How to Manage Homework without Going Crazy
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I stared in amazement and more than a bit of frustration at the crumpled, ripped half sheet of computer paper with 10 random answer scrawled on it.
This was “Greg’s” homework. Or rather, it was supposed to be.
At least Greg had turned something in, which is more than I could say for about half the class.
But seriously? Can you at least make it look like you’re trying?
I was 4 months into my first year of teaching Algebra I, and clearly something had to change.
I needed a better way to not only hold students accountable but also to make sure that the work they were doing was truly helping them learn.
Homework frustrations can be enough to drive a teacher into early retirement, or at least make you want to scream into a pillow for a good hour or so.
But before you run home for your pillow (or grab the one you conveniently store in your desk drawer for just such an occasion), take a deep breath, keep reading, and see if some of these suggestions might just make things a little easier for you. They sure did for me.
Holding Students Accountable for Homework
- Give only valuable homework. This sounds obvious, but sometimes we give homework just because we feel like we should or because there’s a worksheet in the curriculum. When we do this, we are wasting our time, our students’ time, and, most tragically, their families’ time. Just say no to unnecessary homework. (I talk more about this in my book Create You Dream Classroom and also in the article “Why You Should Give Way Less Homework.“)
- Focus on quality versus quantity. When assigning homework, assign less versus more and have high expectations that the students will do their best on what you do assign. In math, lots of teachers assign an entire worksheet with 20-30 problems, not realizing how many hours a struggling student & their parents end up agonizing over it. But I choose to assign just 6-7 problems per section. My goal is to assign the fewest amount of problems that would still give the students the practice they need. I found that 6-7 problems was just about perfect. I then focus on quality – I expect the students to really put a good attempt into each problem – which I probably couldn’t quite expect if I assign 30 problems.
- Require homework to be done on time. Obviously your school’s policies will impact how you handle late homework, but if at all possible, have some type of penalty when students don’t complete their work on time. The two most logical penalties are for the student to lose points on their homework and/or for the student to be required to complete the homework during another part of the day such as lunch or recess. What matters most is that you’re holding them accountable in some way and requiring them to learn the responsibility & time-management skills that will be essential not just for their academic success but for life.
If you are having big problems where up to half of your class doesn’t do their homework (like I did), then speak with your administrators about developing a school-wide plan. Or, if you teach secondary, get together with your students’ other teachers and put together a consistent plan that you can all use to encourage & motivate students’ to turn work in on time. Seriously, this is a game-changer.
- Grade homework. Many teachers advocate for not grading homework, but I tried that and it was a disaster. The quality got worse and worse because the students knew I wasn’t grading it. If you’re facing the same problem, then maybe it’s time to try grading it. Keep reading for ideas for how to do this quickly & fairly.
- Give credit for accuracy AND effort. While we need to grade homework to keep students accountable, we also must realize that homework is practice and students are going to make mistakes. It’s not quite fair to give a student a D when they make mistakes on 2 out of 6 problems. So what do we do? Create a simple rubric that gives credit for both accuracy and effort. Get all the details on the simple accuracy/effort homework rubric here.
- Have students exchange & grade in class. If your school policy allows students to grade each others’ papers, then doing so will save you tons of time. And if you’re worried about students being embarrassed, talk with your class about how homework is all about practicing, making mistakes, and learning from them. So there’s no need to be embarrassed about challenges with homework.To keep from wasting time, read the answer quickly and don’t take grading questions. Instead, have students put question marks by any questions they aren’t sure are right or wrong. If the student skipped any problems, they should also write that at the top of the page. All of this should take 2-3 minutes tops.
- Go over the assignment in class. The point of homework is normally for students to practice or prepare for a lesson. Thus, they need immediate feedback on the things they didn’t understand. Instead of going over everything yourself, have your students put the questions or problems on the board & present them to the class. When done right, this can not only build their comprehension and communication skills, but it’s also much faster than your working out each problem one by one. Read more about the benefits of having students present problems and how to do it right.
