Breakout Room Benefits for Teachers Pt. I

This new normal that we are all trying our best to become acquainted with has us dodging curveballs left and right. Teachers are especially frazzled right now. Think about it—seasoned educators have been tasked with completely modifying every known skill set on a dime, with little to no training, all while under the community’s microscope. For a field that tends to attract Type A personalities, all of these hurdles have undoubtedly been overwhelming for professionals who pride themselves on being proactive and prepared.

 

While the move to full-time virtual learning involves a plethora of suggested technology for educators, the sheer amount of platforms and resources can be daunting. One saving grace I’ve found while “Zooming” through the first two weeks of the 2020-2021 school year is the breakout room function during Zoom classes. What is essentially an automatic “small groupinator” at the click of the mouse actually proves to be a life saver for many different reasons. Read on for strategies and methods for utilizing breakout rooms in Zoom.

 

  • Attendance Check: Taking attendance, a seemingly routine daily task, is not so simple anymore. Between the constant Zoom doorbell, the screen sharing, and switching back and forth between countless open tabs, attendance is often the last task a teacher is focused on during class. However, the use of breakout rooms during Zoom meetings makes attendance much more manageable. While groups are meeting, discussing, collaborating, etc., teachers are able to scroll through each group’s participants and check off for attendance on a physical roster. This has been such a time saver, especially since Zoom participants are alphabetized by first name, while our grade books are alphabetized by last name.
  • Student Discourse: Breakout rooms are also beneficial for spurring student discourse. My first week of virtual instruction was beyond painful due to the lack of participation. Virtual learning is awkward for many reasons—it’s new and unfamiliar, students are videotaped, technology glitches occur regularly, it involves a look inside everyone’s personal living spaces…the list goes on and on. However, once I put my students into breakout rooms for discussions, the small group aspect allowed students to share willingly without the pressure of 30+ people staring.
  • Time to Think: The small group aspect also allows students to have some wait time before speaking; they are able to process and gather thoughts without feeling rushed or pressured.
  • Collaboration: Virtual small groups also encourage collaborative efforts. Before entering breakout rooms, I review participant expectations and guidelines so that everyone is on the same page. Group members are responsible for contributing, listening, summarizing, and sharing. Group members are also presented with accountable talk sentence stems to help spur productive discussions.
  • Participation: Sometimes, students are tasked with summarizing their group’s discussion individually as an assignment for participation. This way, teachers can ensure that even the more quiet or reluctant students were able to get something out of their classmates’ discussion groups.
  • Random Grouping: The breakout room feature allows teachers to group randomly or strategically. This means that students have opportunities to work with different peers each time. It also means that teachers can thoughtfully group students based on academic or personal needs.
  • Special Needs: With a special educator or para educator on the Zoom call, teachers can purposefully pair students who might require extra guidance or support with an additional adult in the breakout group.

New Emergency Procedures in MCPS

A dismal update, but essential nonetheless, pertains to Montgomery County Public Schools’ new emergency response initiative. Teachers and students have been or are currently receiving training and information regarding the new procedures. Parents are also to be briefed on the updates at some point in the coming months. While these are trainings intended for “worst case scenarios,” we unfortunately live in a day and age where the “worst case” is becoming a woeful reality.

 

Original protocols

The original or former protocol for intruders and/or immediate threats to the school was to simply lockdown. A lockdown meant that, no matter the circumstances, location, or immediacy of the threat, teachers would uniformly follow lockdown procedures. This meant completing a brisk hall sweep to collect any students in the hallway, locking the classroom, pulling shades, and shutting off lights. The point of the lockdown was (and still is) to make it appear as though the classroom is vacant. There should be no noise, movement, or activity once the lockdown has been put into effect.

 

Alterations and considerations

Because of the fact that, depending on various circumstances, a lockdown may not be the best strategy for surviving an intruder or immediate threat, MCPS, as well as state and national law enforcement, saw a need for more specific measures to be put into place to protect students and staff against instances of school violence. As opposed to the original plan of locking down no matter what, the new acronym, ADD, offers staff more options to consider when facing a potential threat at school.

 

Avoid (A)

“Avoid” is the first option that students and staff should consider if circumstances allow for safe evacuation. Essentially, the goal is to avoid or flee the area if at all possible. For instance, if a shooting is taking place on one side of the building, teachers and students on the other side of the building, farther removed from immediate harm, should evacuate the building using the nearest exit. In this instance, teachers would instruct students to silently and swiftly flee the building.

