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Doing our homework: Usutu Forests Primary School

| November 14, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Rosemarie Wade

Usutu Forests Primary School (UFPS) was established in 1963 as a company school for the employees of the Usutu Pulp Company in Swaziland.

UFPS is situated in a small village called Mhlambanyatsi and is enveloped by a spectacular forest. The school’s motto is ‘Aim High’ and with this vision in mind, we strive to ensure a challenging, changing and lifelong learning experience for all our learners. At UFPS, the 367 learners range from Grade 00 to 7. Our academic school day begins at 07:30 and ends at 13:00, with more than 90% of our learners travelling up to an hour to school by bus twice daily. The sporting timetable begins at 13:15 and ends at 14:30, with a variety of sporting codes being offered – in summer, cricket, rounders, tennis, squash and swimming and, in winter, netball, boys’ and girls’ hockey, soccer, athletics and cross-country athletics. The buses leave school at 14:45, with most children getting home between 16:00 and 16:30.

Weighing up all aspects Against this background, we decided to rethink our homework policy. While sport is offered every afternoon, there are those learners who do not participate and would therefore have to attend school-based homework sessions. This meant that some children would be in the classroom from 07:30 until 14:30. Homework sessions were difficult for both teachers and learners: teachers had to maintain a working environment while children endeavoured to concentrate for extended periods of time.

After having compiled research on both the positive and negative aspects of homework, we found the following points to be relevant to our school.

The negative aspects of homework and homework sessions:

  • loss of interest in learning
  • frustration and exhaustion after a long day, which resulted in stress for children and parents
  • limited communication between parents and their children
  • in homework sessions, learners not concentrating for extended periods
  • teachers setting homework without having a goal in mind.

The positive aspects of homework and homework sessions:

  • homework done before getting home (although in homework sessions, work was completed haphazardly)
  • the acquisition of key skills such as time management, responsibility and self-discipline
  • some parent/child interaction in the completion of tasks.

Management and staff then came up with the following ‘Uniquely Usutu Homework Criteria’:

  • parent/child communication was essential
  • more relaxation and playing time was important
  • homework would be set that would involve careful planning to reach specific goals
  • more study units would be set to help those learners who receive very little help at home
  • each teacher would be responsible for ensuring that carefully planned, differentiated (enrichment and remedial activities included) tasks were set and completed in the classroom
  • learners would be responsible for reaching and completing objectives set in the classroom, thereby showing selfdiscipline, responsibility and good time management.

Mixed reactions

When parents were informed of the new homework policy, there were mixed reactions. Some parents felt that reduced homework reflected an insufficient commitment to teaching and learning, while others were delighted. A number of parents were of the view that our Grade 6s and 7s would not be adequately prepared for high school without the added discipline and revision of daily structured homework. One parent from our Grade 6 group reflected that she welcomed the extra time spent with her daughter in the evenings, where they could discuss the day’s events and not quarrel about homework. Naturally, all the pupils were ecstatic.

After collaboration, dialogue and heated debate amongst all teachers, ‘Homework Guidelines’ were drawn up, allowing for a consistent approach across all grades that would keep our school’s ethos and our learners’ needs paramount. Our teachers were not initially universally receptive to the change, as it meant they had to be far more organised, cater more pointedly for differing needs and be committed to time on task design. No unfinished classwork could haphazardly be sent home for completion – allowing faster learners to have very little homework while the slower learners had to complete far, far more.

New policy brings new focus

Teachers had to clarify with learners exactly what the new policy – and indeed, what homework itself – meant for them and for teaching and learning in the classroom. It was made clear to our students that everyone – teachers and students – had to be responsible, self-disciplined and accountable to achieve the objectives set for each stage of learning. Obviously, there are differences in the abilities, knowledge, skills and attitudes of each learner and it was therefore imperative that teachers structured each activity so that every single student’s needs were met, enabling each child to take responsibly for their completion of tasks.

We are now more conscious of our students’ academic and emotional needs, and thus homework for Grade 2, 3 and 4 pupils consists of daily reading, spelling exercises and perhaps a study topic in preparation for our daily quizzes. From Grade 5 onwards, homework comprises reading, spelling, test preparation, and a daily mathematics worksheet that allows for the differentiated abilities of all learners.

All study topics are designed with a view to helping those learners who do not have as much parental guidance and assistance as others at home. Daily oral and written quizzes concretise new learning and peer, teacher and group assessments reflect progress.

Appreciating the great outdoors and clubs

As one decision always has a knock-on effect, we had to dissolve our school-based homework sessions. We decided that our learners needed to participate in an outdoor activity instead, and therefore we introduced our Forest Walk. We decided that this would be the perfect outlet for boundless energy and an appreciation of our exquisite forest. Our walk takes place four times a week in the afternoons, and those who are not involved in a team sport walk for 45 minutes in two groups, with two teachers per phase. We all enjoy the three-quarters of an hour of imaginative play, incessant chatter and, of course, the brisk pace, which allows every child to exercise while not realising that their fitness levels are improving. The original reason for the Forest Walk was exercise in lieu of sitting in the classroom, but we have quickly come to see that a whole world of teaching and learning is waiting to be explored. Our Grade 7 teacher is currently exploring the Eco-Schools programme, which we look forward to being part of.

‘Time on task’ important in class and at home

It is evident that certain advantages and disadvantages of our new homework policy will come to the fore as time goes on. Certainly, our learners are more fit and have excelled on the sports field this year. Many parents have commented favourably on the ability of their children to complete homework on their own, and have said how they value having the time to read and talk to their children without becoming embroiled in stressful homework-related arguments. Other parents are concerned that they are not as involved in their children’s work, and thus cannot gauge when problem areas develop. Obviously, teachers have had to ensure that they are efficient in the classroom so that learners do not end up finishing their class work at home. More academic time has been taken away on a Friday by our introduction of a variety of extramural clubs, which has meant more pressure to complete academic programmes, but thus far our teachers have indicated that a more systematic approach to the design and achievement of academic goals has been helpful.

We will revisit our homework policy again formally at the end of 2013 to see if the gains outweigh the disadvantages. In the interim, we will be particularly interested to learn more about the different environments in which our students complete their homework. As we learn more about their specific challenges and various socio-economic contexts, we will be able to meet their needs even more effectively. We continue to embrace our environment, accept our challenges, strive to change our perspectives when necessary and finally to continue to ‘Aim Higher’!

Category: Featured Articles, Summer 2012

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