Successful Homework Help: How to Make the Most of Homework Time in Your Afterschool Program
Students arrive. They have a snack and some social time. Then a leader announces that it is homework time and all of the students slowly drag their assignments out of their backpacks and start working – sort of. They know they have to sit there until the homework is done and they know the only thing waiting for them when they finish is drawing, or board games or free play outside.
They do their homework, but they take their time about it. They chat with their friends. They doodle in the margins. Occasionally, they raise their hand to ask a question and wait for seven or eight minutes until the one group leader who is actually helping students makes their way around to help them.
Finally, they finish their homework. Some of the answers are wrong but they don’t care that much. They stuff it back in their backpack and head outside to join a lackluster soccer game. It is the fourth time they have played soccer this week.
If this sounds like the scene during homework time in your afterschool program, IT IS TIME TO CHANGE THE WAY YOU DO HOMEWORK. There is a better way!
If you follow the steps here, most of your elementary students will finish their homework in under one hour. This will give you time to consistently provide other quality programming for the rest of the afterschool day. Not only will their homework be finished, it will be mostly correct because they will have received answers to their questions and someone will have looked over their work before they put it away. If their homework is not complete, parents will be made aware at pick-up time.
Are you thinking this is impossible? Well, it’s not. This program was developed over 6 years and I have seen it work at 10 different elementary schools with between 90 and 120 students attending each afterschool program everyday.
How Much Homework?
Most school districts have a standard amount of homework they want teachers to assign for each grade level. In general, K through 2nd grade students are usually assigned 10 – 20 minutes per day while 3rd through 6th grade students are usually assigned 20 – 60 minutes per day. If students are assigned less than one hour of homework per day, there is no need to have them waste away a whole afternoon doing homework when they could be finished and doing other activities in 45 minutes.
8 Steps for Making Homework Time Count
Step 1: Divide and Conquer
There are a few program and group leaders who can quickly get and keep the attention of a large group of students. I once worked with a site coordinator who had such a commanding personality and knew her students so well that she had their total respect and cooperation. She could have instructed a full cafeteria of over 100 students to quietly do homework and they probably would have done it… at least for one afternoon. For the rest of us, that is just not possible. Therefore, you must break the students into groups of 20 or less and send them with a group leader to do homework in individual rooms.
Step 2: Secure a Quiet Space
This means get a classroom or library where students can work. Most students can not get work done when there are distractions. Your main meeting space is most likely a large cafeteria or gym. You probably have parents, teachers, students and staff going in and out of there all afternoon. You might use that space for many of your noisy or messy activities. Students can not focus on homework in a space like that. Even if they do manage to finish their homework in a chaotic environment, they probably got it done in between distractions. That means it is less likely to be correct and it is highly unlikely that they will retain anything they could have learned by completing the assignment.
If you only have one large room and your site does not have any smaller rooms, find a way to partition the large room. Block off the quietest, least busy corner with partitions that students can not see over or through and dedicate this section to homework. Make sure students in the rest of the room know that those doing homework are not to be bothered.
Step 3: Keep Everyone Quiet
There are a few people who can work and learn with distraction. My father was one of them. He could have a conversation, read a newspaper, and watch television at the same time and have total recall of all three. For the rest of us, that is just not possible. We may be able to multi-task, but when it comes to learning, we learn better in a focused environment. To keep students quiet you need explain what you expect and then stop any talking right away. The moment anyone starts talking or being disruptive, you need to stop them. Do not wait until there is a general din to try to quiet the group.
Quite Time Activity Ideas
Step 4: Keep Everyone Busy
Not all students will have homework that lasts the full class period. Some may not have homework at all. The best way to keep them quiet is to keep them busy.
Provide books for silent reading.
Encourage silent reading and encourage students to bring their own books. Keep a supply of reading books of various levels available in the homework room and allow students to get up and exchange books without asking. There is no need for them to get your attention just to ask to trade for a new book – it’s too disruptive.
Provide busywork packets.
