Saturday, January 23, 2016

What Can I Say?

The following post is the second in a 3 part series on the topic of homework. The first post in the series was a guest post by Allison, one of our amazing #Cantiague teachers. Allison offered us insight into how homework works in her classroom and why it is at a minimum in her learning community. In the following post I share my own personal take on homework, which helped me flush out my history with homework, which has influenced my current position. Here it goes...

Homework... what can I say? I have been thinking long and hard about this topic over the last couple of months and the truth is, I am not a fan. The main reason my opinion of homework has shifted so dramatically over the last few years is because of my experiences as a parent. Here is the deal- helping Paul with his homework is not always necessarily that much fun... actually, it is rarely fun. It is frustrating, slow, time consuming and rarely does it lead him to a deeper understanding or appreciation for something he learned about in school. In fact, for him, homework is just something he has to get done because his teachers tell him to and he never wants to disappoint his teachers. 

So, if our kids don't want to do the homework and their only motivation is to be compliant and please someone else, does the homework actually have any sustainability or value? From my lens, the answer is no. Maybe I'm missing the mark... maybe there is some value to homework but I have yet to see it.

Don't get me wrong, my opinion about homework has evolved over time but the greatest shift came in the last four years. When I was a classroom teacher I gave homework every single night because I thought that was the sign of a "good" teacher. I gave math worksheets, reading with some sort of log or reflection and some type of word work every single night. I gave homework because that is all I knew as a student. I did try and give less homework because I remember homework being such a struggle for me. 

My parents are immigrants and although they were able to speak English, they weren't able to help me with my homework. I remember having dozens of math problems each night and reading from textbooks and answering questions and having book reports and projects, with little adult support. I remember homework being something I dreaded and often got me into trouble at school because I invariably made mistakes or didn't complete the assignments. Trust me, that wasn't fun or easy. Even though my experiences with homework weren't necessarily positive, I still couldn't do away with it as a teacher. Homework had always been given and I was convinced that the parents of my students were going to judge me by how much homework I gave and the quality of the assignments.

I guess one could say that I was somewhat indifferent to homework. I didn't love it but felt it was a norm within schools and thus it should be given each night. That thinking stayed with me even into my first few years as a principal. Then Paul got to 3rd grade and all of that changed. Homework suddenly became the bane of my existence... in fact, I think I dreaded homework just as much as Paul did at that point (actually, I might have dreaded it more). Homework became the "black hole" of our time together - it sucked out the fun and took away time from the things we actually wanted to do together (build Lego sets, read books for fun or play video games). Homework became a source of tension and stress in our home... and it was something both of us were feeling and taking out on each other. Homework was more of a battle than it was an extension of the learning in school.

That is when I realized something had to change and I started doing some research about the impact of homework on the academic experience of students. And guess what? I couldn't find any research that showed a direct correlation between the practice of giving homework and academic success within school. I read a lot of Alfie Kohn's work, who presented extensive research about homework and actually shared that homework could have a negative impact on children and their families (click here to see a summary of his research findings). It wasn't the only research I came across - in fact there were dozens of studies that show homework has no positive impact in elementary school and even middle school. Yet, homework is the norm... not the exception and I don't understand why if there is no research to support the practice.

Research shows us that people learn through social interactions and thus we encourage collaborative inquiry in our classrooms - we are not forcing students to work in silent isolation (except at some schools but that is a whole other post). 

Research shows that positive reinforcement is a way to get students to model desired behaviors instead of acting out and thus we implement behavior plans and reward positive behaviors - we are not just relying on consequences and punishments to change behaviors. 

Research shows us that children learn better in smaller chunks of time because of their short attention span and thus we keep our direct instruction to 20 minutes or less - we are not lecturing for hours on end in the hopes that children will learn. 

