Homework: Friend or foe? Thoughts and Tips on how teachers and students could benefit from setting and correcting homework

        For the last few weeks I have observed a certain number of teachers and I noticed some of them have had difficulties setting and correcting homework for several reasons from time management to lack of interest on the part of the SS. I have then started to think about the theme "homework" and made myself the following questions:  
  •  What is the quality of the homework that is being assigned?
  •  Is the homework valuable and meaningful to student
  • Does the homework serve to engage students more deeply with the material?
Much of the current rhetoric surrounding homework focuses on the time students spend on it, since our SS are always too busy or too tired to set some time for doing their homework.   Children mostly depend on their parents who are always busy or do not know how to help. Teenagers, this peculiar audience, either are a lot busy with their school work, or are putting all their energy on their own world finding “something more pleasurable to do”.  On the other hand, teachers are also overloaded with work and might not be able to handle correcting workbooks, compositions and projects apart from the lessons they have to prepare.   
Having said that, should homework be neglected? I’d say no! Not at all! 

Why homework?
               Homework in a foreign language class is essential, as it provides opportunities to the students to further practice the language. This allows the language to really set in and take hold.  In addition, homework is a vital part of learning. It is the time students spend
outside the classroom in assigned activities to practice, reinforce or apply newly-acquired skills and knowledge and to learn necessary skills of independent study.

             Experiencing and reflecting about the theme made me ask some questions to myself which led me to some interesting arguments and conclusions in favour of homework. Some of the benefits are: 
·         Students retain class-taught language;
·          They reinforce what they have learnt;
·         They develop study habits;
·         Their cognitive understanding of language increases.
·         For one thing, particularly in EFL situations (especially in monolingual countries), the students don't get enough interaction with English during class time. Many times, students only get three or four hours a week of lessons. Or to put it another way, it takes 6-8 weeks to be in an English environment 24-hour day.
·         If it's important enough to teach, it's important enough to practice and elaborate on.
·         Students can do things away from class that they can't do in class- like write and read longer passages, design projects, etc.
·         Surprisingly, most students want to do something away from the classroom. In adult classes where I've been reluctant to give homework in the past, students have come up to me and asked for it. As long as it is real practice, and not just busy work, you don't have to feel bad about assigning homework.

Engaging students with homework:

Students should feel that homework tasks are useful. Homework tasks should be interesting and varied. It should include not only written tasks, but tasks focusing on all skills. Furthermore, we teachers have to make sure homework is developmentally appropriate, differentiated, and able to be done independently. It is a challenge to design homework assignments that meet individual SS’s academic and developmental needs, but, when homework is too hard or too easy, it may have a detrimental effect. Teachers should strive for the “just-right” challenge for each student, and should ensure that homework is “do-able” without the need for outside help from a parent, peer or tutor.
As teachers we should reflect on the purpose of homework before assigning it to our SS. I have noticed that it is worth helping students understand the purpose and value of the homework and give it the value it deserves. If students perceive homework as busy work, meaningless, and of little value to the teacher, they may tend to be less interested in learning.  Some ways to increase the engagement factor is to allow students choice and voice in their homework assignments. 
Students’ attitude to homework should be improved, for example, they would be allowed to contribute with ideas to design their own tasks. Let them choose which problems to do, or which topics to write on, or allow them to stop when they believe they understand the concept. For me this leaner centred approach and negotiation will indeed divide the responsibility of the learning process between students and teachers, not to mention the fact that their sense of achievement will be increased.
In the 21st century, when technology is available, user-friendly and hands-on, homework might become a very interesting activity to be done extra- class.  I believe that online homework is one way to achieve SS engagement with  it as well as it might stimulate them to produce language with tools they are familiar and feel comfortable with.  Examples of this could be collaborative edublogs, platforms like Edmodo  and apps such as slideshare, voicethread, poplets, padlete, glogster and lots of them.  

 Setting homework:

1. Assign homework in the first class. There are several reasons for this. 
A. It sets a good precedent.
B. Students expect it.
C. Students usually remember their first day of class very well. It's difficult to get an "always" if they remember you didn't assign any on the first day of class. 

2. Take the time to explain the homework carefully, and your students will react to the importance you give it by doing more of it.

3. Never allow yourself to just give homework orally. Always write it up on the white/ e- board, no matter how simple it is. If you don't, you will always lose some students. An alternative is to have a student come to the board and write it up as you give it to the class.

4. After assigning homework, get students to report back the assignment. Once you've given out the homework, always ask a student or two what the homework is. This can sometimes be a real eye opener as to what they have understood.

5. Try to make homework interactive. Have students prepare by calling one another on the telephone (or smartphones)  or via e-mail .For example, SS can exchange emails and each of them can choose a word which they would like their friends to find out the meaning.
·         It's memorable
·         It's practical and effective.
·         It's fun. Set this up with a dialogue on IWB / board that gets people to ask for a phone number and set a time.
·         If you set a precedent, students will often begin to do this on a regular basis without your prompting.

