Friday, May 23, 2014

Organizing Students’ Summer Homework

School’s out for summer! Students across the country are looking forward to ten weeks of playing, sleeping late and doing summer homework. What? Summer homework!? Many schools are adopting the idea of assigning reading and math work to do over the summer in order to keep students’ minds engaged and sharp. The work is to be turned in on the first day of the new school year.  The question is: how do you meet the student’s expectation of an unstructured summer with the school’s requirement to complete the assignments? Answer: plan with the student how to create just enough structure to complete the homework but provide plenty of unstructured time for relaxing.

The system that my student clients and I have come up with provides a way for the student to keep the work safe and provides a visual reminder of the amount of work to do along with the amount of work completed. Together the student and I agreed upon where the work was to be kept – it’s home base, if you will.  Younger students tended to choose the kitchen desk or counter. Older students tended to choose their bedroom desk. We used a tray for each subject and the student made a label to put on each tray. Homework was put in color-coded folders by subject, and the folders were put in the appropriate tray. Assigned books were put in the appropriate tray as well.
Next the student and I figured out how much work needed to be done each day for each subject. We typically left the weekends and vacation out of the calculation, which addressed the need for unstructured time. Once the calculations were completed we made posters for each subject to illustrate the complete assignment and track the work completed.
The reading assignments were typically more complex because there were several books assigned to read and usually a report for each book was expected as well, so I will use reading to illustrate what we did. Each student created a poster that listed all the assigned books. This poster provides an overview of the amount of reading homework that is to be completed over the summer. Next to each book we listed the date the reading is to be completed and the date the report is to be completed. For each date there is a checkbox that the student will check when that portion of the assignment is completed.  The calculated number of pages to be read daily and a spot to note the agreed upon reward is included on the poster, as well as a place for the student to sign as a way of demonstrating his commitment to the plan.  For each book the student created a more detailed poster.
The book poster included five main components:
·      The book title and a place to write down the author’s name,
·      A bar graph incremented by the dates earmarked to do the reading,
·      A list of “focus questions,”
·      A bar graph incremented with dates earmarked for each step of writing the report,
·      And the agreed upon reward for finishing the book and the report.
The book posters are kept in the reading folder, but the overview poster was either taped to the front of the folder or pinned to the student’s bulletin board. On each book poster, the student is to fill in the author’s name because every opportunity to write it down is an opportunity to strengthen the learning. Every student and I discussed the types of information the teachers look for in book reports. We then wrote a list of questions that will guide the student’s focus in finding that information while reading the book. Providing these questions up front helps the student focus on the reading and subsequently, simplifies writing the report. The two bar graphs are to be colored in by the student when the tasks are completed. Providing the dates helps the student pace himself. The reward for completing a book assignment is smaller than the reward for completing all of the reading assignments and is also agreed upon by the student and his parents.
There are a few system features I’d like to emphasis.  One is that the student is the driving force for how the work is structured. My job was to coach them. I pointed out that in the past, structure has served the student well in getting the work done and – and this is important – preserving free time.  The students decided upon the “focus questions” based on our discussion of their experience writing papers. Although the parent agrees to the rewards, they are of the student’s choosing. Because the student is the author of the system he has ownership of the system and is far more likely to follow-through on the plan.  Additionally, having a designated spot for the homework decreases the likelihood that the work will be lost and increases the student’s ability to do the work.
If we had time, we discussed what should happen if the student did not follow the plan. The young women decided having their cell phones taken away until they were back on track with the assignments was a good consequence. For the young men, losing video game privileges was the agreed upon consequence. I find it interesting that the students decided upon serious consequences should they fail to implement the plan, which I interpret as stemming from their desire to do well. Also I find the gender difference in choice of consequences to be very interesting – of course it is a small group and I don’t know if there is any significance in the difference.
You can download a draft of the posters that a student and I created here: She also decided to use different colored markers and glitter glue to embellish her posters, which are great ways to individualize the system. By using an organizing system that the student helped to create, the need to finish summer homework can be fulfilled while preserving the fun of summer.

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