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The Homework Myth July 6, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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I’m beginning to question the whole “homework reinforces learning and teaches responsibility” crap argument. Recently, I stumbled upon a Q&A with Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, that was published in the American School Board Journal.

Okay, I’ve still got to do my homework on homework (as in, buy and read the book), but according to the interview, there are NO studies that show that assigning homework in elementary school (grades K-3) improves achievement.  I know what you’re thinking.  At least it promotes self-discipline, right?  But according to Kohn, there’s no scientific evidence to prove this is true either.  Hey, is that my pig that just flew by?

I’ve always assigned homework.  Your reading log must be signed by a parent every night.  “I don’t care if your parent is passed out on the couch,” I’ve been known to say.  “It’s your responsibility to put a pen in their hand and move it around!”  Students who come to school without a parent signature are benched for morning recess.  Okay, it’s only 15 minutes, and they can still use the bathroom, but it’s the thought that counts.  I’ve had students weeping over the loss of that 10 minutes of runaround time.  We spend maybe 15 minutes a day correcting homework and another ten minutes talking about the homework that’s to be done that night.  It adds up.

For the record, I’ve spent two years designing and fine turning homework that incorporates the week’s spelling and vocabulary words, and English Language Conventions (read Skills) that we’re studying that week.  But I’m not sure this homework actually helps the kids who need help the most.

I’ve taught a cluster of English Language Learners (ELLs) for the past two years.  The other half of my students are English speakers, and last year I even had one boy who read at a 7th grade level.  They’re all over the spectrum. In a perfect world, I’d be differentiating homework.  But to be honest, I don’t have the time.  I could ask my student from Mexico to practice her English sight words every night, but there’s no one at home who speaks English. And when I looked at the homework one of my Korean students turned in, I could see his father had translated it word by word and then written the spelling sentences for him.

I’m hearing more and more that it’s not “practice makes perfect,” but “perfect practice makes perfect.”  So how does homework promote that?   Or should it?  Do students really need to work a second shift?

I do remember one homework assignment that yielded results.  Our vocabulary word was “exist” and I had students ask their parents (or whoever was in charge) about things we have now that didn’t “exist” when their parents were in the third grade.  Oh, the list we made!  Cell phones, iPods, Invisalign braces –  the list went on and on.  Of course, one girl’s father told her toilets didn’t exist, but I chalked that up to him growing up in rural Mexico (or maybe he just didn’t understand the question).

I also sent students home with plastic straws and paperclips and had them construct right, isosceles, and obtuse triangles, which they had to “hand in” the next morning by sorting them into the correct piles.  If only homework was always that interesting.

Once my students got the hang of Accelerated Reading (AR), I let them take home books from the class library so they could  take the on-line quiz the next day.  Talk about motivated readers!  And my students can alphabetize their spelling words and draw a line between a vocabulary word and its meaning, but still…

I’ve only had a few parents over the years who asked for more homework. They tend to congregate in the GATE clusters.  When parents do ask for more, I tell them their child would be better off watching the Discovery Channel or baking a cake.  Some look relieved.  Others are confused.

The week my students took THE TEST (the one that will determine who’s getting left behind), teachers were told not to assign homework.

A collective sigh of relief echoed through the hallways.  No dashing down to copy homework only to find the copier was broken.  No dashing down to find the copier had been commandeered by one of those upper grade teachers, who are always in the midst of printing out 35+ packets.  Waiting to use the copier is a lot like standing in line at a Methadone clinic waiting for my fix turn.  Fifty some teachers, two copiers.  You can do the math.  If life was fair, there’d be a technician chained to the copier 24/7.

To avoid this, I have all the homework on my computer at home and print it out on Sundays.  Did I mention that Sunday has become my least favorite day of the week?

In my master’s program, we had to pick a topic to do an Action Research project on over the next year.  My cohort’s topic is…homework!  No sooner had we decided on our topic than our district revamped its homework policy. The new guidelines cite the importance of daily homework to “reinforce learning” and report that “homework promotes responsibility.”

Okay, the jury’s still out, but it should be interesting to see what our research reveals.  In the meantime, if you don’t have that parent signature on your reading log, you’re benched.

