Wednesday, 13 July 2011

On Homework

I would love to see my students complete school work at home because they are excited about a topic they are studying or because they have a strong desire to improve their skills.

It's my blog.  I can dream, right?

In recent years, I have adopted the philosophy that if a student is using his or her time wisely, it should be entirely possible to meet learning outcomes within class time.  Additional time may be required for the student to review, exceed expectations, or make up for missed classes but, overall, my students should not have homework.  I try to assign a number of "in class only" tasks each term, giving me the opportunity to really observe and guide my students as they learn and make adaptations, as necessary.  Some assignments, usually multi-day projects, may be taken home if students want to spend extra time on them.

Please note that, in the paragraphs below, I use the terms "assignments" and "work" to describe a variety of assessment practices.  My draft on assessment has been sitting on this blog nearly as long as this entry on homework but, for now, know that "assignment" is not synonymous with "worksheet" in my mind.

A few thoughts to contribute to the ongoing discussions about homework online and in schools:

Some parents, students, and teachers believe that a "good teacher" assigns homework.  It seems that these people generally expect all students to be given the same homework, regardless of their progress in class.
Homework is mistakenly understood as a necessary component in a serious, academic course taught by a strong teacher.  The quantity of homework, however, does not correlate with the quality of a student's learning, nor a teacher's instruction.  I have memories of completing dozens of math problems long after I had mastered the concept.  Likewise, there were times when I could have benefited from extra practice not required by my classmates.

Homework needs to be personalized and motivated by the student (or family) in order for it to be meaningful.
If somebody had made this statement five years ago, I'd have thought they were nuts.  Some students require extra practice or review, but these requirements are not the same for each.  I now believe that extra practice, review, and studying must be completed at the suggestion of the teacher but with the student's active acknowledgment that this is a necessary assignment to improve upon skills.  When students are truly engaged in a project, they may choose to work at home; I think that is fantastic and strongly encourage that.  When students are motivated to improve skills, with the guidance of the teacher, they take ownership over the activity.  They will become equipped to succeed as they face future in-class assessment opportunities.

Some parents, students, and teachers believe that homework is acceptable if it is work that the student has not finished in class.
I agree with this, in part.  Some students require more time to complete work; why should they be "punished" for requiring more time to meet the learning outcomes for a particular course?  As well, teachers do feel that they need to "move on" and not leave other students waiting for the next assignment while a minority of the class finishes work.  My issue with this philosophy, however, is cases when students choose to waste time in class, then choose not to complete the homework.  The student still has to complete the assignment, and the teacher will find him/herself sending interim reports and reminding the student about the missing work.  This seems like a lose-lose situation to me.  While I do not assign homework, students who miss class then procrastinate end up having to do some at home.  I was commenting to a colleague that I wonder if some parents think, "That Family Studies teacher assigns a lot of homework" when, in reality, the student may have fallen behind due to absences or issues with time management.  I feel that the "It's homework if you don't finish in class" philosophy is only viable if the teacher holds students accountable for class time, as much as possible.  It is amazing how quickly students begin to work when something is "due at the end of class."  I am able to ensure that students have completed work to the best of their ability, while making adaptations and modifications for those who genuinely struggle.  As well, I want to see some work completed in front of me, even if extra time is required; allowing students to take every assignment home can lead to concerns about academic honesty.

If work is completed out of class, I do not know whose work I am assessing.
I am neither willing nor able to assess plagiarized work.  Period.  Dealing with plagiarism is unpleasant for all involved.  I spend time at the beginning of each year reviewing the school's code for academic honesty yet, on several occasions, I have received an assignment completed by Wikipedia's finest contributors, or another person who is not enrolled in my class.  It seems unwise to allow every assignment to go home unless I have a good sense of the student's current achievement and have observed the assignment in progress.

If work is being completed at home, I do not have the opportunity to differentiate assessment.
If a student genuinely struggles with written work, for example, I have an opportunity to reduce the assignment requirements and perhaps discuss another method of presentation.  I can make adaptations for any student, whether or not a ministry coding has been assigned, but must see the student in order to do this.  Students who genuinely struggle may also feel frustrated and choose not to complete an assignment or may feel motivated to cheat.  It is for these and a variety of other reasons that I designate several major assignments "in class only" each term.

Students have other interests, hobbies, and commitments.
While I began by mentioning that some parents and students expect homework in rigorous courses, others do not and see value in engaging their children in a variety of activities.  Many senior students are committed to jobs, babysitting, athletics, or volunteer positions after school.  Secondary school students should expect to spend some time dedicated to review and practice several days per week, but lengthy homework projects are challenging for many.

If we want to create lifelong readers, reading should not be a chore.
The last time I taught English, my students completed about 85% of the assessment activities in class, allowing me to adapt assignments as needed.  I told them that their homework was to read books of their choice, and gave them silent reading time in class in order to "hook" them on reading.  It was my desire to make English "homework" something they enjoyed, rather than a punitive or unnecessary exercise.  I told them that I was not going to install cameras in their homes to supervise this reading, but that reading would improve their skills in class.  I have no way of knowing if I succeeded in encouraging these students to read but hope that they left with a more positive attitude toward reading and school in general.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Social Studies 9: A New Adventure

I will be teaching a block of Social Studies 9, next year.  It will be my first time teaching this course and, after a bit of inspiration from a variety of sources, my brain is full of ideas!  I love the content for Social Studies 9; it's full of revolutions and adventure!

