I was participating in a Twitter chat last night and a question came up about how we share with families the importance of reading and writing at home. In my answer, I mentioned that our school decided to eliminate formal homework this year and instead ask parents to focus on sharing books together as a family. That’s a short answer, of course, that’s only capable of fitting into 140 characters, so I wanted to take the opportunity to elaborate a bit on our thinking.
We are a Title One School of just over 100 students in pre-k though fourth grade. Each year we set goals based on our data, including literacy, math, attendance, and behavior. This year an area of need for us was to strengthen our school-wide reading community, as well as our level of family involvement. We wanted our students and their families to see reading as a pleasurable activity , rather than drudgery or a required task to be documented daily. We’d seen what recent research, such as that from ASCD, has to say about the overall impact of homework, including the pros and the cons. We were familiar with Alfie Kohn’s position on the matter. We’d also seen the evidence of requiring students to complete nightly reading logs or worksheets, practicing long lists of spelling words, and the like. Weighing those factors, we determined that for the benefit of our students, we needed to shift our thinking about homework.
So we took a drastic step.
At our annual open house, we explained our new approach to our students and their families. Instead of the usual nightly assignments, we encouraged families to:
Read at bedtime: Everybody enjoys a story at bedtime to wind down. Older children, too, enjoy this nighttime ritual.
Buddy read: When parents are busy or tired, siblings can share a book by taking turns reading to each other. Older children can read a longer passage, and younger ones can read the parts they know.
Have book conversations: Stop to talk about what’s happening in the print and the illustrations of the book. For younger children, run your finger under the print and point out words they may know.
Go to the library: We are lucky, in that our public library is located right on Main Street and is a pretty central location for many of our families. It offers an outstanding selection of print and audio books and holds regular story times.
Cook: Prepare meals together and encourage children to read the directions or recipes.
Play games together: There are plenty of games that involve reading and learning letters, words, and numbers. Other lessons involve turn taking, communication skills, and conversational moves.
Play outside together: Playing or walking outside gives families time to talk, teaching children important language skills and building their vocabulary…as well as getting heart rates pumping and giving family members quality time together!
Set up a reading environment: Have a space where the family’s books go so they are always accessible and children can help themselves whenever they want to read. As a culminating activity at our open house, we purchased new cardboard magazine holders and gave one to each student to decorate as their home library. Many of our students come from high-poverty and sometimes transient homes and at the very least, they would now have a specific space in their home where they could store their library books and books that came home from the classroom or book swap shop, book fairs, etc.
Every morning our entire school gathers outside at our flagpole for greetings, announcements, and flag salute. This year we added a daily book talk. Students sign up with our principal when they have prepared a book talk about something they’ve read that they want to share with our school community. As an added incentive, each student who shares a book talk gets to choose a book from our book swap shop.
In our first grade classroom, we conclude our morning meeting with the invitation from me, “Who read a great book last night?” Consistently, hands shoot up into the air (and I jot that down)! I keep track of the three students who share a book talk each day on a chart for my own anecdotal data purposes. The chart contains the date, the students’ names, the title of their book, comments on what they shared (if they were able to recount characters’ names, details from the beginning, middle, and end of the book, if they gave a summary, why they liked the book), and how the book was shared. Did they read it to someone and if so, who? Did someone read it to/with them, or did they read it to themselves? This lets me look back at each week’s data and determine who’s been reading, who’s shared, and how their book talking skills are developing.
This being said, we decided as a staff (and communicated to parents) that if students had in-class work that they had been given ample time to complete, but had not, that we would send it home to be completed. I can count on no more than my two hands the number of times I have actually had to send unfinished work home this year. Much of that, I believe, is due to the fact that students don’t want anything to encroach upon their nightly reading time.
Every day I see our students making connections with one another about what they’re reading. I hear from families the amount of stress that has been relieved from their lives, and the excitement and passion for reading that has been reignited for our students.