Just life . . . but solved as word problems

Can life be seen as math, when you’re just going into eighth grade? The middle schoolers in this short video “Case Study in Practice” talk about their new coats, their baseball averages, and even the weather with a curiosity that drives them to figure things out mathematically.

Coached by a college student who is a summer teaching intern at Providence Summerbridge, they are learning to describe their everyday concerns using the language of math.

Nic talks about picking out his school clothes in the morning, and he’s suddenly talking about permutations and combinations: “You can put six to seven different ways into one pants and two shirts . . . you just have to find out the outcome of it.”

Shaniece pleads with teachers to make the math connect to things kids do: “Like, use props. Do something. Do a little skit. Bring food. Let us come up and teach the class. See how we understand it, and see what works.”

We learned a lot by eavesdropping on these middle schoolers, as they

• Look for math in real life
• Frame their experiences as word problems
• Try out ways to solve those problems, and
• Explain and share their thinking.

What does this suggest for what your math students are practicing? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll share your thoughts and experiences with us in a reply.

Licking the Envelope

My favorite teacher-blogger, Dina Strasser, reminds us in a wonderful post on The Line this week of the power of making her seventh and eighth graders send out their written work to an audience other than their teacher.

Getting to more authentic writing takes a single step, she has found: Make sure someone other than you sees it.

Here’s the rest of her post, reprinted with her permission. (My response follows in a twin post.)

Kids are now reflecting on altruistic experiences in their lives, choosing one, and articulating its deeper meaning for themselves (the “SO WHAT?” in Nancie Atwell language). They then write a friendly letter to the person involved in the memory– and, in all cases where it applies, addressing an envelope, putting the letter in, licking it closed, and SENDING IT.

“We’re SENDING IT?” they howl.

“We’re sending it,” I repeat, smiling. (Because I actually enjoy seeing them react like this; like watching a canary in coal mine, chances are that if I’m making them visibly uncomfortable, we’re hitting Vygotsky’s sweet spot.)

As they get over their shock (quickly– they’re resilient folks), a two-part realization hits me. One: that kids don’t do nearly enough of this kind of thing. My announcement should be boring them to tears.

Two: that kids, without malice or deviousness, come to count on the fact that you are their only audience.

Far from raising stakes or expectations, the knowledge that their writing products live, move, and have their being merely within the artificial bubble of school decreases those products’ value to kids—no matter how clever or challenging the work.

It also encourages the path of least resistance that we all tend towards.  Why bother to capitalize, think a sentence through, or search for just the right word, when the only person who cares about it is Ms. S? Doesn’t she live with the other teachers in the janitor’s closet anyway?

In contrast, the make sure someone other than you sees it approach has already garnered some of the neatest handwriting, the most complete grammar, and– most importantly– the most genuine thinking I have seen all semester.

And as I mention above, it doesn’t have to be complicated, technical, or even require a reworking of assignments you already have.

  • Photocopy final products and have the kids mail them home with a post-it.
  • Throw another set into a manila envelope and have the kids watch you mail them to the superintendent.
  • Circulate word-processed assignments to your colleagues via email.
  • Email some more to friends or family of the kids’  choice.
  • Put together an anthology for every homeroom.
  • Create a quarterly literary magazine (read: stapled double-sided copies).
  • Distribute homemade poems at lunchtime.
  • Or if you fancy it, use one of the multiple powerful technologies available to classroom communities: blogs, wikis, webpages.

Who the audience is or should be, of course, is a question deserving of its own post: pros and cons to all, from peers to parents to the Internet. For now, though, if there’s any dark side to this approach, the word of caution I would give is not to use authentic audience as a punishment or a threat. Speaking simply in terms of keeping the assignments real is going to go a lot further with middle schoolers than “You had better spell this right, or your mother will be ashamed of you.”

The second half of the year is looming, and as implied at the beginning of the post, I continue to wrestle with the balance between totally kid-generated writing, teacher-guided writing, and writing that is teacher-directed from A to Z.  Regardless of the writing’s generation, however, I am making a personal commitment to have every single product my kids create this year go out into the world in one way or another—and that the kids are active participants in that process.

It’s not a magic bullet. But it comes close.

—DS, in The Line

In middle school, does a ‘hater’ motivate?

