The Ups and Downs of a Reading Life

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Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

When is the last time you led a conversation with students about reading habits and you shared, “You know, I just haven’t had time to read lately.”?

I know; some of us might have to get rid of our perpetual “read 20 minutes a day” assignment for our students. Or, add –ish after “20” or “day”. We may have to update that “What Real Readers Do” anchor chart with statements like “Sometimes have other things to do” or “Binge-watch the Netflix series based on the book you just read”.

Because that is what real readers do, right? Who reads 20 minutes a day? Last night I read the last 150 pages of A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. Today I might search for online articles, blog posts, and reviews that analyze this novel. Tomorrow I might not find that next book to read. This morning I’ve thought about Tremblay’s story, asking myself questions about certain events and character actions. If reading is thinking, then does this time to reflect on the book count? Or is it “fake reading”?

Let’s get to the point: if we are going to model and share what real readers do, then we need to be transparent and a little more honest about our own reading lives. That means divulging our personal challenges as well as the positive actions that have solidified reading as a lifelong habit for us. By painting a more accurate picture of our own relationship with books and other forms of text, students can start to build their own identities as readers. Reading is not simply a science as some might want to suggest; there are social and emotional underpinnings that need to be considered.

So what might this look like in the classroom? Maybe it comes back to the tasks, rituals, and expectations of the reading classroom. Here are some initial ideas.

  • Have students keep a log of their reading habits for one week. Document how long they read and what they read. Then have the students share their findings as a class. Using this information, come up with an agreed-upon guideline for daily reading, for example, “Read around 25 minutes a day”.
  • Offer a variety of authentic ways for students to respond to their reading. Examples include but are not limited to documenting books read in reader journal, preparing a book talk, write a review on Biblionasium, and write an essay about a book or article that made an impact. Offer prompts and protocols only as needed.
  • Revisit your classroom’s or school’s current homework policy. Ask important questions such as “Are the assignments being asked of us critical to our education?” or “Is homework getting in the way of our reading lives?”. This doesn’t have to be a debate about the idea of homework as much as a needed discussion around the school’s authority in deciding how students should spend their free/family time.
  • Give students more say in what books are selected for the classroom library. (And if you do not have a classroom library, today is a great day to start!) One of the teachers in my school has her students write requested titles on sticky notes and post them on the side of a bookshelf. She uses Scholastic book club points, her classroom budget, and her agreeable principal to get these books ordered and in kids’ hands. This process becomes an opportunity to teach students about genre, cultural representation in literature, and strategies for self-selecting texts.
  • Prepare personal stories about times in your life in which reading was not a daily habit. Maybe a loved one became ill. Or, a book stayed with us long after the last page was finished and we needed time to process through the experience. These stories can be shared orally during readers workshop or as a personal essay written in front of the students as a shared demonstration.

The idea that’s revealed itself here is that for students to build their identities as readers, they need to see and experience authentic reading lives. That means negotiation, that means ownership, and that means making it, yes, okay to not read at times. Real readers are real people, full of contradiction and complexity. If students can see that in ourselves, I believe they are more likely to emulate it in their own lives.

Homework: Helpful, Harmful, or Otherwise?

As I write this, I am out on our back patio. My kids are in the neighbor’s backyard, flying a kite with friends. They had recently recovered the kite from a tree. This time around, they are staying away from the natural hazard. I don’t know how they got the kite down previously; they had figured it out before I was called to the rescue.

Imagine, instead, if I had made my kids stay in after school to finish their homework.

Four years ago, I shared my attempt at revising our homework policy at my former school. It was more policy than practice – we briefly discussed it, then moved on to something related to literacy, I’m sure. Looking back, it was a topical change at best. My suggestions were within the paradigm that homework was still necessary. We never really delved into the idea of homework as a concept that may be outdated.

I’m torn. Some of the work students bring home can make for an interesting study. For example, my son was recently assigned a family heritage project. He had to locate an item that is a part of our family’s history and culture, learn about its significance through interviewing family members, and then communicate his new knowledge through speaking. Storytelling is a skill they have been working on for a while.

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My daughter has elected to bring home learning. She is participating in Genius Hour in her classroom. This primary class refers to these inquiry-based learning activities as “Wonder Projects”. My wife and I are often recruited to support her most current questions, whether that be taking pictures of her next to enclosed animals (“What animals most often live in a zoo and why?”) or setting up a mini-art studio in our dining room (“What are some famous artists and their artwork?”).

These examples are, by definition, homework. One was assigned, one wasn’t. Both facilitated a unique learning experience in our home. This seems to fly in the face of research, such as John Hattie’s meta-analysis that homework has a negligible effect in elementary school and a significant one at the secondary. To be fair, homework that I just described is rare. The typical fare is worksheetsreading logs, and studying spelling words for Friday’s test. One can understand with these examples why schools are starting to outright ban homework.