I would argue that we don't use research enough in schools to guide our practice but we do use it in many instances and yet when it comes to homework, we do the opposite? Why? What are the benefits of homework? How is homework impacting our students in a positive way? How is homework supporting or extending the learning from within the classroom? If we don't have the answers to questions like these then the time has come for us to revisit homework; to reconsider homework; to potentially re-brand homework!

What do you think about homework? Why do you think that? What is the value of homework? Does homework in our schools need to change? Can we throw out homework completely at the elementary level? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts, insights and opinions!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Wasting Precious Time

The following reflection on homework at the elementary level comes from Allison, who teaches 5th grade here at #Cantiague Elementary. Her perspectives as a parent and educator shed light on the homework debate from two angles - she definitely gave me a lot to consider. Most importantly, Allison addresses the age old question... does more homework better prepare children for middle school? Read on to find out what she thinks... 

I spend countless hours each week sitting on the sidelines of Tyler’s basketball games with other parents of elementary and middle school aged children. The one “hot topic” that consistently comes up is…HOMEWORK. Inevitably, someone is complaining about the fact that their child is spending too many precious hours completing meaningless and ridiculous homework. First graders expected to read 20 minutes a night and struggling to fill in reading logs, Third graders writing monotonous spelling sentences each week, second graders writing responses to literature on a daily basis, and 7th graders doing pages and pages from the math text book every night. Knowing that I teach in the #1 school in New York  (yup, that's right), they always turn to me and say, “Allison, what do you think about all of this homework? In Jericho, your kids must be spending HOURS on their work at home.” 

Everyone is shocked to hear my response when I explain that my principal has shared several research based articles which show that homework in elementary school has no impact on academic success. I share that my fifth grade colleagues and I have made a conscious decision to do away with reading logs, and really limit the amount of homework we give each night. My friends are shocked to hear that we have done away with our vocabulary workbook and instead we have looked for authentic ways to have our kids engage in meaningful word study work. Friends are surprised to learn that on most nights our kids are given a maximum of five math problems to practice at home, and that our students are never told what to read or write about at home - we try and give our kids freedom and flexibility. 

Instead of excessive amounts of homework, we encourage our kids to explore their interests and passions in their free time. We want them to read for pleasure and write for real reasons. We expect them to play outside and enjoy time with their families whenever possible. We respect the fact that our kids have very busy extracurricular lives - whether they go to an after school religious school or a sport, they are growing in other ways and pursuing other interests. We recognize that during the school day we challenge our children and expect a lot of our ten-year old "babies" - they are still children. Everybody deserves a little “down time”. 

Does everyone agree with our practices? Not necessarily. Do we get questions? Yes. In fact, the parents in our class used to question whether or not our students would be prepared for middle school, given our homework philosophy (or lack thereof). Our answer is that our kids are prepared for middle school because we foster a positive attitude towards learning, make connections with our kids (and their families), build self - esteem, address social emotional skills, and create a learning environment that fosters independence and empowers our kids. In my opinion, these skills are way more important than any book report, spelling assignment, or workbook page that so many teachers and kids are wasting precious time on each and every night. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

3 Stages of Planning

Over the last couple of days I have read a bunch of wonderfully written #OneWord posts. I often found myself nodding my head in agreement, especially in the case of this powerful post about empathy by my friend Bill. Although I couldn't necessarily pick just one word, recently I have been thinking a lot about planning and how that impacts teaching and learning in our school each day. Much of my thinking has been anchored in the monthly literacy check-in conversations we have had at Cantiague where we have been discussing the integration of the new TC Units of Study and how these resources are impacting planning for literacy instruction and actual implementation. 

Planning: A Personal Journey

This notion of "planning" is one I have struggled with my entire career as an educator... I could never quite plan far enough ahead yet I always over planned to make sure every minute was accounted for in my classroom. I have run the spectrum of planning... planning week to week using a plan book; planning an entire unit of study in advance using a template; and planning day to day on sheets of loose leaf paper based on what I actually got accomplished on any given day with my students. The following graphic accurately captures what the "planning" experience looked like for me as a classroom teacher and even sometimes as a principal (be honest - how many of you can relate??)...  