“You need a hater and you need a motivator,” a Chicago ninth grader named Lonya declares in chapter 3 of Fires in the Mind. “The person that’s telling you that you can’t do it–that’s your hater and you want to prove them wrong. And your motivator is the person that’s supporting you. You try your best so you can make your motivator proud.”

Erin Walker, a masters student at the University of Michigan who is preparing to teach middle school math, raised this interesting issue in a letter to me this week:

I personally identify with the idea of a hater and a motivator, but I am not confident that I would have been driven to work harder by a “hater” in 7th and 8th grade. I am doing my student teaching in an 8th grade mathematics classroom, and I am beginning to try to understand the psyche and motivational factors of that age group. I think the desire to defy and prove someone wrong maybe comes later, like early high school years. I think it is easy to quash the motivation of early adolescents because, at this point, they still submit to the authority of the teacher and the parent. The age of rebellion comes later.

I think gentle “hating” still has its place, and could be a great motivator in the classroom. Sometimes when I provide a challenge or a bonus question in my algebra class, I could say something to the effect of “I will be really impressed if you can answer this question because we have not mastered the skills to solve these kinds of problems.” I am not pointedly saying, “I don’t think you can do this,” but I am egging them on a little bit.

Erin makes a great point. In fact, not just middle schoolers but all of us have to believe we can succeed at something if we’re going to lift a finger to try. Perhaps Lonya, in ninth grade, believes that herself–so strongly that she can respond to a put-down with fierce determination to “prove them wrong.” And maybe that confidence was nurtured by some middle school teacher as perceptive and supportive as Erin. What are your thoughts on this?

In middle school, does a 'hater' motivate?

“You need a hater and you need a motivator,” a Chicago ninth grader named Lonya declares in chapter 3 of Fires in the Mind. “The person that’s telling you that you can’t do it–that’s your hater and you want to prove them wrong. And your motivator is the person that’s supporting you. You try your best so you can make your motivator proud.”

Erin Walker, a masters student at the University of Michigan who is preparing to teach middle school math, raised this interesting issue in a letter to me this week:

I personally identify with the idea of a hater and a motivator, but I am not confident that I would have been driven to work harder by a “hater” in 7th and 8th grade. I am doing my student teaching in an 8th grade mathematics classroom, and I am beginning to try to understand the psyche and motivational factors of that age group. I think the desire to defy and prove someone wrong maybe comes later, like early high school years. I think it is easy to quash the motivation of early adolescents because, at this point, they still submit to the authority of the teacher and the parent. The age of rebellion comes later.

I think gentle “hating” still has its place, and could be a great motivator in the classroom. Sometimes when I provide a challenge or a bonus question in my algebra class, I could say something to the effect of “I will be really impressed if you can answer this question because we have not mastered the skills to solve these kinds of problems.” I am not pointedly saying, “I don’t think you can do this,” but I am egging them on a little bit.

Erin makes a great point. In fact, not just middle schoolers but all of us have to believe we can succeed at something if we’re going to lift a finger to try. Perhaps Lonya, in ninth grade, believes that herself–so strongly that she can respond to a put-down with fierce determination to “prove them wrong.” And maybe that confidence was nurtured by some middle school teacher as perceptive and supportive as Erin. What are your thoughts on this?

A grade 7 teacher tries “mastery learning”


Because “mastery learning” can be a great way to coach students through deliberate practice, I am always looking to hear from teachers who are doing it. Today I came across several wonderful posts on Edublogs by a teacher named Annette, who (along with her teaching buddy) tried out mastery learning with two 7th grade pre-algebra classes, starting in the second quarter of last year.

Though Annette says they are still fine-tuning their approach, I’m reprinting her reports in their entirety here, because they’re so worth talking about. The first report, from last May, describes in detail how the class worked, and explains how her team prepared. Keep reading to the end, and you’ll find her latest post telling how these students did on their standardized test results. Then please let us (and Annette) know what thoughts you have!
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1. Students are given assignments for the chapter up front. They know in advance what is required. They also know in advance how far they must progress in the quarter to earn an A, B, or C grade. (We don’t have D’s in our district.)

2. We do whole-class instruction in the form of notes for each section, plus spiraling review or activities. Students keep a composition book with these notes, that serve as their “directions.”

