cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Impromptu Twitter master class on homework strategies

On Friday afternoon Anna (@borschtwithanna) tweeted out this call for conversation:

What followed was a virtual master class on handling homework in different settings. It's the sort of conversation that the #MTBoS excels at, pulling in thoughtful responses from teachers at every level of practice.

I've been thinking a lot about homework because I am overhauling my homework strategy for next year.  This blog post is my attempt to capture my strategy overview, along with pointers to resources that have helped me think through what I need to do.

Overall HW strategy for next year

There are four pillars to my homework strategy for next year:

  1.  HOMEWORK LAGS CLASSWORK: I am implementing  Henri Picciotto's strategy of having the majority of each night's homework "lag" the current classwork focus of the day; 
  2. EACH DAY'S INTRO TASK IS TABLE GROUP REVIEW: the first ten minutes of class will be for students to discuss/review/help each other out on the previous night's homework problems together in their table groups; 
  3. REFRAMING THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER: I will take questions on particularly troublesome homework problems, but I will take whole-group questions only; and 
  4. COLLECT, STAMP, & GRADE HW PACKETS EVERY 2 WEEKS: I collect, stamp, and grade homework packets every two weeks, grading for completeness of effort (every problem in every night's problem set attempted). 
Here are my elaborations on these pieces.


Henri Picciotto's blog post on this is a classic. There are so many valuable things about having the majority of each night's homework "lag" the current day's classwork. First and foremost, it ensures that most of every night's homework is accessible to every student every day. Secondly, it helps with heterogeneous classes. It gives students multiple at-bats for each kind of homework problem, keeping things meaningful for everybody. New material challenges proficient students, while those who are still working toward proficiency get multiple opportunities to work toward master.


The first ten minutes of class are the time for students to get help on homework — and by "help" I mean helping each other first. A big function of math homework in my view is to help each student cultivate an autonomous and independent approach toward their own struggles with their own problems.

A.H. Almaas describes the problem like this: "Many people... unconsciously act out a desire to be 'saved' by a teacher. But if a teacher 'saved' you, you would lose something. You would lose the value of struggle" (Diamond Heart Book One, p. 123).  In my view, the first ten minutes of class are the place where I expect students to begin to shift their mindset about the value of struggle. If a problem is not pushing beyond their Zone of Proximal Development, I expect them to develop the habit of resolving their own confusions themselves.


In keeping with #2, I want to be conscious and intentional with framing my role in their lives about resolving their own problems with problems. Almaas describes this reframing better than anybody I know:
So there are two ways to approach the teacher. One approach is to hope the teacher will take away your problems; the other is to use the teacher, not with the expectation that she will take away your problems or offer solutions or "make it better" but that she will give you a little push in your struggle. (DH Book One, p. 124). 
This is why I love Dan Anderson's (@dandersod) description of the "mass confusion" rule: unless a problem causes mass confusion, students have to work out their problems independently and help each other out on during that first ten minutes of class.


This has been the most surprisingly successful thing I've done this year. Students have to turn in a stapled packet of their "Home Enjoyment" problems every two weeks. I collect it, I stamp it, and I give them a grade for it every two weeks. Every problem must have been attempted. They should show effort to have sought a resolution for problems they didn't understand the first time through.

This has been a great accountability practice for students. It's an easy, easy 'A' grade every two weeks plus it gives them that push to keep themselves on track and not fall behind on homework. In a high-achieving school filled with motivated students, I expected not to have to do this, but in fact, my experience has revealed the reverse: students appreciate that little push toward accountability. It triggers their automatic reflexes in a way that supports their autonomy.

It also takes me very little time. I am basically just stamping packets, looking for effort and gaps, and rendering a grade whose default is 100% unless stuff is missing or late. I take off a 10% late fee per day. That is usually the only penalty students incur. I've been astounded by how being an old-school hard-ass about this has simplified and streamlined the process.

I hope this is helpful!


  1. I love your ideas, Elizabeth! How much does your homework weight in your grade? Any issues with copying (or do you care? In my experience, it was obvious who wasn't doing their own assignments anyway.)?

    1. Thanks, Fouss! I do most things on a "points" basis: a test/major project is 200 points, a quiz is 100 points, and each HW packet is worth 80. I don't bother worrying about copying HW because it won't help them enough to matter and, as you said, it's totally obvious who is not doing their work.

      The most important thing is that they DO the homework. Everything else runs so much more smoothly as a result.

      Thanks for commenting!

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

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  3. (I HATE IT WHEN PREVIEW EATS MY COMMENT. I think this was it...)

