Rethink Math Homework as Opportunity not Chore

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I rarely get the chance to blog about math so I’m very grateful for these #TalkMath chats that inspire me to share math ideas! Tonight’s chat is about homework in math which I think is a fabulous topic to talk about as we begin a new year.

Like many teachers, math homework is something we always wish to change for obvious reasons but never know exactly how. After all, people always say practice makes perfect, so worksheets seem to make sense. Except, my kids hate them and I hate looking at them. A part of me thinks math homework is the reason school created “homework passes” – or from a child’s perspective, the “best day ever”.

This past year, I really wanted to rethink the meaning and purpose behind what a student should do at home after school. For me, math homework is time consuming to grade not to mention limited in providing me information on how I can help my students. It only tells me who’s got it and who had a miserable time last night answering every other problem incorrectly. If you think about why any of us (grown-up folk) work at home, it is because we either need to finish up what we were working on in the office or we are preparing for something coming up. If we’re going to ask our kids to “work” at home, it should be for similar reasons.

Start the Learning at Home

Rather than ending a learning experience by having them practice on their own at home, one way to rethink homework is by taking advantage of that time to begin a new lesson. It’s hard to control the mistakes students make at home. More than likely, students develop misunderstandings or bad habits when they’re working with math at home independently which inevitably makes our job difficult during class as we work to diffuse these little fires. For some lessons where I want to teach them a new math strategy (i.e. divide large numbers by using estimation over multiplication), I would record a 5-8 minute video of me modeling the strategy out loud and then ask them to do the same with just one or two problems. By doing so, they have much more time to re-watch or digest the concept and try it on their own.

You can record a video with just a video camera or the camera on your computer and record you teaching with a white board. This can be helpful because the kids are seeing the charts and materials you’re using in class so they can make those connections when they come back to class. Or, another option is using an app like Explain Everything, Doceri, TouchCast, or Educreations and recording it on the iPad. Try both and see which one you and your kids prefer. It often depends on the lesson and what you’re wanting the kids to get out of it.

When I give them the one or two problems to solve, I often ask them to solve them by recording their own videos. I do this so that I can listen/watch their thinking process to pinpoint exactly where they’re making the mistake. The other reason is because I find tremendous value in kids becoming fluent in the math language. Like spanish or any other language, you can’t really understand it unless you speak it yourself. The kids save these recordings and send them to me either by saving them to something like Dropbox or Google Drive, or they can post it on a Learning management system such as Schoology or Edmodo. They could even email it to you via something like Gaggle.

I don’t have to spend a ton of time looking at these “homework” assignments because it’s only a couple of problems and I can fast-forward through it to get a sense of where it all went wrong.

Sometimes, instead of videos, I might have them write about it and post it on a digital board app like Linoit. Popplet, or Padlet. Or you can have them post it on Edmodo. The advantage of this is so that students have additional time to read and learn from each other without face-to-face interaction.

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Extend the Learning at Home

The other approach we can treat math homework is a continuation of what we’re working on in class. Since time is short in class, students use home time to finish what we’re working on in class. For instance, there was once a jigsaw puzzle they had to work on in a center where each puzzle piece had fractions labeled on the edges. The puzzle pieces could only match if the sides touching were equivalent fractions. They worked on it as a group and then took it home to finish on their own. When they came back to class, they could share challenges and learning a-ha moments with each other.

If you are a class where students have technology at home or take personal devices home, you have other great options too. There was one time where my students were playing a game with partners and they didn’t finish. The students scheduled a time with their partner to Facetime each other and finish the game at home. How cool!

Takeaways

The attitude of math homework this year has been very different than the years past. I rarely have to spend energy on dealing with missing homework. If you didn’t watch the video, then you simply have to go to the back of the room, watch it on your own, and hope that you can catch up on everything else. That eventually gets old for them. Or, if they didn’t finish something at home from class time, they can’t continue on to what we’re doing the next day.

Instead of kids complaining about homework, they now ask questions like “Can we continue this tonight for homework?” or “Can we have a flipped lesson tonight?”. These questions made me think that my students were planning what they wanted to do at home before school was even over. They saw homework as an opportunity instead of a chore. I also noticed that my quiet shy students were much more likely to participate during class almost as if the lessons at home gave them confidence in knowing they were on the same playing field as everyone else in the room. As the teacher, I no longer have to stand at the copy machine flipping through workbooks looking for extra practice all the while knowing that a third of my class probably wasn’t going to do it. These real-purposes for math homework has helped me meet the needs of my students and create a more student-centered math environment.

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