- Require students to redo work if needed. I used to just take off points when students didn’t follow the right homework procedures (like using pencil, using the right type of paper, showing their work, etc.), but I found it’s more effective (and probably also more fair) to require the students to redo the work. So if a student uses pen instead of pencil, I give them their grade but require them to redo it in pencil.
- Require students to complete missing work. When students miss an assignment, you could just put a 0 in the gradebook and move on. But then what’s the point of requiring it in the first place? This means certain students 1) never get that practice/skill building and 2) get away with never doing their work. But when you require them to finish an assignment, even if it’s late, you help develop their work ethic by teaching them that the work is not going to go away until they do it.
- Have a system for tracking missing work. Between absent work and late assignments, tracking all of this can start to be overwhelming. But if you develop a logical system that works for you, the task gets much simpler. I keep a Word doc for each class and simply record the name of the student and what assignment they’re missing. I have a section for late work/redo’s and a section for absent work. The best thing about this system is that I can just run off copies, highlight the students’ names and hand it out to them. It’s a super fast and easy way to remind them of what they owe me. Click here for more details about the tracking system & to download an example missing work form.
- Consider flipping your class. Assign students to watch videos at home for homework, then practice or complete group work together in class the next day. You still need to hold students accountable by requiring them to take notes or answer questions, but it’s a lot easier for struggling students to watch a 20-minute video than to agonizing over a set of math problems that look like Greek to them. Then, you can give them the help & support they need in class.And if you happen to teach pre-algebra, you’re in luck. We have everything you need to help you flip your class, including videos and even notes for students to fill out as they watch. Click here to get the videos for free.
And, above all, don’t give up on your students. Expect big things from them (yes, all of them) and keep holding them accountable.
And one day. Yes, one glorious day, you may find, like me, that those crumpled, ripped, half sheets of computer paper with 10 random, hastily-scrawled answer are finally a thing of the past!
Share these tips with your fellow teachers!!
Links Mentioned in the Podcast:
January 16, 2017 in Academics (Teaching) , Classroom Management , for New Teachers , Teaching
Every school day isn’t perfect, even for the best teachers; kids are human and will have bad days. But, you can work toward whatever your ideal classroom looks like by establishing clear classroom rules and procedures from the first day of school.
When students know what is expected of them, and these expectations are reinforced daily, there is little room for power struggles between teacher and student, or complaints from parents.
Imagine a basketball game in which none of the players know the rules. The referees would blow the whistle constantly, admonishing players for breaking rules they didn’t know existed. How frustrating would this game be for both the players and the refs, and for the fans in the bleachers? It would be chaos.
In your classroom, you are the referee, your students are the players, and the fans are parents and guardians. If your students don’t know the rules, your classroom will be just as chaotic. So, set your classroom rules from the first day of school, and make sure they’re understood by everyone so there will be no surprises or room for arguments from students and parents.
Less is More
Create a few straightforward yet inclusive rules for your classroom. Too many rules will be hard for students to remember and follow, so try to keep it to five or six. That means the rules need to be broad enough to encompass all of the behaviors you want to avoid, while being clear enough that students understand what behavior is expected. The most effective rules tell students what they should do, not what they shouldn’t do. For example, “Keep hands and feet to yourself” is preferable to “No hitting or kicking.”
We just gave you a lot of rules for writing classroom rules! You can use our poster (available for free below) or refer to it for creating your own. Display your rules poster prominently in the front of the classroom so that you and your students may reference it often.
“Something I do in my classroom that works great is to write the rules with my students,” explains Katy Jaeger, a first-grade teacher in Colorado. “We come up with them together, and then everyone signs their name so we all agree. I also call them “Classroom Expectations” as opposed to “rules” to increase positivity.” You can steer your students toward coming up with the rules you’ve already written, and unveil your poster the next day.