    Thanks for describing! The homework packet sounds intriguing.

    Do you ever have any issues with predicting your exact homework 2 weeks out? I might, though the lag would help.

    Also, do you ever have students saying "Yep, I'm good!" after 30 seconds of homework review, then just killing time for the rest of the 10 minutes?

    1. I actually map out the bulk of the homework a whole semester ahead of time. I just can't deal with it during the semester — all the last-minute questions about, "Was it problems 5, SIX, and 7, or problems 5, 7 and 9?" — that anxious high-performing students tend to pepper me with. So I decided this year to map out ALL of the homework ahead of time by section.

      If we've finished a section/lesson/topic, then that homework is due. If we haven't finished the section, then it's not due.

      So for next year, I'm completely decoupling HW and CW, á la Henri Picciotto's blog post. I may toss in a last-minute problem or two from the day's work, but the overwhelming bulk of the independent work I expect students to do not in class will be mapped out. It will lag and preview topics, but it will not correspond directly to the classwork.

      This also has the benefit, as Henri points out, of making it vital for students to do the in-class problems IN class.

      I don't know exactly how it will work out next year, but I'm optimistic. This year's approach has fostered a level of independence that has freed up a huge amount of my attention and energy for planning and implementing powerful and meaningful in-class learning experiences.

      Thanks for extending the conversation!

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

    2. Thanks. I'll definitely be mulling this over. Next year I teach only one level (sixth grade), so it could be a good time for me to think out each unit's homework in advance. Maybe then I could also come up with problems that are richer for students to discuss than the current, rather routine assignments from the textbook.

  4. Thanks for this synthesis! I believe the post of Henri's you're referring to is at — please correct and redirect if I got that wrong…

    1. This is the one! Thanks for flagging the URL.

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  5. Do tests also lag classwork, so that students can finish the homework practice before assessments? If so, do students resent having to move on to new material before being tested on the current unit? Sometimes it seems that student feel they should only have to hold one chapter-worth of material in their heads at a time, and after the test they sweep the space clean to fill it with the next chunk of knowledge... I think this lagging idea could help fight that mindset, which I think is the enemy of true mathematical understanding.

    1. Dawn,

      I haven't done the lagging part yet, but from my conversations with Henri, I think that having the tests "lag" as well would be the right way to go. Students are responsible for ALL the material in the course, of course, so this ought to give me the opportunity to put more interesting, richer problems on the tests!

      I agree that some students seem to think they get to clear their brain's memory as soon as something has been "covered." This reminds me that teachers are not the only ones who have bought into the "coverage" model of curriculum. Students too need reminders that they will have to access thoughts buried deep in the recesses of their memory. :)

      Hope this is helpful.

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  6. Your homework packet has me thinking . . . I currently stamp daily work for effort/completion, but that takes a chunk of class time each day (although I always do it while students are working on something else). If a student isn't finished I give them extra time. I like the efficiency of doing this every two weeks. I also like that students have extra time to finish what they didn't understand, but there is still a defined deadline for completion. I might make this coincide with each assessment instead of every two weeks? Thanks for giving me more to think about as I plan for next year!

    1. Amy,

      I used to stamp every day too, but it always pained me to use precious class minutes for something I could be doing automatically while multitasking.

      I agree about the defined deadline idea. I think it is a good practice toward supporting the autonomy and self-accountability students will need in college and beyond. I am finding I get so much less pushback and resistance this year about Home Enjoyment because students can see I have a realistic understanding of their busy activity schedules too — and I am recognizing and honoring their growing autonomy.

      Thanks for giving me extra food for thought.

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  7. I love these concrete ideas. I love the idea that the only questions the teacher answers are whole group questions. That's great. Then it really puts the onus on the student who got it to explain it to their group member, and also requires the struggling student to ask questions, which I feel I am a broken record in repeating.

    The 10 minute chunk worries me. It seems large and would make it hard to intro problem, enough time to work, and then debrief with student work.

    I'm trying to brainstorm how I can make some of your principles work for me. One thing I can't do is the homework packet because I buy graph paper comp books for my students and collecting those is a nightmare. I do think I can think of a protocol where there is some peer grading on Friday with an assessment to follow.

    I sincerely agree with your lagging idea. Definitely! Great thought. No one enjoys assigning homework on a brand new topic when you know, in your heart, that most of the students aren't proficient at it based on your formative assessment.

    BTW, I saw you teach in SF. What school? I'm in the bay area, but lower on the peninsula in Millbrae at Taylor Middle School. Thanks for allowing me to follow you on twitter.

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