By Teachers, For Teachers
It is certainly tempting to assign what we call “Homework” to be done strictly at home. As teachers, after all, we desire each moment of our time with students to be spent teaching. We use classroom management to design rich lessons, we create engaging activities, and then students are sent off to their residences to grapple independently with the work.
I’m not opposed to students completing work on their own. But I do want to advocate for a slightly different approach to this independent work: That is, I want to recommend that you use classroom management to give students more class time to begin or complete their work.
What you have students work on is up to you, but when they’re able to begin an assignment during class, then everybody has a legitimate chance to do the hardest part: Get started. Every student, from your most resistant to your hardest working, can take time on their own to process the specific requirements of the task. They can determine what resources they’ll need to complete it and begin the initial steps. If students plod through these opening steps in class, they’ll have supports to ensure they are approaching the task in the best manner possible.
One of the biggest benefits for students is that it’s much easier to continue working on a task they’ve already begun rather than start something entirely from scratch on their own later on. So if students are required to finish a task outside of class, they can do it with much more comfort, support, and enthusiasm than if the entire task were done as homework.
Students benefit from the full set of classroom supports when beginning an assignment in class, and they perhaps benefit most from having the teacher immediately on hand. Normal classroom instruction involves the teacher talking to a class full of students simultaneously. But when time is allotted for independent work, so too is time allotted for one-on-one conversations with the instructor about the task.
As students begin their work, they can ask for personalized descriptions of the task so they better understand what’s expected. They can also ask for feedback as they go along, so that they can better complete remaining portions instead of feeling insecure during the process and penalized when they submit it for a grade.
The teacher, too, is liberated from having to give “The class” attention and can instead target attention towards students who may need it the most. This is the perfect opportunity to follow up with students who had fallen behind or to confer with students who indicated a desire for more personal attention. This directly allows the teacher to put somewhat less emphasis on being the “Sage on the stage” orchestrator of instruction and instead puts more power in the students’ hands to learn through action … action that is supported by a guiding coach alongside them.
The combination of the above two factors leads to this third benefit which, ideally, we’d want to create around all of our student work. We don’t want students to think that learning equates to stress. We don’t want them to feel diffident when it comes to trying to tackle assignments on their own. And that’s where more class time for work comes in.
Once students have time in class to work on their assignments, then they’ll stop worrying about “When will I have time to work on this?” and instead feel more in control. The fact that they have supportive materials and instructor access as they work means that they don’t have to wonder if they’re doing it right or understanding it correctly.
Ultimately we get students who can proceed with more positivity and confidence through the task. And when that happens, we often get better results and more enthusiastic learners.
Giving students time in class to work doesn’t mean that we have to give them so much time we lose the opportunity to teach. It doesn’t mean that every single task gets class time allocated towards it, and it doesn’t mean that students won’t be working outside of the classroom. All it means is that we want to consider how we can take time during our classes to build in the appropriate supports for students to succeed when working on their own.
Although I like student collaboration, it’s important to know when to facilitate collaboration or independent work. When we try to mix the two, “Work time” can easily devolve into “Social time” as well-meaning students’ conversations steadily veer away from the task at hand. If I want a combination of student independent work and collaboration, then I might first ask students to work on their own and then share their results, or reverse it and ask students to collaborate first and then shift to an independent focus.
It’s also important that if class time is given for a particular task, that students use the time for the task. You are not trying to provide a study hall for students. Sometimes students argue, “I just work better at home,” or “I really need to finish this other thing first.” That may be well and good, but it defeats the purpose outlined in the benefits above.
Finally, when students reflect on their task after they have submitted it for review, it’s important to ask them how well they feel like they used the class time apportioned to them. Although students will likely need time outside of class to finish some work, they need to become skilled at understanding how to work in the classroom setting and how to manage their time to plan for completion of those tasks independently. More reflecting will lead to more improvement in the way they take advantage of time to work.
So consider how allowing more time in class to work on assignments may benefit your students. This isn’t about giving them an easy way out of homework or about trying to “Lighten up” on student expectations. It’s about helping students succeed by reducing the amount of work we do instructing and increasing the amount of time students get to apply these skills in a comfortable, supportive setting.
How much time do you allow students to complete work in your classroom? What methods for supporting this have worked best for you? Share your experiences with our TeachHUB community in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.