3. Students complete the assignments at their own pace. Solutions and answers are available. Students self-correct.

4. Presenting notes and finished work is their “ticket” to the quiz. We have a quiz after every 1-2 sections, depending on content.

5. A student must pass a quiz at 80% or better to be considered “proficient.” They cannot move on to the next section until they have passed the current one at 80%. If they do not pass the quiz, we take the time to see what things the student needs to work on, and give them additional practice based on that need. They may retest when they have completed the extra practice and are ready. Some will repeat this process a third or fourth time. Especially until they learn that “guessing” on a test doesn’t work.

6. Assignments don’t count in the gradebook until they have passed the quiz. Once passed, all assignments and quizzes are entered into ABI (online gradebook system).

Some things we have found:

• Students took a while to figure out that if they do it right the first time, it saves them a lot of work. They also discovered that just copying answers from the solutions guides, or back of the book was futile, because they need to show their work before it’s accepted. Also, they learned that doing “bogus” work and then just putting the right answer, doesn’t mean they will pass the test.

• We need to have two to three versions of the quizzes (this wasn’t too hard to do). They are short, 8-10 questions. I have the students correct their errors as part of their practice when they don’t pass a quiz.

• It requires some maturity and responsibility for students in 7th grade to take it seriously. In the beginning, many of them thought, “Cool, no homework!” Well, no assigned homework, anyway. Students have to work at home to stay on pace with the course as it is set up. Some do, some don’t. The ones that don’t are those that usually don’t do much homework anyway.

• We found that if we tied progress to grades (i.e. “By report cards, you have to be at section 3-7 for a “C”, 3-9 for a “B”, and 4-2 for an “A”) and posted that in advance, they knew exactly how much they had to accomplish. That was a really good incentive. It did make for a lot of last-minute work at report card time, but they learned it . . . isn’t that the goal?

• We found it was way better for us not to have to constantly grade homework and record assignments. Now we just record them when they pass the test. Homework is only worth one point. The test is worth double the number of questions (8 questions = 16 points). Next year, we are thinking since grades are based on how far you have progressed, we are only going to use 0, and 1. Pass/fail for the most part. Since passing means you have accomplished 80% or better, that’s all we really need to know.

• This year, we input every assignment into ABI so parents could see them at home. Next year, we think we will only input the quizzes. We have a Chapter Assignment sheet for the kids, and will get parents to sign it that so they will be informed. Still debating that one.

• We found that grading is both easier, and more informative for us. We have to stay on top of the quizzes, daily. This gives kids immediate feedback so they know the next day where they stand. But, usually I have about a dozen quizzes a day to grade, sometimes more. It doesn’t take long, and I don’t feel like I’m slogging through 80 of the same test over and over.

• Off-task behavior is consistently a challenge.

• Students are learning more from each other! They are consistently forming little groups and working together, without our intervention.

• We let kids who pass tests put their names on the board as “Movin’ UP!” Seventh graders love this. We also post the names weekly for all to see.

Best thing . . . we know our kids really well. At any point in time, we can tell you who struggles with what, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. And the kids know what they know . . . isn’t that what we want?

What about teacher preparation?

Much work went in up front. I had to determine exactly what I was going to cover, and how I was going to assess it for each section. Based on the assessments, I made a list of assignments for each section, usually two or three, some of which were done in class. To facilitate students keeping up or working ahead, I had to be at least two sections ahead of the highest kid.

I also put copies (PDFs) up of any assignments that were not in the textbook. This was made easier by using the CD-Roms that came with the textbook and uploaded easily. The supplemental materials had to be scanned and uploaded. A bit time consuming, but again, as long as I was a few steps ahead of the highest kid, it wasn’t too bad.

Grades: the same had to be done for the gradebook. All the assignments for the quarter were entered into the electronic gradebook in advance. This gave students and parents the list for working on assignments in a centrally located place kids can’t “lose.”

For kids who successfully finished early, it’s easy. Move on to the next section, use the examples from the book and try to figure it out on your own (which many could do) and I helped when possible, and they taught each other.

For the kids who were lagging behind, I tried to work with them in small groups or have advanced students work with them. But no matter what system, some kids just don’t do squat.