 

  • Through the training, teachers have been instructed to call 911 en route or once they have reached a safe distance from the building; they should not call 911 from inside the building if planning to then evacuate, as getting students to safety is the first priority.
  • They are also supposed to take students to a location that is far enough away so that the building is no longer in direct sight.
  • If students get separated from their class or teacher during that evacuation, students should continue to run to a safe location in the neighborhood and call for help or ask a neighbor to call 911.
  • Parent/student reunification plans would be made once the situation has been resolved and there is no longer a threat to public safety.
  • Under no circumstances should students or staff return to the school building once they have evacuated. Only after safety is assured and the crime scene(s) has been processed will anyone be permitted to return to the building.

 

Deny (D)

“Deny” is the second option of the new procedures for active assailants. Essentially, deny is similar to the former lockdown procedure, except for the fact that makeshift barricades have been added as a suggestion when locking down.

 

  • Teachers will still do a quick hall sweep to bring in any students who may have been in the bathroom, health room, etc. Then teachers will lockdown, quickly securing the door and covering any windows.
  • Teachers, with the help of any capable students, should begin barricading the door using as much furniture as possible. Even doors that swing outward should be barricaded as much as possible. The point here is to put as many obstacles as possible between the assailant and the civilians in the classroom.
  • On average, police arrive on scene 3-4 minutes after the first 911 call has been placed. Therefore, mere seconds can make a substantial difference in the casualty count. With this knowledge, anything that impedes an entryway or slows the assailant buys vital time for students and staff.
  • Suggested barricade items include desks, chairs, bookcases, laptop carts, work benches, etc.
  • Once the door has been thoroughly barricaded, the lights should be turned off and the room should be silent, just like in the former lockdown guidelines.

 

Defend (D)

“Defend” is the final option—essentially the last-case scenario when dealing with an active shooter in the building. Defend is the back-up plan when avoidance or evacuation is not possible and the “deny” efforts have been compromised and the room is no longer secure. As scary as this sounds, it is critical that staff be prepared to defend if necessary.

 

  • Defense measures would come into play if the lockdown and barricade fails to keep the shooter out of the immediate area.
  • Teachers have been instructed to fight off or disarm the assailant by any means possible. SWAT trainings, provided to MCPS teachers, instruct teachers and/or capable and willing students, to aim for eyes/face, throat, and groin areas if attacking the assailant.
  • Using any item in the classroom as a weapon or shield is also suggested.

Accountable Talk for Behavior Modification

The somewhat recent educational philosophy of accountable talk is rooted in the idea that, through discussion, students practice accountability for their learning and their contributions to others’ learning through discourse. To simplify, the word accountable means, “required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible.” Therefore, when students are using accountable talk in the classroom, they are maintaining responsibility for accurate, verifiable evidence, support, or reasoning, and are expanding their own thinking through rigor and collaboration.

 

Since this strategy is shown to boost engagement, communication skills, and cooperative learning, why not utilize the same philosophies to support behavioral modifications? The idea translates quite simply—if students are able to practice accountable talk regarding academic content, try applying those skills to discussions involving behavioral issues.

 

 

Accountable Talk
Standard/Expectation

For Instruction,
accountable talk requires that students:

For Behaviors,
accountable talk requires that students:

Listening

  • Practicing active/attentive listening
  • Be able to summarize what another student said
  • Be capable of building upon a peer’s thoughts by adding their own considerations
  • Turn and face the peer or adult who is speaking to them; this demonstrates respect and builds positive communication skills
  • Maintain eye contact; avoid straying, daydreaming, and eye-rolling
  • Nod when in agreement to show that they are engaged and/or are aware of the other speaker’s position and opinion

Knowledgeable

  • Be able to defend their position, opinion, stance, etc. with evidence or support
  • Make connections between prior knowledge, other content areas, or a peer’s comment to establish relevance
  • Be able to verify one’s point if challenged or questioned
  • Unpack their position with details and analysis of how they arrived at such a conclusion
  • Explain why they made the choice that they did; discuss their thought process for acting or speaking the way that they did in class
  • Be able to recap or summarize the events prior to the incident or observed behavior
  • Examine the cause and effect relationship between triggers and decisions or responses

