One-Man Book Club: Ditch That Homework (Part I)

“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?”

Amy Welborn, “Homeschooling… Again?!“, 8/7/17

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.

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Source

 

 

Along comes the Dynamic Duo: Matt Miller and Alice Keeler. 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.

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Image via Goodreads.

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.

Why Ditch Homework-
Alice Keeler: “But what did they get in return for their investment?”

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:

Reclaiming my time.

So the bait has been set. Time to reel in the catch.

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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.

 

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One Man Book Club – It Won’t Be Easy

Bookshelf
These are just the books I’ve spent cash on. Include my Valpo Library selections and the shelf is five times as wide. I probably read too much.

“When all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. And when you are a teacher, every book is a ‘teacher book'”.

-Me

There are a lot of Teacher Books out there. I know, “a lot” is a precise technical term. But I teach, and I read, and I follow a lot of teachers on Twitter who read, and who post about what they are reading. So my sample is a little skewed, I admit. But as each summer begins I see a parade of posts featuring photos of stacks of books, captioned “my summer reading!” or some variation thereof.

Which is cool. A lot of us are trying to get better year by year, to meet the challenges of a career that will eat you alive if you are standing still. And there are a lot of excellent teachers out there willing to share what they know. If that advice comes from a trusted source (A woman I saw keynote a conference, a guy I interact with on Twitter), all the better. And, truth be told, a lot of us are searching for “that thing” that will turn everything around next year. Make us awesome.

A tweet rolled through my TL not long ago, boosted by Michelle Baldwin. It reminded me of a story I heard about Lance Armstrong. After retiring from competitive cycling, he entered the 2006 New York Marathon. Already the fittest endurance athlete on the planet, he figured he could conquer this challenge without specialized training. The story goes that 3-time NYC Marathon winner Alberto Salazar was part of a team pacing Armstrong and warned him to set a reasonable goal pace, that 26.2 miles would tax him in completely new ways. Armstrong took this under advisement, and went on to just do his thing. He finished in an impressive 2:59:36. And suffered a stress fracture in his leg.

Here’s a thread detailing the teacher-summer equivalent advice:

I can dig that. The Happy Medium is a glorious place. With that in mind, here’s my summer reading (so far):

 

 


 

Especially now that we are all connected, I am trying to be ever more aware of how much time I spend scrolling my timeline. When I see it becoming a giant time suck, I disconnect, close my laptop, put my phone somewhere across the room where I won’t be tempted to check it every 6 minutes, and grab a book.

I’ve been known to get lost in a book. In a good way. Mrs. Dull is always amazed (and not always in a good way) when I power thru 250 pages in a day.

You Just Got It Yesterday
See?

So upon multiple Twitter recommendations I’ve been reading “It Won’t Be Easy” by Tom Rademacher. And, true to form, it showed up on a Sunday during Mass, and by Sunday night I was on like page 105. Not because it was filled with trite motivational phrases, but because it was filled with what teaching is really like.

It Wont Be Easy Page
“You might suck at this”. But for real, this page is teaching in a nutshell.

“Mr. Rad”, as he’s known to his kids, is up front about his ups and downs. The time his students taunted him over his phone being stolen from his desk (“You’re not getting your phone back. Nobody cares about your $h!t!”) and the times his students dazzled him with the awesomeness that only high school students have.

He’s honest about the fact that he is occasionally an insufferable jerk and that he is not always really very good at this whole teaching thing, despite being named Minnesota’s 2014 Teacher Of The Year.

And Rademacher confesses some unpopular opinions:

  • We actually aren’t underpaid, comparatively.
  • Summers off are part of the deal, and it’s OK to admit that you dig that.
  • Even if you actually work during the summer.
  • Teachers knew how to play “The Game Of School” when they were students, too.
  • God help us all if his book ever becomes “assigned reading” in some college course.

And one opinion that is easy to nod your head to when you’re sitting in the sun with a cold drink, reading a teacher book… and really hard to actually do once you are standing in a room with 25 teenagers:

  • How we treat our students matters. A lot. If we would just shut up and listen, especially when they are telling us something we don’t know about, we just might learn something.

I cringed a lot reading “It Won’t Be Easy”. I said over and over to myself, “What an ass!”

About myself.

I think I’ve done every ignorant thing Rademacher rats himself out for. And those things were not any cooler when I dd them. I’m glad a Teacher Of The Year sucks at this job as bad as I do sometimes.

He tells of squelching his students’ voice in class, when he had claimed that his room was a safe space for them. Of treating his Black and White kids differently. Of calling students out in class in front of their peers. Of using his power over kids to get compliance. Of selectively enforcing rules. All the stuff I’ve done. That we’ve all done. Except…

Except Rademacher goes into great detail how he learned from every one of these situations. Usually because he caught himself being a jerk. Often because his students felt comfortable enough to call him out on it. And because his students were smart enough and brave enough to be able to school him on it.

And how he humbled himself enough to shut up and listen.

Oooooh, that part is hard.

Over time, I knew I got better at handling myself in challenging classroom situations. I know the PBIS Team at Gavit worked hard to create a climate where we all supported our students, where we didn’t seek to exert power over them but to get them to seek ownership over their own behavior in the building. Sometimes with awesome results.

I know I eventually reached the point where I silently checked myself before interacting with a student: “This thing I’m about to say, would I say the same thing if I was addressing a white student?” “Is this kid’s skin color affecting my perception of what actually happened?” “Would I treat a male student the same as the female student in front of me?” “What if somebody said these words I’m about to say to my kid?”

Is that good? It’s required in the places where I taught for the first 13 years of my career. Is it enough? No. Is it a good start? Yeah. Truth be told, I think every teacher in the School City of Hammond should read this book. Every teacher in the Valparaiso Community Schools, too.

I’m not perfect at it. Give me 20 more years and I still won’t be. I won’t grow out of my smart-assery before I retire. But I think I’ve made some strides. Rademacher’s book serves as a timely reminder that it’s important to keep working. It Won’t Be Easy. But as he says, our kids deserve it.