Communicate with Parents
Discuss the classroom rules with parents at open house, and send them home on the first day of school. Explain that your students will contribute to the rules on the first day, and invite parents to ask clarifying questions or contribute their thoughts as well. Now that you have their buy-in, if you do need to call home, parents will understand what rule was broken and why this was a rule in the first place. This is your first step in developing a partnership with your students’ parents.
If you have time to send mailings home before the start of school, this is a good opportunity to begin building a positive relationship with your students with a personal letter. Students are often nervous to start a new school year, and this will get them excited to join your classroom. And what child (or adult!) doesn’t love getting a letter in the mail?
Reinforce classroom rules consistently with all students, even in seemingly minor infractions. If students notice that a classmate doesn’t receive a warning or consequence for breaking one of the rules, they’ll develop bad habits that will be hard to break. And you’ll get a lot of “Why are you picking on me?” responses from students. We’ll cover more on rewards and consequences in the next section.
Procedures are different from rules and are just as integral to a well-managed classroom. If your classroom rules are like the rules of a basketball game, your procedures are the plays, the strategies of the coach and team to keep the game organized in order to win. The coach foresees all of the upcoming obstacles in a game, and designs plays to overcome them. He doesn’t need to give specific instructions during a game, only the name of the play, and each player knows exactly where to be on the court and what to do.
Plays are not learned one day and then used successfully in a game the next. The coach spends time teaching the play and making sure the players understand, and then the players practice over and over again until the play is routine. If a play doesn’t end up working in a game, the coach will make changes and start the practice again.
When working on classroom procedures with your students, you are no longer the referee, you are the coach. You need to foresee all of the different situations that will come up daily in your classroom, and design procedures that will tell your students how to navigate them. Your students will not internalize your procedures with one explanation. You need to spend plenty of time in the first couple of weeks of school explaining the procedures, modeling them, and putting them into practice. If a procedure doesn’t end up working, don’t be afraid to make the necessary changes and practice again.
Just like procedures need to be practiced over and over, so do skills like empathy and impulse control. But how do you provide students the opportunity to practice these social and emotional skills? Zoo U offers 30 interactive interventions for students to build these skills in common situations they would experience at school.Sign up for a free trial here.
When teaching procedures, you can use a similar strategy to teaching academic lessons: I do, We do, You do.
First, explain the procedure while modeling it yourself. Use explicit directions that don’t leave any room for interpretation or student failure. Have you ever done the writing exercise that asks you to give instructions for making a PB&J? You might start with the first step of “spread the peanut butter on the bread.” But if I’m totally unfamiliar with the concept, where do I get the bread? How do I open the jar? What do I use to spread the peanut butter – my fingers, a spoon? You’ve probably made a PB&J so many times you could make one in your sleep, so it’s more difficult to break down everything that goes into making the sandwich, and things such as using a knife seem obvious. It’s the same with a procedure such as lining up to leave the classroom. Children need all of the tiny, seemingly obvious steps to set them up for success.
If you want them to end up standing quietly in line at the door, you might explain the procedure like this:
- When I call your table group, you will silently stand up.
- Without talking, push your chair in gently, trying your best not to have it make noise on the floor.
- Walk slowly and silently to the door.
- Stand in a single-file line, keeping your hands to yourself.
- Wait silently and patiently for the rest of the class to line up.
After you explain this procedure, model it for your students while explaining it a second time. Sit down at one of the student desks and go through the movements. Next, check for understanding by asking if anyone can explain the procedure. Call on a student and have her re-explain the procedure to the class. Make any corrections needed.
Have a couple of students demonstrate the procedure while you narrate. “Billy is standing up silently. Sofia pushed in her chair as gently as she could. Daryl is walking silently to the door. Aaliyah is standing behind her three classmates with her hands to herself. Billy, Sofia, Daryl, and Aaliyah are all standing silently and patiently waiting for the rest of the class to line up.”
