Let’s Rework Homework !
A Leap of Faith
In twenty years of teaching high school science, I have come to know the following groups of students by their response to homework assignments.
dutiful do-ers These students do every assignment, whether or not it is helpful and they feel good about doing it. These students will rarely miss an assignment. Occasionally they miss it due to extenuating circumstances, this makes them anxious and only making it up brings relief.
don’t do-ers These students do not do homework on principle. The benefit of the assignment is not considered and all assignments are dismissed without regard to their utility.
skeptical do-ers These students have not given up on homework, but tend to choose to neglect homework that they feel doesn’t benefit them and focus on what is useful to them.
resentful do-ers These students usually do assigned homework, even if they think it is of little use to them. Sometimes they choose not to do the homework because it seems absolutely pointless.
just can’t do-ers These students juggle many balls during their after school hours. They are forced to set priorities and homework is not high on the list.
Students deserve the opportunity to serve an active role in deciding what promotes their classroom success. Will they consistently make the most discerning choice? Probably not, but evaluating what will enhance their learning is critical thinking at its essence. Should homework be optional?
There is a school of thought that proclaims that all America needs is more outstanding teachers. I cannot overemphasize the importance of teacher skill. Excellent teachers are excellent because they can meet the differing needs of the students in their classes. A telling article from the LA Times The Myth of the Extraordinary Teacher further elucidates the plight of a teacher working in circumstances that she cannot control and is still expected to get to know each student in order to foster excellence in the classroom. Outstanding teaching is an important factor in quality education, but attention needs to be paid to the multitude of other variables upon which education quality is balanced. Only then will our educational system be improved.
I am already thinking about how I want to start my classes in the fall. I am thinking of using the attached lesson plan and showing the film Inside the Teenage Brain. I ended my last semester with a conversation with a challenging student, whose work habits and grades had improved drastically. When I asked him why, he explained then when he realized that he could do the work, then he could do it. How many other kids are stuck with the idea that they can’t “do it”? How many other students can be led to a place where theycan prove to themselves that they can “do it” . I don’t know the answers to this question but feel compelled to give it a try. The topic blends perfectly with my anatomy and physiology curriculum.
Teach Malleable Intelligence
Layered Curriculum has changed the way I teach. Layered Curriculum was developed by Kathie Nunley. ( ©1999 – current year Layered Curriculum is a trademark developed and registered to Dr Kathie F Nunley.) She uses her website Brains.org to elaborate on her specific methods of implementing this curriculum.
Over the years I have modified Kathie’s methods to suit my students’ needs. The basic tenet of Layered Curriculum is to break your curriculum into three layers. I call my layers-layer 1, layer 2 and layer 3. Layer 1 includes many of the traditional class activities. It includes basic content, vocabulary, labs and class notes. It also includes “traditional” homework. Layer 2 is comprised of small projects that allow the content in layer one to be applied and explored. Layer 2 offers students many choices on what and how they continue their exploration. Layer 3 offers opportunities to research and create their own projects based on the current content.
Layer 1 does not offer choices. This insures that all students are exposed to the factual content that they are to explore further. Layer 2 offers many choices that serve to address the differences in students learning styles. They create crossword puzzles, 3D models, concept maps, glogsters, interactive online activities, related movies and additional readings. Layer 3 requires research and formulation of a product that show learning above and beyond what is learned in class. These include reading primary sources, writing persuasive essays, producing their own lessons on a related topic and creating their own case studies.
The students are given 2 quizzes each week based on homework assignments. They also need to pass an oral quiz before they move from layer 1 and layer 2 and take a test at the end of each unit.
Upon completion of layer one, the student can earn up to 70 points. Students may do 4 additional layer 2 assignments for another potential 20 points total. Two layer 3 assignments may be completed for 5 points each. Students decide how much they will do in order to earn the grade that they are aiming for. Enough time is allotted in class for most students to complete layers 1 and 2. Some students have time for layer 3 in class, but most students do this work at home. At the end of this process a one to one conference is held, reviewing the unit work, highlighting strengths and weaknesses and allow students to readdress shortcomings before the test.
I stumbled across a book that I haven’t read before called
So What Do They Really Know?
Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning by Cris Tovani. This author articulates clearly and succinctly why assessment is so important and how to make sure that it is meaningful.
Some of the highlights include her comparison of teaching to coaching. Also her explanation of how assessment should be differentiated to meet kids needs and goals is clear and understandable.. She also does a great job differentiating between the meaning of hard and rigorous.
She integrates specific methods she uses, as well explaining tenets that might allow a teacher to produce her own tools and methods of assessment. The emphasis is on formative assessment and making that assessment useful to the student.
I am considering using this book for a teacher study group that I plan to facilitate at my school. It is a quick easy read, but I already know that I will be thinking about some of the points she makes for a long time to come.
“One error still prevails to a ruinous extent, namely: the neglect of cultivating and developing the powers of the mind, while every thing is attempted to be done by taxing memory with the weight of names and abstractions, allowing no play for thought, and exciting no interest whatever in the child’s mind. It seems as if many of our teachers and book makers, from the highest to the lowest departments, forget that children have minds, and suppose that the only powers they will ever possess, are to be imparted by teachers, whereas the teacher ought to know that he cannot impart a single iota of power. The most he can do, is, to develop powers already in existence, and because the attempt has been made rather to create than to cultivate, the mind of man has, in many cases, been actually cramped and weakened rather than strengthened at school.” - Report of Mr. Lewis, Superintendent of Common Schools of Ohio (1839)
Even 180 years ago, consideration was given by some to the student’s role in education. At this time much of the philosophy of public education was based on the Prussian system, designed to produce compliant, devoted citizens, who live their lives without the ability to think for themselves.
Mr Lewis was a rare exception in cultivating the philosophy on which our educational system is structured. We still mindlessly follow tenets of the Prussian educational system. For example, students sit for long hours, learning to comply with the physical discipline that is expected of them. Memorization is one of the lingering remnants of this system. After decades of mindless memorization and regurgitation, many teachers are starting to question this when confronted with the reality of how information can be procured on the internet.
I teach anatomy and physiology to high school students. For several years, I taught as my predecessor did. Drills, worksheets and memorization took center stage in my classroom. In a school of 800-900 students about 60 students signed up for this course. After a decade of honing my craft and making some fundamental changes, enrollment increased to as many as 225 students registered for this course, I credit this success to following the very same principles touted by “Mr. Lewis” almost 200 years ago.