The Results Come In

As it turns out, my teaching partner and I had the HIGHER scores in the 7th grade department. Compared to the district as a whole, we were slightly above the average in every category. Not way above the average, but enough to be significant. And compared to our fellow teachers’ kids, we were significantly higher in several areas.

Because we started the model in the second quarter, mandating that some students start back at square one, we didn’t get as far in the curriculum as we were “supposed” to, but we felt we got through the stuff that was most important for the Algebra 1 concepts they needed as fundamentals. It was another reason to expect that we might be the cause of the decline in scores. To our surprise, the “Honors” Pre-Algebra class, which was whole chapters ahead of where we were all year, had the LOWEST scores on the state tests. We were floored.

On a personal level, my individual kids did OK. Almost all of them remained at the level they came in at, meaning they learned a year’s worth of material in the year that I had them. I had about a dozen who went up a level, and one kid went up two. I had two who went down one level, and I’m not sure why, as they were excellent students during the year. Four others went down, but I know why — they didn’t do a lick of work most of the year. My partner had very similar results for his class. Our colleagues had fewer moving up a level, and a few more moving down.

While it’s really too soon to make definitive statements, we feel like we did what we set out to do. We are still fine-tuning the system (more on that later) and are hoping that starting off at the beginning of the year will show more dramatic results on this year’s tests. Plus, we are anxious to see how our kids adapt to the Algebra I curriculum and if they were prepared enough to be successful as 8th graders. So while the jury is still out on that, we are thrilled that our kids didn’t go down, or cause the majority of the decline department-wide, and it has strengthened our resolve to continue improving how we teach and how kids learn.

(photo courtesy of Will Okun)

A grade 7 teacher tries "mastery learning"


Because “mastery learning” can be a great way to coach students through deliberate practice, I am always looking to hear from teachers who are doing it. Today I came across several wonderful posts on Edublogs by a teacher named Annette, who (along with her teaching buddy) tried out mastery learning with two 7th grade pre-algebra classes, starting in the second quarter of last year.

Though Annette says they are still fine-tuning their approach, I’m reprinting her reports in their entirety here, because they’re so worth talking about. The first report, from last May, describes in detail how the class worked, and explains how her team prepared. Keep reading to the end, and you’ll find her latest post telling how these students did on their standardized test results. Then please let us (and Annette) know what thoughts you have!
——————————————————————————

1. Students are given assignments for the chapter up front. They know in advance what is required. They also know in advance how far they must progress in the quarter to earn an A, B, or C grade. (We don’t have D’s in our district.)

2. We do whole-class instruction in the form of notes for each section, plus spiraling review or activities. Students keep a composition book with these notes, that serve as their “directions.”

3. Students complete the assignments at their own pace. Solutions and answers are available. Students self-correct.

4. Presenting notes and finished work is their “ticket” to the quiz. We have a quiz after every 1-2 sections, depending on content.

5. A student must pass a quiz at 80% or better to be considered “proficient.” They cannot move on to the next section until they have passed the current one at 80%. If they do not pass the quiz, we take the time to see what things the student needs to work on, and give them additional practice based on that need. They may retest when they have completed the extra practice and are ready. Some will repeat this process a third or fourth time. Especially until they learn that “guessing” on a test doesn’t work.

6. Assignments don’t count in the gradebook until they have passed the quiz. Once passed, all assignments and quizzes are entered into ABI (online gradebook system).

Some things we have found:

• Students took a while to figure out that if they do it right the first time, it saves them a lot of work. They also discovered that just copying answers from the solutions guides, or back of the book was futile, because they need to show their work before it’s accepted. Also, they learned that doing “bogus” work and then just putting the right answer, doesn’t mean they will pass the test.

• We need to have two to three versions of the quizzes (this wasn’t too hard to do). They are short, 8-10 questions. I have the students correct their errors as part of their practice when they don’t pass a quiz.

• It requires some maturity and responsibility for students in 7th grade to take it seriously. In the beginning, many of them thought, “Cool, no homework!” Well, no assigned homework, anyway. Students have to work at home to stay on pace with the course as it is set up. Some do, some don’t. The ones that don’t are those that usually don’t do much homework anyway.