Reflective

  • Have opportunities to consider another’s perspective
  • Be provided with wait-time, as to ensure that thoughts are processed and responses are worded precisely
  • Consider how they might approach the task, challenge, or problem differently if given another opportunity or different circumstances
  • Think carefully before speaking
  • Consider the other person’s feelings or reactions to the incident
  • Connect this experience to something they have encountered previously
  • Brainstorm and discuss how this problem, quarrel, or conflict could be ironed out in more productive ways next time
  • Take responsibility for their actions and consider solutions for moving forward or making amends

 

Again, the same principles and benefits that accompany accountable talk practices for critical thinking and rigor during instruction can prove to be just as beneficial for addressing behavior concerns. The more opportunities that students get to practice accountability, whether with regard to academic content, or their own behavioral impulses, the more responsible students will become. Through accountable talk, they must not only listen to others to develop communications skills, broaden their knowledge, and expand on the ability to reflect, but also they must gain a sense of ownership in what they say and how they say it.

Equitable Practices in the Classroom, Part II

In part one, we discussed the importance of addressing students using equitable methods. We also looked at ways to increase participation and ensure that all students feel capable of contributing in classroom discussions and group tasks. Equity is an essential piece, not only in how we teach, but also in what we use to teach.

 

Physical classroom set-up:

There are ways in which teachers can choose to organize, decorate, and structure the classroom to promote a more equitable learning environment. From simple aspects such as desk arrangements, to posters and texts selected for the classroom library, all of these decisions can either foster or stifle equity. When arranging desks, it is important that teachers consider the learning goals of the lesson or unit and the avenues with which students can arrive at these objectives. If discourse is an essential piece of the learning goal, desks should be arranged in a “U shape” or circled up to promote small group discussions, collaborative activities, and cooperative learning practices.

 

If drafting, peer review, or teacher feedback is a critical aspect of the objective, then desks should be set up in groups of twos, threes, or fours to create work spaces that allow for pair sharing and teacher conferences. Whatever the goal may be, the key is for teachers to feel free to structure the classroom as needed, even if this means moving seating arrangements regularly. The room should account for dynamic, free-flowing learning; it does not need to be the stereotypical static formation of rows of desks facing forward.

 

Familiar faces:

An equitable classroom is also one in which students feel welcomed by familiar faces and people with similar experiences. While teachers cannot always provide that face of familiarity themselves, they can ensure that the classroom is adorned with posters, student work, displays, bulletin boards, and texts that are racially and ethnically inclusive of all students.

 

Not only do students need to see themselves represented in their learning environment, but they also need to see stories of success and perseverance. When building a classroom library, teachers should be sure to include works of art, poetry, fiction, and biographical texts that demonstrate the strength of the human spirit through obstacles and hardships. When students are able to connect to texts, not only a cultural level, but through a common life experience, they become more engaged and motivated by the important themes of overcoming challenges. These essential messages help students connect to the classroom in a way that they might otherwise feel excluded.

 

Teachers can also build equity by including artifacts from the community in the classroom. If students participate in a club sport, consider hanging the team’s memorabilia or team statistics on a bulletin board. If community members primarily speak another language, consider displaying posters or motivational messages in that language around the room. Similarly, make mention of cultural holidays or other important days that represent students’ backgrounds, families, and religious or cultural roots.

 

When possible, incorporate generational influences that students can connect to during instruction. Music, television, current events, and other pop culture references can support student engagement and build equity concurrently.

 

Value multiple perspectives:

Where discourse is involved, students have the special opportunity to voice, hear, and try on multiple perspectives—a key practice for building critical thinking skills. Exposing the learning environment to new perspectives allows student to question previous assumptions, explore unfamiliar theories or viewpoints, and build an understanding for others’ belief systems.

Teachers can help to promote this level of broad thinking and consideration with purposeful modeling, questioning, and differentiation. For instance, when having a group discussion, teachers should prompt students to consider further viewpoints by purposeful phrasing such as:

 

  • “There are a variety of ways to look at this example.”
  • “There is not just one correct answer here, it is more open-ended depending on interpretation.”
  • “That’s an interesting interpretation. Did anyone else see it differently?”
  • “So-and-so solved the problem this way, but is there another way to solve it?”
  • “Can you think of another reason why the character may have responded this way?”
  • “How might someone else respond differently based on personal beliefs or circumstances?”
  • “One valid point does not negate another valid point.”