Fortunately, with almost 20 years experience as an educator I can confidently say that although I may have yet to master the whole planning situation, I have come to understand how important it really is to plan for learning and teaching within our classrooms. Regardless of what style or approach or format an educator uses, the bottom line is that we must plan in advance to have some sort of trajectory for the learning we hope to see unfold in our classrooms. Some of the questions I am constantly reflecting on include... What do we want our learners to master during a course of inquiry? What are the essential questions for this unit? What are the skills and strategies we want to expose our learners to during this lesson or unit? How are we going to ensure that the learning is student centered and student driven? Having reflected on questions like these (and dozens more), I have come to some personal understandings about planning. The way I see it, there are three stages of planning we could be engaging in that could have a positive impact on our students. 

Stage 1: Unit Design

The first stage of planning, and the one that I think is most effective and beneficial to maximizing the learning and teaching experience, is unit planning. What do I mean by unit planning? I don't mean picking up the new TC Units of Study (reading or writing) and necessarily following them verbatim (although that may work for many educators). No, I mean thinking about a unit of study that would be most beneficial to students... YOUR students. Think about what you want your students to have accomplished at the end of the unit of study. What are the essential (big & overarching) questions they should be able to answer? What knowledge and skills should students have acquired at the end of a unit? Could the TC Units of Study be the resource an educator uses as the anchor for a unit? Yes! But, the end goals should be established for the current group of students... TC Units of Study are a resource - they are not the curriculum. 

After identifying the essential questions and specific knowledge and skills, now take a few steps back and think about what evidence could be "collected" during a unit to show what children have learned. This is the time to think about how the learning during a unit of study will be assessed because starting with the assessment in mind and planning backwards from that point only increases the chances of academic success for learners. The final step in unit planning is thinking about the day to day learning experiences and the instruction that need to take place in order for the children to be able to answer the essential questions at the end of the unit.

A resource that is often used to facilitate this type of unit planning is the Understanding By Design model. The graphic below provides a great visual for the thinking that goes into this type of planning. What we know about systems thinking is that we plan ahead for our end goal - basically planning for our ideal situation - and working back from there. 

Stage 2: Logistics, Schedules & Priorities

The second stage of planning considers all the logistics... scheduling, units of study across the different content areas and possibilities for interdisciplinary learning experiences. This is where the week to week planning gets refined and executed. If a teacher knows four students will be out of the classroom at reading at 9:30am twice during the week, they will plan around that to ensure that the children don't miss any new content. The second stage of planning will also consider what was accomplished the week before and what the goal is for the following week. This stage of planning drills deeper than what might be considered when planning the entire unit of study. This is where an educator considers the daily learning experiences and how they might unfold in the classroom using mini-lessons, direct instruction, guided practice, small group work and independent practice.

Stage 3: Day To Day

The third stage of planning is based on the data we collect from our students on a daily basis and this impacts the day to day instruction that unfolds in our classrooms. Yes, we may have planned a six week unit of study in writing workshop that focuses on poetry but if we notice that the majority of our students are struggling with a strategy or skill on any given day, then that should impact, and even dictate, the next day's mini-lesson. It might throw the unit of study slightly off course but ultimately, we must use data to guide and plan our daily instruction so that we are meeting the needs of our students and helping them work towards mastery of specific skills. The learning and teaching that unfolds in a classroom each day should not be solely based on a unit that was planned weeks in advance - it needs to be shaped and impacted by our students and their needs.

You Decide

Although there is not one size fits all approach to planning, I do believe these three stages of planning will ultimately have the most positive impact on the teaching and learning that unfolds in our classrooms each day. I hope that the readers of this post will join me in reflecting on their individual planning styles and how we can collaborate, as a PLN, to enhance our skills in this area!