Rampant stress. Like the kind you can feel welling up in your chest.
That was me Friday afternoon, 63 hours before students walk through my new classroom doors to begin the school year.
As background: we’re in the midst of a three-year, $140 millionrenovation project at my school. It’s being done in phases, so teachers have been shuffling from room to room as the construction project advances. “Flexibility” is practically our school motto.
My principal is a good guy with a really strong team. I don’t imagine it’s easy overseeing a huge 4-star school that aspires to be a top-10 school in the state each year. Doing that while in the midst of remaking the physical plant sounds like trying to defuse a bomb while someone repeatedly pokes me in the kidneys. There’s a million moving parts complicating the already complex process of opening school. “Building the airplane while flying it”, as the saying goes.
After a day of meetings, I arranged the desks and chairs into pods for a couple hours on Thursday. Good way to burn off nervous energy. These desks belong in the room of the teacher who was using that space last spring while her hallway was rebuilt. I knew intuitively the furniture was probably headed back to her room, but I held out hope her new classroom might be getting a furniture makeover.
So with freshman orientation and the activities fair eating up my morning, I shot a quick email to my office staff hoping for guidance and asking (gently, since everybody’s got a to-do list a mile long on the day before school opens) who I should see about getting some desks delivered.
Then I went to work. It was the best way I could think of to stave off the vision of my kids sitting on the floor for class Monday. I’m a first-day veteran. I know what my job is: to be ready to teach on Day One. They’ll tell me what to teach, who to teach, and where to teach, and I’ll take it from there. Friday’s Motto: I’ll do what’s in my hands and trust that others will do what’s in their hands. It’s all good.
(Sounds a little bit like this post from Sarah Carter, whose One Word Goal for the year is “grace”.)
And by the time I left the building at 5:00, the custodial staff was rounding up student desks from all corners of the building and delivering them to my room. Just like I knew would happen.
Broke: Here’s the Syllabus
Woke: Here’s how we do things around here
Bespoke: Let’s do math and collaborate!
I’m loud. mostly because my students are loud. And after 10 weeks of summer, I’ve found I typically lose my voice by the end of day one. Because I talk too much. “Hey kids, I’m not gonna read the syllabus to you because I know you can read”…. then I read them the syllabus.
Students will reflect using a Google Form and submit a snap of their work solving the system (after we discuss and defend arguments) through Canvas.
I’m hoping to welcome a group of students who may not have had great math experiences in the past to my classroom. And have some fun.
In the last week before school I read Ditch That Homework by Alice Keeler and Matt Miller. This activity integrates several of their suggestions. I think it’s a good first step to making my classroom more student-centered and student-friendly.
We’ll introduce course expectations to students on Tuesday and to their parents on Wednesday at Open House. I’m hoping my kids will do some of the PR work for me after Monday’s activity. Either way, by then most of the stress of Back To School will have dissipated.
It’s Year 15 for me. And Year One for me and my students.
I’d bet that anyone who has taught for any time at all would be hard-pressed to argue against these points. So, OK, parents, teachers, students all have their issues with homework, but can we really just walk into class tomorrow and go “No homework tonight! Or, ever!” and not change anything else?
Ditching the textbook isn’t an act, it’s a state of mind. Same with Ditching Homework. It’s not “OK kids, snapchat each other and scroll your Twitter feeds for 45 minutes. See ya tomorrow!” We’re talking about a philosophy, a mindset, of redesigning everything in the service of teaching and learning. To quote the authors:
“If we want to develop well-rounded human beings, higher quality assignments are a step in the right direction.”
My school is going 1:1 this year. There’s no better time to make the move to a full-on student-centered classroom, making use of technology and good pedagogy to eliminate traditional drill-and-kill homework.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean my students will never practice math. They’ve made it quite clear to me that they need reps to learn the skills in Algebra II. I just want to make the most of our time together in class, in school, to give them as much support in that effort as I can.
I committed to reading this book as a skeptic. I wanted Miller & Keeler to sell me. That lasted like a day. Less that 24 hours after I started reading, I’m sitting in the waiting room at my son’s doctor all nodding my head and going “yep” every two minutes.
The Why wasn’t an issue, as I addressed in Part I. I was (and am) way more interested in the How. Miller suggests easing into Ditching Homework, a bit at a time, and the next thing you know, it’s gone. But I want to be able to be up front with my students and their parents about what I’m doing. And that means having my strategies in place on Day One.
Parent communication is big with Miller & Keeler. They recognize that parents can be your best friend when they’re on your side. And you want them on your side. The authors went to the extreme of creating a Parent/Guardian Contact Log in Google Sheets for readers to use. Nice touch.
So what’s the secret? Miller & Keeler ask teachers to build relationships with students and parents, leverage brain science, encourage students to own their own learning, and to commit to giving timely and useful feedback. In other words, I already have the pieces in place. I just need to use the right tools in the right order at the right time.
