Making Homework More Meaningful

Spring 2011

It's 10 minutes before the final bell of the school day, and I ask my second graders, “Are you sure you understand what you’ll be doing for homework this week?” They all nod, homework folders in hand, waiting for the moment they can spring from their chairs to go outside and play one last time with their friends before they head home. I know one of my students has a violin lesson later that day. Another has a soccer game, and another will spend time with his grandmother, who is in town visiting for a few days. Some of the other kids in my class will attend an after-school program held right on school grounds, offering many different activities. There is no doubt that these children will continue learning once the school day is done. How much of that learning, though, will come from the homework I assign?

Something I ask them to do each evening in addition to their homework is to read or to have an adult read to them. Is this really happening? It’s an expectation that I have clearly communicated both to my students and to their parents, but there is no way to know if this reading is happening once they have left the classroom. I want them to read for the enjoyment of reading and, therefore, don’t ask them to keep a reading log. By asking them to read with their parents, my goal is that they will eventually find reading as satisfying as watching television or playing.

I started this school year wishing I could do away with homework, but as is the case with many schools, there is an expectation to assign an average of 20 minutes of homework to my second graders each night. Yet, with homework come challenges: what does it mean when a student turns in his homework and has missed most of the main objective of the assignment? Were my directions unclear? Did he need help with the underlying concept? Was the assignment too difficult for him to complete independently? Did the work I assign cause more stress than benefit? And when was I supposed to provide the feedback?

The kind of homework I was assigning frustrated me and did not add perceived value to my students’ learning. I wanted any additional learning that my students did at home to be meaningful. I did not want homework to be viewed as simple routine. There had to be a better way.

With titles like, The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn and Harris Cooper’s The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents, it is little wonder that the debate about homework continues, especially at the early elementary level where the evidence of its benefits is arguable.

In Daniel Pink’s recent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he advises that in order for children to be motivated to learn through homework, we need to make homework meaningful. Students should have some autonomy over how and when to do the work. The assignment should promote mastery of a creative and engaging task, and they should understand its purpose. Pink’s conclusions work well with the “Homework Lady,” Cathy Vatterott, whose recent book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, suggest many strategies for designing effective homework. Additionally, I want my students to care about their learning, and to value each other’s contributions. With this in mind, I set about rethinking and redesigning a homework assignment I give to my class each year: a biography book report. Here are the steps I take.


To ensure plenty of diverse choices at an appropriate reading level, I check out about 60 biographies from our school library to add them to my classroom collection. I spread them out on the floor and invite my students to come around and take a look at all the books.

I start with these directions: “This week, you are going to learn about someone who changed the world. Not only that, you are also going to become experts about the famous person of your choice and teach it to a few people by the end of the week. If you see a biography on the floor that interests you, feel free to pick it up, or if you have a question, go ahead and ask.”

The students look down at the array of colorful covers and a couple of students begin to reach for a book and start skimming through the pages. “Who’s Wilma in Wilma Unlimited?” asks one of the girls.

I smile. “Someone who worked very hard and overcame many obstacles to be the fastest woman in the world, but I can’t tell you more. You’ll have to read the rest on your own if you want to find out!”

“Oh, Einstein. I’ve heard of him. Isn’t he that crazy scientist?” asks another. “Crazy? Perhaps you’ll be able to tell me after you’ve read it if you think he’s crazy. Maybe he is. You’ll have to read it and tell me.”

Suddenly, more students start asking, “Who is El Chino? Coco Chanel? Alvin Ailey?” The questions continue; I provide little teasers. Soon, each child has a different biography in hand.

I ask them to stop and say, “This week, you are going to read a biography and create something that will help you teach a few people in this class what made this person so important and how they changed the world.”

I suggest a variety of options: they can make a simple poster, a brochure, or a wrapped cereal box to share their story. Then I ask, “Do any of you have any other ideas for your home assignment?”

There is a long pause at first, and then a child responds, “Can I make a doll?” “Of course you can!” I reply, “In fact you can all create whatever you want as long as you….” I seize that opportunity to explain the parameters of the assignment.

Promoting Mastery

I don’t even need to tell my students that they can begin reading in order to get a head start on their homework. Their faces are already buried deep into the pages of the book. I take this opportunity to check in with a few of my struggling readers. I ask them to read parts of their books to me in order to help them decide whether the book they have chosen is within their reading ability. Homework should be something they are able to accomplish on their own.

Children know that they need to practice to become better readers. They can clearly assess their own success and growth. And when they make this connection, they don’t need any prompting to do the reading.

“OK, class,” I announce, “take out a bookmark and put your books away.” Groans are heard throughout the room and I know I have them hooked.


My goals for this assignment are for my students to read a particular genre, engage in a task that taps into their comprehension and understanding of the text, and have them write, share, and communicate what they have learned to each other. “Boys and girls,” I whisper to them, “remember that throughout the week, you should be thinking about how you are going to share what you have learned with someone else. This may be the one chance they ever get to learn about this person. You wouldn’t want them to miss out on this learning opportunity, would you?”

A secondary goal that I save to share with them later is that it often takes courage, perseverance, and hard work to change the world, and that even one person can make a  difference. In the meantime, I remind my students each day to think about how they are going to use what they have created to teach someone else. After a few days, students have identified the bigger goal, and they no longer feel like they are doing an assignment for the teacher, sticker, or grade, but are instead doing it because they know they will be learning from others and others will be learning from them. Pink suggests, “One of the best ways to know whether you’ve mastered something is to try to teach it. Give students that opportunity. Assign each pupil in a class a different aspect of the broader topic you’re studying – and then have them take turns teaching what they’ve learned to their classmates.” On the day the project is due, the children arrive to class. Before I know it, they are already checking out each other’s work, reading what some have written, and asking each other questions. It is exciting to watch their interest and engagement in each other’s work. I stand back and smile.

As I continue to look at ways to make homework more meaningful, differentiate it based on my students’ needs, and ensure that what they do at home is celebrated in the classroom, my resistance to assigning homework to second graders is quickly fading. Choosing ways to rethink homework (autonomy), learning about ways to make it more engaging (working toward mastery), and knowing that my students come to school caring about what they have to offer each other (purpose) has certainly motivated me, too.