Friday Club March 25, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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The first year I taught I realized I needed to find a way to reward students who work hard and complete their homework each week. “Friday Club” was born.  Unlike Fight Club, (“the first rule of Fight Club is – Do not to talk about Fight Club“), EVERYBODY talks about Friday Club.  It’s the place to be a quarter ’til three on a Friday afternoon. Are you in?

I lay out the membership qualifications for Friday Club in a letter home to parents on Week 1.  A student cannot participate in Friday Club if 1) I’ve had to call home because of their behavior; 2) another teacher or staff member talked to me about the student’s behavior; 3) A student has incomplete homework that was not completed on the bench, or 4) a student has unfinished classwork or has not met their AR reading weekly point goal.

I let all students participate the first week (even those with less than stellar behavior), as I want them so all see how much fun it is.  But after that first fight (er, Friday), the gloves are off.  I write “Friday Club” on the board with the universal NO symbol over it, and if you mess up during the week that’s where your name goes.

So what do kids DO during Friday Club?  In years past, I’ve had two computers with two versions of “I Spy” on them.  I set the timer for 10 minutes so two kids can play at a time and then rotate. For my English Language Learners, just trying to locate the “tong-goo” is a challenge. When they invariably ask me what it is, I ask them to stick out their tongues. When they do, I say, “That’s your “ton-goo.” They never make THAT mistake again.

Students can draw on the whiteboard, but if it gets out of hand, I set a limit. They love to take turns playing “teacher” and mimic everything I do. If you want to see what your teaching looks like, just sit back and watch your students do the most amazing impression of you. (And you thought they weren’t paying attention!)

I’ve got a bin of board games.  The two mancala boards are the hands-down favorites. Students are also allowed to bring board games or puzzles to share.

This year I’ve got a group of boys who love to play with the math pattern blocks. I’d like to think they’re solving complex mathematical problems, but I know they’re really building forts and dungeons. There’s usually a couple of chess masters who sit locked in a mental battle while all this activity swirls round them.

And there are always those artsy craftsy girls who are happy to just glue beads and bend pipe cleaners to make butterflies.  If I’m lucky, I’ve got one student who can do origami and teach it to the rest. I’ve cut squares of newsprint so they can practice. I’ve got lots of “How to…” books that kids love to go through – How to make hand shadows, puppets, draw monsters…

Last year I had two boys who designed elaborate marble chutes using paper towel tubes. I took to dragging in boxes for them which they fashioned into half-pipes and jumps. I liked to think they were destined to be engineers or architects, but then I’m prone to optimism.

I’ve always let one child walk around and pass out ONE red licorice whip. This is the first year my students have been so sweet, I haven’t bothered to break the seal on the licorice. (But, I’ve seen the students coming up from the second grade, so I’m already stockpiling licorice.)

Some days, with all the direct instruction, I feel like I’m teaching junior college. What I love about Friday Club is my kids get to act like kids. And that 30-minutes gives me time to clean up and prepare for Monday, or just go around and talk to kids one-on-one – something that’s often hard to do during the regular school day.

I used to have the kids who weren’t in Friday Club sit at their desk and write standards, e.g.,” I will do my personal best.” (No one is allowed to “distract” them). Sometimes I had them write the standards in cursive as that seemed less draconian. (And yes, some kids can write standards until the cows come home and they’ll still misbehave and be writing the same old standards the following week.)

This year I’ve had a terrific class, so when a kid sits Friday Club out, I have them write me a letter about what’s going on in their life or they can tell me their plan for improving their behavior. (I’m big on telling kids you’ve got to have a plan, or you plan to fail.)

I have a student who missed Friday Club a while back. He hadn’t been returning his homework and when he did, it was sloppily done. I told him to write me a letter. He wrote he was upset since his dad left. (I found out his father had been deported). Knowing this, I was able to sit and talk to him. I’ve found that the kids who aren’t eligible for Friday Club are often the very ones who need someone to talk to.

During Friday Club, some of my former students invariably stop by. They’re supposed to be en route to the bathroom, but I know they’re taking a trip down Memory Lane. “Ah, Friday Club,” they say wistfully. There’s always a collective groan when I tell students it’s time to start cleaning up. When I ding the bell, the kids have to clean up EVERYTHING. (One of my students loves to tell visitors, “Ms. M is a horrible maid – Just ask her husband!”)

But I’ve got to get my students out the door cause I’ve got my own Friday Club to go to. It’s called Happy Hour.