These absolute policies also result in absolute thinking.  My post here is not to admonish or advocate for homework. Rather, let’s bring some common sense into the conversation. An instructional coach, Dana Murphy, came up with a novel way for teachers to think before they assign homework.

In other words, if we are assigning homework, is it more important than opportunities for kids to play, read, or spend time with families? If the answer is “no”, then how can we rethink our instructional approach for the 6-8 hours that we do have students in our classrooms?

Gotta go. The kids are burying each other in landscape pebbles.

Rethinking My School’s Homework Policy

Since becoming a more connected educator, I have learned much from my professional learning network about the pros and cons of homework, especially at the elementary level. With my student handbook needing an update, I thought it might be a good time to revisit my school’s beliefs regarding this topic.

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Cathy Vatterot, author of Rethinking Homework, offers a reasonable view of how educators can address this touchy subject. With her recommendations, along with information and experiences shared by my colleagues, I made some substantial changes to my school’s homework policy. Text in bold are my potential additions; language with strikethrough may be deleted.

HOWE SCHOOL HOMEWORK POLICY

Homework is an out-of-school assignment that contributes to the educational process of the child. It should be an extension of class work and should be related to the objectives of the curriculum presently being studied.

Homework may include additional practice exercises, reading of material on a specific subject, in-depth extension of classroom activities, or independent project work related to the subject. Instructional time is maximized and consists of introducing new material, so drill and memorization review and reinforcement become an important part of homework.

Effective school research indicates that a positive correlation exists between expanding opportunities for learning and academic achievement. Most children, therefore, will have some homework each school day. Homework may include problem solving, completion of assignments introduced in class, projects, reading ahead in the textbook and other tasks as assigned by teachers. The daily amount of time depends upon grade level, varying from 10 to 45 minutes daily at the elementary level. In order to attain the maximum benefits from homework, your child is responsible for completing homework assignments on time and as directed.

The homework policy that has been established at Howe School indicates that all students will, on a regular basis, receive homework assignments for completion outside of the regularly allocated class time. The amount, frequency and nature of the assignments should be based on the teacher’s professional judgement, students’ needs and reflect the child’s grade, subject and needs. Homework will vary by instructional level, with assignments potentially increasing in length and frequency as the child progresses through the grades.

Homework fulfills the following purposes:

To review and reinforce classroom learning by providing practice with an application of knowledge gained.
To teach children responsibility, neatness and organizational skills. To promote family involvement, school connectedness and two way communication between home and school.

The following amount of time is expected what you might expect for homework daily (excluding Wednesdays):
Grades K and 1st – Approximately 10-20 minutes
Grades 2nd and 3rd – Approximately 15-30 minutes
Grades 4th and 5th – Approximately 20-40 minutes

Note: These expectations will take into consideration a child’s ability and nature of assignments. Any child not completing homework assignments will be expected to stay inside during the noon recess to finish the work.

The following expectations exist for teachers, all children, and parents.

Each teacher will: assign meaningful homework; take into account the capabilities of the class; assign work that will benefit each child and give all children feedback on assignments.

Each child will: learn to accept this responsibility; complete the assignments on time and with high quality; and develop good study habits.

Each parent must: nurture that responsibility in his/her child; encourage his/her child to complete homework assignments; provide for a climate that will foster educational endeavors; and stress the value of hard work and good study habits.

All children make far greater advances in academics when homework is given frequently to extend the school day. Additionally, Academic gains are greater when parents take a vital supportive role in helping the child fulfill his/her responsibility. Ask your child’s teacher for helpful hints in more information in helping your child complete homework assignments.

Students who do not complete their homework at home are expected to complete it before school or during noon recess.
HOMEWORK – MAKE-UP WORK REQUESTS

As a result of student absences, sometimes make-up work is requested. If a child is absent for one or two days, make-up work may not be sent home prior to the student’s return. We are anxious for students to get well. Reading a library book is encouraged. Although we appreciate parent requests, teachers need sufficient time to gather materials. If a student is absent more than two days, please contact the office before 8:30 a.m. so the teacher has time to prepare materials by the end of the school day. With classes of 20 or more students and the possibility of several absences, it takes a significant amount of time to honor make-up work requests. We appreciate your understanding.

I am also sharing these possible revisions with staff and families. When we briefly discussed this topic as a faculty, beliefs were expectedly all over the place. Having a strict policy does not honor where everyone is at on this topic. My hope is that the changes we make will reflect best practices, knowing that it may always be a work in progress.

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Where are you at on the continuum of homework in school, especially at the elementary level? How would you revise this policy? Please share in the comments.