Homework: To give or not to give

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Right now this is debate in many schools, coming from educators, parents and students. Those that are on the side of homework talk feel there is a need for skills to be practiced independently before they can be mastered. On the other side many argue that practicing without a coach (teacher) can lead to errors in learning that takes more efforts to unlearn. Handing one assignment to a class of students as homework is troubling. In that class some students might have already mastered the skill while others are just beginning to tackle it. Why should they all do the same assignment? Matt Miller and Alice Keeler address these concerns and present solutions in their book “Ditch that Homework”.

I suggest that instead of ditching homework we might want to SHIFT IT! This idea comes from practice in my classroom. I don’t assign homework, haven’t for many years. I accept work when it is done and grade it based upon the learning standards. A few years back, after a student failed an assessment, he challenged me. “Mr Bloch, you failed to teach me what I needed to pass the assessment?” What, wait, did I? Others passed!! The students and I went over all the material presented in class, all the projects and tasks given. We agreed it was covered but he still challenged: “But I didn’t do any homework to help it stick, you should have given me homework!” I thought about it for awhile and asked these 3 questions of the student:

  1. Did you know what you needed to learn?
  2. Did you receive feedback as to where you were in this learning?
  3. Did you have access to resources to help you learn it?

“Well, yes but I needed more homework to learn it.” I asked him if it would be fair if I gave the entire class more homework, since as a class most students mastered the content. “Well no, they would hate me if I made us have more work!”

Teachers shouldn’t be the ones assigning homework in the classrooms, students should be assigning it to themselves! Teachers need to set the learning targets, give feedback and provide the resources students need to learn but the learning and homework belongs to the students. Each student has different needs because they are in different places in learning. Schools have to stop thinking one size fits all and model how learning happens in the workplace and in homes.

In the workplace new skills are presented all the time. If a worker wants to get ahead and master the skill they will work on it at home. Those that don’t add the extra efforts might now advance in their jobs as quickly as those that work. At home when we don’t understand why the lawn mower won’t start or how to landscape the yard we assign ourselves homework to figure it out. Schools need to start modeling the skills students need to succeed in life. One of these skills is for learners to know how to assign themselves extra work to reach mastery!

This image of my daughter show it:

Grace knew that she was struggling with fractions in math, so she accessed Kahn Academy to study on a snow day. She could have been sitting on the couch watching TV with her brother but assigned herself homework to fix a perceived weakness. This is a life skill.

Time to shift homework, from teachers to students!

 

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Culture around schools matters!

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Schools spend time and energy to create positive cultures. Students need to feel that the work they are doing in school is meaningful and relevant. Schools work hard to make students from all backgrounds accepted and comfortable. Student voice and choice are helping guide school decisions. The culture of schools is maintained by the teachers, but what happens when students go home?

The culture of learning that schools spend so much energy to demonstrate needs to expend beyond the school campus into the community! Students will know what the school is doing is important when it is reflected in their home lives. Is it? Where do students see Science, Math, ELA, and Social Studies at home? The most visible way for students to see culture is through media. Where is a culture of learning modeled in media? It can be seen on Do It Yourself Show, PBS, and a few other channel: mostly focused on the final product with very little details about the process of figuring things out. Rarely are failures celebrated in our media (unless on funny video shows to laugh). In schools failure happens regularly, as a step in the process of learning.

Often times schools are working against the culture around them.  Just look around. Hip Hop music culture promotes language that is banned from schools. “Drop the Mic” on TBS  insults and bullying behavior that if done in school would lead to discipline referrals. Television and the internet are jammed packed with images that work against a school culture of learning. Just look at the recent Volkswagen advertisement:

We are selling cars by promoting playing “Hooky”, in a time when schools are struggling with chronic absenteeism. Where is the outrage? Even the t-shirt racks at Target and Walmart are full of messages that the school culture isn’t the “real world”.

If we want to fix our educational system it starts with showing it matters in our culture. We can do better. If not NOW, WHEN? The culture outside of schools should match that with in them!

The Incentive Dilemma

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Celebrations are needed in schools. Students need to be reminded that their accomplishments matter and should be celebrated. One way many schools are celebrating their students is through using Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) Incentive Programs. Our school has found success using PBIS incentives. Students that meet the school’s behavior expectations qualify to attend an incentive.

Our School does a variety of school wide incentives through out the year. Ranging from grade level movies in the auditorium, roller skating trips, human hungry hippos and Let’s Make a Deal game show!

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The students that qualify for the incentives have fun and remember the activity. Our dilemma is how to work with the students who DON’T meet the criteria to qualify for PBIS incentives. Typically this is a small number for students, 10-15% of the population. These are not “bad” students they just are struggling to consistently meet expectations. Our staff works hard to set clear expectations for behavior but like most middle schools some students just aren’t ready to meet them consistently. Currently these students in our school go to a classroom with a core teacher to work on assignments or complete lessons on meeting expectations. This room is dreaded by teachers and students alike. Many students will contact home to leave during the incentive because they don’t want to be caged up in a room while the “good” students do something fun.

It would be great if 100% of the students qualified for incentives but it has’t happened YET. What can we do to make this time more meaningful? Is this just one drawback of carrot and stick programs? How do you run incentives at your school? If all students attend the incentives does that ruin the integrity of the program?

