Maximizing Middle School Instructional Time with Reading Homework

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I remember flipping through the Wit & Wisdom® Teacher Edition for the first time six years ago. I relished the thoughtful organization and consistency of each lesson and the stunning artwork in each module. Although I found the curriculum impressive, I had concerns about using the curriculum in my Grade 8 classroom.

During the first year, which was a pilot for the Grade 8 teachers, I resolved many initial concerns as I learned how to use the preparation protocols to unpack each module, Focusing Question arc, and lesson. But one concern remained: assigning homework. Why was I choosing not to assign the reading homework?

During the first year of implementation, 45 minutes were dedicated to teaching Wit & Wisdom. It was impossible to teach the full lesson in a class period, and our pacing suffered. In year two, the district restructured our schedule and provided language arts classes with 90-minute blocks. For many reasons, that still didn’t seem like enough time to get through an entire Wit & Wisdom lesson. In my second year of implementation, my students were experiencing Wit & Wisdom for the first time—they hadn’t participated in the pilot in Grade 7. The students’ lack of familiarity with the curriculum led the department to continue to read entire texts in class, often as read alouds, and it consumed too much of the 90-minute instructional block.

Initially, it seemed logical to have students complete the reading homework in class. They hadn’t received that much homework before, and the rigor of the curriculum itself was a big change for my students. I also thought I could ensure that students read, and understood, every page of our texts if I read them aloud. Throughout the second year, students spent a lot of the instructional time completing assigned homework readings during class.

During year two, pacing was a regular topic of conversation at departmental meetings. All of the Grade 8 teachers were working hard to improve their use of instructional time, but teaching a lesson in a day still seemed challenging in some modules, especially those with significant reading homework. At the end of that year, the Grade 8 teachers decided that we would assign the homework with fidelity the following year to improve our pacing.

As I prepared to make this shift, I worried whether any of the students would complete the homework assignments and how the lesson might unfold if no one completed the reading. I wondered whether parts of the lesson that depended on students reading specific passages for homework would be less effective if students didn’t complete it. I considered what I would need to prepare to support the students who didn’t complete the homework.

Despite these concerns, I moved forward with plans to assign the homework with fidelity in year three. I still remember the mantra that everyone in the department adopted as we embarked on what seemed like a radical choice to start assigning all the homework as homework: “Trust the curriculum.” To help with homework organization, students received three-prong, two-pocket folders. Each folder included any needed handouts and a chart that detailed the daily homework assignments. It became apparent that assigning that homework, especially reading assignments, for completion outside class would become one of the most important choices for maximizing instructional time.

Instead of putting information in a pocket folder, I now post that information on Canvas®, an online classroom management tool our school uses for blended learning. In Canvas, I provide a link to an audio version of the text that students use to complete reading assignments for homework. Interestingly, some students prefer to follow along while listening to a read aloud, while others prefer to read independently. I don’t need to check every students’ homework because the accountability for completing homework is incorporated in the lesson. I learn a lot about student understanding during lessons, and I document what I notice as the class progresses through the module. The focus of my notes relates to the knowledge and skills needed for upcoming assessments like Focusing Question Tasks and the End-of-Module Task.

Now, in year six of implementation, most students complete the assigned homework, and I have learned to let go of my worry when a student occasionally doesn’t. Often, the homework is a first read of a text that students revisit in a lesson. Any given lesson offers a variety of student activities, and they are not solely dependent on whether a student completes a homework assignment. Yet the curriculum also provides enough accountability that students receive natural consequences for failing to complete a reading, such as not being able to participate in a discussion or needing more time to locate text evidence. Most students learn that doing the reading helps them to be successful in class.

WW Maximizing Middle School Instructional Time Blog WrapFor example, in Module 2, the homework assignment from Lesson 14 includes reading pages 123–136 of All Quiet on the Western Front while annotating for emotional responses (or lack thereof) of the men in the Second Company.

WW Maximizing Middle School Instructional Time Blog LearnIn the next lesson, students share those annotations with the class. Students who completed their homework excitedly share what they found, and those who didn’t complete their homework still benefit from the conversation. Later in the lesson, students purposefully reread as they answer several text-dependent questions. All students can participate fully in the lesson because of the rereading.

Assigning a first read as homework also reflects the Wit & Wisdom Content Stages in an age-appropriate way. It is unrealistic to expect students to read a portion of a complex text once and immediately progress to the Reveal stage in an analytical discussion with their peers. Instead, students start at the Wonder Stage as they wrestle with the text for the first time as homework. Then, as students engage with the text again, they can progress to further stages of understanding. The Wit & Wisdom Content Stages support middle school students in reading longer, more complex text with greater independence—a skill they will need to draw on in high school and beyond.

I can see with clarity now that by assigning homework, I set high expectations. I expect students to share in the effort necessary to reach their potential. And with students completing assigned readings outside class, pacing has improved: I can teach a whole lesson and a Deep Dive in one 90-minute block. Now, I always encourage new Wit & Wisdom teachers to “trust the curriculum” and assign the homework to students, even during the first year of implementation.

Topics: Implementation Support