• We found that if we tied progress to grades (i.e. “By report cards, you have to be at section 3-7 for a “C”, 3-9 for a “B”, and 4-2 for an “A”) and posted that in advance, they knew exactly how much they had to accomplish. That was a really good incentive. It did make for a lot of last-minute work at report card time, but they learned it . . . isn’t that the goal?

• We found it was way better for us not to have to constantly grade homework and record assignments. Now we just record them when they pass the test. Homework is only worth one point. The test is worth double the number of questions (8 questions = 16 points). Next year, we are thinking since grades are based on how far you have progressed, we are only going to use 0, and 1. Pass/fail for the most part. Since passing means you have accomplished 80% or better, that’s all we really need to know.

• This year, we input every assignment into ABI so parents could see them at home. Next year, we think we will only input the quizzes. We have a Chapter Assignment sheet for the kids, and will get parents to sign it that so they will be informed. Still debating that one.

• We found that grading is both easier, and more informative for us. We have to stay on top of the quizzes, daily. This gives kids immediate feedback so they know the next day where they stand. But, usually I have about a dozen quizzes a day to grade, sometimes more. It doesn’t take long, and I don’t feel like I’m slogging through 80 of the same test over and over.

• Off-task behavior is consistently a challenge.

• Students are learning more from each other! They are consistently forming little groups and working together, without our intervention.

• We let kids who pass tests put their names on the board as “Movin’ UP!” Seventh graders love this. We also post the names weekly for all to see.

Best thing . . . we know our kids really well. At any point in time, we can tell you who struggles with what, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. And the kids know what they know . . . isn’t that what we want?

What about teacher preparation?

Much work went in up front. I had to determine exactly what I was going to cover, and how I was going to assess it for each section. Based on the assessments, I made a list of assignments for each section, usually two or three, some of which were done in class. To facilitate students keeping up or working ahead, I had to be at least two sections ahead of the highest kid.

I also put copies (PDFs) up of any assignments that were not in the textbook. This was made easier by using the CD-Roms that came with the textbook and uploaded easily. The supplemental materials had to be scanned and uploaded. A bit time consuming, but again, as long as I was a few steps ahead of the highest kid, it wasn’t too bad.

Grades: the same had to be done for the gradebook. All the assignments for the quarter were entered into the electronic gradebook in advance. This gave students and parents the list for working on assignments in a centrally located place kids can’t “lose.”

For kids who successfully finished early, it’s easy. Move on to the next section, use the examples from the book and try to figure it out on your own (which many could do) and I helped when possible, and they taught each other.

For the kids who were lagging behind, I tried to work with them in small groups or have advanced students work with them. But no matter what system, some kids just don’t do squat.

The Results Come In

As it turns out, my teaching partner and I had the HIGHER scores in the 7th grade department. Compared to the district as a whole, we were slightly above the average in every category. Not way above the average, but enough to be significant. And compared to our fellow teachers’ kids, we were significantly higher in several areas.

Because we started the model in the second quarter, mandating that some students start back at square one, we didn’t get as far in the curriculum as we were “supposed” to, but we felt we got through the stuff that was most important for the Algebra 1 concepts they needed as fundamentals. It was another reason to expect that we might be the cause of the decline in scores. To our surprise, the “Honors” Pre-Algebra class, which was whole chapters ahead of where we were all year, had the LOWEST scores on the state tests. We were floored.

On a personal level, my individual kids did OK. Almost all of them remained at the level they came in at, meaning they learned a year’s worth of material in the year that I had them. I had about a dozen who went up a level, and one kid went up two. I had two who went down one level, and I’m not sure why, as they were excellent students during the year. Four others went down, but I know why — they didn’t do a lick of work most of the year. My partner had very similar results for his class. Our colleagues had fewer moving up a level, and a few more moving down.

While it’s really too soon to make definitive statements, we feel like we did what we set out to do. We are still fine-tuning the system (more on that later) and are hoping that starting off at the beginning of the year will show more dramatic results on this year’s tests. Plus, we are anxious to see how our kids adapt to the Algebra I curriculum and if they were prepared enough to be successful as 8th graders. So while the jury is still out on that, we are thrilled that our kids didn’t go down, or cause the majority of the decline department-wide, and it has strengthened our resolve to continue improving how we teach and how kids learn.

(photo courtesy of Will Okun)

What do you practice as the year begins?

