Homework: Helpful, Harmful, or Otherwise?

As I write this, I am out on our back patio. My kids are in the neighbor’s backyard, flying a kite with friends. They had recently recovered the kite from a tree. This time around, they are staying away from the natural hazard. I don’t know how they got the kite down previously; they had figured it out before I was called to the rescue.

Imagine, instead, if I had made my kids stay in after school to finish their homework.

Four years ago, I shared my attempt at revising our homework policy at my former school. It was more policy than practice – we briefly discussed it, then moved on to something related to literacy, I’m sure. Looking back, it was a topical change at best. My suggestions were within the paradigm that homework was still necessary. We never really delved into the idea of homework as a concept that may be outdated.

I’m torn. Some of the work students bring home can make for an interesting study. For example, my son was recently assigned a family heritage project. He had to locate an item that is a part of our family’s history and culture, learn about its significance through interviewing family members, and then communicate his new knowledge through speaking. Storytelling is a skill they have been working on for a while.

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My daughter has elected to bring home learning. She is participating in Genius Hour in her classroom. This primary class refers to these inquiry-based learning activities as “Wonder Projects”. My wife and I are often recruited to support her most current questions, whether that be taking pictures of her next to enclosed animals (“What animals most often live in a zoo and why?”) or setting up a mini-art studio in our dining room (“What are some famous artists and their artwork?”).

These examples are, by definition, homework. One was assigned, one wasn’t. Both facilitated a unique learning experience in our home. This seems to fly in the face of research, such as John Hattie’s meta-analysis that homework has a negligible effect in elementary school and a significant one at the secondary. To be fair, homework that I just described is rare. The typical fare is worksheetsreading logs, and studying spelling words for Friday’s test. One can understand with these examples why schools are starting to outright ban homework.

These absolute policies also result in absolute thinking.  My post here is not to admonish or advocate for homework. Rather, let’s bring some common sense into the conversation. An instructional coach, Dana Murphy, came up with a novel way for teachers to think before they assign homework.

In other words, if we are assigning homework, is it more important than opportunities for kids to play, read, or spend time with families? If the answer is “no”, then how can we rethink our instructional approach for the 6-8 hours that we do have students in our classrooms?

Gotta go. The kids are burying each other in landscape pebbles.

The Plot Against America (A Book Review)

Plot_against_usa.jpgFor some time I have wanted to read The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth (Vintage, 2004). It taps into my interest in “What if” scenarios and historical fiction.

I have avoided purchasing it until recently. This past summer, I was walking in the used book section of the Barnes & Noble in Middleton, WI when I spotted it. For $1 I couldn’t go wrong.

Did I find the book or did the book find me? The premise of the novel is Charles Lindbergh is elected president, denying Franklin D. Roosevelt a third term. The famous aviator arrives at the White House on a singular promise: to avoid going to war with Germany. His isolationist platform is in contrast to FDR’s growing concerns regarding anti-semitism spreading across Europe. Lindbergh’s affinity for the Nazi party comes to light more and more as the story progresses. This piece of fiction is based on the events of this time, told through the author’s perspective as a Jewish child growing up in New Jersey. It almost reads like a memoir with all of the details.

The Plot Against America sat on my bedside or in my bookshelf for quite a while. The Trump campaign for president raised my concerns as the summer wore one. His accomplishments corresponded with my interest. Trump takes the lead in the Republican primary race – I read the first chapter. He wins the nomination – I read the next chapter. The more we learned about Trump’s affiliation with Russia, the more I was starting to see parallels as I became engrossed in the novel.

Consider:

  • In the book: Lindbergh is a celebrity with no experience in political office. In real life: Trump is a celebrity with no experience in political office.
  • In the book: Lindbergh seeks a peace agreement with the Nazi party. In real life: Trump suggests lifting sanctions on Russia and praising their leadership.
  • In the book: Lindbergh surrounds himself with cabinet members sympathetic to the Nazi cause, including industry titan Henry Ford. In real life: Trump surrounds himself with potential cabinet members sympathetic to Putin’s Russia, including oil magnate Rex Tillerson.
  • In the book: Lindbergh creates a program in which Jews are encouraged to relocate to another part of the country in hopes of breaking up Jewish communities. In real life: Trump advocates for a Muslim registry and to ban people of this religion from coming to America.

I won’t go on to avoid spoilers. What I can say is there are even more disturbing parallels between Roth’s work and what is currently happening later in the novel. I think if I would have read this book even a year ago, it would not have had the same impact on me as it does now. Context matters. After finishing the book, I continue to think about the first line in an excellent New Yorker article by Evan Osnos, who made similar comparisons between Trump’s rise and a biography set in Communist China.