Call on the rest of the table groups to practice this procedure, acknowledging students who are following it correctly. If a student misses any of the steps, have him go back to the previous step and gently remind him of the procedure. “Charlie, remember we are pushing our chairs in gently, so they don’t scrape the floor or bang our desks.” Continue practicing until the whole class can complete the procedure together.
The explicit directions may feel a little silly and unnatural when you first start, but the kids need to know exactly what you expect of them. There are a lot of procedures you will teach in the first weeks of school, and as new situations and activities arise throughout the year. We’ll go into detail on a few examples below.
Emergency procedures (fire drill, tornado drill, lockdown, etc.):
Teach these procedures first. You never know when an emergency will happen, and your students will need to behave calmly and safely.
Your school may have specific guidelines for these types of drills, so consult with other teachers and administration. Most schools are required to have a fire drill once a month. School-wide lockdown drills happen less frequently (sometimes only once a school year) but are just as important, so consider having your own drill with your students once a month as well.
“Leave now” codeword:
There could be an emergency situation in which you would want your class to leave the room quickly while you stay behind. This could be due to a medical emergency, such as a student having a seizure, or a student becoming violent/dangerous to others. There won’t be time for explicit directions in these situations, so you’ll need to establish a codeword and procedure. An example of a codeword is “hot dog.” When students hear you say the codeword, they should quickly pick up what they are working on (scooping it up in their hands like they’re holding a hot dog) and silently leave the room. Designate a safe place for them to go, ideally another classroom, or the hallway if necessary. Assign one student to tell the teacher in the other classroom the situation so she can call for help, while the rest of the students sit down and continue working. Once you have practiced this procedure a couple of times, begin to practice it about once a month without warning students, like a fire or lockdown drill.
You can start off on the right foot each day by establishing a morning routine. What are the most important things you want students to do before instruction begins to prepare for a successful day? You’ll have a lot going on in the mornings, so students will need to be able to come in and get settled independently.
Morning Routine Example
- Enter classroom quietly
- Mark attendance and lunch choice
- Turn in homework in designated homework spot
- Put jacket/backpack/lunchbox and anything else in cubby
- Make sure you have sharpened pencils and any other materials needed for the day
- Read today’s schedule
- Complete your Do Now (explained below)
Students will take their own attendance and make their lunch choice on the same clip chart (see Part I of this plan for instructions on how to make and use a clip chart). Instruct students to move their clip from “Good Morning” to their lunch choice. Some schools offer more than one hot lunch choice. If you have laminated your clip chart, you can write in the new choice each day. For the first few weeks of school while students are practicing this procedure, double-check the attendance before you send it to the office. If any students forgot this step in their morning routine, have them go back and do it. Once students have gotten this procedure down, you’ll only need to do a quick scan each morning.
Turning in homework and notes:
After students have made their lunch choice, they should take out their Take Home Folder and put their homework and any notes from home in their corresponding trays. For K-2 students, you could have them turn in their entire folder so that you can look for homework and notes yourself.
Once students have completed the rest of their tasks in the morning routine, you’ll want them to have an activity to start the learning for the day. A simple way to do this is to have a similar “Do Now” each morning. For example, each morning you could put a sentence on the smartboard with grammatical errors and have students correct them. Younger students could practice their letters or handwriting. If, later in the year, your students are struggling with another fundamental, you can switch the Do Now.
At the end of the school day, both you and your students will be tired and ready to go home. Keep an awesome school day from devolving into chaos with an established routine for packing up to go home.
End-of-Day Routine Example
- Make sure you have all materials needed for homework
- Pack all belongings in backpack
- Pick up trash around your desk
- Stack chair on desk (ask your school’s custodian what would be most helpful)
- Line up quietly for dismissal
Getting attention/Listening to a speaker:
Throughout the day, there will be times when your students are working independently and you need to call their attention. If you don’t practice a procedure for this from the beginning, you may find yourself flicking the light switch on and off while students yell and giggle, or trying to shout above the noise. (This is especially no fun when another adult is in the room.) You’ll also need to establish how you want your students to get ready to listen while you, a classmate, or anyone else is speaking.
