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Kathy Collins on Literacy Homework (PODCAST)

Choice Literacy

Kathy Collins shares her latest thinking on literacy homework assignments with Franki Sibberson. Kathy's latest book is Reading for Real: Teach Students to Read with Power, Intention, and Joy in K-3 Classrooms. A full transcript is available below the player.

Franki Sibberson: I hear you're interested in the literacy homework lately, and I'm just curious as to how and why you got interested in issues around homework. 

Kathy Collins: Well, for two reasons. One is professional; one is personal. I'll start with the personal. My son started getting homework and so I started to pay attention to it as a parent dealing with it, watching my child deal with it, and there were some things about it that - the first thing I wanna say is this isn't about his teacher per se, it's about the whole homework culture, I think.

But he would get assignments, say a reading log, which I assigned as a teacher, and thought, "Oh, that's an easy thing to assign." We have the child read at home and record it. But the reality of that, when the child is reading in bed before they fall asleep, they're not running downstairs to get their log or they don't have a pen next to them. 

So anyway, there were little hitches with watching homework from the family side. I could see little hitches in it. And on the teaching side, so much time is spent creating systems for homework, making homework, spending time at the copy machine. And I joke with teachers about you have your 35 minute lunch and 20 minutes is spent waiting to get on the copy machine because everyone on your grade is making their homework at the same time. 

Making homework, distributing homework, correcting homework. I feel like sometimes the energies we put into homework we're taking away from more valuable things, planning instruction.

So I started to do a little research about homework. And so I found something really interesting. There's no research that suggests that there's any academic value in homework before middle school age. There are benefits to it, the home school connection, teaching kids about carrying things between home and school, and the benefit, you know, it allows for communication with parents. 

But to think that when we assign homework and that our kids are thriving academically because of the homework we assign is probably not true. I just started to re-think homework. If it doesn't really help kids academically in elementary school, then why do we do it first of all? And if we're gonna do it because the system - every school has expectations and systems for homework - most schools I should say, if the system's in place, how can we do a better job with homework? 

Franki Sibberson: So Kathy, how can teachers work to make homework more meaningful for kids because as a parent, as a teacher I see everything you're saying and I've seen it from both sides too. What's your current thinking on how we can make it a little bit better for kids? 

Kathy Collins: I've been thinking about homework assignments and I came up with these three categories for homework assignments and one category is communication. We know that homework is one way that we let parents and families know what's going on in the classroom. 

One of the things that we could do in homework is facilitate communication between families and their kids. So things like putting things on homework, like, for example, today we went on a field trip to the science museum. Tell somebody at home about the exhibit you remember most. Tell them three things you remember about it. 

So it's facilitating communication because parents will always say, "Oh, when I ask him what he did in school he says 'nothing' or how was school? 'It was okay.' What'd you do? 'Nothing.'" And this opens a door for a conversation between kids and parents. 

So if there's an event, or today some drummers came to our school. Tell somebody at home what you thought of the music or what would be one million-dollar word you would use to describe the sound of the Tyco drum. 

And that sort of can tie in with some writing work. I mean, it's thin, it's a thin tie-in, but maybe we read a picture book and so it could be something, you know, "Today in school we read Spoon by Amy Kraus Rosenthal. Talk to somebody at home about some ideas you got from that book." I don't know. 

Franki Sibberson: They're great ideas.

Kathy Collins: So it helps parent wedge open that door a little bit especially in situations where the child's more likely to say "Nothing." "What'd you do?" "Nothing." "How was school?" "It was okay." 

So one thing is communication. Oh, and tied in with that, another thing about communication, say you're getting a study started, maybe you're launching a nonfiction study in reading. I always used to before a study would start maybe the week before, I would sort of prime the pumps through homework.

And there'd be questions like, you know, "We're about to start our study which we become really powerful nonfiction readers. Ask a grown-up at home what kinds of nonfiction they like to read." So that may be one day. So what kind of nonfiction?

Or, "When you were little, what kinds of topics were you interested in studying?" Things like that. Or "What advice would you give to somebody who's trying to become a powerful nonfiction reader?" Now, I acknowledge that there might be second language issues in the home or different comfort levels with certain literacies at home. 

So of course this is modified depending on - you would modify this in some way depending on your school and your community so that the communication is facilitated however you need to modify it for your particular community.

But the idea of just opening that doorway for kids to talk to parents about what's going on in school and for parents to know things that they might ask. 

So communication. And the next one is homework that provides opportunities for kids to explore their lives and their own environment. And so, you know, just to use a nonfiction example, you know, maybe the next night of homework is "Look around your house or look around your apartment. What are some examples of nonfiction texts you see at your house?" 

