The Homework Dilemma
All of the teacher advisors recently submitted their views on their homework policy. I thought I'd weigh-in on how I address homework with gifted students.
Just like Scholastic's Mentor Sandra Blair, I teach middle school students. Her students are reading below grade level, but almost all of mine are reading above grade level. Even though our students in Tennessee can qualify for gifted services because of high IQs in the nonverbal areas, the only gifted class we offer in our district for middle school students is reading/English. So, most of the students whose parents choose this scheduling option for them are able to read above grade level.
Because of this, my main focus for homework is to support my vocabulary program. Yes, there are times that I must assign certain chapters in a novel or comprehension questions to finish out a daily lesson on a short story, but my students can depend on nightly homework that deal with our Greek/Latin stems vocabulary approach. After analyzing data from state-wide and district-mandated tests and formative assessments, I realized that the main area of struggle for my gifted students was vocabulary and word building. I personally - as a student AND as a teacher - see no benefit to vocabulary workbooks that hinge on rote memorization and random lists of words. I do believe whole-heartedly in Michael Clay Thompson's Word Within a Word program. When you learn a list of words, you learn only those words. When you learn a list of stems, you can decipher ANY word in our language that uses that same stem. My students thrive in this program.
In addition, let me add that brain research has proven that when a student is trying to master new learning, he/she must review and recall the information within 24 hours of its introduction. Otherwise, the student would have to start completely over with the new material as if it was never introduced in the day's lesson. (See booklist below blog for resources on brain research, including my source for this information.) Therefore, I introduce the new list of stems/roots to the students on Monday, and Monday night they have five sentences to decipher. Tuesday night is spent answering five mystery questions, and Wednesday night is for completing analogies. Thursday night tackles new ideas using the words with some critical thinking questions, and over the weekend the students study for Monday's quiz on the list. This homework should take less than 10 minutes, but it's enough to encourage retention and mastery of the list of words. Each list has 10 to 15 words during the first semester, though we increase the number gradually to 25 words in the second semester. The quizzes are cumulative, and by the end of the year the students have mastered decoding, which in turn increases their reading level because of their progress with vocabulary. It's a win-win situation!
Back to Sandra Blair! I totally appreciate and support her argument that homework must be relevant and respectful of the students. Gifted students can see through busy work very quickly, and they tend to resent homework that they think is useless and a waste of time. The most important thing we can do is take the time to explain to our students why we assign what we assign. If the brain can connect to the purpose of the activity, this will increase retention - and isn't the purpose of homework to support our lessons in class to a level that the kids will still remember the skills and information by the end of the year during the high-stakes assessments? Or better yet, don't we want them to remember that information years down the road when they really need it in college or in the real world when their futures are at stake? I think we all know the answer to that question.
**For more information on brain research and study skills that I share with my students, I highly recommend the following books:
Memorizing Strategies & Other Brain-Based Activities That Help Kids Learn, Review, and Recall by LeAnn Nickelsen. This book is the cornerstone for my study skills week with students and has some great graphic organizers!
Overhead Teaching Kit: Study Skills by Michele Goodstein. I use this book for the inventories and easy-to-use visuals to explain basic study skills to my students.
Brain-Based Strategies to Reach Every Learner: Surveys, Questionnaires, and Checklists That Help You Identify Students' Strengths - Plus Engaging Brain-Based Lessons and Activities. This book is exactly what the title says. Every survey you can think of to find out more about your students is included here, from multiple intelligences to left/middle/right brain to auditory/visual/kinesthetic learners and more! You can't teach a brain research unit without it!