What is the precise moment, in the life of a country, when tyranny takes hold? It rarely happens in an instant; it arrives like twilight, and, at first, the eyes adjust.

This may be what is happening right now. New ways of acting are becoming normal. That’s why The Plot Against America is one of the most frightening books I have ever read, and this is coming from a connoisseur of Stephen King.

The prophetic qualities of this book are disturbing. My biggest worry: Characters in the story started to accept their current situation as reality, even rationalizing behaviors to avoid dealing with the facts that were right in front of their noses.

So why did I read this book? Obviously I didn’t want to merely escape – maybe to understand? George Will, former staunch Republican who recently disavowed his party in lieu of Trump’s rise, made an insightful comment in a speech, which I do my best to recall.

If I were in charge of the world, every college student would major in history.

George knows his history, as does Phillip Roth. Fiction is not fact, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Being widely read and knowledgeable is a good thing, maybe the best thing, in today’s world of fake news and partisanship. In light of tomorrow’s inauguration, I hope everyone picks up a book they’ve been meaning to read and become better for it.

What should you do when students have already read or heard the book?

This seems to be a constant in just about every school: You have that favorite read aloud you have been waiting to share with your students. When you announce the read aloud, students say, “We already read that book.” or “Our teacher read it to us last year.”

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What do you do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Read it aloud anyway.

Readers reread books if they were a favorite and/or had something profound to learn. Explaining this to students should help with any disgruntled listeners. A main point of the read aloud is for students to hear the written word spoken. If it is an excellent title, there should hopefully be few complaints. It might be wise to ask first before forging ahead, such as offering a choice between the book they know and other acceptable titles.

  • Read aloud parts of the book.

Selecting some passages to share with students who have already heard the book offers multiple benefits. First, it is a nice compromise with the kids. We can show that we are listening to them and value their opinion. Second, reading aloud selected passages is an opportunity to notice author’s craft. Teachers can point out what made the author’s writing so good and worth reading again. Finally, it is an opportunity to…

  • Select a new title to read aloud.

Excellent titles that would make for great read alouds are published every year. By being open minded about what books to share with students, we discover new books together.

If you would like a book that is similar to the title you had planned but the kids already heard, check out Amazon. Put in the title into the search bar, and Amazon will share other books readers have purchased in addition to the one you listed. For example, when I looked up Charlotte’s Web, Amazon suggested Stuart Little (also by E.B. White), Pippi Longstockings, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. These are all classics for a reason.

(Note: Whenever possible, avoid Amazon and buy local. Click here for reasons why.)

You can also connect with your school’s library media specialist (and what a crime if you do not have one). Going with the Charlotte’s Web example, he or she would likely steer you to titles of the same genre and topic, such as Babe: The Gallant Pig and Owls in the Family. Your library media specialist may also suggest newer titles such as Flora and Ulysses and The Cheshire Cat: A Dickens of a Tale.

If you do not have library media specialist (again, a crime), check out the E.B. White award winners for best read alouds from each year. You can also purchase a copy of The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. It was my go-to guide when I taught 5th and 6th grade. I have the last four editions, as Trelease would update the treasury of book lists. He also offers suggestions on his website.

An essential element in reading aloud is what you choose to read.

-Jim Trelease

Whatever approach you take when kids have already heard the story, the more important point is reading aloud to your students every day.

Acceptable Risk

During some of my classroom-school visits last week, I noticed the following:

  • A teacher was reading aloud an everybody book to her students, specifically a biography about a key historical figure from the Civil Rights era. This was happening at the end of the day, usually a pack-up-and-get-ready-to-go time.
  • 1st graders visited a local wildlife refuge. They experienced the habitats that they had been talking and reading about for the past couple of weeks.
  • The entire school engaged in a “read out”, where families joined their kids to read together in many common areas on school grounds. The local public library was also on hand, encouraging everyone to sign up for their summer reading challenge.

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Families read with their children in the hallway during our school’s read out.
What do all three activities have in common? That no one beyond our school walls was aware of these learning experiences until someone shared some form of media about them online.

Blogging, social media, and other forms of digital communications are becoming a necessary part of an educator’s life. It is pretty easy to do nowadays: Take a picture with a smartphone, add a caption, and post away. My goal is to get one share out a day, although lately I have been able to post only once a week.

Yes, there is risk. Risk in having strangers peer inside your school. Risk in being visible online which might allow someone to post a hurtful comment. Risk in posting content that comes across not as intended to the audience. 