Our guest post today is by Rosa, a first-year teacher of fifth grade in an urban California school, who sent me these notes on her first week in the classroom. I was struck by how she had integrated the idea of “deliberate practice” into her first days with the children—carefully choosing what practice would lay a foundation for their year together, and paying close attention to her own practice, as well. I’d love to hear your own thoughts, and about what you’re practicing in your own first weeks with students!
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The main feeling I’m hanging on to from this week is the enormous responsibility and privilege of being THE 5th grade teacher to this class of students. All the energy I pour into them is returned in a way that’s so new to me–so different from student teaching last year. It feels energizing and restorative, and it reminds me why I want to do this.

Positive experiences from the week:

–LOTS of routines and procedures practice. I made a practice of timing students as they go through different transitions–we have our running times up on the board–they are motivated and excited to transition quickly and cleanly. I started the week by orchestrating those processes very closely, but as the week went on I turned over responsibility to them. The line was a struggle all week, but they are now walking in quiet, single file lines through the hallways (a major achievement for this class). I’m hoping to phase out my constant use of a clipboard and stern look in the halls.

–Students wrote about accomplishments and challenges from last year, and what they felt their most important goal for this year was. They shared this writing with partners in dyads, where one person talks and the other listens openly without commenting, and then they switch. Afterward, one girl said that she learned that she could say personal things in this class, and no one would make fun of her or talk about it with other people.

–We used that exercise as pre-writing for essays that they wrote about their hopes and dreams for this year. Each student wrote a few paragraphs about their hope for this year, one action they will take to accomplish their goal, one way their teacher can support them, a way their classmates can support them, and a way their families can support them. We will share these with partners and in author’s chair next week.

–For the first two days of school, I assigned students to eat in “lunch groups” of 4-6 students. Each lunch group had to sit and eat their lunch together and complete an assignment (I designated a leader in each group to carry a pencil and take notes on an index card). On the first day, their job was to make a list of ten things they all had in common. On Day 2, they discussed their hobbies and interests, and made a list of the most popular ones. After lunch, the leaders reported out. I stopped by the cafeteria on the second day to sit in on their conversations, and was happy to see students engaged with the assignment and each other–even the two new students in our class who came in not knowing anyone.

–We talked about what kind of class rules will support all of us in achieving our goals. We went through a process of individual brainstorming, sharing, consolidation, and voting, and ended up with 8 final class rules (too many, I know, but the vote was evenly split, and they were all great rules).

–We played “Zoom” a lot, a circle game where students pass a sound and gesture around the circle. Students love it, and often share ideas for how to make it go better and faster.

–We started every day with a “Math Talk,” where students individually write everything they can think of on a given topic (the number 24, 1/2, etc.), then share with a partner, then share with the whole group as I record their ideas exactly as they express them. They aren’t used to the idea of multiple strategies, or representing ideas in several ways, but I’m hopeful that this routine will help.

–We ended every day with a closing circle in which students reflected on one thing they learned, their favorite part of the day, something they were proud of, something they appreciated, something they’ll always remember, etc.

–Every day I read aloud “The Skirt” by Gary Soto, and they love it.

Students seem like they have a sense that this is a place where serious learning happens. They respond to my quiet signals and pointed looks, and seem to accept that I expect all of them to be engaged and on task.

And the negative…

–I focused too much on the negative this week: bench time at recess, calling parents for behavior problems, extremely strict line procedures without enough conversations about why it matters. I wanted to start off strict, clear, and consistent, but I forgot how much positive reinforcement I needed to do. I feel like we have a pretty well functioning class right now, but it doesn’t feel like a particularly family-like, safe, loving place. I feel really bad about that–it’s hard to wait until Tuesday to start making positive phone calls home, and letting the kids know how great they’re doing. I’m worried that I was too quick to give negative consequences, and I wonder if I did it calmly and non-emotionally enough. I’m obsessing about whether my teaching voice is authentic.

Even though visually it looks like the positives far outweigh the negatives, the negatives feel MUCH heavier in my heart and head right now. I need to shake off some of my self-doubt and desire for this classroom to immediately be everything that I dream of and want. These students and their families deserve the absolute best—it’s painful to be anything less.

The journey begins…

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!