Correcting Homework:

Students quickly tune into the mood of their teacher. If the teacher presents homework correction as a valid and interesting part of the learning process it will be infectious and homework corrections will never be boring again!

Useful tips on correcting homework and have your SS engaged:

1.       Turn it into your warm-up
2.       Create speaking opportunities
3.       Peer-correction: Give students a chance to compare their answers in pairs.
4.       Vary the order in which exercises are corrected. This ensures that  students are alert and are following the correction process.

        5.       Change the time of the lesson in which homework is corrected. 
        6.       Break the correction into stages
        7.       Use the workbook wisely
        8.       Select the exercises
        9.      Giving individual feedback: Write out SS errors on slips of paper and place them in envelopes, one for each student.  They can
only open the envelope at home, then they will check if it   is theirs,      if yes they will correct in their books, if not in the following class they will explain the error contained in their envelope to the class. Variation: The teacher can send feedback of the homework via email or similar private message
10.   Add fun to the comments you write on the homework, and create a fun dialogue with your SS.
11.   Give students a chance to show off their homework. This can be as simple as positive feedback on a well done job.
12.   Broaden your view and have mercy!

Mentoring is good for us - 12 tips for effective mentoring

              At the beginning of 2013 I was invited to take part in a course about mentoring offered by EVO . To my surprise, I discovered that mentoring is something I have been doing for a long time. Furthermore, it is one of the things I like most as a teacher and a teacher trainer. 

           The use of mentoring is widespread across the commercial, education and not-for-profit sectors as a developmental, supporting and helping activity. So mentoring is part of our professional development 

       The origin of the term mentor is found in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey wherein Odysseus gave the responsibility of nurturing his son Telemachus to his loyal friend Mentor. Odysseus ventured off to the Trojan War while Mentor stayed behind to educate Telemachus. This education was not confined to the martial arts but was comprehensive in that it included every facet of Telemachus' life. 

         The word ‘mentor’ then came to represent a wise and responsible tutor – an experienced person who advises, guides, teaches, inspires, challenges, corrects and serves as a role model. Mentoring is now a widely used and effective tool for personal, professional and organisational development. 

       Before I became a teacher trainer, a long time ago, I was invited to mentor the novice teachers and the new teachers at the language institute I used to teach. This was my very first experience as a mentor. I remember I was so excited, but, at the same time, I felt scared and as, for me it seemed to be too much responsibility. And it was! That first experience consisted of standing by those teachers, helping them learning about the institution, to get to know the material and how to use it, revising their lesson plans, reflecting on the choice, sequence and use of some activities or simply adjusting some items of their lessons. I also used to do some peer observations and peer teaching. 

          As the picture shows, the relationship between a mentor and a mentee is like two  people under umbrellas of possibilities reflecting what they share. 

       I have experienced mentoring teachers for over 20 years. As in the relationship between Telemachus and Mentor, the relationship between a mentor and a mentee is not always a bed of roses. Feelings such as anxiety and fear sometimes come up and demand wisdom and patience from both parts. Mentoring is a challengeable hard job, it has its ups and downs but it is mostly effective for both sides in the end if you are mind and heart open enough to do such job. 

        For me mentoring is an ongoing process and as you mentor and lead other to learn, you also learn from the others’ mistakes, creativity and new ideas. In addition, mentoring develops on you feelings such as sympathy and improves you ability of reflection. 

          From my experience and also based on the literature upon the theme, I suggest 12 tips for effective mentoring: 

 1. Be inspirational: As much as possible show joy, pleasure and excitement about what you do: mentoring, teaching, learning… 

 2. Go into your conversation with some ideas you’d like to discuss, but don’t be afraid to stray off course: Sometimes a conversation with your mentee  which is not part of the agenda comes up. You’ll notice that later it will turn out to be much more important or actionable than what you envisioned before taking your first sip of coffee.

3. Use wisdom when setting tasks: Do not aim anything that you would not be able to accomplish (tasks, goals or deadlines to be met) .  

4. Be helpful, not judgemental 

5. Invite your mentees to observe your teaching and give you feedback. You’ll be surprised! 

6. Stand by your mentees by giving them personal and professional support in order to improve their teaching. 

7. Be a good listener 

8. Speak wisely – mainly at feedback time 

9. Base your feedback on facts rather than in suppositions 

10.  Be prepared to give your shoulder for the other to cry on

11. Respect above all: The best mentor relationships are reciprocal. It’s expected that the pupil in the relationship will learn something, but like in marriage, there needs to be mutual respect for each other’s strengths and contributions. 

12. Be brave: Prepare leaders: Mentee teachers can become mentors and leaders – I do believe this is real professional development. Depending on the teacher, it will be a medium or long term process, but the sense of achievement when we manage to do it is absolutely unique! Believe me! 

    To sum up, mentoring relates to gratitude, love, sympathy, humbleness, the courage to share your knowledge and the recognition we mentors will always be both teachers and learners. This is what will make the difference.