Equitable Practices in the Classroom, Part I

Equity is much more than an educational buzzword—it involves the conscious and subconscious decisions and methods that we teachers implement in the classroom every day. Equity is also closely linked to student engagement, performance, achievement, and academic expectations. Because of the serious implications of classrooms that lack culturally responsive teaching, equity has become a major focal point for professional development among educators. Equitable practices are so critical, in fact, that most districts incorporate equity standards in teachers’ evaluations and professional growth systems.

 

With such an emphasis on equity in education, it is important that teachers know how they can foster and promote equitable practices seamlessly into their instruction and classroom procedures. Many of these strategies fall under “best practices”—strategies that most teachers utilize intuitively every day. However, there are additional efforts that can be made to ensure that equity is at the forefront of our teaching and learning.

 

Addressing students:

Teachers should work to welcome and address students by name at the door upon entering class. This helps to build a positive classroom climate and ensures that students know they are each cared for and welcome.

 

Teachers should ask about correct pronunciation and if students have a preferred nickname. Often, students are shy about correcting a teacher’s pronunciation; however, it is important that teachers correctly identify and pronounce students by name to recognize their personal and cultural identities. Over time, when teachers continuously mispronounce a student’s name, it sends an unintentional message that the student’s name is arbitrary, difficult, or complicated. In essence, teachers may be inadvertently “othering” a student by neglecting to correct their pronunciation or drawing attention to the name’s unique qualities.

 

Teachers may also unknowingly address students by name only when they have done something wrong or are being reprimanded. While unintentional, this habit creates a negative rapport among teachers and students. Instead, teachers should consciously address all students by name when recognizing them for positive behaviors as well.

 

Student participation:

Best practices include random calling methods to ensure that all students get the opportunity to share in whole group and small group settings. Calling sticks help teachers to truly randomize student participation. This practice fosters equity in a few different ways: it holds all students accountable for learning, and it also establishes the belief that all opinions are valid and everyone’s perspectives matter. Calling sticks also encourage students to maintain focus and engagement because they never know when they will be asked to participate.

 

Calling sticks and other random calling methods should be used for more than just participation. Teachers can utilize calling methods to encourage students to come up to the board to lead a part of the lesson. Teachers can also use calling sticks to highlight a randomly selected student’s writing, art, poem, math strategy, etc. The key is to allow all students the opportunity to speak, demonstrate learning, ask questions, and receive praise.

 

Participation during group work or collaborative presentations can provide teachers with another opportunity to build equity among learners. Oftentimes, group work and presentations reward the talkative leaders and participatory over-achievers. Instead of allowing groups to determine who will share out or present, randomize the speaking role. Insist that the group member with the most recent birthday, shortest hair, longest bus ride, most siblings, or most colorful clothing share out. This provides the more quiet, reserved, or reticent group members with the low-risk opportunity to share the group’s work.

 

Proximity is another method to ensure equity when addressing students, particularly with student behavior. Teachers may subconsciously move toward students who are misbehaving or disrupting; however, it is just as important to use proximity when students are on task and exhibiting positive behavior. Physical proximity, whether addressing positive or negative behaviors, sends the same message to all students—“I see you; I recognize what you’re doing.” When students are “caught” doing something positive, use physical proximity to send that positive message. This subtle recognition helps to build classroom environment and an encouraging climate for students.

Parent Conferences

Parent conferences are extremely beneficial for students and their academic success. The constructive feedback and collaborative effort that parent conferences offer provide foundations for growth, no matter the student’s previous track record or measures of ability. Like many school districts, November is the month when Montgomery County Public Schools open their doors to parents and guardians for conferences. While any meeting of the minds is beneficial to students, there are methods to optimize the conference so that both parents and teachers walk away with feedback and strategies to best support the learner at home and at school.

For the parents:
➢ Come prepared with specific questions about your child’s academic progress. Questions like, “How is so-and-so doing?” is broad and somewhat generic, which will likely beget a broad response and leave the teacher with little direction with which to steer the conversation. Instead, review recent grades or classwork at home with your child and prepare to discuss specific areas of weakness on recent tasks. This allows the teacher to focus in on specific areas of need and strategies for growth.

➢ Consider asking questions that span beyond academic success. Ask about participation, where your students sit in the classroom, if they are socializing or pairing up during partner or group work, how frequently they ask questions or come in for extra help during lunch, if they arrive to class on time and with necessary materials? Beyond the academic picture, answers to these questions provide parents with an overall view of their child as a learner.