One tactic presented in the book is the “in-class flip”. By making use of a learning management system such as Google Classroom or Canvas, teachers can publish a playlist of tutorial videos that students can use to get up to speed. By using Screencast-O-Matic or Screencastify, teachers can actually record their own notes in video form to include in the playlist. Thus teachers can use tech to provide a support for struggling students. Combined with intentionally created groups, students can use the resources at hand to help themselves while the teacher makes the rounds to provide assistance and feedback.
As an added bonus, the teacher gets a chance to sit with every student, albeit briefly, every day. Instant relationship-building opportunity.
In my experience, by using intentional student groups, teachers can also make use of the “You Do – Y’All Do – We Do” method of lesson design. Students are given a chance to work individually, then meet in small group to compare work and push the ball forward, then the teacher convenes the whole group for additional notes, as needed.
I think this is the lynchpin that makes the whole thing work. Turning a 50 minute class inside out: more student talk and student work, less of students sitting passively while the teacher fills the air with words.
Another tool the authors recommend for building relationships with students is using a “student survey”. A great example is the Teacher Report Card used by MattVaudrey (link to copy for your Drive here). Students are brutally honest (you may have noticed this). But it’s worthwhile knowing how your students think your class could be better (most of us are our own worst critic, but sometimes we don’t see things as others see them), and then using acting on those suggestions. I’ve done it via Google Form and as a class discussion. It was totally, totally worth it.
I’m as addicted to my phone as anyone else. When I want to sit and concentrate on a task, such as reading, I’ll put my phone in another room. Yet still, as I was reading Ditch That Homework the other night, Mrs. Dull caught me in the midst of a deep thought, lost across the room. Her question, “what are you thinking about?” was legit. I was making a deep connection between an Alice Keeler anecdote and events in my own teaching career. Had I waited until finishing this book to ponder, that immediate hook would have evaporated.
Keeler & Miller recommend using what we know about brain science to improve our students’ learning. As an example, what I did in the anecdote above is an example of “retrieval”. I stopped reading, and made a cognitive connection. What does this look like in class? Could be Think-Pair-Share with a shoulder partner, the “Y’All Do” portion of the lesson intro where students share out what they’ve discovered with their group, a summary question or statement as part of Cornell Notes or an exit ticket, or a spiral review. Restating the information helps cement the learning.
The authors are also large fans of movement – using physical activity to stimulate thinking. This could be an Instagram stroll where students seek out “math in the real world”, snap it, and describe what they see in the caption. Maybe include a class hashtag? With one of my most challenging algebra I classes, I would occasionally instigate a 5-minute dance party at the outset of class before taking a quiz. That was a tough one to explain to my dean as he walked into my classroom while I pounded out a beat on a table while ten of my students were rapping and dancing around the perimeter of the room. To his credit, he got it. He knew what I was trying to do by letting students blow off some steam.
The chapters “Ditch Those Habits (cited above)” and “Ditch That Remediation” alone are probably worth the cost of the book.
Keeler points out that “Ditch That Remediation” is the longest chapter in the book. Here’s where the rubber meets the road as far as helping students own their learning through improved study skills, research skills, and critical thinking skills.
If you handed me a pile of cash and told me to spend it in one place for my former district, I would have walked the money to the offices of AVID. It was 2000 miles, and I’m not even kidding. The program was in place at my first school, and it was worth twice whatever we paid for it. When I had students coming to my class before school ,after school, at lunch, asking for help… I thought “No big deal. Of course, all students are like this”. Nope. My next 13 years of teaching disabused me of that notion. The kids in the program learned study skills, including Cornell Notes and how to get help from teachers outside of class. The improvement for my AVID kids vs. the rest of my enrollment was noticeable.
In addition to note-taking skills, we can offer students a chance to create, either by expressing what they’ve learned in a new way such as a video, e-book, or electronic poster; or by creating questions about what they’ve learned. An example of that from my classes is DIY Kahoot. After learning how to make good distractors for a multiple-choice exercise, students groups made their own Kahoot questions for a chapter on graphing linear functions. I gathered up the questions, made a Kahoot, and we played the game the next day in class. As I said at the time: “Are my Track 3 kids learning Algebra? They’re trying, which is what I ask. Are we having fun? Oh, hell yeah.”
Probably the biggest challenge for most teachers is offering opportunities for critical thinking. We take the math word problems labeled “real-world” and hand them to the students like we’re doing them a favor. Keeler points out that most textbook word problems are very formulaic. “Follow these steps and you’ll get an answer”. Bad. If you’ve seen Dan Meyer’s TED Talk “Math Class Needs A Makeover” you know what she’s talking about.
Meyer famously promotes a style of lesson design known as Three-act Math. The idea is to ratchet up the Depth Of Knowledge (DOK) of our work in class. As Keeler says, “note-taking is DOK 0“. How do we give our students a chance to think critically?
The series of themed bellringers I used the last couple of years lived in DOK 3, where students were making claims, explaining their thinking, and justifying their answers.
My last big takeaway is the idea of students “owning their learning”. I’m reminded of a student in my first year of teaching whose IEP allowed him to decide when he was done with homework. If I assigned 30 problems and he felt like he got it after doing 5, well then, he was done, and I was to accept that as complete.
