Homework Reconsidered! Teaching with Parents Can Be a Gold Mine
Educators use a large portion of class time to prove homework was meaningful
By Joshua Sneideman
In my seventh year teaching middle school science I stumbled upon a homework assignment that would forever change my approach to homework. Many teachers struggle with assigning meaningful homework night after night. Educators use a significant portion of class time to check for completion, review answers, think pair share or any of 100 strategies to prove that the homework was meaningful. This, as we all know, can become its own vicious cycle, as the dreaded pile of ungraded assignments just gets bigger. Neither new teachers nor expert educators can escape this yearly homework grading dilemma.
It was at just such a moment when I realized I could not collect another piece of paper to assess that creativity struck. The day’s lesson involved asking students to put to memory C6H12O6 as the formula for a simple sugar molecule and NaCl as the formula for salt. Students then used stereoscopic microscopes to compare sugar and salt crystals. (Sugar crystals are asymmetrical-looking hexagonal forms and salt crystals are cubic.)
As the lesson came to a close, I jokingly said tonight at dinner I would like you to ask your parents to please pass the NaCl or the C6H12O6. I will give you five points of extra credit, I said, if you can record the conversation and put it on YouTube. The videos I got the next morning were hilarious. I knew something was different at morning drop off when parents came up to me and said “thank you” for last night’s homework. One parent went so far as to give me a hug, saying she had a great conversation with her son at dinner. “Normally,” she said, “when I ask what did you learn at school today,” my son would reply “nothing.” This evening was different. Over time as I developed these parent/student engagements, students began to have similar positive experiences where they had “actually had a cool conversation with my dad” as one seventh grade student put it.
This serendipitous first step on my journey to including parents in my homework assignments was a raging success. I immediately began thinking about a next step. How did I want parents to engage with students around science content? I chose a balancing act where parents need not feel like a science expert to actively participate in the homework and where, at times, students would feel like an expert. Parent engagement homework assignments could be simply conversational in style. I created the simplest of homework slips, asking for a parent signature that they had indeed had a conversation with their student.
As a science teacher, the goal to increase parent/student interaction around STEM content emerged. The conversational prompt simple yet open ended enough so that there was room for conversation worked avoiding the yes/no answers.
A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science by Christopher S. Rozek, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago, finds parents who talk with their high schoolers about the relevance of science and math can increase competency and career interest in the fields, in addition to raising math and science assessment scores (https://phys.org/news/2017-01-children-stem-fields-boosts-scores.html).
“Parents are potentially an untapped resource for helping to improve the STEM motivation and preparation of students,” said Rozek.
Any teacher can take steps in almost any class to encourage parents to engage in directed conversation around educational themes. Dinner time seems like the best time to do this. Choosing this for me was more intuitive than research driven, only to later find out that according to multiple studies, students who eat dinner with their families often are 40 percent more likely to earn As and Bs in school. Similarly, family dinners also have an impact on reading and vocabulary skills for the obvious reason that you are more likely to be exposed to new and complex vocabulary.
Dinner time is not the only approach to encouraging conversations. A Temple University study used grocery stores in low income communities to encourage increased parent/student interactions. They used conversational prompts in the form of signs around local grocery stores. The outcome was a dramatic increase in parent/student engagement.
Long story short, my classroom anecdotal evidence is that parents and student alike will enjoy homework assignments that ask them to engage with each other. Additionally, research indicates this to be an effective strategy. As the 2017-2018 school year gets started, try it for yourself. You will not be disappointed!
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