If you read this I would love your feedback. I left school the Friday of break completely frustrated having to stay back to work with students during an incentive on the Friday of Winter Break. I saw struggling students feel completely like horrible kids because they didn’t qualify for incentive and then they lived up to their feelings. Thanks in advance!

Be Authentic In Your Teaching!

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Twitter is a buzz with well meaning educators giving advice. Teachers are sharing from their experience. It has led to a recent surge in wonderful education books where classroom teachers are sharing about Being a Pirate in some way, Making Epic Classrooms, Being Innovative or teaching in some specific manner that works for them.  As an educator we have to always remember first and foremost to be authentic to ourselves and students. This antidotal stories from well meaning educators are not silver bullets. The styles and efforts described aren’t a cook book for success. They are stories of success. That may or may not help a teacher as Nicholas says so well in tweet below:

If teachers focus on the goal of being our best every day and continually getting better that is what matters most. The only way to do this is to be authentic. Read all the books, they are filled with incredible ideas, but make them your own. Focus on what you see working in your classroom. Then remember that everyone and everywhere is different. We can’t judge others because they don’t create an epic classroom or teach the way we feel they should.

Putting definitive statements out about homework, “Never give homework“, or grading, “Don’t give Zeroes“, are well meaning but can be totally damaging to teachers. Especially when administrators say these things. Educators have felt demoralized over the last 10 years, it is best we work on build their self worth up and support them where they are without bias. (Just like we do with students!)

I suggest you read others stories that are all full of great ideas. Try some of the ideas that might work for your situation.  While remaining authentic to yourself and your students.

Authors note:

I have been pondering this post for a long time, today Nick’s tweet prompted the final draft. While there are so many incredible books being written on education we can’t take any of them a gospel or recipes for classroom success. Twitter is a powerful tool, teachers need to model the proper use of it for learning and collaborating. It is time educators stop judging how others teach via a social media tool. Unless you go into observe a classroom, one can not begin to understand HOW a teacher teaches or WHY they do it in their manner.

School calendar discussion while in the dental chair.

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While at the dentist yesterday, a school calendar conversation occurred. It began when I walked in, the hygienist asked where my kids were. Their district went back January 2 and where I work doesn’t start back until January 7. “It must be nice to have a few days at home without kids?” was her quick retort.  “Yes and No” was my quick reply. Yes because I have a list of things to do, and wouldn’t mind time to relax and binge Netflix alone. No because the family couldn’t spend time travel this week and my kids district will have a week off in February when I will have to work. Before making me open up for the cleaning she noted: “School calendars are confusing, never seem to match all up especially once kids hit college.” She was right, our county has here in Michigan has 21 school districts all with their own calendars. It can get confusing.

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While in getting my teeth cleaned it is hard to have a conversation. The hygienist asked why districts didn’t have a common calendar. I mumble local control as she scrapped my teeth. The discussion was mainly one-sided as she finished up my cleaning. Once finished, she asked my opinion of “year-round” or “balanced” calendar schools. As a teacher and a parent I am in favor a shift to a more balanced calendar. The dentist walked into this conversation and stated he felt it would be beneficial to learning. Some schools who have shifted have seen the benefits.

“If there are benefits why not make the change?” asked the hygienist. Well it is complicated. Small changes in calendars upset communities this would be a huge one. If all 21 don’t agree on the change, the districts that make the change run a risk of loosing students (school of choice out of district/ which means funding) if parents do “like” the change. Choice and funding laws restrict districts from making some changes. The dentist added that he read of a western state making the change and the communities were in upset for a few years before adjusting and seeing the benefits. The conversation ended as I left the appointment.

Education needs some major philosophical shifts to improve for our students. These shifts can’t happen if the put jobs and even district’s existence into jeopardy. Hopefully Michigan (and other states) will change fund mechanism and laws that help districts positively shift for their students. The NEA recently did a research summary of year round education. It seems like a shift schools need!

Rethinking Assessment

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In efforts to hold schools and educators accountable we have moved towards a standardized testing culture. They are easy to grade and allow students to be ranked and sorted neatly into ability groups. Where has this gotten us? As a country the United States has been viewed as a declining country for K-12 education system.  Do we have a full engaged generation of learners? Hard to tell but I would argue YES we do, but they are learning what, where and how they desire.

My friend Ben Rimes shared this video yesterday:

It led us to have a discussion about: What if assessments looked this way? Ben’s personal reflection can be found on his blog.  Watching this video, I see joyful passion as a individual attempts to make something meaningful to them. Our current assessment system has tons of rigor but lacks the joy and meaning to our students. Does Blanks’ task have rigor? For sure, but he is also driven to complete the task through his passion for music.

How this would look? I haven’t figured it all out yet, but in this day and age where many colleges are dropping standardized test scores as a requirement for admission, why should states require them K-12?

Employers want students who can make thing. Our assessment programs should be portfolios of work accumulated over time with feedback adjustments not numerical rankings from a few hours of testing. Students should find their passions in schools not dread test days. Gone should be the days where 50% of a student’s grade comes from cramming for a final. Time for students to walk out of HS with tangible passion projects that SHOW what they know!