Tagged: homework

Weekenders: An alternative to weekend homework?

favicon I’ve been thinking of banning homework on weekends, but I can’t get myself to make the move. After all, if there’s no homework on weekends, that really means there’s no homework on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays — nearly half the week!

On the other hand, even if I assign homework, that doesn’t mean my students will do it. Take a look at the bar graph below, which shows homework completion over the past couple weeks — and which clearly demonstrates the weekend homework slump.

You could make the argument that because my students mostly do not do homework on the weekend, I am punishing them and actively creating failure in my classroom. After all, I don’t have a strong enough way to encourage them to complete homework on the weekends. My text reminders and phone calls don’t seem to work.

Another idea is to create an alternative to weekend homework. That’s partly what I’m trying to do with Weekenders this year. Instead of your normal homework assignment, I’ve been having students write posts on our class website, iseroma.com. I particularly like this week’s assignment, which encourages students to read something other than our class novel.

But even though Weekenders seem more fun than other assignments, the turn-in rate still isn’t particularly high. And that’s why tonight, I’m feeling like a failure. Sure, I could text my students again, prod them, encourage them, even call them up, but I don’t much feel like it.

Sometimes, I’m ineffective, and instead of working immediately to fix the problem, it’s OK to do some thinking and figure out what’s next. favicon

Why the Nightly Text assignment is working

favicon This unit, I’m trying something new to encourage my students to read the assigned book and to complete their homework.

I call it the Nightly Text.

Students get a few chapters of The Awakening to read, and in addition to annotating the text, students must answer one question that I send to them by text message. Their text message response is due by 11 p.m. that night.

The experiment is a total success so far. My students like the assignment. It’s quick and easy for me to do. The turn-in rate is high. Most important, there is much more reading taking place, which leads to better classroom discussions.

The Nightly Text experiment is new, so perhaps its success comes from its novelty. But here are some other reasons that I think it’s working:

1. It’s just one question. I’m not giving students a long list of questions. My students appreciate that the focus is on reading and annotating. If my point is to encourage deep reading, I can’t bombard my students with too much extra.

2. It’s not a worksheet. There’s nothing for my students to keep, organize in their binder, write on, or turn in. Students do nothing except read and then wait for their nightly text to arrive. Then they text back.

3. It makes a boring assignment dynamic. There’s nothing hugely engaging about reading a teacher-assigned book, but it has to happen for deep discussions to occur in class. By transforming the old-fashioned assignment into digital form — where it appears on a phone! — there’s enough interest and convenience for students to do it.

4. It’s great formative assessment. When I receive a text, it’s easy for me to determine how closely each student is reading. In addition, I can get a sense of the class’s progress. If my students are missing something, I can bring it up during the next class — instead of waiting until it’s too late.

5. It shows that I care about their learning. When I get a text, I usually text back a quick comment of praise or a follow-up question. My students appreciate the immediate feedback. It tells students that I care that they’re doing homework.

6. It starts a classroom discussion. When our class meets the next day, there’s already something to talk about. To facilitate conversation, I have been copying and pasting their texts to my class website. My students walk in and see their comments on the screen. That tells them it’s time to get started.

I’m really interested to see where this goes. Will the novelty wear off? What are my next steps? I have some ideas (Google Form? Edmodo?), but I want to proceed deliberately. I also want to make sure that I ask my students what they think.

Let me know what you think! favicon

More thoughts on the homework debate

favicon In my last post, I considered banning homework on weekends.

And then today, I read a recent article in Ed, the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The debate on homework — always a controversial topic — is getting more and more heated.

On one side are the anti-homeworkers like Alfie Kohn, who say that homework amounts to busywork. Kohn says that homework is the way schools prepare children for factory work. He decries the homework-every-night model:

“The point of departure seems to be, ‘We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week)

Other anti-homeworkers complain that their children deserve more free time after school. One mother in California went so far as to say:

“In closing, I just want to say that I had more free time at Harvard Law School than my son has in middle school, and that is not in the best interests of our children.”

On the other hand, pro-homeworkers think that American youth do not spend enough time on their academic pursuits. One parent on the Race to Nowhere blog wrote:

Any pursuit of excellence, be it in sports, the arts, or academics, requires hard work. That our culture finds it okay for kids to spend hours a day in a sport but not equal time on academics is part of the problem.”

Some schools are considering changes to homework. One elementary school principal in Maryland eliminated homework and substituted 30 minutes a night of reading (which I think is great — and which I consider homework).

Over the summer, Los Angeles Unified School District approved a policy decreasing homework but quickly reversed its decision.

