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Classroom Management: Work as a Transparent Process

Jordan Catapano

Sometimes it feels like homework can be a really big secret. Sure the instructor makes a public announcement and explanation of the assignment, the assignment might be posted in the room or online, and there might even be a handout explanatory sheet accompanying the proclamation. Still, the process of homework can feel so distinct from the other academic processes we work through. If we used classroom management to alter our approach to this, then we might just benefit students along the way.

The idea of homework is simple: Give students work to complete independently to experiment with classroom concepts. If they successfully complete the task on their own, then they have demonstrated proficiency and are qualified to move on to the next task. This is a good idea, since the teacher cannot “hold each student’s hand” through the learning process, nor can instruction time in class account for the entirety of practice that students need in order to master various skills.

But homework seems odd in that we talk about it when it’s assigned (at the very beginning) and after it’s returned to students with grades and comments (at the very end). The most important parts of the process can often feel like complete classroom management secrets, and we make a few assumptions about this process that may prove harmful.

Classroom Management: The Assumptions with Independent Homework

When we assign homework, we are basing the assignment off of a few assumptions that may or may not prove true. If we can identify these assumptions, then we might be able to adjust the process of homework completion to better benefit students.

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Assumption #1: Students can complete the work independently. When we tell students, “Do this on your own at home,” we make the enormous assumption that they can. This may prove to be a dangerous assumption, because what if students can’t do it on their own? The idea is for students to demonstrate what they can do independently – but if they can’t then we often don’t coach them during the process; we penalize them at the end of it. This also makes the assumption that students have the knowledge, resources, time, and understanding to properly complete their work.

Assumption #2: Students will take personal time to complete the work. Also, when we assign homework, we assume that all students will do it. Experience shows that many students will complete the assignment; however, we also know that many students might not complete the work. What does this say about their proficiency? Often we couple their lack of completing work with their academic grade, assuming that student’s who don’t do it are the same as students who can’t.

Assumption #3: Feedback via grades and comments are sufficient for informing future work. Of course, feedback at the end of the process has many merits. But why ought this be the only place where our feedback shows up? We assume that the best way to train student acquisition of skills via homework is to take one look at their finished result and offer feedback on the entirety of their product. Perhaps there are opportunities for providing feedback at different points throughout the process that more strongly reinforce a successful final result.

Assumption #4: This is the best way to do things. The combination of these assumptions transforms the homework process into what I call “one big secret” from both the teacher and the student. The teacher secretly conceives of the assignment, the student secretly completes it, and the teacher again secretly composes feedback. All of this leads to one cumulative assumption: that this process is the ideal process for students completing work independently.

The only moments of transparency within this process are when the students turn in their work and when the teacher returns it with feedback. Both of these moments, unfortunately, are typically “too late” for anything to be done about either one. Once the students turn in their work, it is final; and once the teachers return it with feedback, it’s final.

This homework completion process lacks a degree of collaboration, cooperation, transparency, and process-orientation that could ultimately enrich the final product.

Steps to Make the Process More Profitably Transparent

Instead of falling into these assumptions as though they are the only way of doing things, consider some of the following options that could turn this “secret” process of independent work into a more transparent and beneficial experience.

Homework Origination: Coming Up with Assignments

  • Openly talk through several of the homework assignments they’re considering, presenting the positive opportunities of each.
  • Present multiple homework assignment options and allow students to choose.
  • Present the skills and/or knowledge in want of independent reinforcement and allow students to design assignments.

Homework Process and Completion:

  • Allow class time for students to begin their work, consult the instructor, and make sure they have an understanding and competency for the task.
  • Provide regular “check-ins” with the instructor informing them of progress.
  • Compose work on a shareable digital tool, like Google Docs, that instructors can access and offer feedback any time.
  • Require and encourage one-on-one conferences with the instructor.
  • Require and encourage one-on-one meetings with a tutor for feedback and support.
  • Have students show progress to one another and collaborate for future ideas.
  • Assign work to be completed in groups, and students meet either in person or collaborate through an online platform.

Homework Feedback:

  • Co-grade assignments side-by-side with students.
  • Have students grade homework themselves alongside course standards and examples.
  • Have students reflect on their process, deciding which behaviors they performed that positively or negatively contributed to their final product.
  • Complete teacher feedback on a shareable digital platform, like Google Docs, that students can see right away.
  • Have students refer back to previous work and its feedback.
  • Allow students to share completed products with one another and collaboratively determine each’s merits and detriments.
  • Give students written comments only – no letter grades (or at least don’t post letter grades until later).

Feedback Follow Up:

  • Offer students and opportunity to revise their work.
  • Provide or require periodic conferences to discuss multiple assignments.
  • Have students keep significant work in a portfolio accessible for future occasions.

Some of the above ideas fit well together; others may require experimentation on your part to determine how they best fit in your classroom. At any rate, there are methods you might employ to ensure that homework isn’t “one big secret” that students do independently and then get slipped their feedback under the table. Instead, applying some of the above methods will help add layers of transparency that positively affect the outcome of the each student’s attempt. Yes, some of the “independence” that students might demonstrate through homework is lost, but what they gain – a system of support from teachers and peers – goes a lot further towards ensuring that their work is worth their time.

How do you approach the homework process and include steps of transparency? What do you do to help students master your course skills and become independent?

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.