In no particular order, here are a few thoughts about next year:

1) I hope to build on research, paraphrasing, citation, media literacy, and academic honesty skills throughout the year.  Wow.  Re-reading that sentence bores me.  I have fun plans to integrate these key skills into the course and feel that these are vital to students' success in this class and throughout secondary school.  Research goes beyond a Google search and critical thinking requires more than paraphrasing an article.  I am excited about using these important tools in my classes and seeing the students move from guided practice to independent research.  A huge focus will be on critical thinking and synthesis of information, rather than activities which require students to simply "read and regurgitate" the information.

2) Building on the aforementioned skills, I am planning to incorporate a major inquiry project on life in early Canada.  Students will research and present the information in a manner of their choosing.  This will occur after I have introduced the skills required through more teacher-directed lessons.  It is my hope that I will be the "guide" as students tackle this project.  I hope to have them choose their own inquiry questions and conference with each student/group on a regular basis to ensure that they are on track.  I've been able to spend a lot of time thinking and reading about Inquiry Learning through my courses and am excited about beginning.

3) Students and staff often complain that 80-minute blocks are too long; I hope to break up the time by adding 15-45 minute geography lessons at various points throughout the year, rather than teaching a geography unit at once.  I have other plans to break up the blocks, as well.  The classes are long but I think that we can make good use of the time.

4) As a big fan of historical fiction, I plan to incorporate stories throughout the course.  I happen to be reading The Bride of New France at the moment.  (Interestingly, I put this book on hold at the local library before learning that I was teaching this course.  I love the course content!)  I have learned that secondary students are never too old for a "read-aloud" and think it will be fun to use sections of the book to bring a different perspective to some of the course content.  I am looking for other content-related novels or short stories and would love recommendations!

5) Aside from classes being too long, one consistent comment my grade eight students made last year was that high school teachers assign too much homework.  (They didn't have homework in my Health and Career 8 class, of course, but they were struggling to adapt to the homework in secondary school.)  I have become a big fan of in-class assessment and hope that my students will have little or no homework if they are using class time wisely.  They may need to review key concepts at home, but specific homework will not be assigned.  (More thoughts on homework coming soon.)  If a student genuinely struggles, I hope to work with him or her to make adaptations which will allow learning outcomes to be met and frustration to decrease.  This, of course, depends upon the individual student's strengths, challenges, and work habits.

6) Problem-solving activities are also in my mind.  A couple of colleagues have mentioned that they tried role-playing games in Social Studies and this is something that I would love to implement.

7) I have several field trip ideas.  Part of the curriculum involves art and culture.  I would love to take students to the Vancouver Art Gallery for a tour and/or to the UBC Museum of Anthropology.  This would probably occur in the spring so that students would have enough background information to maintain interest.  A number of variables affect this plan, but it is in my mind now.

8) A number of colleagues have been kind enough to e-mail or give me their resources for the course.  I have received many ideas and materials that I hope to use throughout the year.  In the past, my amazing colleagues have been wonderful at mentoring and providing resources when I find myself teaching a new course.  This year has been no different.  I walked into my room one day to find a gigantic box of worksheets and sample assignments on my desk.  I also received e-mail attachments, handouts, and other resources during the last week of school.  I feel really fortunate to be working alongside so many fantastic teachers and look forward to picking their brains as the course progresses.

9) I just realized that I should add a bit about technology.  If you know me, it goes without saying that technology will be a part of my class.  As usual, I plan to use a class website, post assignments online, and engage students in online discussions and debates.  I've learned about a few new tools which I'm excited to use.  Webquests is a fantastic website to encourage critical thinking about history.  This is one that I'm excited to try with Social Studies 9!  As well, students will be using a variety of online tools.  I've been recording interesting links on a separate page and presentation tools which I've used, or hope to use next year, are included there.  I want to pick a few tools for each class and teach students to use them well, rather than constantly spending class time on instruction.  That said, I will be encouraging students to try different tools on their own and will likely provide a brief introduction to each.  A Google account, of course, will be a requirement for every class I teach.

Of course, Social Studies 9 won't be complete without this video and others from the HistoryTeachers channel:

Monday, 4 July 2011

Missing In Action

What do teachers do in the summer?
Go to the park to see Shakespeare plays, of course!
Canada Day 2011 at Bard on The Beach
I am never short on words, nor opinions, but this blog has become a neglected one after a rapid start.

Somehow, blogging was lost in a June filled with final assessments, marking late assignments, report cards, graduation ceremony duties, yearbook delivery and distribution, moving classrooms, meeting with colleagues, and collecting resources to look at over the summer.  (Somewhere in there, I also had an action-packed life outside of school!)

My "Tweeting" has not slowed, however.  Blogging requires time to sit and process, while Twitter allows me to regurgitate thoughts from other people with ease when I have a moment or two to sit and read.  The iPhone is a beautiful invention.

I love the online network of teachers and administrators which has formed through Twitter, but can't help but feel like a sad, little parrot as I re-tweet brilliant thoughts from others but have none of my own to contribute at the moment.  I imagine that others see this and assume that I'm the sort of person who would sit at a dinner party nodding and exclaiming, "I agree!" as those around me participate in intelligent discussions.  I assure you that this is not the case.  If you invite me to dinner, I will come prepared with a collection of conversation starters such as, "Eww!  Are they serving us fried slugs?" and "Lemme tell you about what I found on the skytrain yesterday!  You don't have a weak stomach, do you?"


I was going to keep putting off a blog entry until I had something to say but realized today that, for me, June-itis is part of the teaching experience.  The cure, of course, is fabulous summer fun.  I hope to be back to blogging fairly soon with some reflections on the past year and goals for next year.

Now, it is time to head out and enjoy some more of this beautiful sunshine!