➢ Be ready to listen to constructive feedback about your child’s behavior. Often times, the child you see at home is a slightly (or sometimes vastly) different person from the student, athlete, peer or  persona that your child displays at school. Teachers are good at navigating precarious conversations about behavior, but they also aim to provide genuine feedback. Therefore, some information may be surprising or difficult to hear, but know that they will follow up their concerns with helpful strategies and new approaches to remedy any issues.

➢ Feel free to take notes. These meetings involve a lot of feedback from several different teachers, especially when your child is at the secondary level. It might be difficult to remember the key pointers from each teacher, particularly when your child’s abilities and behaviors vary from subject to subject. Therefore, a quick jot of each teacher’s talking points will ensure that you can refer back to these observations and suggestions when discussing with children at home.

For the teachers:
➢ Aside from current grade sheets, compile a few work samples with your feedback or comments included. Photo copy these samples so that parents have the option to take them home for further discussion with their child. If possible, provide a range of the student’s written responses or essays and include the rubric so that parents have an idea of what the task entailed and where their child may need help.

➢ Lead with positive comments so that the conversation is balanced. It is difficult for parents to hear criticism of their child; they may become overwhelmed or even defensive during a tough conversation. Talk about the student’s unique strengths first if you know that you will need to venture into a more critical conversation regarding his or her struggles.

➢ Prepare to offer strategies and resources that students can use outside of school to improve their areas of need. There are many online resources and apps that can help students with everything from spelling and typing to geometry and study skills—the problem is, parents often need guidance when finding age-appropriate and ability-specific resources that also align with the Common Core State Standards. A quick reference guide will help ease the stress of finding additional supports to use at home.

➢ Ask about the student’s interests, extracurricular activities, weekend obligations, and study habits. Answers to these questions can provide helpful insight into the student’s after-school schedule and ability to juggle social, academic, and home obligations. This also opens the door to discuss time management skills and how to ensure that academics remain a priority.

How-To Stay in the Know: News for Middle Schoolers

With the prevalence of smartphones, middle schoolers have almost constant connectivity and sources of information. Today’s middle schoolers may not be 100 percent enthralled with current events; however, with the current state of affairs for national and global news, it is important that preteens are receiving accurate, appropriate information. As much as we want all kids to be properly informed, they must be careful with what they are watching and the information that they are receiving. Much like the qualms with social media, middle schoolers are equally vulnerable when it comes to today’s current events. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with middle school-aged students.

Be cognizant of the inevitable biases present in news media. Middles school is right around the time that students begin to learn about performing sound research, obtaining evidence, and citing sources.  Whether reading articles, watching national or local news outlets, or simply receiving social media updates and tweets, adolescents need to be aware of the fact that nearly every news story contains some thread of subjectivity or bias. Of course, people in the business of reporting the news go to great lengths to simply report—with total impartiality. However, the human component of news just inevitably does not allow for stories to remain 100 percent neutral at all times. For this reason, students should know how to identify bias in anything they watch or read involving news. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip?

Know the difference between credibility and unreliability. Again, this is likely a newer concept for middle schoolers. When it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that middle school students can do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Today’s school libraries and media centers have wonderful resources that help with providing credible sources. Whether primary or secondary sources, schools purchase multiple paid forums, anthologies, and online databases for students to conduct research or investigate specific topics.

Middle schoolers should utilize age-appropriate outlets to ensure that the news is something that they can understand and appreciate. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Discovery Channel, Channel One, Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for middle schoolers.

How-To Stay in the Know: News for High Schoolers

With the almost constant connectivity and media availability for today’s adolescents, high schoolers have the option to remain in the know at all times. Especially today, while major national and global news stories are constantly rolled out, students should have no issue staying informed. However, like all technology and social media, students need to be careful with what they are watching and the information that they are receiving. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with high school-aged students.

Be aware of the inevitable biases present in news media. Whether reading articles, watching national or local news outlets, or simply receiving social media updates and tweets, teens need to be aware of the fact that nearly every news story contains some thread of subjectivity or bias. Of course, people in the business of reporting the news go to great lengths to simply report—with total impartiality. However, the human component of news just inevitably does not allow for stories to remain 100 percent neutral at all times. For this reason, students should know how to identify bias in anything they watch or read involving news. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip?

Know the difference between credibility unreliability. Hopefully, by high school, students have experienced and completed enough research assignments to identify credible sources. However, when it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that high school students can do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Of course, Wikipedia, every high schoolers favorite resource for “research,” can be helpful, but only if students fact-check the links and sources at the bottom of the Wikipedia pages.

