Real world homework: real results

Like many teachers, I have always struggled with homework. On the one hand, I feel that extra practice is always helpful and in language learning particularly, essential to a student’s continuing success. Language isn’t something you can ‘sit and get’ – you have to have someone else involved. Considering we now have a whopping ONE native speaker of Spanish in my school (who isn’t old enough to take Spanish yet), my students don’t have the opportunity to practice their language like kids in more colorful districts might.

On the other hand, homework presents so many problems. One, the homework has to be easy enough for students to complete without my help but challenging enough to be useful practice. (Most homework didn’t meet that criteria in the first place, so we were already starting in a negative way.) Two, the students who did the homework found it easy and probably didn’t need the extra practice. Three, the students who did the homework but found it difficult probably did it incorrectly, which meant they had reinforced a mistake that we now had to work extra hard to undo. Four, then there are the students who didn’t do it at all. Some copied, some just turned in mostly blank pieces of paper. Many didn’t turn anything in at all.

So after trying various versions of traditional homework that was doing more harm than good, I dropped it. I felt better after reading Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth which provides research support to my disposal of a technique that wasn’t working for me. I gave no homework last year.

And then I found my darling #langchat. And on #langchat, language teachers were trying something new. A ‘real world’ homework, they called it. This homework was based on real activities using real language. I decided to give it a try this year.

You guys. Seriously. Do it. I used to hate grading homework. It was the bane of my life. I hated putting in all those zeros. I hated chasing after students to hand me something, anything. I hated having to teach and reteach the material because it just wasn’t clicking. Real world homework changes (most of) that. I still have to remind students to get it in, but grading it now makes me smile.

Here’s how my system works:

  1. Homework is due on a specific day for each class. Spanish 1 on Tuesday, Spanish 2 on Wednesday, etc. I don’t have homework turn-in on Monday so that I can do a class reminder. Hopefully, as the year goes on, their brains will adapt to the pattern and I won’t have to remind so much.
  2. Students are given many choices of tasks to do. Giving students a choice helps them feel empowered and therefore more compliant with requests. The catch is that they can only do the same task 2 times per quarter. (Otherwise all they would do is listen to music and I want them to stretch their brains.)
  3. Higher level classes have to do the task for more time, but they don’t necessarily have to choose harder tasks.
  4. Students ‘turn in’ their homework using a simple Google Form. On it, they enter their name, choose what they did (using the single-choice buttons), and then tell me what they learned, what was easy/they liked, and what was hard/they disliked. I keep a spreadsheet for myself that tracks who did what and then I fill in the color if they’ve completed their 2 for the quarter.

The one caveat that many teachers ask is… how do you know they’re not ‘cheating’? The answer is I don’t, but I also don’t get myself in a kerfluffle about it. The purpose of the homework is to enhance their interpretive skills while promoting enjoyment of Spanish – not something I can truly measure. It’s worth a whopping 10 formative assessment points per week, far less than what we acquire through class activities, and formative assessment as a whole is weighted less than summative. The form is just enough to give me an idea if they are doing it (and so far, I have every reason to believe they are).

I actually had to tell some students that they wrote too much and google was cutting them off. What a great problem to have, right? Here are some of my favorite student homework turn-in quotes:

“It was easy.” “It was fun.” “Listening to music is fun because I can do it while driving. It doesn’t take much time.” “I can learn the words I want to.” (after attempting to talk with a parent in Spanish) “My mom is horrible at Spanish and should never speak it again.” “It was hard because I don’t know many words, but I will learn them.” “I can recognize lots of words from class.” “They talk really fast!!!” “It was hard because they used some slang, but it was cool to see it.”

Convinced yet? Here’s a link to my Spanish 1 options – feel free to adapt them for your own purposes.