Just Listen: Kids Talk About Life at Home

“It’s kinda like I just had a baby,” Wedjeena told me, talking about her ten-month-old brother. “He’ll pull my homework, crumple it up. Eat it.”

As the winter holidays arrive, adults tend to think of youth as the receivers of our largesse. It’s easy to forget that many youth go home from school every day to shoulder the responsibilities of adults.

Whether it’s babysitting, doing household chores, or translating for non-English-speakers, their contributions matter enormously to their families and their communities outside school.

But they may be invisible to their teachers. What would you do differently if you knew the work that these four students are doing out of school? How might you celebrate and build on their strengths?

Take 5 minutes to listen to what they say. Then pass their voices along, and let us know what you think!

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Fire-Starter: Making grammar practice personal

Peggy Hart, a teacher from Massachusetts, writes in to propose a homework assignment with a social element, in order to draw students into identifying sentence fragments and run-on sentences. “We are always asking students to self-edit their work for spelling, punctuation, run-on sentences, and the like,” she writes. But instead of having them practice on a page full of sentences she provides, Peggy asks them to analyze and correct an example from their own or a friend’s writing. Take a look at her Grammar Homework Fire-Starter and send in your thoughts!

Falling asleep over homework

I’ve been working a lot with teachers recently, holding up their homework assignments to the criteria for “deliberate practice.” (Since that’s the only kind of practice that actually helps us get better at things, it’s a good guide to whether homework is worth doing.)

But all that thinking about homework has also brought on that irresistible urge to sleep that I used to feel as a teenager. As Vivian, a student contributor to Fires in the Mind, said:

I’m like, “Okay, what’s more important, math or history?” My eyes are closing, but I just push myself to stay up late. Sometimes I drink coffee, so it’s unhealthy, too! . . . And it shows: I’m always tired in class, because I spent all my night doing my homework!

Vivian has a point. Across the board, researchers report the same thing as did this study done in 1998 by Amy Wolfson, M.D.: “Altogether, most of the adolescents surveyed do not get enough sleep, and their sleep loss interferes with daytime functioning.”

Specifically, there is mounting evidence that “sleep deprivation has its greatest negative effects on the control of behavior, emotion, and attention, a regulatory interface that is critical in the development of social and academic competence.”

Dr. Wolfson’s studies reveal disturbing results in adolescents who get insufficient sleep. One study concluded:

Students who described themselves as struggling or failing school (C’s, D’s/F’s) reported that on school nights they obtain about 25 minutes less sleep and go to bed an average of 40 minutes later than A and B students.

Maggie Jones’s fascinating article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine discusses the effects of too little sleep on our cognitive performance—and the many ways in which we fool ourselves about it. For example, after just a few days of getting four or six hours of sleep, one group of lab subjects reported:

Yes, they were slightly sleepy. But they insisted they had adjusted to their new state. Even 14 days into the study, they said sleepiness was not affecting them. In fact, their performance had tanked. In other words, the sleep-deprived among us are lousy judges of our own sleep needs. We are not nearly as sharp as we think we are.

Might teachers actually be hurting their students’ performance, not helping it, with the homework they assign? What might such studies mean for how, and when, to give homework? What solutions can you propose?

I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best answers I receive.

When inquiry is the homework

When I ask teachers what they ask their students to practice, most of them talk about homework. But when is homework just busywork—and when is it the kind of “deliberate practice” that really makes the learning stick?

In a three-hour workshop I facilitated last week, 30 teachers combed through their homework assignments to compare them to the criteria for deliberate practice. They asked themselves:

  • Does this homework ask each student to practice something that the student hasn’t yet mastered? Does the student clearly see its purpose?
  • When students are asked to repeat or rehearse something, does it require them to focus? Or can they do it without really paying attention?

One fourth-grade math teacher said that his biggest goal was to get his students to rip through routine calculations (like the multiplication table) in the shortest possible time. He wanted them to have the numbers down cold, so they wouldn’t have to think twice when they needed them.

But even though a lot of his students could do that, he noticed something troubling. When confronted with mathematical questions deriving from the world around them—like how long it would take to fill a five-gallon jug with water—they couldn’t tell the difference between a wild guess and a reasonable estimate.

Even before they needed to know their times-tables, his kids needed practice in mathematical reasoning. On multiple-choice standardized tests, they were spending too much time laboriously considering answers that couldn’t possibly be true.