Teens should utilize age-appropriate outlets to ensure that the news is something that they can understand and appreciate. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for high schoolers.

How-To Stay in the Know: News for Elementary-Age Groups

For elementary students, the topic of news or current events may likely be met with confused faces or outright groans of boredom. I can certainly remember my eyes glazing over when Nightly News occupied the television in my house growing up. And today’s elementary schoolers are no different—they may not be 100 percent enthralled with current events. However, today’s technology means that current events are not only readily available, they are also available to all levels of readers and viewers. For the elementary age group, news events and stories shared with children must be age and reader-appropriate. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with elementary students.

Be sure to preview all news stories, articles, and broadcasts before having students participate. Thankfully, today’s technology and vast number of children’s programs ensure that current events and news articles can be easily assessed for age-appropriate content. Several educational news outlets do this work for us by categorizing material by age group and Lexile range. While it is important that students understand what they are reading, it is equally, if not more important, to be sure that the material is suitable for children. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Discovery Channel, Channel One, Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for elementary schoolers.

Keep the news relevant but light. Of course, we want students to be aware of some of the important events happening around them. But, at the same time, we must be sure not to expose them to anything that is too jarring or upsetting. News stories for elementary-age groups should involve topics to which students can relate. Make sure that the information they are getting connects to something in their own lives. This is a great way for students to begin to connect to the outside world, as well as recognize their place in it.

Encourage questions. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip? How does this story or event affect the people around me? How do I benefit from knowing about this story or current event? Again, these questions prompt students to consider what they have just learned.

Know the difference between credibility and unreliability. Again, this is a new concept for elementary schoolers. When it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that elementary school students can begin to do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Today’s school libraries and media centers have wonderful resources that help with providing credible sources. Whether primary or secondary sources, schools purchase multiple paid forums, anthologies, and online databases for students to conduct research or investigate specific topics.

Homework Ideas for Teachers to Try

Too often, homework assignments get a bad reputation for being tedious, repetitive, or unnecessarily lengthy. As educators, we aim to provide work that is rigorous, purposeful, and engaging. The last type of task we want to assign is an irrelevant or disconnected assignment used solely as “busy work.” Homework is meant to allow time to practice and reflect on the skills or concepts that we have been teaching in class. Of course, assignments cannot always engage every student on every level. However, a few different strategies can ensure that, as much as possible, students bring home tasks that hold their attention, assess their skills, and promote reflective practices concerning their learning styles.

Provide opportunities for student choice as often as possible

This could mean that students are given the option to choose from a list of assignments, all with the same objectives or learning goals. The idea behind this is simple: the manner in which students exhibit their learning is not what matters. Providing options that boost engagement can often enhance learning. Assignment options can range from a paragraph or collage to a PowerPoint or Adobe Spark page. With a wide range of possibilities, students are able to play to their strengths. A tech-savvy student and an artistically-inclined student can both exhibit knowledge of the content or skill, but produce different representations of their knowledge. This allows students to focus on the same learning goals and participate in the same instruction, while allowing them to differentiate the product that they create.

Permit students to opt-out of homework they have mastered

Along with student choice should be an opportunity to “opt-out” of certain assignments—for instance, a student that aces an algebra practice test may be given the option to opt out of the night’s homework involving the same concepts. This idea supports the notion that busy work not only lends itself to boredom, but also has the potential to lower motivation and determination. If a student has proven mastery of a concept, rote or redundant practice is unnecessary.

Create a weekly or monthly calendar of assignments

This not only helps teachers with their planning, it also assists students with organization and proactivity. The calendar acts as a visual or digital reminder of assignments that are coming down the pike. Be sure to include the date that the task was assigned, as well as the due date. Double check that a week’s worth of assignments is balanced and reasonable—i.e., something that students can realistically accomplish in the timeframe given. Encourage students to cross off tasks as they are completed. Also, allow students to submit work prior to the due date. This way, students that struggle with disorganization or misplacing papers can rid themselves of the assignment before it disappears.

Hold a homework session during lunch

This can be as frequent as needed, but once a week is a good start. Allowing students to have a quiet place to work is a benefit to them and you, as well. By working through an assignment with students, teachers are better able to gauge the effectiveness of their instruction. A lunch session also allows students to ask questions or voice confusion over a particular homework task.