Or "Look for nonfiction text and bring an example into school tomorrow." So it could be that sort of scavenger hunt type of exploration or it could be, you know, for reading it's the middle of the year, "Tonight when you read at home, after you finish reading, look around your reading spot. What are the things in your reading spot at home that make it really nice for you to read?" Or I don't know.

So they're looking around their space. "How can you change your reading spot so it works better for you?" Or "Where do you do your homework?" You know, "What tools do you have in your homework place that helps you get your work done?" I don't know. Things like that, so they're really thinking about their environment and thinking about "How might I change it."

Because I think there's power in that because sometimes kids think "This is my lot in life. This is the place I do my homework. And I have to ask my mom for the scissors every time." What if the child said, you know, realized, "I don't have scissors here. Oh, it would be really helpful if I had scissors in my homework spot." 

So things like that so they're exploring their environment. And it could even, and you could think about different content areas and what that exploration would be like. And say you're doing something in social studies and, you know, whatever the content is, and, you know, think about that in your own family or -- I don't have an example off the top of my head. Maybe I could think of that. 

So exploring. And then another strand, sort of, of homework might be reflection. And this can be throughout studies where you're having kids reflect or goal set or "How have you changed? What's different for you now?" And you can tie that into the communication, you know, so for this last month we've been learning how to become a really powerful nonfiction reader. 

"Tell a grown-up at home how you've changed or what you know about nonfiction reading." Or "If you were gonna give somebody advice about becoming a strong nonfiction reader, what would you tell them?" 

So again, they're doing this reflection piece and then they're also communicating about what's going on in school. So those kinds of homework. Well, they're hard to grade, so teachers will say, "Is anyone writing? How do I know they've done it?" But I say, "With any homework, how do you know they've done it?" 

Franki Sibberson: You don't know how much help they got, right? 

Kathy Collins: Right. How much help or how much of a struggle. And I often think about this one child I taught whose homework, there would be so much erasure where if I held the paper up to light, it was, you know, you could see right through it. And this one spot, the child was writing something about what he did over the weekend, and his family went to Virginia.

Well, he erased the heck out of Virginia until he spelled it correctly. And, you know, as a teacher, my bigger concern is that he gives Virginia his best try and uses what he knows. I'm expecting all the sight words to be spelled correctly, all the words we've studied together in word study, all the spelling patterns when that comes up in a word that the child is using that stuff on their homework. 

But a word like Virginia, if he's got a "J" in there and it ends with a "Y-A," that's using what he knows. And so but any way -

Franki Sibberson: So the wrong kind of support sometimes.

Kathy Collins: Yeah, that's, you know, you'll see that. So sometimes on these assignments where the kids are talking to somebody at home, I will invite the grown-up to do the writing or, you know, I guess depending on the grade or the child's temperament too, the grown-up could do the writing, the child could do the writing.

And then a lot of times homework they're sketching. So, you know, if I go back to that one example where "Look around your reading spot at home, what is it about it that makes it really work for you?" 

I might have a little like picture story, little snippet of picture story paper in there where they can sketch it or even take a picture if they've got the technology and the materials, they could take a picture of it, you know, print it out at home, put it on the homework and then write off of that or something like that. 

And I wouldn't expect that across the board just because different, you know, different families have different abilities to, you know, with or different - I don't know what the word I'm looking for. Well some can print pictures out digitally and some may not be able to. 

And then so I'm gonna add in another one right here on the spot. So communication - 

Franki Sibberson: This is so exciting. 

Kathy Collins: But maybe I would add in some content where maybe, say we've been doing some revision work and writing or something and we've got an anchor chart in the classroom, I might put an index size or a small version of the anchor chart in the classroom and have the child bring home a piece of writing and "Revise this piece using some of the things we've learned about revision."

And so they'll revise the piece at home and maybe circle the revision strategy they used or, you know, something, of course, developmentally and grade-wise. There's a continuum of how deep this could go and how much work it could be.

And then things like, say, in shared reading where we studied a poem together for a week or we learned a poem for several days, I would always put the poem on the homework and say, you know, something like, "Read this to somebody at home and talk about it the way we talk about it in class. 

Ask them what they think about the poem," or ask, you know, say we were studying envisioning or something and you put the poem on and say, "Read it to somebody at home. Ask them what they picture. Have them draw it." Maybe the grown-up or the big sister or the twin or the little sister draws it, you know, or something just so they're - 

Franki Sibberson: Something collaborative?

Kathy Collins: Yeah, they're collaborating, they're sharing what they've learned. They're having conversation about their schoolwork with somebody. It's much thicker than directive conversation. 