Together these teachers brainstormed homework activities that might give students practice in this crucial thinking skill. For example, what about introducing a real-world dilemma, then asking kids to estimate a reasonable range in which the answer might fall? They could share their thinking in small groups the next day, with the teacher coaching them through the calculations that would show who came closest.

This kind of homework gives students practice in the thinking habits experts use when they approach problems. And it can be done in every subject area, from science to literature to history.

When kids learn to ask good questions, they care more about finding out answers that make sense. That generates a need for collaboration, for considering the perspectives of those who may disagree, and for analyzing different routes to a solution.

How do you give homework in “asking good questions”? Send in the details, and we’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind!

Bringing practice back to class


What if kids listened to lectures on their own time, and spent class time in guided practice instead? (Dan Pink’s blog this week calls it “flipping homework.”)

That’s the technique used by many pioneering teachers, including Karl Fisch, a Colorado high school math teacher and blogger. He makes YouTube videos to explain key concepts and procedures to his algebra students—who view them after hours.

During class, students actively work on solving problems, collaborating in various ways as they try out the concepts for themselves.

Meanwhile, the teacher has the time to watch, assess, and coach kids as they puzzle through the problems in the moment. He can offer just the help that each needs in the moment, stretching their learning to the next step.

That approach makes sense for any subject (math, science, foreign languages, etc.) where a teacher wants to introduce background knowledge via direct instruction or sustained silent reading. Delivered during traditional “homework time,” that information has a chance to come alive the next day — and “stick” as kids make it their own in the messy, generative ways that deliberate practice demands.

Just today, Fisch’s students conducted a Skype interview with a geothermal engineer from the National Renewable Energy Lab — but as homework beforehand, they prepped for their interview by reading a package of background information. (Find out more here.)

Have you tried a strategy like this in your classroom? Do you have other ways you’re accomplishing the same goal? I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best examples I receive.

Does your homework look like this?

What should we change about the nuts and bolts of homework, after reading Benedict Casey’s excellent article in the New York Times summarizing the cognitive research into effective studying? Here’s my short version:

Study the same thing in different locations. Varying the setting seems to enrich the information in the brain, and make it harder to forget.

Vary the type of material studied in one session, to leave a deeper impression on the brain. Math students would attack a set of problems that require different types of calculations, rather than going through many that use the same formula. Foreign language students would alternate vocabulary, reading, and speaking. Music students would do scales, practice pieces, and rehearse rhythms. Art or literature students would review pieces from different genres, not focus on one writer or painter at a time.

Spread out the studying over time. Every time the brain revisits something after a break, its effort to “relearn” it seems to increase long-term recall. As Casey puts it, “The harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to later forget.”

Use frequent practice tests or quizzes. “Desirable difficulty,” as the researchers call it, makes things stick in the mind. The very effort of pulling out what we’ve learned means we’ll remember it later on.

If we take this research seriously, what would teachers do differently in assigning homework? What would parents change about the way they supervise it? Could students make such changes on their own, or do they need adults to cooperate? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comments that come in this week.

Homework and the middle-school mind

My guest today is Dina Strasser, who teaches seventh grade English in upstate NY and whose blog The Line I depend upon for consistent and thoughtful insights on life in the middle school classroom. Dina’s taking my previous post on homework another welcome step here, as do several other teachers who comment on my original homework post here. Keep your ideas coming!
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Middle-school readerHOMEWORK! I think I may struggle with this morally more than other teachers, as my formative experience with assigning work outside of school came from my eight years as an ESL instructor. I started to call it the Second Shift Principle. If an ESL kid couldn’t do the homework around a parent’s absence due to a second job (or the student’s own “second shift,” often a load of housework and child care), then the homework wasn’t worth doing.

I transferred this philosophy to my new mainstream English classroom three years ago, and am deeply influenced by the complementary work of Cathy Vatterott at ASCD—her book Rethinking Homework is essential reading. My school, also, has a “no zero” policy, and de-emphasizes homework in the calculation of grades. I myself explicitly assign homework very sparingly, and grade homework minimally (5-10% of a grade), and only for completion. As Nicholas says so poignantly in Fires in the Mind, you don’t want homework to be like “a test that comes at the wrong time.”

As an English teacher, in fact, the only homework I assign on a regular basis is—you guessed it—reading. However, my reading follows the recommendations of Nancie Atwell; it is a pre-set time of 30 minutes per day, to be completed anywhere at any time, on the book or reading material of their choice. I like this kind of work because it solves so many homework issues right off the bat: it is (hopefully) enjoyable, flexible in how it can be completed (who doesn’t read on the bus once in a while?), and automatically differentiated for the kid.