In fact, amid all the opposing viewpoints, some people, like Harvard professor Howard Gardner, realize the real truth about homework. Gardner says:

“America and Americans lurch between too little homework in many of our schools to an excess of homework in our most competitive environments.”

In my urban public school, the real problem is too little homework, not too much. Weekends, in particular, are a No Homework Zone. Maybe assigning homework isn’t the perfect solution, but we do need to figure out ways to extend the academic day and to promote student thinking and skill building.

What do you think? favicon

Should I ban homework on weekends?

favicon Some people want to ban homework entirely. It’s just busywork, it makes kids hate school, and it disrupts families from spending quality time together.

Others say homework is equal to rigor. If students aren’t doing homework, how exactly are they supposed to learn anything in depth?

I tend to fall in the second camp. If the 10,000-Hour Rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, is true, then students need more time studying and pursuing academics. That’s the rationale behind Chicago and other school districts’ decisions to lengthen the school day.

But Alfie Kohn and other anti-homeworkers say that children need time to explore instead of being forced to complete boring teacher-assigned tasks. Although I agree with Kohn in principle, I’m pretty sure most teenagers, given free time, aren’t exactly going to open up a Physics textbook.

(Does this make me cynical?)

I’m thinking about all this because I’m wondering whether I should ban homework on weekends. I’ve found that my students do very little homework on weekends. Here’s today’s example: Last week, the homework turn-in rate was 87 percent. Today, it was 61 percent. No, this isn’t a coincidence.

My students turn off on the weekends, and they consider their weekends as their own time away from school. Even my AP English students would argue that weekends are “their” time to spend with family, friends, and themselves. Besides, my class does wonderfully during the week, but once the weekend hits, my class scatters. We’re no longer on the same page. Come Monday, we’re behind.

An easy solution would be to assign no major homework on weekends. Perhaps I could keep my Weekender, a more enjoyable, online assignment that doesn’t involve reading or heavy study. Getting rid of homework would mean that nobody would fall behind over the weekend.

But I resist this temptation. After all, if I got rid of weekend homework, that really means no homework on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays. Particularly in an AP class, I just can’t get behind the idea of assigning homework only four nights a week.

Instead of making a rash decision, I’m likely going to continue giving homework every night. Although Kohn and others would disagree, I feel that if I didn’t assign homework, I’d be lowering my standards. I believe strongly in consistent study, and I also believe that students must learn how to continue learning on their own, on their own time.

What I will do next week, though, is have an honest discussion with my students about homework. I’ll show them the data and ask for their thoughts. Lately, we’ve been talking about how important it is to seek support, create study teams, and encourage each other outside of class time. What was a normal thing for me in high school is not normal for my students.

Too often, my students, once they leave our school for the day, feel very alone. Instead of doing what’s necessary to stay engaged as a serious student, perhaps they retreat into an identity that’s more comfortable. It’s my job to make sure they don’t disconnect entirely.

What do you think? favicon

Your homework is due tonight…via text.

favicon I’ve started a (very small) movement. It’s called, “Your Homework Is Due Tonight.”

Homework is no longer due at the beginning of the next class. After all, if students don’t complete their homework, then it’s too late for me to make changes to my lesson. We’re not all on the same page. Mini-chaos ensues.

This year, homework has been due at 11 p.m. on the night I assign it.

The results have been excellent:

1. The turn-in rate has been high — as high as, or higher than, the turn-in rate before I introduced the new policy.

2. If a student doesn’t turn in her homework, there’s still plenty of time for me to intervene and for the student to catch up.

I’m happy to announce a new idea that I’m trying this unit with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: the nightly text.

Each night, students have reading homework. In addition to reading and annotating the text, students will respond to a question I send to them via text, which they’ll get in the afternoon. They’ll have until 11 p.m. to text me back.

Some teachers may ask, Why go through all that trouble? Why don’t you just have them write their answers down on paper? Why not give them the question in class?

My response is this: In order to motivate students to do homework consistently, there has to be something dynamic about it. There’s nothing engaging about reading a teacher-assigned book at home alone. But the reading has to be done.

Therefore, time outside of school — when students often tune out and forget their academic selves — needs to be interrupted. As the teacher, I have to enter that space. And using technology is the best way to do that.

I’ll let you know how this experiment works. If it goes well, I might switch the nightly text assignment over to a Google form, so that it’s easier to collect my students’ responses. That way, we can look at them in class on iseroma.com, our class blog, to spark a discussion.