Franki Sibberson: That is so smart. 

Kathy Collins: "Did you get your homework done?" "That's not so neat." You know, "Do it over." You know, that sort of doing homework to get it done conversation.

Franki Sibberson: Right. So you brought this up earlier about, you know, kind of the school's expectations for homework and so much of homework sometimes is what parents expect or what parents are comfortable helping their kids with at home. So do you have any ideas for how teachers can help educate parents about not only the role of homework but how best to support their kids? 

Kathy Collins: Yeah, that's such a great question because you have, you know, well, again, the personal, when my son was going into first grade and we met the teacher, we were new to the school, and we met the teacher, and she sorta said, you know, "I don't assign homework," and almost defensively she said, "You know, I really just believe five and six year olds need a lot of time to talk and play." 

And I could've given her a round of applause. I heard that defensive. It struck me that she needed to defend her position and I said something to her, "Oh, you don't have to explain to us. That sounds great." And she said, "Oh, okay, well, good because a lot of parents really equate lots of homework with good teacher." 

And that's the truth. And you know that because you're a parent and behind the scenes, "Oh, who's she got for next year? Oh, she -" you know, so much of how the culture evaluates a teacher is by the homework, I think, 'cause that's the thing that leaves school that they families -there are things that, I don't know, maybe this is hypocritical given everything I've just said about, you know, these ideas for homework, but there's things I would assign for homework just because first of all they were things I knew gave parents comfort. "Okay. Good. This is happening in the classroom."

So those things would be like handwriting practice, letter formation, handwriting practice, math facts, some spelling. And it wasn't the ten-word spelling list, give the test on Friday spelling list person. But playing with the spelling work that we were doing. 

Kids would have, you know, we did a lot of hybrid word work, you know, Cunningham, snowball, you know, whatever. We used to joke it was the cunning ball method. But if were working - again this is first grade - if we were working on spelling patterns in the classroom, particular spelling patterns, that would go on homework.

And, you know, it would be a challenge like, "Today we learned that 'at' family, say, or the 'at' spelling pattern. See how many words you can write using the 'at' spelling pattern. And then show it to somebody and see if they can add another word to your list." 

So even if the child replicated at, cat, fat, rat at home, it's still a good practice.

Franki Sibberson: It's still practice, right. 

Kathy Collins: And then challenge words, you know, for enrichment for children who that spelling pattern was locked in already, they could use at to make longer words or multisyllabic words or something or, you know, and there was always a range in what you would see come back.

But anyway, back to your question, how to help parents. I think it's a school conversation first, you know, what do we - it might be a grade level, maybe the real beginning is a grade-level conversation. 

What do we first grade, fourth grade, third grade teachers, what are our homework expectations 'cause maybe even for teachers at a grade level meeting or, you know, half-day PD to bring in some samples of their homework and do a little comparing and contrasting.

And not that - I would hate to see something where every teacher gives the same homework because that, I think, depersonalizes and I believe every class is operating differently, so the same homework wouldn't be really reflective.

But I think just to have shared expectations. You know, every night we expect kids to read for X number of minutes. Every night we, you know, if we're every day mathematics we're gonna send home a home links or, you know, whatever with math. And every day we're gonna try to send home something where kids and their families are talking. 

And then in and around that it could be, you know, very - what's the word I'm looking for - specific to different teachers and their styles. So school has to figure out their expectations for homework. 

Franki Sibberson: Having that school-wide conversation. 

Kathy Collins: The school-wide conversation. And then conveying that to parents. And I'm telling you, there's so much research out there. It's so easy to access, you know, from Alfie Kohn, there's a few different homework books that are geared for teachers, but also geared for families that have the research. And there's things like in Finland the schools, they never give homework, and look at what we know about Finland right about now. So there's a lot of research. If a schools' trying to just re-think their homework policy, they could get the research. 

And I think maybe grade-wide letters home to parents where all the teachers on the grade sign, and again, not that the homework, every class is giving the same homework, but "Here's what we expect for third graders for homework," or "Here are our growing expectations for third graders and homework." 

Franki Sibberson: Right. 

Kathy Collins: And this is a little p.s., but I found when sometimes parents will say, "Oh, the homework's too easy. So and so needs harder homework." Well, in my experience, a hundred percent of the time I've worked so hard to create these, whatever, enrichment packets that would go home for children whose parents said the homework was too easy. And they would never come back.

So, you know, it just goes home. I never see it again. So that I always wonder "too easy for who?" I don't know if I answered that question. 

Franki Sibberson: Yes, you totally answered that question. I love this new thinking. It gives us a ton to think about, so thank you. 

Choice Literacy