By Alyssa LeClaire, Third Grade Teacher, The Columbus School, Medellin email@example.com
In 2016, Texas teacher Brandy Young’s homework policy gained viral notoriety. “After much research this summer, I am trying something new,” read her note. “I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your children to bed early.” This note was met with an overwhelmingly positive response, but the question of how much work children should be doing outside of school remains controversial. Plenty of parents take issue with no-homework policies, worried that their kids are losing a potential academic advantage.
It was also this year that our school thoroughly examined our homework policy. As a school, we considered research on the effectiveness of different homework practices and thought about how we can best serve students in their work at home. The most comprehensive research on homework to date comes from a 2006 meta-analysis by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, who found that, while there was a positive correlation between homework and student achievement for older students (in seventh through 12th grade), there was a weak relationship between homework and performance for those in younger grades.
As a 3rd grade team, we wondered what we could do to ensure that students were fully engaged in meaningful work at home. We didn’t want to just give them “busy work” or work that might be done incorrectly and then inadvertently reinforce poor practices. We discussed, back and forth, different options until a colleague brought up the idea of passion projects. The specific concept of passion projects was new to me, but the idea is simple.
The idea behind passion projects is that students have the opportunity to learn about a topic that they are deeply passionate about. In the course of the elementary school day, students are not often presented with the opportunity to conduct deep research in an area of interest. Passion projects give them the perfect opportunity to do so. In my classroom, passion projects centered around the 6 P’s: passion, pitch (think of a Shark Tank style pitch or a 30 second elevator speech), plan, project and/or product, and presentation. Students pitched their projects and plans to me and then created their projects and/or products at home. They then presented in front of family and peers in a 10-minute presentation at school.
As educators, we are consciously aware of the important role that choice plays in fostering student growth. It seems obvious when it comes to things like allowing students to select their own reading material. I had never considered, however, that we can also allow choice in what students work on at home. Additionally, the parameters for passion projects are broad enough to allow for a wide range of choice in terms of presentation method. When we gave students these choices for their projects, the positive results were immediately abundant.
One of the clear outcomes of implementing passion projects is that students were able to tap into interests that they wouldn’t have been able to showcase in the normal course of a day. For instance, one student shared a guided video walkthrough of Minecraft where he discussed things like Redstone while showing viewers what it looked like at the same time. Another student demonstrated what it was like to be a Formula 1 racer by attaching a GoPro to his helmet as he raced his car. One of my students recorded a baking show at home and brought samples with a recipe to her presentation. Without passion projects in our classroom, it is unlikely that these students would have been able to tap into their passions or share them with our classroom community because their interests were far outside the realm of our academic studies.
An unintended result of students tapping into these interests was that it was much easier to build a strong sense of classroom community. Once students shared their interests, they were able to see each other in a new light and form connections that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. Students found out that they shared a love for the foreign city of Paris or that they both enjoyed dancing or singing songs. A parent told me, “Thank you for doing this so that my child’s personality can shine in class.” He admitted that he had never seen his child’s project and it was a complete surprise to him, too. He told me that he so appreciated seeing his son share a passion that he didn’t know much about. In a similar way, I too came to value the ownership that students took over their own learning because it was something that THEY cared about.
Cooper’s analysis of homework studies showed that some homework can cause physical and emotional fatigue, fuel negative attitudes about learning, and limit leisure time for children. Despite this, his report also noted that homework is also thought to improve self-discipline, inquisitiveness, and independent problem-solving skills. He therefore argues that a small amount of homework is useful for all students. At the end of his analysis, Cooper recommended further study of such potential effects of homework.
Personally, doing passion projects in my classroom has provided me with all the evidence I need to know that “homework” can work—it just depends on what kind of work they are doing at home. When doing passion projects, I saw how my students developed a positive attitude toward learning because the projects fostered a sense of inquisitiveness. I also witnessed how it gave students an authentic opportunity to develop their reading, writing, and oral speaking skills. As a school focused on English Excellence, this was powerful to see in action. Cathy Vatterott, the author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, thinks that there should be more emphasis on improving the quality of homework tasks. Maybe that’s the real question…not IF we should be giving homework…but instead WHAT we should be asking students to do at home.
Cooper, H., Robinson, J.C., & Patall, E.A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987-2003. Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 1-62.
Vatterott, C., & Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (2009). Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs. Alexandria, Va: ASCD.