail. I kept the tradition up with my own son, Ian and I love setting up the opportunity for my student's parents to do the same.

You would be surprised at how many children have no idea how their name was chosen or what happened on the day they were born. I love hearing students tell their stories and I use their parents written account to help them share more details with the class. The accompanying baby photos are always a huge hit! Of course, I always bring a photo of myself as a baby and as a first grader so my students can hear my story and see what I looked like when I was their age.

What About Traditional Daily Assignments?

Research has consistently shown that parental involvement in a child's learning is a key factor in that child's achievement in school. With the reality of the test driven world of education, many parents expect what they were given in school for homework, familiar daily or weekly assignments. I do agree with the rationale behind these daily assignments: 

  • Homework reinforces skills, concepts and information learned in class.
  • Homework prepares students for upcoming class topics.
  • Homework teaches students to work independently and develop self-discipline.
  • Homework encourages students to take initiative and responsibility for completing a task.
  • Homework allows parents to have an active role in their child's education and helps them to evaluate their child's progress.
  • Homework activities relate what is learned in school to children's lives outside of school and helps to connect school learning to the real world.

But I believe these daily homework assignments should be varied and meaningful, not always rote practice work.

To encourage authentic writing for homework assignments; I use a class mascot, his sleepover bag and a journal for students to write about the mascot's visit to their home. I send home the classroom digital camera so students can photograph their home, family, special events and vacations. We print their photos on the class computer and use them to support their writing. Students interview family members for information to share with the class. We also write poetry, lists, headlines, photo captions, book reviews and more.

To reinforce practice with their word wall words, students learn how to rainbow write, triangle write, happy face write, staircase write, box it write and sort their word wall words by number of letters, syllables, and vowels. I have included a Spelling Ideas printable with examples of all of these ideas and more so you can use it with your students.

To practice math skills and problem solving I send home math games with my students to play with parents or siblings. I assign homework that can easily be modified depending on the students' level of understanding. I also have Family Game Night. Students are allowed to borrow a board game from my classroom collection to take home for the weekend. These games include a memory game from the National Museum of Art, Boggle, Clue for Kids, Scrabble for Kids and more. Students never realize that they are learning about art, counting, problem solving, reading and following directions while they're having fun.

Most importantly I want my first grade students to be reading every single night to improve their word recognition, comprehension, fluency and word attack skills. I am thankful that our school has a fantastic guided reading book library that almost all teachers at Metz use on a daily basis. This allows my students to take home the same books we read in class during guided reading, and reread them dozens of times over several weeks, improving their language arts skills. Students read the same books during independent reading time in class, so they receive further literacy support with these same books just in case an adult is unable to support their reading at home.

Even if your school doesn't have a literacy library of leveled books, you can use reading textbooks the same way, search the Internet for web sites that carry professionally developed leveled readers that you can download and print for student use such as Learning A-Z, or purchase one of the exceptional guided reading programs from Scholastic. If you are short on funding to purchase a program check out local teacher grants in your area or sign up on Donors Choose or Adopt a Classroom. 

Homework is an important time to make connections and reflect; on self, family, friends, new or familiar information, and the world beyond. What you present to your students will determine the heights they will climb to continue to maintain their academic success.  "What is more important, quantity or quality?" is a question you could ask yourself when revaluating the homework you assign to your students. Homework should be fun and full of discovery, not only your students, but for you as well!

Does your child struggle with homework?

Kids who struggle with learning can find homework frustrating and exhausting (as in “tears, excuses, and tantrums” kind of frustrating and exhausting). And of course it only makes things worse when, for struggling students, assignments meant to take twenty minutes can take up to several hours.

Kids who struggle with learning can find homework frustrating and exhausting (as in “tears, excuses, and tantrums” kind of frustrating and exhausting). And of course it only makes things worse when, for struggling students, assignments meant to take twenty minutes can take up to several hours.

Whether you and your child tackle homework immediately after school or a couple hours before bedtime, this kind of recurring routine is exhausting for kids and exhausting for parents, too.