What do you think? Please let me know your ideas. favicon

Improvements to my English class

favicon January is a great time to make changes. After all, most students completely forget about school over Winter Break. Teachers can take advantage of that amnesia and implement improvements to their classes.

That’s what I’ve been doing. Even though my AP English class last semester was excellent, I am making some significant changes to improve my students’ learning. Here are a few of them:

1. Reading is the focus. Last semester, we focused on writing. And there’s more work we need to do. But my emphasis on writing shortchanged the importance of reading. Because reading is 45 percent of the AP test, and because reading is crucial for college (and for life), I am going to highlight reading and spend more class time helping my students read challenging texts.

So far, this is working well. My students are loving The Scarlet Letter, not just because of my enthusiasm for the book but also because I’ve purposely slowed down the reading pace at the beginning so everyone is on board. We spent the first few class periods reading as a class, then in groups, and finally in silence.

I’m realizing how crucial the teacher’s role is in motivating students to read. Even though this is a college-level course does not mean that I can just assign books and expect students to read them (and then get mad if they don’t). If I’m going to assign reading, it’s my job to teach reading. It’s my job to make the book fun and to prove to the students that they shouldn’t give up.

2. Homework is every night. Most teachers assign homework per class, not per night. An assignment is due the next class, and students have until then to complete it. For my students, that doesn’t work. They put off the assignment until the last minute instead of doing a little bit each day.

This semester, I’m assigning homework seven nights a week — yes, even including Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. I want to impress on my students the importance of daily study. Sure, college won’t be this way, and perhaps I’m enabling my students by telling them exactly how to do their work. Their professor next year won’t care, and maybe my students will flounder. Nevertheless, my job this year is to get my students to read and write well. So far, this little change is making a big difference in homework completion.

3. We’re meeting every other Saturday. There just isn’t enough class time to prepare for the test. So I got my students an AP English prep book (with a DonorsChoose grant) and hosted our first AP Saturday a few days ago. We focused on test taking strategies, especially on the reading section. (The test is not easy.) My students would rather sleep in or do something more fun on a Saturday morning, but they all showed up, and I know that they secretly appreciate my commitment.

I am hopeful that these changes will improve the class and encourage my students to work hard. We have only five months before the AP test, and I’m getting nervous about their chances to pass. I’d love it if they did well on the test; all we can do now is keep pushing. favicon

Fall Semester Reflection #2: Homework

favicon I do a lot of complaining about my students. They’re not working hard enough. They don’t have study skills. They’re not proofreading closely. They’re not doing enough homework.

In other words, it’s their fault, not mine.

Whenever I start blaming my students, it’s time to do some reflection and figure out next steps — about what I need to do.

Fall Semester Reflection Topic #2: Homework

My experience with homework this semester has been as follows:

  1. My students have trouble breaking up large assignments into parts,
  2. My students begin assignments the day before they’re due,
  3. My students take a long time to do assignments, especially close reading.
  4. I might be assigning too much homework.
  5. I’m successful with writing homework but not with reading homework.

Although my perception is that my students aren’t doing enough homework, I haven’t investigated their homework habits. That’s what I’m going to do tomorrow when I give out the first semester course evaluation. On this assessment, I’m going to ask my students how much time each major piece of homework takes them to complete.

I think expecting six hours of homework per week is fair in an AP class.

From the data I collect, I’m hoping to create a more streamlined daily homework schedule for my students to follow. My recommended homework schedule will include all major parts of the class — reading, writing, and test prep — along with a suggested amount of time for each activity.

Some may argue: How is this going to prepare them for college next year, when nobody will tell them how to complete their assignments?

I get that argument, and I know that what might be best is coaching students — whether individually or as a class — to develop their own homework schedules.

But we don’t have time to teach time management skills and then to figure out whether they work (except for maybe on their Theme Study). I want my time to be focused on teaching close reading and helping to improve their writing.

With this daily homework schedule, my hope is to send the following message to my students: that the key to success over time is through consistent practice and work habits (rather than through spurts of effort followed by days of rest).

One question, however, remains: What’s the best way to make sure my students stay on track? favicon

Reading closely takes a long time

 My passion — and my nemesis — is teaching reading.

I think reading is the most important thing to teach. Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out how yet.

Reading closely takes a long time, even for skilled readers. To really read something — to look at a text, annotate it, think about it, and reflect on it — takes significant focus, effort, and time.

Problem: Teachers and students aren’t on the same page. We haven’t been truthful and honest with each other about reading.