Here, too, however, I struggle with some completion issues. Even self-directed reading, in a book a kid will enjoy, sometimes plays second fiddle not only to the scheduled lives our kids lead outside of school, but to much more sexy technological reading. In addition, and in a complicated twist on the information in Fires in the Mind, I find that if my kids don’t get some kind of grade on the reading, they have trouble seeing its worth. This is even if I explain every single day (and I do) that reading is just like free throws—it has to happen in order for it to improve. This is a shadow side of teaching middle school kids. They’ve been conditioned for several years by a learning culture which pins total value on extrinsic motivators such as grades, and they may not know how to articulate their desire for choice and meaning otherwise, like the older kids in Fires in the Mind.

So, as a middle school teacher experimenting with homework, I would be especially sensitive to the fact that while your kids are conducting “triage” based on what’s graded or not, what they’re actually expressing is a desire for the meaning and impact of the work to be clear. I hope to improve on my own homework in the coming year by asking for short reflections on the daily reading which we go over in conference weekly, targeted to what the kids individually feel they need practice on in reading, and including text and email options for turning those in. I am also excited to explain the differences between tech reading and “slow” reading for them, and validate them both—maybe by including a week’s worth of deliberate on-line reading practice for them each month. I’m sure that will get done!

Is homework "deliberate practice"?

Ideally, homework should be “deliberate practice,” targeting individual areas of need and pushing each student to a new place just within reach. But students tell me it rarely works that way.

The kids make their case in Chapter 8 of Fires in the Mind, part of which is adapted as “Show Us What Homework’s For” in the new September issue of Educational Leadership magazine. (If you can’t access the magazine article, you can download a free PDF of Chapter 8 on the Resources section of this blog.)

Cognitive researchers have specific criteria for the kind of practice that steadily makes people better at what they do. It would make sense if homework matched those criteria, but my research for “Fires in the Mind” shows that it usually doesn’t. For example:

  • Deliberate practice always has an express purpose, but students say they usually don’t know what its point is.
  • Deliberate practice is geared to the individual, but typically everyone gets the same homework tasks, no matter what they need to work on.
  • Deliberate practice involves attention and focus, but kids say they usually do their homework without thinking.
  • Deliberate practice requires repetition or rehearsal, but often kids tell me that they are repeating something just to get it over with, not to perfect and remember it.
  • Timing is important in deliberate practice, yet homework often takes more time than kids have for it.
  • Finally, although deliberate practice should lead to new skills, students say they don’t use it for anything after it’s done.

What would it take to turn homework into the kind of practice that would help students strengthen their skills and knowledge in academic subjects? Perhaps the most powerful steps in that direction would occur, I propose, when students think of homework as “getting good” at something–much like practice in athletics or the arts.

Let’s use this space to brainstorm some new ways to lift homework to a new level of deliberate practice. How are you already designing homework that accomplishes this? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the first three commenters who offer good examples here!

Is homework “deliberate practice”?

Ideally, homework should be “deliberate practice,” targeting individual areas of need and pushing each student to a new place just within reach. But students tell me it rarely works that way.

The kids make their case in Chapter 8 of Fires in the Mind, part of which is adapted as “Show Us What Homework’s For” in the new September issue of Educational Leadership magazine. (If you can’t access the magazine article, you can download a free PDF of Chapter 8 on the Resources section of this blog.)

Cognitive researchers have specific criteria for the kind of practice that steadily makes people better at what they do. It would make sense if homework matched those criteria, but my research for “Fires in the Mind” shows that it usually doesn’t. For example:

  • Deliberate practice always has an express purpose, but students say they usually don’t know what its point is.
  • Deliberate practice is geared to the individual, but typically everyone gets the same homework tasks, no matter what they need to work on.
  • Deliberate practice involves attention and focus, but kids say they usually do their homework without thinking.
  • Deliberate practice requires repetition or rehearsal, but often kids tell me that they are repeating something just to get it over with, not to perfect and remember it.
  • Timing is important in deliberate practice, yet homework often takes more time than kids have for it.
  • Finally, although deliberate practice should lead to new skills, students say they don’t use it for anything after it’s done.

What would it take to turn homework into the kind of practice that would help students strengthen their skills and knowledge in academic subjects? Perhaps the most powerful steps in that direction would occur, I propose, when students think of homework as “getting good” at something–much like practice in athletics or the arts.

