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Making homework more effective

Together, Kathy Granas and John McKinney, both Milken Educator Award recipient teachers and parents themselves, address ways parents can help their children get the most of out homework. They were interviewed by EdNews Parent expert Robert “Kim” Herrell, a retired Dougco teacher.

McKinney on “residual engagement”


Unfortunately, homework is a giant issue and most of it has to do with teachers and school policy. Somehow, working outside of school is falsely associated with rigor and quality teaching. That could be a whole other interview.

Despite all the challenges, we still know that somehow students need to practice skills outside the classroom to really remember what they are learning.  This leads to an obvious dilemma:  How can we design ways to get students to practice what they have learned in school at home, without making them hate school in the process?

We are exploring a new process in after school learning we affectionately refer to as “residual engagement.”  This is when a student remembers what they did that day and then explains it to someone without being asked.  We think this kind of activity might solve several of the challenges that confront traditional homework, while actually enhancing student learning.

Parents need to ask what the student is doing…what they are studying and learning.  Helping is great, but don’t do the homework for your child. I think it’s more important to ask the question, “What are you learning in school…in that class…in that unit?”  Mom and dad, don’t settle for “nothing.” Continue to press the issue.  Even if you don’t know what the homework is about, ask your child, “Is it difficult, and how is it related to the bigger ideas in the unit of study?”

I have a policy where parents e-mail me when residual engagement occurs at home. This is my primary homework assignment. The cognitive benefits of this are profound.  When students talk about school and learning, homework becomes a beautiful thing. The role of the parents is crucial in getting students to talk about their day at school.

Granas on how her mom helped her

My mom was always in the kitchen working on dinner after school each day.  I would work on my math homework in my bedroom.  When I would get stuck on a problem, I would run into the kitchen and complain that I was stuck on my homework.  My mom would ask me to explain the problem that I was stuck on.  Inevitably, before I finished explaining to my mom what the problem was asking and what I had tried so far, I would realize how I could get “unstuck” and I would go running excitedly back to my bedroom.

I used to think my mom was a genius!  I always seemed to “get the right answer” just being around her.  Years later I realized that my mom didn’t even know what a negative number was, but I had felt coached by her all the way through college-level mathematics.

Just by asking me to explain the problem and my thinking, she was able to help me keep going and get there.

McKinney on benefits of students embracing learning at home

The key to “residual engagement” is the student controls what they want to talk about with their parents. Any teacher would agree the value of students willingly talking about school and sharing their learning is about the best homework. This kind of review is differentiated because it puts the student in charge of explaining something they have learned in their own words.

Here are the cognitive benefits of residual engagement:

  • When students describe what they learned or recount a demonstration they saw during the school day, they engage in an important cognitive process of review and reconstruction.
  • When students have conversations about their learning they are also engaged in an interesting type of formative assessment.
  • Students demonstrate deeper understanding of a topic or concept by applying it in a different context than it was taught.
  • Residual engagement often requires the student to provide relevant background knowledge and information from a lesson to the audience at home.

Parents are crucial in residual engagement.  We know that a supportive home environment is a key factor for success in school. Building a more positive attitude toward school and promoting student engagement outside the classroom are healthy habits that contribute to life-long learning.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.