But isn’t there also risk in allowing noneducators to make assumptions about the daily life in schools? The television shows currently out there that portray teachers, principals and students are usually not flattering, mostly archetypes to get a laugh. Pundits criticize schools as failing, knowing that the educators in those schools will most likely not respond. And if all our families have as artifacts of their child’s learning consists of a few conference nights and what’s in their backpacks, are we to blame society’s sometimes negative views about public education?

Having a presence as a classroom and school on social media is an acceptable risk. The benefits outweigh any negatives. So what’s stopping us? In my four years of sharing our school’s experiences on social media, I have found any negatives to be minimal, almost nonexistent. There is risk in whatever we choose.

As you make plans for the next school year, put “digital presence” on the top of your list of goals. The minimal risk will lead to many rewards, including improved family communication, teaching students digital citizenship, and having a bevy of artifacts to support our own instruction and leadership. It’s worth it.

Action Research: Professional Learning from Within

By becoming question-askers and problem-solvers, students and teachers work together to construct curriculum from their context and lived experiences.

– Nancy Fitchman Dana

13266113_10209362500521785_3561560696307026816_nOver 20 teachers recently celebrated their learning as part of their work with an action research course. They presented their findings to over 50 colleagues, friends, and family members at a local convention center. I was really impressed with how teachers saw data as a critical part of their research. Organizing and analyzing student assessment results was viewed as a necessary part of their practice, instead of simply a district expectation.

Equally impressive was how some of the teachers shared data that suggested their interventions did not have an impact on student learning. One teacher, who explored student-driven learning in her middle school, shared survey results that revealed little growth in her students’ dispositions toward school. What the teacher found out was she had not provided her students the necessary amount of ownership during class.

Another teacher did find some positive results from her research on the benefits of reflection during readers workshop. Students wrote in response journals and engaged in authentic literature circles to unpack their thinking about their books they were reading. At the end of the school year, the teacher was starting to observe her students leading their own literature conversations with enthusiasm. This teacher is excited about having some of these same students in 2016-2017, as she is looping up. “I am really looking forward to seeing how these kids grow within the next year.”

A third teacher shared her findings regarding how teaching students how to speak and listen will increase their comprehension of reading and their love for literacy. One of her data points – student surveys – was not favorable toward this intervention. Yet her other two pieces of data (anecdotal evidence, volume of reading) showed positive gains. Therefore, she made a professional judgment that her students did grow as readers and thinkers. This teacher is also reflecting on the usefulness of this survey for next year.


In these three examples, I couldn’t help but notice some unique outcomes of this action research course:

  • Teachers were proudly sharing their failures.

With the first teacher who focused on student-driven learning, she developed a greater understanding about her practice than probably possible in a more traditional professional learning experience. She learned what not to do. This teacher is stripping away less effective methods in favor of something better. And the reason she is able to do this is because she had a true professional learning community that allowed her to take risks and celebrate her discoveries.

  • Teachers didn’t want the learning to end.

This goes beyond the teacher who expressed her excitement in looping with her current students next year. Several participants in this action research course have asked if they could take it again. The main reason: They felt like they just found the question they really wanted to explore. It took them most of the school year to find it.

  • Teachers became more assessment literate.

The term “triangulation” was never referenced with the teacher who focused on conversations to building reading comprehension and engagement. Yet that is what she did, when she felt one set of data was not corroborating with the other results and her own professional judgment. Almost all of the staff who participated in action research had 3-5 data points to help make an informed conclusion about the impact of their instruction.

I also learned a few things about myself as an administrator:

  • It is not the professional development I offer for staff that makes the biggest difference – it is the conditions I create that allow teachers to explore their interests and take risks as innovative practitioners.
  • My role often is to the side of the professionals instead of in front of them, even learning with them when possible. For example, we brought in two professors from UW-Madison to lead this course. The best decision I made was recognizing that I was not the expert, and I needed to seek out those who were.
  • Principals have to be so careful about providing feedback, as we often haven’t built up enough trust, we can make false assumptions about what we are observing, and/or we do not allow teachers to discover better practices on their own terms.

In a world of standards and SMART goals, it is frowned upon when teachers don’t meet the mark regarding student outcomes. The assumption in these situations is that the teacher failed to provide effective instruction. However, the fault in this logic is that learning is not always a linear process. We work with people, dynamic and unpredictable beings who need a more personalized approach for real learning. Facilitating and engaging in action research has helped me realize this.