Students fake-read or rush-read. Reading is private and isn’t turned in, so it’s done last. If there is something to turn in (e.g., reading questions, reading responses, quote analyses), that’s done in lieu of reading. If I’m a student and have two hours to do three hours of homework, reading is the first to go.

Teachers fake-assign reading. To create a sense of rigor, we assign 20-30 pages a night. We either get mad when students don’t complete it, or we convince ourselves they’re reading when really they’re not.

The answer, of course, is to assign less reading and to teach texts more deeply. But my fear is this: If I reduce my reading assignments so that they’re more realistic, am I lowering my standards? More important, would my students return the favor and read more closely, or would they just end up reading even less?

This week, I’m trying an experiment. Over Thanksgiving Break, students must read their first book for their Theme Study. No additional assignments: no essays, no thought journals, no nothing. Just read and annotate.

(Actually, there is one thing: Next Sunday night, they’ll leave a one-minute message on my Google Voice.)

My hope is that my students will read more deeply and feel accomplished. My hope is that I’m sending a message that reading is central and primary to my class — that I value reading.

When we get back next Monday, I’ll do follow up to see if my experiment was a success. Did students read more? Or did my idea backfire?

What do you think? What would you suggest? How do I make reading more social, public, and central to the class?

Why “Your Homework Is Due Tonight” is working, #2

 If homework is supposed to be done at home, then it should be due at home, too. That’s the premise of “Your Homework Is Due Tonight.”

This year, I’m having my students turn in their homework the night before it’s due. So far, it’s working. In a recent post, I wrote that checking homework during class is too late, takes too long, and leads to conflict and negativity.

Here’s another benefit: Extensions aren’t really extensions.

Let’s say a student has a situation and needs more time to complete an assignment. There are two options: (1) Don’t allow any late work at all, (2) Allow for extensions in extenuating circumstances.

The problem with #1 is that it’s often too punitive. The problem with #2 is that it makes the student fall behind. While finishing up the assignment with the extension, the student is not fully engaged in what’s happening in the classroom right now.

When homework is due the night before class, however, extensions take on a new meaning.

It happened today. My students’ essay is due at 10 p.m. tonight. Two students texted me to ask for an extension. One had a basketball game, and the other had a family engagement. “I don’t think I can finish it on time,” they wrote.

I texted back, “By when can you have it?”

One wrote, “11 p.m.,” and the other one wrote, “Midnight.”

Amazing. Even if I had given them until the morning, the students would not fall behind.

What’s great about “Your Homework Is Due Tonight” is that it’s creating a due date before the due date. Instead of setting up one deadline — which introduces a pass/fail dichotomy — it allows for mistakes and imperfections along the way. It gives me a sense of who’s struggling and a chance to intervene.

It also switches my role as a teacher. Instead of sending the message of “you didn’t do the homework, and there’s nothing you can do now,” it says, “I see that you’re behind, but there’s still a chance for you to catch up.”

Most important, “My Homework Is Due Tonight” organizes time and allows for a shared classroom experience. Homework is done at home. When students get to class, there is no question about homework. We all know where we stand, so we can all move forward.

Please let me know what you think! 

Why “Your homework is due tonight” is working

 Teaching 101 says to check students’ homework during the first five minutes of class.

I think this is wrong for a few reasons:

  • It’s too late. Students who haven’t done their homework are behind. They might be frustrated, lost, confused, or disengaged. They’re in my class, but they’re not really in my class.
  • It takes too long. Instead of helping students with a warm-up, I’m checking whether they’ve done their homework.

  • It often leads to conflict and negativity. If I’m checking homework first, and the student hasn’t done it, class gets started on a bad foot.

That’s why I’m excited about something new I’m doing this year. It’s called “Your homework is due tonight.”

Instead of turning in their homework the next day in class, students turn in their homework online at 11 p.m. the night it’s assigned. Then, at 11:01 p.m., I send texts to the students who haven’t turned in their homework.

It’s working. On Tuesday night, five students didn’t do their homework. First thing Wednesday morning, when class began, everyone had completed it. Via text, one student apologized; another thanked me for the reminder; still another kept me posted about her progress.

Most important, class went really well. Students were ready for our discussion because all students had completed the homework. Then, when they peer edited each other’s essays, there was 100 percent engagement because there was 100 percent preparedness.

There’s no time to waste. Especially with what my students and I are trying to do this year, we can’t wait around. The results have to happen now.

That’s why I’m happy with “Your homework is due tonight.” Sure, I’d like the deadline to be 10 p.m. instead of 11 p.m., but for right now, I love going to sleep knowing that we’ll be forging ahead the next day instead of meandering.