If students do not want to read, allow them to do a packet. Put the packets together ahead of time and make enough to have one for every student. Include interesting material such as mazes, puzzles, and coloring projects that are detailed and will take a significant amount of time to complete. You can even use online crossword or word search generators to create puzzles that coordinate with your weekly or monthly theme. Have students put their name on their packet so they can continue to work on it anytime they finish their homework. Collect all the packets and the end of each homework session. If you let students take it home before it’s completed, chances are you will never see that packet again.
Rotate around the room.
Avoid getting stuck helping one student with one question. If there is a question that you are having trouble solving or a question that they are having trouble understanding, you will need to spend some extra time with that student. However, don’t put in all that time at once. Keep looking up to see if there are other students who need your help. If a student is waiting for help for a long time, they are more likely to start being disruptive.
Get kids who finish out!
Silent reading books and busywork packets won’t keep students quiet and occupied forever. They work very well, but after a while, they will get restless. The best way to keep your homework room focused is to get anyone who is not working on homework out of there. Once enough students done, you can consolidate your remaining workers to one classroom with your expert and one group leader, and send those who are finished outside to play with the remaining group leader. This removes the distraction for those who are still working and provides a nice reward for those who worked hard and finished early.
Make sure you let your group leaders know two things. One, they need to watch their ratios. You can’t have one group leader outside with 35 students and only five students inside with the expert and other group leader in the classroom. Second, whoever is outside needs to bring their students back to the homework rooms before the end of the class period. Those students will need to collect any belongings left behind and to join back up with their assigned group.
Step 5: Solve Easy Problems First
Pass out the pencils at the beginning.
Students have a way of making pencils disappear. I suspect they are eating them but I have yet to confirm my suspicions. Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem. Have all students use pencils that you provide. Pass out one pencil to each student as they enter the room and collect one pencil from each student when they exit. If they don’t have it when they are on the way out the door, send them back to look for it. Label your pencils if needed and make your group leaders responsible for maintaining their group’s pencil supply.
Get those without homework on to other work fast.
On the way into the room, take a quick survey to find out who has homework and how much. Instruct the students who do not have homework to get a book or their packet and get started right away. Of course, have those who have homework get started right away, too.
Scan questions for easy fixes.
Go back to the hard ones.Once everyone is in the room, pencils are passed out and students are starting to work, ask if anyone has questions. Before starting in on the first question, ask each student what their question is about. If they have a question on fractions, tell them you’ll come back. If they just want to sharpen their pencil let them get that done. Then go back and help with the fractions. Surveying the questions before diving in, allows you to quickly solve the simple problems and frees you up to work on the more complicated ones.
Step 6: Hire an Expert
Spend the money to hire yourself one expert staff member, like a credentialed teacher, for homework help. If your group leaders are helping answer simple questions and maintain order, your expert can circulate between two or three classrooms to handle the tough questions. Your expert will know how to teach the concepts the same way they are being taught in regular day and they will know how to group students effectively so they can tutor those with similar problems at the same time.
Instruct your group leaders to stay in the room. Having a teacher doesn’t mean they get to disappear for 45 minutes. Explain that they can take a quick break if needed, but their main focus should be to monitor the group and answer simple questions while the expert helps students with harder questions.
As a bonus, you will be able to make parents happy by letting them know that you have hired a credentialed teacher to help with homework.
Step 7: Record Student Progress
At the end of the day you will need to notify parents of how their students did in homework. To keep track try using a Homework Completion Chart like the one that can be found in Appendix A. Keeping a chart each day does not take much time. It gives your group leader an easy record for reporting to parents and over time, it gives you a pattern of student homework behavior. If the same student is not finishing every day, there may be a reason that you need to investigate.
If you do not record student progress and do not use this information to notify parents, you are setting yourself up for disaster. Students need to know that they will be accountable for what they do during homework time. Parents need to know that you will reliably tell them how their students are doing on their homework. Your group leaders need a chart to remember what each student did no matter how much they insist that they don’t. This is especially true if a group leader suddenly needs to leave early. The person who takes over will be able to reference the chart rather than quizzing the students for answers.
Step 8: Notify Parents on Homework Progress Daily
Whether it’s a quick note, a form, or simply highlighting the checkout sheet, you will need to notify parents about their child’s homework progress each day. Make sure to send home a flier to explain what ever notification procedure you decide to use.