If that sounds unfair, it’s been awhile since you sat in front of an insanely long algebra problem set.
In a relatively early light-bulb moment, I backed off of homework for my algebra classes a few years into my career. I’d assign 10-15 problems, enough for them (and me) to know if they “got it”. I wasn’t trying to kill ’em with math. Overall, it was a good move. The ones that understood the skill didn’t have to spend an hour on needless repetition, and the ones that didn’t grasp the skill weren’t gonna try all the problems anyway.
Is there a chance my students are mature enough to know when they’re done, and to know when they need more practice? Yeah. Is there a chance they’ll blow it all off and do nothing? Yep. It’s worth giving them the opportunity to try it out. All of us scraped a knee and an elbow up before we got good at riding a bike.
My hope is that MyMathLab can provide opportunities for extension & differentiation. I can make a self-paced, self checking assignment, put it in my students’ queue, with instructions to work on it until they are confident in their skills.
This as much as anything sums up the “Ditch That Homework” ethos: students own their own learning. They get help when they need it in class, have an opportunity to do engaging, meaningful activities in class, and understand the math skills at a deep level. And isn’t that what we wanted “homework” to do in the first place?
So in unpacking Ditch That Homework, I see from my own 14 years in the classroom that I have the tools in place to be able to re-invent my classroom with my students in mind. The addition of on-demand laptop/chromebook use means we can make use of Desmos or Excel or a Google search at the drop of a hat. And that I can build in the meaningful activities that used to require reserving a computer cart from the library (hit-or-miss proposition sometimes).
I love teaching. I don’t love how I ran my class sometimes. If you think endless worksheets and multiple choice tests make students miserable, check on their teachers sometimes. This is a much more enjoyable way to do school.
“It’s a deal, it’s a contract, it’s an agreement that you, as student and family, make with educational institutions. It’s an agreement in which, for it to be worth it to you, elements must stay balanced.
As in: Not everything the school is going to ask of me is going to great or even valuable. There are going to be irritating aspects of school. But all of that is balanced by what the school experience gives.
Just like the rest of life, right?
So just as in the rest of life, we make constant cost-benefit analyses. Is the good I’m deriving worth the cost I’m paying?”
Spending some time today pondering: How would I answer a parent (or a student) asking that same question: “Is the good I’m deriving worth the cost I’m paying?”
School starts in a week, and I’m having long thoughts about grading and homework and how class time is spent and everything. I can do better. I know my grading/points system was out of whack last school year. Many times I knew a student’s letter grade didn’t really reflect his ability to do math.
I have to fix that.
I know there’s a premium on time when classes are 50 minutes long. I want kids thinking and arguing and defending their positions and solving problems and working together and practicing skills and having a chance to ask questions and get feedback on their efforts.
And I’m pretty sure that unless I invent a way to elongate time that I can’t do all those things in one class period.
Along comes the Dynamic Duo: MattMiller and AliceKeeler. The question has been around for a while: is homework worth the time and aggravation? Does it encourage learning? Does it increase the educational divide between students of different socio-economic classes? There is much research that at least suggests there is a better way. These two well-known teacher/presenters aim to provide the why and the how for doing things different.
I’ve been reading Matt’s blog for years. I read his first book, Ditch That Textbook, around this time last year. I’ve seen videos of Alice pitching her homework theories. To be honest, the Halo Effect is strong around these two. I’m predisposed to read their stuff, punch my fist in the air and shout “Yes”! So I’m intentionally adopting the posture of a skeptic as I read #DitchHW. Playing the Devil’s Advocate. I’m trying hard to punch holes in their argument. I’ve got a tendency to take a new idea and run with it. I want to make sure this one has staying power. To justify putting my teaching money where my mouth is.
But they’re making their case well.
I don’t know about you, but when I don’t see the value in something I’m asked to do…. I don’t want to do it. That just sounds like the set-up for a power struggle. Even if the research leaned towards homework as a great educational tool, the kids who refuse to do the homework won’t do the learning. And that’s a problem.
Here’s what I saw in my classroom. Pick a year – could be 2003, 2008, 2012, or last May:
About 35% of my students legitimately do the homework on their own
Another 30-40% copy the work from the students in the first group
The rest don’t do homework at all
Even when I point out they are getting points just for effort, enough points in a quarter to equal a quiz score
They’ll copy homework blatantly in class from a seatmate
They’ll snap their homework and text/snapchat it to friends
They will see similar problems a week later on a review sheet and look at me like they’ve never seen that type of problem before
Learning has not occurred, people.
On the other hand, the best days for my students are days when there is collaborative work, with students having chances to help each other and to get help and feedback from me.
That sounds like something I’d like to have happen more often.
These two really know how to get my attention, that’s for sure:
So the bait has been set. Time to reel in the catch.
Miller and Keeler go on to suggest ways for teachers to build relationships with students and parents so that we get buy-in from our two most important stakeholders, offer tips to provide timely and useful feedback, and they examine the brain science of the change-over that will help students own their own learning.
So the Why is in place. We’ll look at the how, and process my takeaways, in Part Two.