Getting Homework to Work, Part 1

I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been experimenting with letting kids grade student work. The whole journey will take more time to tell than I feel comfortable putting in a single blog post, so I’ve split it into parts. I’m not at a point where I’d say I have a perfect system, but then show me an educator who does.

If you don’t want something done, call it “Homework.”

It all started with my homework. All year, my Media Arts students have been tasked with creating one video per week in addition to any in-class projects I assign. I try to create assignments with enough creative freedom for students to bend them to their will.

Each homework assignment needed to be a   short (1-3 minute) video with a “hook” that they all needed to have in common. “This video should have an argument.” “I want this video to have two different settings, each designated with an establishing shot.” The goal was to give a mote of detail (frequently a cinematic technique I wanted them to practice)  around which the student could condense their  plot, making it less likely for anyone to be able to say “I couldn’t think of where to start.”

But this was still homework.

And middle school students, as I’m sure you know, have an aversion to homework.

It’s not all their fault, mind you. Teachers in most classes give a significant amount of homework every night in the name of “rigor.” Imagine, if you will, that a student has 5 classes per day, and that each class on average assigns an hour’s worth of homework per night.

I don’t know about you, but my school doesn’t finish dismissing students until after 4pm. Assuming that they live close to school (which many of my kids don’t, since it’s a magnet school), they won’t be done with their homework until 9pm, assuming they work through supper. This barely gives them any time to be kids, rather than students.

Unless they prioritize, and skip some of their homework.

I don’t think it’s that students disliked my homework. I think that they didn’t like it enough to  prioritize it over assignments from other subjects that may have been more important for their grades.

In the past I simply bypassed all of this by not assigning any homework at all, but the overall quality of student work went down as a result. My students don’t need my homework to boost their grades, they need it to boost their skill level through practice and repetition. Telling them this doesn’t always get results, because that 4 page paper for another class is worth a lot more than my work. I can’t bump up how much my homework is worth in a bizarre teacher versus teacher arms race, either (even if I wanted to), because my grading percentages are mandated on the district level.

If you want something done, make it something that would’ve been done anyway.

My first step was to play up student interests. I already knew, through conversation, surveys, the audition process, and looking over students’ shoulders when they were supposed to be working on something else, that the majority of my Media Arts majors are obsessed with YouTube.

(My class has a focus on video and is intense enough to require an audition. If they didn’t like YouTube, I’d be worried.)

At the start of 3rd Quarter, I made a change to the homework. The weekly “hooks” were gone. Instead, students had to format their remaining 18 videos as if they were all part of a YouTube channel’s series. They needed an opening segment and a theme that they would pick and keep with for the rest of the year.

Some students picked a video game theme, of course. One of them is doing DIY craft videos. Another is doing weekly challenge videos, guest starring various family members. One young lady is doing weekly book reviews.

Due to their age I did not require them to make these videos into actual YouTube channels, but several of them actually got their parents’ permission and did just that.

And you know what? It really helped. I had students who were hit and miss in regards to completing homework start handing it in every week. Overall the quality of classwork assignments went up as students began to master the video editing software of their choice.

It was working, but not well enough for my standards.

We were missing something crucial that every aspiring YouTuber craves.

An audience.

In my next post, I’ll explain how I added one.

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