At our last faculty meeting we read an article on how to give meaningful homework. It recommended that homework should check for understanding, provide opportunities for practice, and let students take ownership while avoiding “busywork” tasks.
This year I’ve incorporated these principles and leveraged technology to make collaborative homework a regular feature of my classes. For each new topic or chapter of the textbook my students complete an assignment that I’ve creatively named “History Circles.” They’re based off of Lit Circles done in many English classes, and are a way of giving students the opportunity to practice different skills through the content. The nice thing about History Circles is that they distribute responsibility, enable simultaneous workflows, and maintain accountability while reinforcing content and a diverse skillset.
In my History Circles, students assume one of four rotating responsibilities:
- Summarizing the chapter using outline notes, graphic notes, or a RECIPES chart. This provides skills practice.
- Defining the important terms and names and explaining their significance. This checks for understanding.
- Answering the main ideas questions. This practices writing skills while checking for understanding.
- Connecting main ideas to a current event, contemporary issue, or modern country. This checks for understanding by asking students to apply concepts to a new situation. It also lets them take ownership because they can choose from many possibilities.
Rather than trying to compile a physical copy, we’ve simplified the process by creating a template in Google Docs. Each round the Summarizer is responsible for copying the template and sharing it out to all group members. They can then work on their sections independently of each other. This distributes responsibility while maintaining accountability. Shortly before the deadline, the member responsible for terms and names downloads the completed document as a Word file and submits it via Moodle. By defining roles and collected homework only through Moodle, I further increase the level of accountability. The homework doesn’t get old because students complete a different role every round, but provides the routine and structure that 9th and 10th graders need.
Another benefit of collecting homework this way is that students have access to a digital archive of comprehensive notes that they can use for exam review. You could look at this as enabling inattentiveness in class, but it really helps organized kids become more organized and provides a model for disorganized ones.
I’m already planning how to make History Circles better. I currently assign chapter readings before I teach in class with the rationale that I can then build on that content through application activities in class. However, I find that the kids pick up the content better through some direct instruction. I may start assigning the HCs after a lesson so that I can check for understanding. I could also switch up the roles to include more application, evaluation and synthesis tasks instead of notetaking and definition-writing. I’m curious to hear how other history teachers do it: how does your homework support your in-class instruction?