Let’s use this space to brainstorm some new ways to lift homework to a new level of deliberate practice. How are you already designing homework that accomplishes this? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the first three commenters who offer good examples here!

TIP! Start small but do it daily

“Hey, three months ago I couldn’t do what I’m doing now,” said Marquis, 15, who took up Japanese language study because of his interest in anime cartoons. “Let’s see what I can do in another three months! When somebody’s helping you all the way, inch by inch, you keep pushing yourself.”

Kids and adults alike feel awkward and clumsy when we’re first stretching for a new skill. It helps to pick just one part of what you’re going for, and keep practicing it till it becomes a habit. (Don’t forget to cheer for that progress before moving on to the “new hard”!)

No one can blow that horn but you!

I recently had a very interesting letter from a teacher named John, in Southern Ontario. He had retired last June after 25 years of teaching high school English — followed by seven years as a music educator!

In those last years teaching music, he says, he developed a passion for it that went far beyond his real enthusiasm for teaching English.

Now John volunteers at a local elementary school, where he has started a concert band. None of his students could read music when they joined the band, he says. Most of them joined “because it looked like fun, because they wanted to be with others who were doing it.”

The kids, John wrote, pulled off a laudable winter concert. But now, he said, “the honeymoon is over!” As the children reach a musical level where they hit significant frustration, they are starting to drop out of the band.

John is a big believer in practice. He knows that’s all his students need to make it past the hump. But he says that he can’t compete with the culture that surrounds them.

Athletics compete with music for kids’ time. A high-tech paradise entices and distracts them. And too few parents can be there to cheer kids on through those frustrating practice sessions in the six days between rehearsals.

In music, just like sports, you just can’t get away with not doing the practice. “You can rip off an essay from the internet,” this former English teacher says. “But no one can blow that horn but you!”

What do parents think of John’s dilemma? Let us know how you are handling the problem! We’ll mail a free copy of Fires in the Mind to whoever sends in the best comment on this subject.

Spring practice

This is the time of year that kids hate homework most! The weather is warmer, and the clock is running down to the end of the school year. Teachers get mad at kids who blow off their homework . . . and kids get mad at teachers who assign it.

So why, in certain schools around the country, are kids working harder than ever on after-school academics right now?

We see them staying after to work in the computer labs. We see them collaring teachers in the halls for advice. We see them asking other students to read what they’ve written and give their opinions on making it better.

Where does all that motivation come from? Here’s the secret: One day in May or early June, these kids have to get up and present what they’ve learned in front of others whose opinions they value.

That one factor makes kids their “spring practice” in academics as seriously as any baseball player going into spring training. As Bridget, one of our student contributors to the book Fires in the Mind, noted:

With a presentation, it’s not just the teacher who’s gonna be disappointed in you, it’s gonna be a whole audience. You have your peers judging you, and outside people, so you want to present the best of yourself. And that pressure creates a better product.

Performance assessment like these require students to practice all kinds of things that don’t usually show up on tests. For example, Brooklyn Prep, a small New York City public school, assesses end-of-year roundtable presentations largely on the “habits of mind” students can demonstrate.

Roneesha, an eleventh grader, explained to her panel how those habits influenced her final paper in history. She said:

I think it was mainly the habits of mind of analysis and perspective that helped me most. I already had the background information . . . the only thing was how to get it down on paper and choose my position properly. Mainly, perspective helped me see what was the question, and what was it that I knew about the question, and how could I put that, so I could write an essay that fully answered that question.

“It’s amazing to us to see the tone shift when portfolio presentations are happening,” one New York teacher told me:

All of a sudden students take it more seriously. We all felt like students were like really learning, just from going through the process of the presentation. Even just having a voice on other students’ panels — really assessing another student based on a rubric — had an effect on kids. I am so excited to do it again this month.

Quite a few schools do this kind of performance assessment, often called exhibitions, though we don’t hear enough about it in this policy climate of high-stakes standardized testing. But May is a good time to go see for yourself what kids know and can do! The Coalition of Essential Schools has declared National Exhibition Month, and schools around the country are inviting the community in as guests and panel members.

What are YOU asking your students to practice this spring? How are you asking them to practice it? Who are you inviting in to see how they’re doing?

Share your experiences with practice! We’ll mail you a free copy of Fires in the Mind if your comment causes others to reply!