Encouraging Nonfiction Reading During the Summer

Every year we purchase reading tote bags for all of our students. On one of the last days of the school year, we allow students to check out up to ten (10) books to take home and read. We reopen our library once a month during the summer, which allows students and families up to three times to check in old books and check out new ones.

The biggest expense in this initiative is not the books or the minimal staffing to run the program. It’s purchasing the tote bags which run around $1 a piece. They are necessary as we have found a number of students have nowhere to store their books once they bring them home. It’s an effort in being more culturally responsive, as we work in a Title I school.

This year we receive a donation from an energy distribution company. The funds have to be used toward science and mathematics education. This led to developing a slightly different approach to encouraging reading during the summer months. We will now ask all of our students to select at least five (5) nonfiction books out of the ten books they would pick for the summer months. Below is a screenshot of that letter.

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By taking this approach, we are utilizing available funds in a smart way as well as encouraging students to read more widely during their summer vacation. Time will tell what if any impact this change might have on student reading engagement and achievement.

What does your school do to promote summer reading? Please share your ideas in the comments.

The Power of Choice

The lack of autonomy in schools today is saddening. The standardization of our assessments has led to a narrowing of our curriculum and instruction. This is happening in schools where even the leaders are giving permission to teachers to explore their passions and to innovate in their instructional approaches.

This is why we are seeing so many initiatives popping up in education today that allow for more choice. The following two instructional approaches – Makerspaces and Genius Hour – are possible pathways a teacher or school leader might take in order to instill a climate of choice in the school house. These are initiatives I have been a part of in our school from the ground up. The effects have been nothing short of inspiring.

Makerspaces

A makerspace is a DIY, passion-driven learning environment where the focus on creation versus consumption. They can be located in an empty classroom, the library media center, or wherever creativity and innovation can be encouraged. Technology should definitely be included within a makerspace, but it is not required at a level you might assume. I have learned through different trainings and resources that the focus and the culture of a school largely drives how the makerspace is utilized in a building.

 

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Our makerspace inhabits an empty classroom, due to declining enrollment in our blue-collar city. This initiative was spurred by the results from a BrightBytes survey all staff and students took previously. While we had quality access to modern resources, we weren’t always using them to promote critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. These are the four tenets for a 21st century learning environment.

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Students were involved from the get go in selecting what was needed for this space. While I had initially budgeted for a lot of technology through a local grant application, the students surprised me by electing for better furniture in which to explore their passions and wonderings. We purchased an inclinable table, ergonomic chairs, and mobile desks. 4th graders were even involved in putting this equipment together when it arrived.

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Before the room was even ready, teachers and students started utilizing our makerspace. Our focus as a school is on the reading-writing connection. This has been evident in the projects that have transpired. One teacher partnered with a local organization to work with students and their families to build bookshelves for the texts they take home from school and book fairs. The 4th graders who helped in the planning of the space are writing and developing a multimedia advertisement to collect t-shirts to make dog toys for our local humane society.

What I have discovered with this experience is it is sometimes not enough for leaders to say they will support something innovative. At times we have to help build what we want and envision.

Genius Hour

GHGuidebook-cvr-500Denise Krebs and Gallit Zvi, authors of The Genius Hour Guidebook: Fostering Passion, Wonder, and Inquiry in the Classroom (MiddleWeb/Routledge, 2015), describe this concept as “a time when students can develop their own inquiry-based projects around their passions and take ownership of their work”.

In a 2nd grade classroom, a teacher is exploring the effect of choice on student engagement. She found a slice of time at the end of each day for genius hour to be facilitated (she integrated her content studies and writing instruction). She started this experience by teaching students how to ask questions that could not be answered by searching on Google. Once students discovered two or three questions to explore, the teacher explained the inquiry process that other professionals use in their work. Using these steps, the students got started.

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One small group wanted to find out what was the best degree of slope for designing a zip line for a fixed distance. They took string, toys, and other materials to create prototypes for their trials. The only technology needed was a computer to upload pictures of their progress and process into their digital portfolios via  FreshGrade (www.freshgrade.com).

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The preliminary results from this teacher’s classroom research have been promising. One student, who receives special education services for behaviors, has decreased his need to take a break from the classroom by 71% from fall to spring. When the teacher asked him why he thought this was happening, he replied, “I really want that time to tinker.”

The Choices We Make

A static approach to improving the conditions in dynamic environments such as classrooms has not brought about the change that some people had hoped for. Squeezing out autonomy in the name of accountability has a track record for failure. Why not trust the professionals who work directly with our students to have some latitude in how the school experience should be designed, with learners in mind? The observations we have made in our school leads us to believe that a little bit of choice in our learning can go a long way.