How can you improve the daily homework experience for you and your child? Try following these tips:

Prep yourself

  • Prepare mentally. Before diving in with your child, take a few minutes to mentally prepare. Decide ahead of time what kind of attitude you’re going to embrace, and how you’re going to respond if things get tense or difficult.
  • Do a quick self-check. Before helping your child with his or her homework, take a quick self-check. Are you tired? Hungry? Frustrated about something that happened earlier in your day? If so, take a few minutes to eat a snack, catch a power nap, or do whatever you need to do to decompress. Make sure you are not bringing other frustrations or vulnerabilities into your time with your child. Homework can be challenging enough without someone bringing unrelated grumpiness to the table.
  • Practice mindfulness. If you feel your blood pressure start to rise while helping your child with his or her homework, try this. Turn your attention away from whatever it is your child is doing that is so frustrating, and pay attention instead to what is happening in your emotions and in your body. Observe yourself almost as if you were a detached third party. How are you feeling? Frustrated? Powerless? Defensive? What’s going on in your body? Are you clenching your teeth? Do you feel tension in your hands? Is your stomach in knots? This kind of mindfulness often diffuses the intensity of what you are experiencing and puts you in greater control. What’s particularly cool is that studies show this kind of mindfulness in educational settings reduces teacher burnout, increases compassion, and improves performance in the classroom. Why not reap the same benefits at home?

Prep your environment

  • Have what you need on hand. Pencils, paper, scissors, poster board, markers, calculator… you know the list. When you have study supplies readily at hand, it can reduce tension. Homework takes a significant time commitment as it is. Don’t add to that time by having to spend an hour looking for the slide rule, or having to drop everything and run to the store for poster board.
  • Practice familiar cues. Some kids thrive on routine, and you can create fun habits that can help your child’s brain take familiar paths to settling down and being productive. One writer explained that anytime he sat down to write, he wore the exact same ball cap. Before long, his brain began associating that ball cap with focused writing, and he found himself able to transition quicker into a state of productivity when wearing it. How about a Homework Hat? Or Lucky Math Pencil? What if you had your child write a list of affirmations on an index card and read them aloud every day before tackling homework assignments? Affirmations might include, “I can be focused when I need to be.” “I can do this.” “I’m ready to learn.” “I can do more than I think I can do.”
  • Try a new setting. Routine is good, but sometimes it can also help to shake things up a bit, either as a reward for a productive week, or to see if your child actually studies better in a different setting. How about a local coffee shop? A picnic table beneath a backyard tree? Dad’s favorite leather chair? A blanket tent in the living room?

Prep your child

  • Exercise physically before studying. Exercise is good for the body and it’s good for the brain, too. Instead of insisting that your child start his or her homework the moment after walking in the front door, see what happens if you insist he or she plays outside for an hour first. Studies show that physical exercise improves thinking and concentration, in the long run and immediately as well. In one study, for example, researchers discovered that children who walked or bicycled to school had better concentration for four hours longer than kids whose mothers drove them to school. For that matter, other studies using brain scans show that exercising before an exam has benefits, too.
  • Eat brain-healthy snacks. What are brain-healthy foods? Think good fats, lean protein, and complex carbs. Good fats can be found in omega-3 oils from fish, nuts, seeds, and dark leafy greens. Lean protein can be found in raw almonds, baked chicken, and organic plain yogurt with fresh fruit. Complex carbs can be found in whole grain tortillas, brown rice, and sweet potatoes. How important are healthy snacks for your homework-wrestling kid? Let’s talk about healthy fats for a moment, shall we? The difference between a diet of healthy, unsaturated fats and a diet of unhealthy, saturated fats is huge. In fact, in one study, rats on a diet filled with unhealthy fats developed learning difficulties. Dr. Philippa Norman, writing about that study, explained that “a child eating mostly processed cakes and crackers, French fries and fried meats loaded with trans and saturated fats, will build a different brain than a child who is eating broiled fish, nut butter, salad dressings made with olive or safflower oil, eggs and lean meats.”
  • Stay hydrated. There is simply no way to overstate the importance of getting enough water. Did you know that dehydration impairs focus and memory, causes brain fatigue and brain fog, and is linked with headaches, sleep issues, anger, and depression? And because water gives the brain the electrical energy it needs to function, it doesn’t take a huge water deficit to create problems.
  • Study in productive bursts. No dawdling allowed. Guestimate how long your child can work productively. If it’s ten minutes? Great. Forty minutes? Even better. Whatever the number, set a kitchen time for that length of time. When the timer goes off, take a ten minute break. Do jumping jacks. Visit the bathroom. Get a snack. Do the Hokey Pokey. Shoot some hoops. Now set the time for another block of study time. Over the coming days and weeks, gradually increase the block of time for productive study. What you are doing is helping your child develop the habit of being present and productive, even for short bursts of time. If you don’t teach your child to be intentional about being productive, it’s all too easy for him or her to develop other habits, like wriggling in the chair, pretending to look busy, procrastinating, complaining, dawdling. By allowing your child to sit at the table and practice wasting time, he or she is reinforcing poor habits. Far better to practice being mentally present and productive, even if it is for short bursts of time that can gradually be lengthened.

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