A call and response is a fun way to get your students’ attention. You’ll say a phrase, students will respond with the corresponding phrase or action, and you’ll repeat the process until you have everyone’s attention. One common example is “If you can hear me, clap once; if you can hear me, clap twice”; and so on, because the clapping helps get students’ attention. There are tons of examples out there, including this great list compiled by National Board Certified Teacher Angela Watson.
To connect your call and response to your active listening pose (explained next), here’s an example:
“Whooooo’s ready? … Hoot Hoot”
“Whooooo’s ready? … to make wise choices?”
When you call the whole class’ attention, it’s because you have something to say, whether it’s directions, a new lesson, or a visitor in the room. Students need to know how you want them to behave once you have their attention, and how to show that they are listening. In comes the Active Listening Pose. Active Listening is “mak[ing] a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, try[ing] to understand the complete message being sent.”
Note that this active listening pose does not focus on where students’ body parts are. Some students may actually listen better with a fidget toy in their hands, or while they’re standing or bouncing on an exercise ball. If you’ve made these accommodations for some students in your classroom, you don’t want your active listening pose to prescribe that all students have their hands folded, as it will cause confusion and arguments about fairness among your students.
However, if you’re in a situation where students need to sit a certain way because they’re in tight quarters, such as carpet time or an assembly, you might introduce an additional pose for that particular situation. A good call and response for carpet time is “Criss-cross applesauce … spoons in the bowl,” reminding students to sit with their legs crossed and hands in their laps.
Do you have students that struggle with listening or blurting out in class? The online game, Zoo U, can help them improve their impulse control and other social and emotional skills.Sign up for a free trial here.
When students are supposed to talk, whether giving a presentation, working with a group or partner, or answering a question, they need to know your expectation for how loud to speak. Introduce the different acceptable voice levels at the beginning of the year, and model what each of them sounds like (You can get a free printable for this below). Then, throughout the year, whenever you are about to start an activity in which students will talk, tell them which voice level they should use.
Once your whole class has learned their procedures, assigning classroom jobs can save you time and transfer ownership of the classroom to students. As with any of your procedures, be sure to teach, model, and practice the classroom jobs with students. When it’s time to switch jobs, have the previous student teach the new job holder the ropes. For upper elementary students, consider switching jobs each month, and to increase accountability, have students fill out an application to choose their new job.
Here is a list of classroom jobs and their responsibilities from Scholastic.
Use a timer:
It’s always going to seem like there’s not enough time in the day. Students, especially those who may come to you below grade level, need all the time you can give them to learn. Implementing these procedures will cut down on wasted time, but you also need to foster a sense of urgency in your students that any wasted minute is taking away from their learning time. We walk quickly, but safely, in the hallway to our next destination because we need as much time as possible to learn. We put away our ELA notebooks and transition to math as quickly as possible so we don’t lose any math time. Using a timer will help hold both you and your students accountable to the schedule.
You can use e.ggtimer.com to display a timer on the smartboard. This clock-like timer is also a great visual representation for students who can’t tell time yet. In the hallways, you can use your watch or smartphone.
Throughout the day:
These are just a few examples of important procedures, but you’ll want to implement procedures for every aspect of the day. “Whether it’s lining up for recess, sharpening a pencil, or transitioning from one activity to the next, having classroom procedures and routines is extremely important. There is honestly nothing better than having your classroom run like a well-oiled machine,” says Kristine Nannini, an elementary school teacher and blogger. Nannini offers a checklist of 100+ procedures on her Teachers Pay Teachers store, including “What to do if someone enters our class with a birthday treat?” and “What do you look like at an assembly?”